On wisdom

by The Editor

TheThingAboutSERIES: Are you wise? Or do you simply seek out cliches and promote them as if you have discovered great truth? In other words, do you believe by repeating other people’s wisdom, you might seem wise yourself? And is a cliche actually an example of wisdom? What is true wisdom’s nature and how might we recognise it? In an age of ‘instant wisdom’ – exaggerated by social media – these are questions worth considering.

On wisdom

By: Gareth van Onselen

14 April 2013

Wisdom, a relatively complex idea, enjoys an overly-simple reputation.

Often we are told there is much wisdom in a platitude or cliché, and it is eagerly promoted by those who believe its ostensible profundity says as much about them as it does the idea itself. That is: that such people are seemingly wise themselves because they recognise wise things – ‘wisdom’ by association.

But a cliché rarely contains inherent wisdom. Its great trick – that it appears universally applicable – masks its great weakness – that its worth is only ever particular to a specific circumstance. Thus, by advocating for one in an absolute fashion, as if it constitutes some fundamental and common truth, ironically, one often reveals little more than ignorance as to the ambiguity and difference that defines the human condition.

Wisdom is the product of three things: experience (and so it usually come with time and age); knowledge (understanding and insight); and, importantly, judgement (the sound application of experience and knowledge to circumstance).

Each element on its own, although valuable, does not constitute wisdom. It might be wise to cross the road today; tomorrow it might be equally unwise. And so, if anything, wisdom is a rational response to uncertainty: an ability to distinguish one moment from another and to use precedent and understanding to plot the best course of action in response to different conditions.

There is a risk, then, that wisdom lends itself to pragmatic, as opposed to principled decisions; for self-interest is often pursued as the ultimate good. And so what constitutes the collective wisdom of the day is well worth interrogating; and to what degree each of these three component parts are emphasised, worth some serious consideration.

Knowledge without experience engenders understanding devoid of compassion; experience without knowledge encourages conviction without principle; and experience and knowledge without judgement provokes expediency, at the expense of any noble vision or purpose.

The line between wisdom and moralising is a fine one indeed, beware those that walk it.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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