Is there really such a thing as wisdom? (Part 2 of 2)

Is there really such a thing as wisdom? If so, can it be taught?

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  • Kenneth Minogue

    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). 

  • E. J. Dionne

    Beware invocations of wisdom. They are dangerous, because wisdom is a trump card. Wisdom certainly trumps cleverness, but it is also used to fight off empirical analysis, logical reasoning, and historical excavation. To be wise is to know more than the scientists have learned through their elaborate methods, more than the philosophers have discovered through critical thinking.

    This is not wisdom’s fault. Its power comes from an intuition: that all the knowledge in the world does not necessarily add up to anything like a complete understanding of how to live (or how to die), how to make critical decisions, or how to behave toward others. All of us know highly intelligent and learned people whom we do not consider wise. We also know people whom we rightly regard as wise who are neither well educated nor widely read.

    We believe instinctively that wisdom involves something above intelligence, knowledge, and rhetorical skill, but we do not agree on what it is. To my mind, the two best guides to wisdom come from Saint Paul and from one of the twentieth century’s greatest fictional detectives, Nero Wolfe.

    “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal,” Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians. For Paul, wisdom comes from an orientation toward life rooted in love. I am prepared to argue for that view — but not in this limited space.

    Wolfe, the imposing detective invented by the writer Rex Stout, offers more down-to-earth guidance in the form of advice to his assistant and man-about-town Archie Goodwin. After receiving orders from his boss, Goodwin asks for more detailed instructions on how to proceed. “Use your intelligence,” Wolfe tells him, “as guided by experience.”

    Here we get at a critical element of wisdom: Intelligence is not enough. To move from intelligence to wisdom requires us to temper our smarts and book-learning with what life itself teaches. It is precisely this element of experience that leads us to consider older people wise; we rarely see that word applied to the young.

    But once again, there is a need for caution. If we frequently say that older people are wise, we also often hear the assertion that they are “stuck in their ways.” Much that passes for “wisdom” is actually “conventional wisdom,” which John Kenneth Galbraith defined as the “ruling ideas of the time.” Prejudice can sometimes be disguised as wisdom, as in, “they have always been like that.” Or, “Don’t try that new thing, it will never work, I tried something like that years ago.” Or, less grandly, “there hasn’t been any good music since.... ” — and you can fill in the date.

    The challenges to thinking straight about wisdom are thus quite similar to the difficulties in thinking clearly about tradition. Traditions do indeed reflect accumulated wisdom, but they can also embody long-standing prejudices. Tradition has been invoked in defense of compassion, and also in defense of slavery. It has been used to support liberty, and also to support the subjugation of women.

    Thus a paradox: it is not wise to invoke either wisdom or tradition as the sole defense of a proposition or a way of acting. The truly wise understand the limits of wisdom.

    Wisdom is far more controversial than we usually allow. Consider the flap over Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s invocation of the phrase “wise Latina woman.” Her comment was often ripped out of its context, so it is worth quoting her at length:


    Justice O’Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. I am not so sure Justice O’Connor is the author of that line since Professor Resnik attributes that line to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.


    There was far more in what Sotomayor said than her critics allowed. There is, first, the classic association (by O’Connor, or Coyle, or both) of wisdom with “old” men and women. There was, as well, Sotomayor’s citation of Martha Minnow, now the dean of Harvard Law School, on the contested nature of our definition of what is wise. Some used this to claim that Sotomayor was a kind of relativist, yet Minnow is certainly right — as this entire issue of In Character attests — that wisdom is the subject of a wide range of understandings.

    And on the central point that received so much attention, she built her case on the classic Nero Wolfe definition: that wisdom is intelligence guided by experience. She was arguing that viewing society from the bottom up (as a “wise Latina”) might offer her a useful perspective, a way of understanding that those who gaze upon society from the top down might lack. This is, I believe, an entirely defensible view, but it also shows how vexed our relationship is with wisdom. To the extent that it is based, in significant part, on the interaction between intelligence and experience, we will inevitably argue over whose experience is most conducive to being, or becoming, wise.

    To avoid confirmation problems, Sotomayor backed away from this argument entirely and apologized for what she said. Her decision reflected, if I may use the word, wisdom on her part. She was wise to understand our uneasiness with the core question of what wisdom really is, and where it comes from. 


