Lesson 0 — An Introduction to Wisdom

Aristotle differentiated between two aspects of wisdom — one addressing existential and metaphysical issues, the other addressing everyday life. The poet Coleridge called this second practical variety of wisdom, “Common sense in an uncommon degree.”

An earlier book of mine, TOWARD WISDOM, dealt mostly with the meaning-of-life kind of wisdom — the big-picture, existential kind. It is this aspect of wisdom that spiritual paths help us develop if we are willing to make the necessary (and often considerable) commitment of time and effort. Practical wisdom, on the other hand, is much more accessible.

Although wisdom has not been discussed much during the past fifty years, most of us do have some rough, fuzzy sense of what the word means. For many people wisdom simply means lots of knowledge. But wisdom is more than that. While there is not yet one sharp, clear definition of wisdom that everyone agrees upon, efforts are being made to bring the concept back into common use and to refine our understanding of it. Academic researchers and others are investigating wisdom and are attempting to get a clear picture of its constituents.

I don’t have a final, complete understanding either, but I’d like to share with you my present sense of the nature of wisdom. In my view, wisdom comprises certain extraordinary

  • attitudes,
  • value-based ways of being, and
  • perspectives and interpretive frameworks that we might call ways of seeing.

Each item on the list that follows strikes me as an element of practical wisdom in the sense that each makes a real, useful, practical contribution to the life of the wise person. Also, some constituents of wisdom that were only of philosophical interest in Aristotle’s time are today of extreme practical importance. For instance, our world is currently experiencing negative impacts from billions of technology-equipped, self-interested people, and these impacts threaten the long-term viability of the biosphere. Being able to see interconnectedness and appreciate oneness (characteristics listed below) might well be essential for preserving that viability.

Wise Attitudes:

  • Feeling fully responsible for one’s life choices and actions
  • A positive, “let’s make the most of it” attitude
  • A reality-seeking, truth-seeking orientation
  • A desire to learn, and a feeling of responsibility for one’s own learning
  • A desire to grow, to develop, “to become all I am capable of becoming”

Wise Ways of Being:

  • Being attentive: aware of mind events and processes as well as what is happening in our immediate situation
  • Being creative: producing uniqueness and novelty that has value
  • Cooperative functioning of intellect and intuition
  • Being self-disciplined: able to work now for a reward later
  • Being courageous: able to face dangers and fears with clarity and skill
  • Being aware of one’s own eventual death to the degree that it helps guide one’s life
  • Dealing with situations appropriately, using a large repertoire of approaches and techniques. Being able to choose the approach that best fits each situation: appropriate planning, appropriate timing, appropriate problem-solving, dealing with commitments appropriately, etc.
  • Being non-reactive: able to deal skillfully with powerful emotions
  • Being deeply loving, and able to manifest love in appropriate ways
  • Having a sense of wonder
  • Being compassionate
  • Behaving in ways that benefit others
  • Deeply valuing wholeness, perfection, completion, justice, aliveness, richness, simplicity, beauty, goodness, uniqueness, effortlessness, playfulness, truth, honesty, reality, self-sufficiency (Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Being-Values)1

Wise Ways of Seeing:

  • Clear comprehension of “the laws of life”: deeply understanding causes and consequences in interpersonal, societal, employment, and other arenas
  • Seeing happiness and joy as unconditional and always available
  • Self-knowledge and a realistic self-concept
  • Appreciation of the enduring structural and moment-to-moment content aspects of life, and their relationship to each other
  • Holistic seeing: an appreciation of system, interconnectedness, oneness, the evolutionary process, and the complex nature of causation
  • Recognition that there are limits to personal knowledge and to the ability of our species to know

Wisdom is not an absolute. Not all of these qualities need be present to an equal degree in each wise person. But in any person worthy of being called wise, many of them will be present and relatively well developed. Often, wise people will have developed a few of these qualities to an exceptional degree. The particular qualities developed will differ from person to person, and this results in each wise person’s wisdom having a distinct character or “flavor.”

The world is not divided into wise and unwise people. None of us is perfectly wise or totally unwise. As I see it, each of us is wise to the extent that the characteristics just listed are part of us, to the extent that we actually live them. If we want to become wiser people, we need to further develop these characteristics and incorporate them into our lives. Fortunately, the acquisition of wisdom is not something that we must leave to the whims of fate, as many in the past have assumed. Wisdom can be developed intentionally. Wisdom can be learned. Living skillfully helps us develop greater wisdom, and greater wisdom helps us live more skillfully. The two are intimately entwined.

This course attempts to reinforce our best intuitions and intentions, lead us to some fresh insights about everyday life, and help us develop that uncommon degree of common sense.

NOTES:

1. Abraham Maslow, TOWARD A PSYCHOLOGY OF BEING, Second Edition, New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, NY, 1968, p. 83. Reprinted by permission. 

Professor Alan Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions:

Test Macdonald’s abstract profile of a wise person (his list of wise attitudes, ways of being, and ways of seeing, above) on some particular person you know who may or may not exemplify his paragon. Get down to cases, concrete details, and illustrative instances.

Make a checklist of Macdonald’s list, and decide which items you comply with and to what degree. Consider what is the opposite behavior of each one. What attributes of wise behavior might be left off his list, do you think?

“Wisdom can be developed intentionally. Wisdom can be learned.” Write about those aspects of wisdom you think you need to learn. What makes you think so? How might you set about learning?

Please turn now to your private journal and record your thoughts, feelings, and insights of the moment. What has your reading brought to mind? What are your responses to Professor Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions? Finally, is there anything you would like to share with others? If so, just enter it in the box below and it will soon be turned into a posted comment.

(For other wisdom-related resources, visit THE WISDOM PAGE at www.wisdompage.com.)

Lesson text is based on Copthorne Macdonald’s book Getting a Life, copyright © 1995, 2008 by Copthorne Macdonald. Nordstrom comments and suggestions copyright © 2008 by Alan Nordstrom.

24 Responses to “Lesson 0 — An Introduction to Wisdom”

  1. Jerry Price Says:

    Thank You

  2. Regine Says:

    Thank you for sharing.

  3. Jon Jones Says:

    This is the best use of the internet ever! Thank you very much. I’ve been researching wisdom for three years as and undergrad with my mentor. This is the closest thing to a one stop shop I’ve found.

  4. Cop Macdonald Says:

    My sincere apologies for the long delay in posting the much appreciated comments above.

    There were technical problems with an email account that I wasn’t aware of until today. The problem has now been fixed, and my intent remains to see that comments are posted within a day of their submission.

  5. CM Says:

    Even as an introduction, it can be so informative. This is done very well!
    Thank you for sharing.

  6. Dave Says:

    Very thought provoking. Ofcourse the purposeful rejection of items in the
    Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Being-Values list can be legitimate as well. So much depends on point of view.
    Very well written so far, I will read the course through as time allows.

    tnx.

  7. Rafi Says:

    Thought provoking and very very informative. Thank you

  8. henry Says:

    from the intro only you may weigh yourself and know your stand in this issue of wisdom and you can grade yourself and know how you are standiing.

    thanks

  9. Ronald Petrocco Says:

    As I begin this free course, I start from a place of having composed the following for myself:


    “Wisdom is knowing what is truly dire and dreadful and what isn’t; allowing what isn’t to buffet one’s ship so one can learn how to navigate the waters of doubt; knowing what is dear enough to risk anything for, even the most dire and dreadful; remembering to bring all of one’s resources and all of one’s weapons and all of one’s allies into the battle; and remembering, most of all, that time well spent is the greatest resource, the most formidable weapon, and the staunchest ally.”

    Ronald Petrocco

    “Any mistake I survive makes me wiser in this life, and the one I don’t will make me wiser in the next.”
    Ronald Petrocco

  10. Ronald Petrocco Says:

    These four are my areas of non-compliance with the above list:
    • A positive, “let’s make the most of it” attitude – not me very often
    • Being creative: producing uniqueness and novelty that has value – not me very often
    • Deeply valuing wholeness, perfection, completion, justice, aliveness, richness, *simplicity, *beauty, *goodness, uniqueness, *effortlessness, playfulness, *truth, *honesty, *reality, *self-sufficiency (Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Being-Values)1 – not me very often except the ones with asterisks
    • Seeing happiness and joy as unconditional and always available – not me very often

    I don’t know if I agree with the above four as being legitimate indicators of wisdom but I will keep them in mind over the coming days. Right now I think feeling sad or feeling angry when life at the moment sucks is an indicator of being genuinely engaged with what’s happening both outside and inside of oneself. Whistling a happy tune while you’re cutting my fingers off won’t help me escape you or overpower you unless I’m using it as a clever psychological tactic. But being more creative might be worth pursuing; likewise, Maslow’s “Being-Values” (the ones I don’t currently hold precious) might be worth exploring.

