Wisdom is a concept of personal gaining of knowledge, understanding, experience, discretion, and intuitive understanding, along with a capacity to apply these qualities well towards finding solutions to problems. It is the judicious and purposeful application of knowledge that is valued in society. To some extent the terms wisdom and intelligence have similar and overlapping meanings. The status of wisdom or prudence as a virtue is recognized in cultural, philosophical and religious sources.
Psychologists have gathered data on commonly held beliefs or folk theories about wisdom.
These analyses indicate that although "there is an overlap of the implicit theory of wisdom with intelligence, perceptiveness, spirituality and shrewdness, it is evident that wisdom is a distinct term and not a composite of other terms.
Personality theorist Erik Erikson
related wisdom to the last stage of his eight-stage theory of psychosocial development. Erikson's theory spans the entire lifespan and frames each stage in the form of internally-generated questions or tensions. Erikson claimed that in the last stage of human development, from approximately 65 years to death, individuals must resolve a psychological conflict between integrity and despair. He proposed that attaining wisdom is a favorable resolution and product of this conflict.
In the 1970s, Vivian Clayton pioneered the academic study of wisdom. Clayton "is generally recognized as the first psychologist to ask, in even faintly scientific terms, 'What does wisdom mean, and how does age affect it?' Clayton's work caught the attention of Paul Baltes
, who later founded the Berlin Wisdom Project at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development
. Another wisdom researcher, sociologist
Monika Ardelt, has developed a "Three-Dimensional Wisdom Scale"
, a test that individuals can take for a numerical assessment of their wisdom on a scale of one to five. The number of academic publications about wisdom increased significantly from 1984 to 2000. Nevertheless, according to Jacqui Smith, one of Baltes's collaborators, the subject is not completely accepted in academia.
Researchers in positive psychology
have defined wisdom (a.k.a. psychological perspective
) as the coordination of "knowledge and experience" and "its deliberate use to improve well being." With this definition, wisdom can be measured using the following criteria.
- A wise person can discern the core of important problems.
- A wise person has self-knowledge.
- A wise person seems sincere and direct with others.
- Others ask wise people for advice.
- A wise person's actions are consistent with his/her ethical beliefs.
Measurement instruments that use these criteria have acceptable to good internal consistency and low test-retest reliability (r in the range of 0.35 to 0.67).
Many, but not all, studies find that adults' self-ratings of perspective/wisdom do not depend on age. This stands in contrast to the popular notion that wisdom increases with age.
Some religions have specific teachings relating to wisdom.
In the Christian Bible
scripture, Wisdom is also represented by the sense of justice of the lawful and wise king Solomon
, who asks God for wisdom in 1 Kings
9:10 says: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," (Proverbs 1:7) and 8:13 "To fear the Lord is to hate evil;".
There is an oppositional element in Christian thought between secular wisdom and Godly wisdom. The apostle Paul states that worldly wisdom thinks the claims of Christ to be foolishness. However, to those who are being saved Christ represents the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:17-31) Also, Wisdom is one of the Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit according to Anglican, Catholic, and Lutheran belief.
In Islam, according to the Qur'an, all of the prophets of the Old Testament, Jesus, as well as the Prophet Muhammad were chosen by God, mostly in times of political or moral crisis, to represent his wisdom. The Prophet Muhammad said that: "Fearing God in your actions and intentions, and knowing that Almighty God is watching you wherever and whenever you are is the head/peak of wisdom". In addition, Islam also mentions that a wise man with the name of Luqman once told his son to: "Sit with the learned men and keep close to them. Allah gives life to the hearts with the light of wisdom as Allah gives life to the dead earth with the abundant rain of the sky"
Eastern religions and philosophy
stated that wisdom can be learned by three methods: Reflection (the noblest), imitation (the easiest) and experience (the bitterest).