    E. J. Dionne is a columnist for the Washington Post and researches polling, politics and the media, and the role of religion in public life at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

  • Betsy Lunz

    Where can wisdom be found? This perennial question is raised in Job, a poem in the biblical collection of wisdom texts which is framed in the prose tale of a righteous man in the ancient land of Uz, whose integrity and faith God had allowed Satan to test with devastating loss. Job asks the question of God, in the extremity of grief and despair, after all his possessions, his children, and his own health have been destroyed: “But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?”

    Job’s friends who try to answer the question for him rely on other wisdom texts: “To fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Sirach 1:14); “... and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:10). Job, too, cites this foundational concept, quoting God as its author: “And he [God] said to humankind, ‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’” (28:28). Job has based his life on this belief, but now he questions the downward path to wisdom on which he suddenly finds himself.

    Job argues with God that his experience of horrendous injustice calls into question all of the insight and knowledge he thought he had about God’s character, especially in its attribute of divine Wisdom. Friends of Job try to defend God and blame Job, but Job knows that he is the one who is the victim. Also, he is wise enough not to curse God, against the recommendation of his wife, whose own victimization in losing her home and children is ignored (2:9–10).

    The small, unflattering role of Job’s wife displays the androcentric perspective of the text, reminding the reader that texts of Hebrew, Apocrypha, and Christian scripture were written by men, primarily if not exclusively for male readers, even within the more inclusive school of wisdom teachings. What can this view of humanity and God offer to modern readers to help answer the still important question, where can wisdom be found?

    God’s role in the last chapters of Job seems large enough to invite consideration by both genders and many religions. God responds to Job’s grievances by claiming creation’s magnificence as evidence for the larger-than-human location of wisdom in God’s work and being. Here the persona of God, like that of the wisdom of God in the books of Proverbs and Sirach, is female as well as male: “Has the rain a father.... From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?” (39:28–29).

    But these are still questions rather than answers, shoring up God’s identity as the Almighty who alone embodies wisdom. God chooses to give it or withhold it without having to answer to “a faultfinder” such as Job (40:2). And God’s justice, like the order of creation (red in tooth and claw, genetically flawed), still seems arbitrary and cruel by the standards of mere mortals, who are left to fear, but not able to access, divine wisdom. The prose tale’s happy ending helps its characters more than its readers, who are left with the question.

    In the New Testament, God’s wisdom is revealed in Jesus, who participates in divine wisdom at creation. John’s gospel begins by referencing the Hebrew wisdom tradition: “In the beginning was the Word.... And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:1–2, 14). For Christian tradition, the location of wisdom is the life of Jesus of Nazareth as reported in the gospel narratives. The stories of Job and Jesus address the human search for meaning and for “reassurance that one’s own suffering is not the whole of reality,” as Carol Newsom puts it in “The Book of Job,” in the fourth volume of The New Interpreter’s Bible. In both, reassuring wisdom is embodied: in Job, by God’s mighty acts in creation; in the gospel, by the Christ as new creation. This embodied wisdom holds out promise, but no guarantees, to the one looking for it (e.g., the promise of resurrection in the story of Jesus).

    In Job, the textual location of wisdom is in the dialogue. In the gospels, Jesus is the dialogue which God has reopened with the world. The rich history of dialogue in philosophy and rhetoric links scriptural tradition to the wisdom of the ages, and opens the possibilities to everyone (women and men, persons of different faiths) for finding wisdom in contemporary life.

    So it can be said that dialogue in Job embodies the answer to his question. Wisdom can be found in dialogue, in the context of divine and human relationship.

    Dialogue itself is not divine; in fact, God’s dialogue with Satan in the first chapters of Job does not seem wise at all. Job’s dialogue with his wife and friends is less than satisfying. This way to wisdom is not itself the answer. Yet, wisdom may be found in Job’s dialogue with God. The answer to life’s questions (raised by the wise one who is still seeking, while still suffering, doubting) might not be definitive, but in Job’s speaking/listening encounter with God, epiphany happens (42:5). Similarly, in the gospel epiphany story, wise ones seek a star initially because they fear God; then on their journey, in scientific and theological dialogue, they discover a wisdom sign (Jesus) for all humanity (Matt. 2:1–12).

    The corollary to Job’s question of where wisdom may be found is “Where is the place of understanding?” (Job 28:12b). Sharing human understanding in communities, in inter-faith and international dialogue, continues the possibility of revelatory wisdom, not available where the search is shut down or replaced with arbitrary, isolationist answers.

