“Applicants for wisdom
do what I have done:
inquire within”
― Heraclitus, Fragments

A jailor brought Socrates the cocktail of Hemlock. He calmly drank his poison. Surrounded by his disciples, the philosopher posed his final questions. “Will a true lover of wisdom, who has understood, that he will never attain wisdom worthy of the name elsewhere, but in the next world, will he be grieved of dying? Will he not be glad to make that journey?” Even in the moment of imminent death, Socrates found fertile fields for the pursuit of wisdom.  

It was Socrates who brough wisdom down to earth from the heavenly realm of the gods into human virtue. Chaerephon, a well-known citizen in ancient Athens, went to visit the oracle at Delphi and asked him a simple question: Is there anyone wiser than Socrates? The oracle replied no, that there was not. Chaerephon was a disciple and old friend of Socrates, and both shared the same ideas about dialogue and the pursuit of truth.

During his trial Socrates retold this tale as a defence against attacks on his reputation. Socrates had been formally charged with corrupting young people and refusing to believe in the Athenian gods. What was really on trial was Socrates’ lifelong pursuit of wisdom. Perhaps what invoked the wrath of his contemporaries most was his dispassionate inquisitions which highlighted that the judges and jurors at his trial were not nearly as wise as they thought.

At his trial he says: “I have gained a kind of wisdom. What kind of wisdom do I mean? Human wisdom I suppose. It seems that I really am wise in this limited sense”. Wisdom is, according to Socrates, a human virtue, one that can only be gained by the hard work of experience. It is arrived at through active experimentation – journeys into error and intuition; practiced through detachment; and crucially, critical thinking. Wisdom, writes Stephen Hall, is counter-intuitive, adversarial, unsentimental, de-mythologizing and non-conventional. It is the highest form of human excellence that any mortal can hope to achieve.

Wisdom is about ‘going further’ and thinking divergently. Wise judgements, says researcher Ursula Staudinger, transcend the problem that is being faced. In order to cultivate wisdom, we must challenge ourselves constantly and upset the established order of our lives. This means going beyond what you have done before and stepping out into new territory. There tends to be a level of discomfort in this process.

Wisdom is about challenging a society’s conventions so only a small portion of the population can actually be wise (if everyone were doing it those conventions would no longer hold). The conventions and expectations of everyday life limit the emergence of wisdom. These concerns tend to be self-centred and narrow-minded. The power networks we are embedded in can prevent wise judgements because it can feel like too much is at stake. For wisdom to emerge, there must be an awareness of the limitations of everyday existence and a willingness to consciously break away from them.

The oracle’s proclamation inspired Socrates to undertake a ‘cycle of labours’ to understand what exactly the god of Delphi meant. “I am only too conscious that I have no claim to wisdom great or small” he told his accusers. Knowing that he had no claim to specialised knowledge or practical wisdom, Socrates sought out Athenian men who were esteemed for their wisdom: The politicians, the poets, the craftsmen. Could these people prove themselves wise by showing that they knew what was really worthwhile in life? Such a person would be wise indeed; but no such person could be found. The craftsmen he found, indeed, were very wise in one domain, their particular craft, but fell into folly when thinking that this made them wise in other domains. The poets, too, created great works but could not explain them nor understand where they came from. The politicians thought they were wise, but in reality, were not. He, Socrates, was wiser, because he made no claim to know what he did not know. Better to know that he knows nothing rather than to inflate his own importance with an exaggerated sense of wisdom.

Once, a long time ago, there was a wise Zen master. People from far and near would seek his counsel and ask for his wisdom. Many would come and ask him to teach them, enlighten them in the way of Zen. He seldom turned any away. One day an important man, a man used to command and obedience came to visit the master. “I have come today to ask you to teach me about Zen. Open my mind to enlightenment.” The tone of the important man’s voice was one used to getting his own way.

The Zen master smiled and said that they should discuss the matter over a cup of tea. When the tea was served the master poured his visitor a cup. He poured and he poured and the tea rose to the rim and began to spill over the table and finally onto the robes of the wealthy man. Finally, the visitor shouted, “Enough. You are spilling the tea all over. Can’t you see the cup is full?”

The master stopped pouring and smiled at his guest. “You are like this tea cup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind.”

Another Zen phrase sums this up well: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind, few”.