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Wisdom part I: defining sagacity

March 5, 2011
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Part I of a series: Part IPart IIPart III

The New York Times just posted an interesting infographic: Mapping the Nation’s Well-Being. It shows the results of a three-year Gallup poll that asked 1,000 people each day questions about their well-being. The composite index follows a formula that Gallup came up with, and you can read about what that exactly means, but I liked clicking though the different categories on the NYT website. Seems like Montana, Wyoming, and North Dakota have some stuff figured out! But, I do wonder how significant the differences are when you are looking at 67% vs 62%.

Thinking about well-being got me thinking about how I want to live my life, and that got me thinking about wisdom. What is it exactly? I can’t really think of anyone who I would consider extremely wise. I can think of people who have some qualities of a sage,

Athena, Greek Goddess of wisdom

but they lack some other (for example, they are knowledgeable, introspective, kind, but not in touch with their own emotions, or not as happy as they should be). Wisdom is something that I feel I would recognize, but it is hard to define. As a scientifically-trained thinker, I wonder about the neurobiology of wisdom. And I’ve done that before. For my final paper in my neurobio class, I actually did a literature review of the science of wisdom.

I found some pretty cool stuff, so I might as well write about it! This post will be the first in a series exploring the science of wisdom.

Defining sagacity

Wisdom is an ancient concept. From the East to the West, human culture has revered individuals that possess the indefinable quality of sagacity.

Anyone musing about wisdom is first faced with a perhaps insurmountable task: defining wisdom. Historically, the most trusted definitions of wisdom are in the Bible, the Talmud, the Chinese classics, the writings of Greek and Roman philosophers, and the scriptures of Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

Aristotle with his teacher, Plato, in Raphael's "The School of Athens"

Aristotle first championed the importance of practical wisdom rather than theoretical knowledge. He believed that resourcefulness and moral virtue were the guideposts for action. He also insisted that only individuals of good character were able to cultivate wisdom, but did say that good character could be trained. Machiavelli, Nietzsche and Gadamer recognized the complexity of wisdom and placed less emphasis on good character. Most philosophers have recognized that just as there are many versions of an exemplary good life, there are many ways to achieve excellence in social values and in dealing with uncertainty. There is general consensus that wisdom requires time, effort, some knowledge, practice and personal experience to cultivate.

You can list what wisdom is and isn’t.

I asked Q what he thought wisdom was and whether he knew any wise people. We agreed on the following list of qualities:

Introspection, humility, honesty, good observational skills and habits, balance, being mindful of your influence and how your actions affect others, being calm – not buffeted by storms of emotions, also being aware of your emotions, selflessness– caring about others, and think about the collective good, but at the same time, taking care of themselves.

In reaction to Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Robert F. Kennedy gave a speech that called for more wisdom. He defined wisdom by what it is not:

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

There is also the idea that experience is needed for wisdom. Q doesn’t quiet agree with this– saying that the qualities of wisdom can be seen in young people as well. I agreed, but pointed out that he said good observational skills and good judgments based on those observations kind of follows with the experience idea. Robert F. Kennedy mentioned the idea that you need to suffer to become wise, but I’m not sure that I totally agree with that. He said:

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

And there is the G-word. Religion, to me, is the pursuit of wisdom. However, most world religions have corrupted that idea when they start to get into excluding others and intolerance. ‘Tis unfortunate. But we can still turn to the writings and teachings that religion is supposed to follow, and ignore the history and politics. I grew up in a Catholic household, so I’m more familiar with Christian thought, so I’ll throw in a few quotes not. It has taken me a little while and I know my family probably thinks I’m a heathen, but I’m actually trying to read the Bible. My favorite book so far is Eccelesiastes, which, while dark at times, has beautiful passages like these:

Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.

-Ecclesiastes 1:4-7
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves.

-Ecclesiastes 4:9-11
Proverbs, which is sometimes credited to Solomon, is full of wisdom of course. Not only that, but there is reference to the wisdom of women, and indeed, wisdom itself is sometimes personified as a woman! Pretty progressive for the context if you ask me. Though it might just be because in Hebrew, the word wisdom happens to be feminine.
He who gets wisdom loves his own soul; he who cherishes understanding prospers.

-Proverbs 19:8

The old testament is rough at times, so Ecclesiates is nice to come across. I’m actually still flailing through Deuteronomy, but sometimes I skip around. I am looking forward to the ‘happier’ times in the New Testament, because I hear that Jesus really does have some great things to say.

And that’s not even touching on the Qur’an, any Hindu scriptures, or the teachings of Confucious, or Buddha. My education is way too Western-centric. I’ll dig up some quotes from them and add as I find. For now, Q and I are going for a walk. We’ve been inside all day working, but we know that we need some balance, and some connection with the natural world (or as natural as we can get in the middle of LA, which isn’t bad– see this post)


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