What is Wisdom?

I suspect that we mean by a “wise person” someone who has all the answers to our existential and moral dilemmas—someone, in other words, who is sufficiently detached and aloof from our problems so as to pontificate without being handicapped by the reality of our feelings—a kind of almost metaphysical “Dear Abby.”  It’s the kind of guy or gal about whom we put bumper-stickers on the car saying, “What would she do?” in reference to whatever is so tangled that we cannot figure it out anymore.  Of course, the answers will vary with whatever prejudice is most  current with the person who places the bumper sticker on the car since the wise person is usually deceased and departed so as not to be able to defend her- or himself.  You see, “wisdom” is that content about which we all nod in reverence because we see its intuitive correctness in application to almost all situations of life—and which, of course, would be last thing we’d do in any realistic setting.   And since I am incapable of disentangling anyone from his or her problems, having never managed to disentangle myself from my own sundry traps, I cannot even introspect to tell you what I think “wisdom” is in that sense. Whatever it is, I am reasonably certain that I ain’t got it. 

Now I do know that the Oracle at the Temple of Apollo always insisted that Socrates was the wisest man of antiquity.  OK. We have a role model now. 

Now I don’t mean that, to become wise, you must marry a shrew, run naked along the sidewalk, be a well known pedophile, criticize the government vehemently, live comfortably and uncritically on a slave-based economy, do never an honest day’s work, waste time by shooting the breeze with young men in the marketplace, and teach by telling students how wrong they are without ever offering a decent philosophical answer. 

After we subtract all that colorful detail, we are left with a person who suggested that one should try to know one’s self and that he himself knew nothing.  In other words, he probably didn’t even manage the first task, namely to know himself, or he would have contradicted himself in the second axiom, namely that he knows nothing.  What I think he does point out, however, is useful stuff.  He points out a way.  All knowing is in some way self-knowledge because whatever you know you carry around in your head and that includes the world that you think you know.  You make predictions on the basis of the analog model of the world in your head about what the real thing outside of your head is supposed to do.  If the predictions come true, you’ll gain a bit more certainty that what you carry around in your head has some relationship to the thing out there. 

And if they don’t come true, you will have to strive toward acknowledging that you do only have that analog world and that, fairly exclusively, you have to keep tinkering with it and that, thus in the final analysis, you only have the analog model, which means you really don’t know anything about any real world with any unshakable certainty.  The acknowledgment that you don’t have knowledge of anything with ultimate certainty also obligates you to the statement: “I know that I know nothing.”  William Blake referred to thinking as something that proceeds “on cloudy doubts and reasoning cares.”  I find nothing as abhorrent and as unwise and as generally objectionable as someone’s making strong claims of certainty on blind faith without evidence or who entertains wild speculations without a careful reasoning progress and a clear admission under what circumstances a retraction will be mandatory. 

So, that’s it: wisdom, to me, is a never-ending attempt to understand oneself whilst acknowledging in a forthright manner the limits of what one knows and at the same time resisting any attempt to take large intuitive leaps by way of logically and empirically undisciplined conjectures.