According to "Doctrine of the Mean," Confucius also said, "Love of learning is akin to wisdom. To practice with vigor is akin to humanity. To know to be shameful is akin to courage (zhi,ren,yi..three of Mengzi's sprouts of virtue)." Compare this with the beginning of the Confucian classic "Great Learning" which begins with "The Way of learning to be great consists in manifesting the clear character, loving the people, and abiding in the highest good" one can clearly see the correlation with the Roman virtue "prudence," especially if one transliterates clear character as clear conscience. (Quotes from Chan's Sources of Chinese Philosophy).
taught that a wise person is endowed with good bodily conduct, good verbal conduct & good mental conduct (AN 3:2
) and a wise person does actions that are unpleasant to do but give good results and doesn’t do actions that are pleasant to do but give bad results (AN 4:115
). This is called karma
. The Buddha has much to say on the subject of wisdom including:
- He who arbitrates a case by force does not thereby become just (established in Dhamma). But the wise man is he who carefully discriminates between right and wrong.
- He who leads others by nonviolence, righteously and equitably, is indeed a guardian of justice, wise and righteous.
- One is not wise merely because he talks much. But he who is calm, free from hatred and fear, is verily called a wise man.
- By quietude alone one does not become a sage (muni) if he is foolish and ignorant. But he who, as if holding a pair of scales, takes the good and shuns the evil, is a wise man; he is indeed a muni by that very reason. He who understands both good and evil as they really are, is called a true sage.
In Taoism Practical Wisdom may be described as knowing what to say and when to say it.
In Mesopotamian religion and mythology
, also known as Ea, was the God of wisdom and intelligence. Wisdom was achieved by restoring balance.
In Norse mythology, the god Odin is especially known for his wisdom, often acquired through various hardships and ordeals involving pain and self-sacrifice. In one instance he plucked out an eye and offered it to Mímir, guardian of the well of knowledge and wisdom, in return for a drink from the well.
In another famous account, Odin hanged himself for nine nights from Yggdrasil, the World Tree that unites all the realms of existence, suffering from hunger and thirst and finally wounding himself with a spear until he gained the knowledge of runes for use in casting powerful magic. He was also able to acquire the mead of poetry from the giants, a drink of which could grant the power of a scholar or poet, for the benefit of gods and mortals alike.
A standard philosophical, (philos-sophia: literally "lover of wisdom"), definition says that wisdom consists of making the best use of available knowledge. As with any decision, a wise decision may be made with incomplete information. The technical philosophical term for the opposite of wisdom is folly.
In his Metaphysics, Aristotle defines wisdom as knowledge of causes: why things exist in a particular fashion.
In addition to experience there are a variety of other avenues to gaining wisdom. For example, Freethinkers and others believe that wisdom may come from pure reason and perhaps experience, while others believe that it comes from intuition or spirituality.
Beginning with the ancient Greeks, European culture associates wisdom with virtue. Metis and Athene are associated with wisdom from earliest times. For example, many philosophers talk about the virtue of wisdom in relation to courage and moderation, and in the Roman Catholic church, wisdom (Prudence) stands with justice, fortitude and moderation as one of the four cardinal virtues. Plato's dialogues mention the virtue of wisdom, as knowledge about the Good and the courage to act accordingly. The Good would be about the right relations between all that exists. The Good, as a Platonic Form, would involve the perfect ideas of good government, love, friendship, community, and a right relation to the Divine. Perhaps the search or love of wisdom is more important than any proven claim. Socrates only claimed to know that he did not know, but this he was very certain of, and he showed the many contradictions in the claims of his fellow citizens.
Holists believe that wise people sense, work with and align themselves and others to life. In this view, wise people help others appreciate the fundamental interconnectedness of life.
Nicholas Maxwell, a modern philosopher, argued that the basic aim of academic inquiry ought to be to seek and promote wisdom — wisdom being construed to be the capacity to realize what is of value in life for oneself and others, wisdom thus including knowledge and technological know-how, but much else besides.
Wisdom is the goal of philosophy. Philosophy attempts to understand reality, and how we should live in the light of reality. Genuine wisdom therefore requires achieving this kind of understanding. Anyone who discusses wisdom without having clear philosophical understanding is the blind leading the blind.
Freduci Philomathis, "What is this thing called wisdom?", Journal Behind the State of the Art, Maybell, Colorado, 2006, p.1.
- Allen, James Sloan, Worldly Wisdom: Great Books and the Meanings of Life, Frederic C. Beil, 2008. ISBN 978-1-929490-35-6
- Miller, James, L., "Measures of Wisdom: The Cosmic Dance in Classical and Christian Antiquity", University of Toronto Press, 1986. ISBN 0802025536