Wisdom in an individual is hard to define. One almost has to resort to the Potter Stewart approach: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it. Here’s a dictionary definition: “The soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” Neither Stewart or the dictionary helps in the characterization of a wise person.
First of all, there aren’t that many wise people to serve as examples. Of all the human traits, wisdom is the rarest. First, you have to be very intelligent to be wise. But smartness is not enough. In fact, intelligence unaccompanied by good judgment is dangerous. Most of the ills of the world, apart from acts of God, result from the actions of intelligent people incapable of rationally analyzing the soundness of their arguments, beliefs, and remedies for the ills of society. The smarter the individual, the more likely he is to overestimate his capacity to successfully manipulate complex systems such that instead of improving the system, it degrades. The economy is the foremost example of a complex system that cannot be improved to the betterment of mankind by intrusive external controls and regulations beyond those necessary to deter dishonesty and fraud. Nevertheless, the economy is constantly subjected to intervention by experts who confidently believe they can fine tune it such that any desired outcome no matter how improbable is easily achieved. No litany of failure is sufficient to contain the exuberance of intelligent people to meddle with the inner workings of systems irrespective of the unforeseen consequences of their meddling. Nothing close to wisdom here.
Is intelligence combined with good judgement enough to make its wearer wise? Is being a mensch similarly sufficient? A mensch is a Yiddish word, for a person of integrity, morality, dignity, with a sense of what is right and responsible. It is a great compliment to be thought such a person. But does being wise require more?
To qualify as wise in my opinion, requires the ability to analyze complex events in addition to the quotidian and then to react appropriately. Remember that Socrates constantly proclaimed his ignorance. Such a declaration was not an admission of stupidity, but rather the recognition that much of life’s problem are beyond relief or can only be imperfectly addressed. Knowing when to do nothing is a critical component of wisdom. Was Socrates wise? He made no such claim. He was very good at asking questions and identifying the inconsistencies in the thinking of others. Plato and Xenophon seem to have thought him wise. Aristophanes and other Athenian comic poets thought him a pompous windbag – or at least portrayed him as one. Admittedly, Aristophanes’ depiction is a caricature and may exaggerated solely for comic effect.
Closer to our own time, two of our presidents appear to have been wise – George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Two more are candidates for the office – James Madison and Calvin Coolidge. There’s never unanimity about any analysis and designation. Hence my choices may not be those of others and may even be cause for disapprobation. Study the biographies of the four and make your own decisions.
Though I just listed four politicians who may have been wise, politics is the last place to seek wisdom. In a representative government politicians reflect the qualities of those who elected them. Thus, when the public rales against them they are deploring themselves. The reason for the absence of wisdom in all other forms of government is self evident.
Wisdom is rare among the arts, though the ability to depict it is a common trait among the great artists. Was Shakespeare wise? We know almost nothing about the man. From his works we might suppose him wise.
Here we bump against the problem of private and public wisdom. The later is available for any who wish to concede wisdom on a person known only by reputation and actions. There are doubtless wise people among those whose lives and deeds are known only to their close associates. They’re wise, but anonymous. The number of those whom we are close enough to judge the wisdom of their lives is very small. It is possible, perhaps probable, that we can’t think of even one wise person among our relatively small circle who merits the appellation.
Allowing that no person, no matter how wise is always wise, I can think of perhaps one individual among all those known over my long life as wise. And even here, I’m not sure. That’s how rare it is.
How does one achieve wisdom. It doesn’t drop from the sky like a fine mist. Nor does it form on the grass like dew. That’s why it’s almost the exclusive property of the old. Intelligence, experience, and the right temperament, along with a considerable portion of good luck are the ingredients that may result in wisdom. Does wisdom spontaneously emerge on very rare occasions or is there something that a person can do to encourage its arrival? I’d like to think that it can be stimulated by active suppression of bad habits like staying off of social media and avoiding partisan politics. Another good step would be to never modify justice. There’s only one kind and it applies to all situations.
Below are some of the essentials necessary to be among the wise. Omit one and wisdom is as substantial as the Ghost of Christmas Past. I’ve probably left out something that a wise man would have included. As for Potter Stewart’s approach, the foolish will spurn wisdom as a threat to cherished folly and will dismiss it with passion. And, alas, the ratio of the foolish to the wise approaches infinity.
The ability to overcome adversity
Decisiveness after ample reflection