    Regarding Maslow’s list, it surprises me that freedom, peace, and well-being aren’t included. I think this indicates a disengagement with the animal aspect of self; I.e., most animals value freedom, peace, and well-being as far as I can tell, and I think most mentally healthy humans do also. But these values are less abstract than most of Maslow’s. I tend to distrust abstraction.

  11. Ziad Says:

    Thank you very much for the exceptional site. I appreciate your deep thinking and your intelligent approach. I think that you surpass the wisdom concept by generously sharing such high quality, well defined and accurately structured information.

  12. Daniel Says:

    As I read this and the responses to it, I think that the whole point of living in wisdom is to bring the spotlight of self-reflection upon yourself, especially upon the parts of yourself you fear the most.
    Forget about the progress you’ve made in Wisdom. What good comes of exercising a healthy body? The body in need of exercise most is the body that is sick and unexercised. The whole point of wisdom is to discover and bring into the air those parts of yourself that have atrophied, in which you are most ashamed, those parts that are the most painful, so you can breathe freely again.
    Forget about those vague, ill-conceived ideas of Freedom, Mercy, Wholeness, Perfection, etc… what good do they do you? Those things are outside you. What you should be concerned about right this minute is admitting your wrongs and your faults, honestly and completely, and humiliating yourself so you can see the grandness of life in it’s reality, not through the eyes of your ego.

  13. Mark William North Says:

    Most definitions of wisdom are just peeks at the results of a few wise choices without understanding the mechanics of wise thought or just parts of wisdom and do not provide a complete teachable skill.

    Wisdom is the process of thinking with greater precision to arrive at understanding reality, making decisions, and finding answers that takes into consideration all of the real influencing factors.

    The skill of thinking with greater precision involves understanding only a hand full of specific processes that are employed by those considered wise.

    Of course this results in wisdom being a concise teachable method.

    Strangely wisdom is an absolute that lends itself very well to scientific understanding and verificatioin. This includes multiple choice testing.

    We live in very interesting times where humanity is so close to the discovery of it’s most powerful quality.

    Mark William North

  14. Sajid Khan Says:

    I think I have figured out wisdom. If you google ‘wisdom by Sajid’ you can read over 500+ original articles on wisdom. Wisdom is the highest stage of emotional intelligence. And the single key to wisdom is selflessness which is generated by a squeaky clean brain which means a brain free of all emotional baggage. Thus wisdom education is merely brain therapy and trying to teach the attributes of wisdom gets us not very far. The potential for wisdom is in most human beings. As this excellent article suggests the ‘wise ways of being’ It is about being wise. But the only way to being wise is to become wise. Which means making the brain to become super mature to sprout wisdom.

    The brain is like a flower and wisdom is its fragrance. Can you even explain and teach fragrance no matter how many ways it is described. The only way you can know fragrance is by smelling the flower. Again in order to have fragrance you have to cultivate the flower. For superior fragrance you will have to nurture the flower by giving it better fertilizer, watering appropriately, exposing it to the right amount of sunlight etc. Similarly to cultivate wisdom you will have to find ways of educating the brain to a super mature +2 emotionally intelligent level. A +2 brain becomes wise automatically. A +2 brain is a wise brain. So when you read books on wisdom its like reading books on fragrance. As my friend Eddie Morrow from Houston said you will really know as much about fragrance after reading the book as much as you knew before reading the book.

    Wisdom is a tree. The attributes of wisdom are its fruit. As man knows the attributes of wisdom man tries to teach these attributes. It is very difficult and frustrating to cultivate these attributes because it is the same as trying to produce bananas without the banana tree. Cultivate the tree and the bananas will emerge automatically.

    • wisdompage Says:

      Yes, psychological/spiritual development — what Sajid calls “brain therapy”— is key in our quest to attain “a brain free of all emotional baggage.” Two points. 1. Freeing ourselves of “all emotional baggage,” if actually attainable, can take many years. 2. No one is perfectly wise or totally unwise. We are all somewhere on the path toward greater wisdom. As I see it, it’s not an either or situation. We adopt practices that help us reach a higher level of emotional intelligence, a greatly enlarged sense of self, multiple perspectives on the data of life, and “the values of the wise” such as compassion and integrity. But getting acquainted with the attributes of wisdom — the mental spaces we eventually want to call our own — has value too. Cop Macdonald

  15. emmanuel Says:

    wisdom and wits can change your life, read more on myblog

  16. Sajid Khan Says:

    “Freeing ourselves of “all emotional baggage,” if actually attainable, can take many years.” People attain wisdom by old age precisely because gradually, over decades reality slowly grinds out the emotional baggage. As the brain becomes free of emotional baggage the brain effortlessly sprouts wisdom. By deliberately freeing the brain of emotional baggage one can become wise much sooner. I now have over 900+ articles explaining my work on wisdom.