    Finally, modern dialogue needs to engage creation itself. Throughout biblical literature, images of water, trees of life, and the heavens, invite human partnership into divine celebration and redemption of creation. To be on the side of life requires speaking against death-dealing catastrophes to nature, including humans, while listening to voices of diverse communities and voices of victims, including the victimized planet. In such dialogue, understanding has a chance. This way to wisdom opens the way to life for everyone.


    Betsy Lunz is a retired minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and currently the Minister of Pastoral Care on the staff of the Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, Atlanta, Georgia.

  • Joan Roughgarden

    Evolutionary biology is busy revising its assessment of how smart animals are, and has yet to grapple with whether animals can be wise as well as smart. The picture of animals as nothing more than instinct-driven robots crashed and burned many years ago. In the old days, one would assume animals were dumb and unfeeling, and grudgingly acknowledge each new capability only when forced to do so by inescapable facts. Yes, animals have orgasms, feel pain and pleasure, have friendships, have memories, can identify individuals, are trainable by us and one another. And so on. Today, it’s best to assume animals are nearly as smart and feeling as we are (however much or little that might be), and to deduct an assumed capability from their repertoire when they fail to have it. Thus, the lesser error is made by initially overestimating animal abilities and then deducting rather than underestimating and then adding.

    But “smart” doesn’t mean “cognition.” The behavioral ecologist Sharoni Shifir, director of the Bee Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has shown that many animals have astonishing abilities. Years ago he showed that tiny lizards can make sophisticated decisions about how far to run for prey of various sizes. The discovery of these decision-making abilities led me to give seminars at that time entitled “Are lizards smarter than deans?” (Answer: Yes.) More recently, he has refined amazing techniques to reveal astonishing powers of discernment and decision making in bees. Yes, even bee brains are smart, and they’re much smaller than bird brains. But the whole body is involved in the decision making. The glucose level in the blood probably sets the motivation level for food, which is integrated, in the small brains of these animals, with perception and goal-seeking, to realize a decision that is beneficial for the organism’s overall success in evolution. Is this cognition in the sense that we mean when we take the SAT tests in preparation for college admissions? No, but no matter. Smarts is more than test taking, and animals have lots of street smarts.

    So what about wisdom? Can animals be wise as well as smart? I think wisdom has several components in addition to smarts. Wisdom is filtering out noise from the pattern; wisdom is listening to your body; wisdom is valuing your emotions; wisdom is paying attention to multiple clues; wisdom is integrating perception with smarts and with experience. So, can animals be wise? Yes, the longer-lived mobile ones probably can. Short-lived animals must rely on natural selection to program them with circuitry that works most of the time — they can’t live long enough to become wise. Vertebrates, like elephants, dolphins, and swans are good candidates for wisdom because they live long and get around. An invertebrate like the giant barnacles which Doc Ricketts of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row studied can’t be wise because they live for thirty years stuck to one spot on a rock and don’t get around to see anything interesting. But an octopus is surely wise, long-lived, and mobile.

    The more distant an animal is from us on the family tree of life, the harder it is to put ourselves into its shoes (or suckers) and imagine what it would need to be wise about. So developing a scientific assay in invertebrates for wisdom, or even smarts for that matter, is challenging for us smooth-skinned vertebrates. I remember reading years ago about how dumb lizards were compared to mammals. But then it turned out that the comparative psychologists didn’t test the lizards when they were warm, and a cold lizard is dumber in the morning than Archie Bunker, but much smarter by noon. And the psychologists couldn’t figure out what reward to give a lizard when trying to train it to respond to cues. Sharoni Shafir gave rewards to lizards consisting of the food they ate in their natural environment — he had to collect bugs in the field where the lizards lived to get food to give them as rewards. And the lizards in turn rewarded Sharoni Shafir with the discovery of a previously unknown decision-making ability. So, it’s wise to think that animals are wise.

    Perhaps you’re now impatient with all this talk about wisdom in animals — what about us humans, surely we’ve perfected the art of wisdom beyond the primitive capabilities of lower animals? But from the standpoint of evolutionary biology, there’s no difference between the wisdom of a human and that of an octopus. Any biologist would have great difficulty differentiating what is unique about human wisdom compared with the wisdom in other animals. Indeed, a biologist would likely object to the assignment, as efforts over the years to distinguish humans from other animals have always failed. I don’t favor assigning humans to a special place in nature; all are, after all, God’s creations, and all, humans and animals, rode together in Noah’s Ark.


    Joan Roughgarden is a biologist at Stanford University and author of Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People (University of California Press).