The unvoiced thoughts and ideas of a septegenarian.


on March 4, 2012


“Whittle things down to wisdom.” A catchy phrase I came across which set me to thinking about what wisdom is. I don’t think it’s smartness or brilliance: an I.Q. of 190 does not mean one is wise. Whittling things down strikes me as stepping back – gaining some objectivity – knowing what to overlook. Is it an innate quality or can it be learned?

In an attempt to gain some insight into this enigma I took a look at what others have said about wisdom. Leaving aside comments that treat the subject humorously, I found a few that, at the least, threw a little light on the subject. The most provocative (for me) comes from Confucius who, confirming it can be learned, said we learn it three ways:

First, by reflection, which is noblest;

Second, by imitation, which is easiest;

Third, by experience, which is the bitterest.

Great minds throughout the centuries have attempted to define what wisdom is.  One suggests a prudent question is one half of wisdom. Another says the art of wisdom is knowing what to overlook.  A third says knowledge speaks but wisdom listens and Socrates believes the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. Yet another proclaims: “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.”

Fast forward to William James: “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”   There may be a drop of truth in that but I overlook many things and don’t think that makes me wise.

Is it true that we grow wiser as we grow older? I certainly hope so but I’ve no proof of that.  I would hope I am wiser at seventy than I was as twenty or thirty.  Does that mean experience is necessary to grow in wisdom?

If those sages set out to confuse me, they succeeded.  I once knew a man who was a member of  Mensa. Most people would label him wise.  I described him to a mutual friend as an encyclopedia with a table of contents, an index and nothing in between.

It seems to me the definition of wisdom depends on the context in which it is used.  There is, for example, academic wisdom, social wisdom, personal wisdom.

Is a professor with a profound knowledge of ancient Greece any wiser than your neighbor who possesses what we used to call “street smarts?”

Next question. Is being wise an art?  I suppose that depends on your definition of art.  If your art teacher says being able to see what is not there is a critical component of art then I’d have to say that wisdom is certainly an art.  The wise man recognizes ‘empty spaces’ and if he is truly wise, I think he attempts to fill them in: to answer the questions they pose and the empty space is there to pose a question.  It asks the viewer “what belongs here.” Now, if that is true, what does the artist do?  He either puts something there or he leaves the empty space empty.  His decision will, to some extent, indicate how wise he is.

Maybe we don’t need all those great minds and sages – those lofty thoughts. For example, I see wisdom in statements such as these.

            “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.” (The Little Prince, Antoine de St. Exupery)

            “A person’s a person no matter how small.” (Dr. Seuss)

            “Get this in mind early. We never grow up.”  (Richard Bach)   

            “With the ancient is wisdom; and in length of days understanding.” (Job 28:28)

That’s quite enough about such an elusive subject.  You are invited to throw some light on the topic.

Julie Rose


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: