“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

– Confucius

Two women come to King Solomon both claiming to be the mother of the same child. Solomon proposes that the child be cut in half and shared. From their answer Solomon can tell who the real mother is – one was happy to go along with this while the other begged for the sword to be put away and the baby given to the rival.    

Trevor Curnow, in his book on the history of wisdom, argues that wisdom is fundamentally about people. This means that wisdom manifests in and comes from wise people. Curnow points to how wise sayings always attach themselves to people perceived as wise. King Solomon, for example, is credited with being the author of 3000 proverbs.

What makes wise people wise? Curnow points to a theme in recent research which shows a connection between wisdom and the ability to cope with what life serves us up. Joseph Campbell argued that the failure to cope with life comes down to a ‘restriction in consciousness’. The hero’s journey, which Campbell articulated, culminated in some kind of awakening where the hero returns to see the world in a new light that is different and better. Curnow points out that the mystic, the shaman and the hero achieve a more profound understanding of the world and are therefore better able to deal with it.

Descartes understood wisdom as exercising good judgement in everyday life. Wisdom can be understood as the integration of two ways of knowing: Mythos (narrative) and Logos (logic). Some researchers see wisdom as containing a transcendent quality – openness and the ability to engage with life’s great questions are seen as signs of wisdom.

The psychologist Lisa Feldman describes wisdom not being any one thing. Wisdom is sometimes being about what you don’t know and stepping back from the certainty that you do know. Wisdom can be about knowing what your goals or values are and using your knowledge and tools to achieve these.

The philosopher, Philip Kitchner, argues that rather than thinking about wisdom in absolutes (some are wise, others are not), it might be more accurate to say that people can be wise in one area but not in another. The activation of wisdom may emerge in certain persons, in different contexts and situations. To be wise in an area means to have a sense of how things fit together in that area. Wisdom might be conceived as having a wholeness that scattered pieces of knowledge don’t have.

Wisdom might be understood as a type of knowledge that is related to life and helps you make sense of life. At the core, says Kitchner, is knowing who you are and being able to make decisions that realise what you take to be yourself and what’s valuable to that self. In this we can see that wisdom can be related to questions of identity, values, morals and even concepts like eudaimonia (flourishing) and self-actualisation. Wisdom might be seen as an encompassing concept that allows for different ways of being wise.

The Scholar

Nasrudin, ferrying a pedant across a piece of rough water, said something ungrammatical to him.

“Have you never studied grammar?” asked the scholar.


“Then half of your life has been wasted.”

A few minutes later Nasrudin turned to the passenger. “Have you ever learned how to swim?”

“No. Why?”

“Then all your life is wasted – we are sinking!”