“Keep me from the wisdom which does not cry, the philosophy which does not laugh, and the greatness which does not bow before children” (Kahlil Gibran).
WISDOM, AS WE ALL KNOW, IS DIFFERENT FROM KNOWLEDGE. Knowledge has to do with the accumulation of factual information, while wisdom indicates how that information may be used to its best advantage. There are two parts to wisdom, both of which are important. First, wisdom perceives, discerns, and understands. It sees how a situation really is (analysis). But second, having accurately assessed the situation, wisdom exercises good judgment and discretion. It tells us what should be done about the situation (action). In other words, wisdom gives us the best possible answer to these two questions: What is going on? and What should be done about it?
Wisdom and prudence are closely related. As Norman Cousins put it, “Wisdom consists of the anticipation of consequences.” It looks ahead, soberly assessing the likely results of an action, and tells us the safest way to go or the most advantageous path to follow. And wisdom is able to do this because it has learned from the experience of others and seen what usually works and what doesn’t. “From the errors of others a wise man corrects his own” (Publilius Syrus).
The highest use of wisdom is surely in the area of morality. Cicero observed that the “function of wisdom is to discriminate between good and evil.” Wisdom may give us an advantage in lesser matters, and for that we should be grateful, but more than anything else, we should welcome the advice that wisdom gives us in regard to what is right, just, and honorable. If wisdom doesn’t elevate our conduct to a higher, nobler plane, then we’ve not gotten its best benefit.
The challenge, of course, is to apply wisdom to ourselves. It is easier to look at someone else’s situation and advise them what they should do than it is to see our own situation objectively and apply wisdom to our actions. Generally speaking, it is through hardship and heartache that we learn to be wise in our own lives, and that is why we ought not to avoid difficulty. If we despise the means through which wisdom usually comes, we can’t truly say we desire wisdom.
“People prefer happiness to wisdom, but that is like wanting to be immortal without getting older” (Sydney J. Harris).