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
- 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.
- 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.
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.