Wisdom doesn’t get much respect. When did you last hear a U.S. leader being praised as wise? When did you last hear someone stress the social importance of wisdom or speak about our nation’s need for more of it?
Yet across time and cultures, wisdom has been viewed as a primary human virtue—a key to the advancement and integration of knowledge, our most reliable guide to action, and a personal good linked to long-term fulfillment and well-being. Wisdom is like a peak performance. It’s arguably the highest state of knowledge and its development. As a vital source of social capital, don’t we undervalue it today at our peril?
Wisdom is hard to define succinctly, in part because it’s not one trait so much as the blending of a number of traits. For me, wisdom might be best understood as the use of reason to make and encourage good decisions. Researchers Paul Baltes and Jacqui Smith describe everyday wisdom as “good judgment and advice about important but uncertain matters of life.”
Among the world’s great philosophers, among the small but growing group of psychologists and neuroscientists who study wisdom, and within the wisdom proverbs and other sources of folk knowledge, there is considerable commonality of understanding and at least implicit agreement on the basic qualities that make a person wise. Let’s look at six of them.
- Richness of knowledge. A wise person tends to have what Baltes and Smith call “an extensive database about life matters” analogous to a “cross-referenced encyclopedia.” She also likely has rich “procedural knowledge”—effective ways of thinking about problems and their possible solutions. At the same time, being smart and being wise are not the same—we’re all familiar with the clever, well-educated person with a high IQ who is anything but wise.
- Empathy. Self-centered people are far less likely to be wise. Wisdom is consistently associated with compassion and the ability to put oneself sincerely in the other person’s shoes.
- Equanimity and resilience in times of adversity. The wise person can regulate his emotions so as to meet sorrow and suffering calmly and to treat setbacks as problems to learn from and puzzles to try to solve.
- Perspective. Nearly everyone agrees that the wise person is able to see the overall, the big picture. The wise person’s point of view is broad and disinterested, not partisan. As important, and in some ways paradoxically, the wise person is likely able to see through complexities to fasten upon what Lincoln, arguably our wisest president, often call “the nub” of a topic—its foundation and essence. At Gettysburg, the main speaker of the day, the great orator Edward Everett, spoke for two hours. Lincoln, following Everett, spoke for about two minutes. But we remember Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address because this poet-president wisely discerned for us “the nub” of what the war meant and what the nation is and could be.
- Recognition of values pluralism. Some values (sometimes called natural laws) are so essential that they should be binding on everyone. But the wise person likely realizes that such values are few, do not come with operating instructions, and are often themselves subject to interpretation. She recognizes that “truth” is not a unity in which all the pieces fit together harmoniously; she therefore sees that there’s no single grand narrative that explains everything. She recognizes that, as often as not, the conflicts we face, in society and in ourselves, do not consist of good versus bad as much as two legitimate goods in tension with one another.
- Acceptance of uncertainty. The wise person likely views doubt and ambiguity not as enemies to be resisted, but as acquaintances to be accommodated. Indeed, much of wisdom appears to be the capacity to accept realistically what’s not known and what’s not knowable. When Lincoln infuriated his critics by saying “My policy is to have no policy,” he was improvising as best he could in a situation of unavoidable uncertainty—an indicator (at least in Lincoln’s case) not of passivity or lack of resolve, but of wisdom.
Couldn’t America use a wisdom revival? In his new article in The Atlantic, “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis,” Jonathan Rauch explores the links among wisdom, happiness and aging—obviously an important topic for many of the world’s aging societies, including our own. Wisdom, at least for some, may increase with age. And more broadly, surely our politics and public conversation today could use a little more empathy, perspective and conciliation and a little less certitude, aggression and intransigence.
Wisdom is not common in human affairs. It’s typically in short supply. But it probably can be consciously cultivated, both individually and socially. The first step is wanting to do so.
This article was originally published on December 26, 2014 in The Deseret News.