“Happy are those who find wisdom…

She is more precious that jewels, and nothing you desire can compare

With her…

Get wisdom, get insight: do not forget”.

– Book of proverbs

“After a long, hard climb up a mountain a group of seekers found themselves in front of a great teacher.

‘How do we become wise?’ they ask.

‘Good choices’, replies the teacher

‘But how do we make good choices?’

‘From experience’

‘And how do we get experience?’

‘Bad choices’ smiled the teacher.”

The search for wisdom is perhaps as old as humanity itself, a virtue that has been prized and revered throughout nearly every culture in history. But what exactly is wisdom?

Merriam-Webster defines wisdom as:

  • Insight – the ability to discern inner qualities and relationships
  • Good sense or judgement
  • Knowledge or accumulated philosophical and scientific learning
  • the teachings of ancient wise men.

One simple definition of wisdom is ‘knowing what matters’. The philosopher, Valerie Tiberius, describes wisdom as a set of dispositions, skills and policies that help us deliberate about what matters in life and then turn that into choices and actions. We figure out what is good and then seek to achieve that; we can also help other people in this pursuit too.

Wisdom is the ability to take stock of life in large terms in ways that make sense to oneself and others. We come to wisdom through a combination of knowledge and experience but it is more than simply the accumulation of information but about the co-ordination of information and its deliberate use to improve well-being. Socially it might manifest as the ability to listen to others, evaluating what they say and offering fitting advice in response.

One of the hallmarks of wisdom and something that distinguishes it from intelligence, writes Stephen Hall, is the ability to exercise good judgement in the face of imperfect knowledge – to do the right thing.

There is a link between perception and wisdom. Wisdom is often considered synonymous with clarity, or clear seeing of a situation. The wise are those, writes Trevor Curnow, who can see the bigger picture, whose horizons are broad, who have clear vision. As a result, people come to the wise for advice. The expertise of the wise is not of the ‘how-to’ technical and specialised type, but rather the skill the wise possess is in the ability to live well and make good decisions. This living well manifests for Aristotle as ‘flourishing’, for Buddhists, ‘enlightenment’.

While ancient authors used to try to capture wisdom in proverbs and fables, modern researchers now seek to uncover its essence. Positive psychology researcher, Ryan Niemiec, describes the virtue of wisdom as the practice of developing knowledge and using that knowledge effectively to solve problems. Wisdom, he argues, is related to intelligence, but is slightly different. “A person can be naturally smart, but that does not mean they put effort into learning deeply about the world, challenging their beliefs to make sure they are correct, and being open-minded to the possibility they are wrong”. ‘Smart’ people can become very identified with always being right, with the result that they don’t learn from their mistakes or develop new ways of seeing and understanding. This sentiment is summed up by the famous Socratic position of ‘I know that I know nothing’.

By contrast, the person who embodies wisdom is eager to learn about the world and is open to being wrong. They are driven by a basic desire to learn. Wisdom operates as a desire to learn about a variety of topics that influence that person’s ability to act in the world. The desire to understand the world is motivated by the goal of operating more effectively in that world.

The classical Greeks came up with the idea of ‘practical wisdom’. Wisdom, for Aristotle, was the knowledge of first principles – which give us a deep and fundamental understanding of how the world works. Aristotle divided wisdom into the theoretical and the practical. The former referred to seeking truth and understanding in things that we have no control over, while the latter explores that which we can change through making good choices. This might be understood as figuring out what are the ends you want to achieve and finding the best way to do that. Aristotle put it as ‘the right way to do the right thing in a particular circumstance, with a particular person, at a particular time’. Far from being the abstract, other-worldly quality that Plato saw it as, for Aristotle, wisdom was central to the practice of living.

All of our social practices force us to make on-going choices and making the right choices always involves wisdom. Should I pursue this path or that? We are faced with micro-choices nearly every moment of the day. Decisions like whether to express anger, face fear, take risks, or remain loyal all involve wisdom if we are to choose well. Aristotle’s famous dictum that it is easy to be angry but to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose – that demands wisdom. Abraham Maslow, when asked how to develop people more capable of fulfilling their potential, responded that they should be enabled to become good choosers – that is skilled at making wise decisions.

Barry Schwartz outlines a number of steps in this choosing process. Firstly, there is Perception – how we see the situation. Then there are the feelings or desires that arise in relation to the situation. We must then sift through this internal information and deliberate about an appropriate response. Finally, we act. Practicing wisdom is not about conforming to preconceived moral standards, but figuring out the right way to respond at the right time – reflection-in-action.

In his book the Ethics, Aristotle discusses what we need to learn in order to succeed at our practices and flourish as human beings. We need to cultivate certain character traits like courage, truthfulness and kindness – what Aristotle called ‘excellences’ or virtues. Cardinal amongst these virtues was the master virtue of practical wisdom. It is supreme because without it none of the other traits can be exercised well. When pressure comes on in the midst of life, moral rules, even ideals, often are not sustained. Practical wisdom, an inner quality that allows us to pause, reflect, and act, can support the right actions in such moments. Wisdom is not about speculation or hypotheticals, but, according to Schwartz, directed towards the question: ‘What am I to do, right here, right now?’

In 1989 during the international Antarctic exhibition, six men spent nine months crossing the Antarctic. Two days before the expedition ended, they hit a blizzard. While they were camped Keizo Funatsu went out to feed his huskies. He was one of world’s great experts at handling huskies but he became disorientated in the white-out and lost his bearings. His team-mates tried to save him but it was a hopeless task and they were forced to return to their tents for their own safety. Keizo was lost in the dark, in a blizzard, at the bottom of the world.

In these situations, the next morning the person is often found dead a few yards from their tent having wandered here and there close to the refuge of camp but never finding it. Instead of trying to do something to save his life Keizo decided to do nothing. He kicked a little trench in snow and lay down. He had to surrender to the situation and put aside the natural tendency to ‘do something’, what psychologists call the action bias.

In his diary he says ‘When I was in my snow ditch I was covered in 5 mins. I knew that few people have this experience and so I said to myself ‘Keizo, relax, try and enjoy this’. ‘I could feel my heartbeat, I felt like I was in my mother’s womb’. While waiting there he said he was not afraid, he knew his friends would find him. 14 hours later he hears his teammates calling his name and bursts up from the snow ditch screaming ‘I am alive, I am alive!’

Keizo demonstrated considerable courage, patience, and faith in his ordeal but without the application of practical wisdom, through good judgement and clear seeing, he would not have survived.