  17. Bren Thomas O'Neal Says:

    I’m 21 years old ,Im born raised and currently living out of Santa Barbara California.I loved every bit of what you had put down on this indtroduction .I cannot wait to learn more from your writings and info .I especially liked:Wisdom is having a sense of wonder

  18. Derek Brown Says:

    I love the introduction to this course! I just googled wisdom and ran across this page. At first I was just looking and now I’m looking forward to completing this course! I all ready learned a lot about myself. My greatest area of wisdom is I see happiness and joy as unconditional and always available and running across this course at the time that I did proves it is absolutely true!

  19. steven papa bare Says:

    thankyou for putting this out,I see im not the only one who seeks wisdom,I am a wander,I am trying to achieve enlightenment.compassion and love are my words for the day,can never be enuff.

  20. venus Says:

    Wisdom come in to form. 1. Wisdomis a gift from God and undstanding is the second part of wisdom translated to your human mind in a code that explain what you have recieve form GOD.Wisdom is a direct instruction on how to view this optional world, everything is base on what we see..wisdom is bring the unseen into a pyhsical world and the ability to explaini it.. Wisdom is the ability to here what is said. WISDOM is your over coat that you were for comfort you earth…

  21. steve smith Says:

    Maslow suggests that in later life for many the accumulation of knowledge and the reflection period as life slows is a common experience and we consider this event to be one of gaining wisdom or the peak of wisdom. At 57, and having had a rich life, far from the norm, I find a great deal of material behind me to reflect on. Will I live to be 90? What will my comprehension be then? In the outline, listed in lesson “0”, I found a checklist of which I could report nearly 100% completion. Getting control of emotion, or ridding the mind of its not is one step I am challenged with. Certainly, as described, when in control of myself, overcoming emotional challenges allows me choice. On the other hand, clearing the brain of emotion, as though it is a poison, does not ring true. My observation of the natural world allows me the perspective that emotion is a trait unique to animals. ( perhaps plants as well! ). I cannot discount the role of emotion in bringing a dimension of worth into my existence. Mastering fear, rage, desperation, is one thing, but ridding the mind of empathy, joy, and wonder, to list a few, seems to be a waste of a limitless gift.

  22. wisdompage Says:

    A bit of clarification here. This course doesn’t recommend ridding the mind of the positive emotions that Steve mentions: empathy, joy, and wonder. In fact, lesson 17 promotes the development of joy, and lesson 18 the development of wonder. What it does recommend is learning how to deal skillfully with REACTIVE emotions such as hate, anger, fear, and lust. Lesson 11, “Dealing with Reactivity” addresses this issue in some detail. What this course does advocate is the development of Emotional Intelligence — which is the title of Daniel Goleman’s excellent book on the subject.

  23. Sajid Khan Says:

    As wisdom is fuzzy and defined/known only by its attributes/elements/ingredients/properties; we try to teach each attribute. The nature of wisdom is such that wisdom does not contain individual elements separate from each other. Each property of wisdom gets fused together with every other property to produce wisdom which is much more than the sum of its parts. It is like baking a cake. All the ingredients are combined and cooked, fusing them together to produce a cake. Current wisdom education is like instead of producing a cake we try to produce sugar, flour, butter, yeast; the different ingredients of the cake; as we can only define the cake (wisdom) by its ingredients. By trying to produce flour we are far from producing the cake. Similarly by trying to teach the individual attributes; wisdom remains elusive as its ingredients separately are not wisdom.

    So each individual attribute on its own is not wisdom. Love that is taught individually in place of wisdom; to make the person wise is far different from the love in wisdom. Love that is part of wisdom contains in it all the other attributes of wisdom. It is love that is wisdom. Thus the current attempts to teach wisdom through teaching individual attributes is a failure because we try to teach a different quality attribute that is much less than wisdom.

    The regular love that we try to teach is frustratingly hard to teach because the brain is already biochemically fixed to produce its own quality love/hate. It is like pouring fresh water into a glass that is producing its own dirty water. Wisdom education is about rewiring the brain to stop producing the fused attributes of ignorance and start producing wisdom.

    Even the attributes are hard to teach through words because the attributes are a result of a biochemical projection of the brain. The brain is a physical biochemical machine that is wired through early upbringing to project a fixed quality of fused attributes made up of a compound of ignorance and wisdom. For the brain to become wise the brain machine has to be altered through brain therapy.

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