The quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment
Before diving into a topic that usually defies accurate analysis, a few preliminaries. The third person singular pronoun is a good marker of the unwise. The degree to which it bothers you is directly correlated with your degree of unwisdom. My rule is as follows. When discussing an actor of unspecified gender, use the gender of the speaker or writer. If there’s more than one author use the gender of the author whose name appears first. I do not use made up pronouns or retreat unnecessarily to the third person plural, especially when the subject is singular. When I say “man” I’m referring to all humans – male, female, or gender fluid.
Next, one doesn’t have to be wise to recognize wisdom in another person. Just as one doesn’t have to be a great musician, or even a musician of any degree of skill, to know that Beethoven was a great composer or be able to dribble anything save saliva to realize that Michael Jordan was a great basketball player. So it is with wisdom. An unwise man like me can identify wisdom in others.
Wisdom and intelligence are linked in only one direction. All wise men are intelligent. Most intelligent men are not wise, many are downright fools. Education and wisdom seem to have no direct relationship. Indeed, it seems that professional educators are almost uniformly unwise and seek to transmit this state of cultured confusion to their students. An interesting offshoot of the educational tree is that the more education a person has the more likely he is to regard himself wise and the less likely he is to actually be wise (split infinitive intended). This tendency to absent wisdom is more pronounced as one ascends the educational ladder. It’s also true of the of the reputation of a school. The more elite it’s considered the more likely the education vessel is to be manned by learned fools. The parlous state of higher education reflects the lack of wisdom that our “best” colleges and universities have adorned themselves over the last half century or so. The current state of advanced decadence owes much to these institutions of learning. Bizarre thinking is easy to nurture, widom like comedy is hard.
Every generation has those who think it degraded compared to those past. But today’s fixation on bread and circuses, on sexual license, and the repudiation of the accomplishments of the past because they were not perfect is a condition of foolishness that is far from the norm of human behavior. Social justice warriors have sought with the the vigor of Stalin to erase old images because they do not meet the standards of today. They also have, in effect, declared war on luck. Any advantageous situation that places a person near to the head of any line can only be the result of luck. You were lucky if you got successful parents, or good genes, or were stronger, or smarter than average. In order to achieve equality of outcomes we must treat people unequally to replace the vagaries of chance. Not only must the lowly be raised, but the fortunate must be brought down. I’m stealing from Noah Rothman. I’ll get around to him in another post. The point is that current educated enlightenment and wisdom are strangers.
Because no man no matter how wise is always wise, those purportedly in search of improvement must always be suspicious of the wise. Today’s wise man may fall on his face tomorrow. Thus, there is no safe harbor in which those in need of surety can find certain shelter. Plato yearned for the rule of philosopher kings. Anyone who knows a few philosophers will wonder what on earth he was thinking. Wisdom is as rare among philosophers as it is among longshoremen. In fact, I can think of one wise longshoreman. I’d have to hunt around for a millennium to find his like in the philosophy department of any of today’s elite universities. A few observations he made more than 50 years ago still retain currency.
He believed that rapid change is not necessarily a positive thing for a society and that too rapid change can cause a regression in maturity for those who were brought up in a different society. He noted that in America in the 1960s, many young adults were still living in extended adolescence. Seeking to explain the attraction of the New Left protest movements, he characterized them as the result of widespread affluence, which “is robbing a modern society of whatever it has left of puberty rites to routinize the attainment of manhood.” He saw the puberty rites as essential for self-esteem and noted that mass movements and juvenile mindsets tend to go together, to the point that anyone, no matter what age, who joins a mass movement immediately begins to exhibit juvenile behavior.
In May 1968, about a year after the Six-Day War, he wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times titled Israel’s Peculiar Position: “The Jews are a peculiar people: things permitted to other nations are forbidden to the Jews. Other nations drive out thousands, even millions of people and there is no refugee problem. Russia did it, Poland and Czechoslovakia did it. Turkey threw out a million Greeks and Algeria a million Frenchmen. Indonesia threw out heaven knows how many Chinese and no one says a word about refugees. But in the case of Israel, the displaced Arabs have become eternal refugees. Everyone insists that Israel must take back every single one.” He asked why “everyone expects the Jews to be the only real Christians in this world” and why Israel should sue for peace after its victory.
The above comments about juvenile behavior underscores the association of wisdom and age. All wise men are old. Of course most old men are not wise. The reason for the combination of wisdom and age is obvious. Wisdom must be cooked in the pot of experience. There is no other way to acquire it. Of course you can’t make beef bourguignon out of shoe leather. The right stuff has to be there from the start. Brilliance may shine early. Mathematicians and musicians of genius, though rare as is genius in general, are sometimes very young. Most mathematicians and physicists have little original science left in them after 40. They may, however, have much of interest to say about science in general if they are wise. Of course, most aren’t.
If the majority of us can’t ever be wise because we weren’t born or didn’t acquire the right stuff, what can we do? Well, humility can be learned and nurtured. It can then be practiced. If your opinions are the same at 50 as they were at 20, you probably haven’t learned much and ought to keep them private. A fact of life is that all of its pressing problems are always more complicated than they seem and that certainty as to their solution is the sure marker of folly.
When a dispassionate observer (assuming one can be found) looks at the circus that our national government has become, he should remind himself of the observation that stemmed from the Scottish Enlightenment – one of the most remarkable phenomena in human history: The great problems of life cannot be solved by politics.
Wisdom is never popular. It punctures the delusions that animate daily life. Remember the fate of Socrates. Seeing life unveiled could reveal a lot of ugly images. So perhaps it’s best that most of us live in a dreamworld.