Wisdom, like prudence, is not only a virtue in itself, but a regulator of other virtues. It consists in such judgments as whether it is better to spend or to save, to fight or to flee, or whether (in this particular case) discretion is the better part of valor. These points illustrate a central fact about wisdom: it is to be found in all cultures, and it commonly issues in a set of proverbs and epigrams to which all of us have access at one time or another. But these proverbial utterances often — and rightly — contradict each other. Many hands make light work, but too many cooks spoil the broth.
The real secret of wisdom, then, lies in judging which rule is appropriate to which situation, and that often demands inventiveness. What is it that makes King Solomon, for example, celebrated as a fount of wisdom? In the famous example of the two women both claiming the same baby, his solution was dramatic: cut the baby in half and give each of the women one half. Perfect justice! The real mother, however, revealed herself in rejecting this solution and ceasing to claim the baby. Wisdom requires a confident understanding of human nature, such as the way a mother loves her child. The book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, warning us above all about the folly of vanity, is a classic of wisdom literature, often attributed (probably wrongly) to Solomon. The book of Proverbs has a similar status. The literature of wisdom comes to us out of a long past.
This means that wisdom, as based on experience, is most commonly found in the old, just as folly is likely to characterize the young. Acquiring wisdom takes time. The old are wise not only because they have seen and endured much, but also because they are less engaged with life than the young. This disengagement from life means not only that they have reflected long on life, but that they are also disinterested. They don’t have an axe to grind, as the proverb has it.
Our own Western civilization has less concern with wisdom than most other cultures. There are two reasons for this. The first is that we prefer the hard, logical, evidence-based knowledge of reason and science to the soft and localized knowledge of the wise. The philosophers of ancient Greece aimed for something higher and more universal than mere wisdom, and in a paradoxical expression of humility, they claimed not to be wise, but merely to be lovers of wisdom. The great exemplar of this move in our intellectual culture was, of course, Socrates, who claimed that his wisdom consisted in the realization of his own ignorance.
The knowledge of the philosophers is more systematic and hard-edged than traditional wisdom. It is therefore superior to wisdom in some ways, but also less useful because more abstract. The Stoics of the ancient world taught that we must accept what happens because it results from necessity, and this is an important part of wisdom — but only a part. The Epicureans thought we ought to be guided by happiness, which again is part, but only part, of wisdom. The great image of philosophical folly clashing with practical wisdom is the role of Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s novel Candide, in which the hero ultimately discovers wisdom in learning that he must “cultivate his garden.”
We in the West, then, rank wisdom below reason. But we also cherish — almost to distraction — another claimant to guide our lives, and that is technology. This guide, too, has been generated by the power of reason, and (just like philosophy) it is far more powerful than any tradition of wisdom — but, again like philosophy, it is helpless in many situations. The wisdom of the old in responding to the ills of life was to be found in traditional remedies (rituals, herbal remedies, what would now be called “counselling,” etc.), but none of these could compete with the “magic bullet” against our ills provided by a bottle of powerful pills.
Wisdom does, however, have one great advantage over technology: namely, that the wise adviser is responding directly to the person being advised. For wisdom is supremely situational; it is, as it were, “fingertip knowledge” of human life. The old have always known that “marrying in haste” can lead to repenting at leisure, but they also know that sometime a hasty marriage is just the ticket.
The essence of wisdom thus resides in a sensitivity to how universal and general propositions are related to the character and circumstances of the people involved. And this is important in our technological world, in which substitutes for wisdom often take the form of self-help manuals explaining to the reader how to succeed at one or another kind of life. The fact is, however, that people may make themselves most easily ridiculous by picking up advice that runs counter to whatever natural character and skills they may have. The aspirant salesman trying to please a client, for example, will find himself looking sycophantic and servile unless he can adapt to his own personality the techniques commonly recommended for persuading people to buy.
Our Western intellectual sophistication, our grasp of philosophy and technology, has created the most powerful and inventive of civilizations, but it has not saved us from the folly that is endemic in the human condition. And it is in dealing with folly that we most need wisdom.
Kenneth Minogue is a retired professor of government at the London School of Economics and a prolific author and essayist whose books include The Liberal Mind (Random House).