Ethos or How I Learned Some Wisdom
3 February 2012
I seek wisdom because I love to be good
*What is then the source of the many things I will assert so boldly in this essay? Is there something real to ground my claims? To what wisdom did I have access? Who is speaking here? How did I become who I am? From what did my wisdom grow? What reality did I experience and assimilate which makes me believe that I gathered some wisdom?
As the main ingredient of what I write is personal knowledge and action, I must present my experience and way of thinking – a brief intellectual biography:
I did not learn everything I know from kindergarten. I hated kindergarten. My first teachers of wisdom were my family. Now I am what survives of them.
My Grandfather, peace be upon him, told me magnificent bed-time stories about freedom and of knowledge being power; stories of the kind that gives form to one's life. He was amazing with intelligence but stubborn like King Lear. He lived his way from the misery of orphan childhood, up to renown and well being and back to losing everything; this makes me understand how ephemeral our successes are. He had a passion for Aesop, Spinoza and Francis Bacon, among other things. While he pushed forward his chin, exactly as my son does, he kindled me to ask the never-ending flow of questions of a child.
My father, the taciturn scientist, answered those childish questions with intimidating and compulsive scholarly precision, always taking in hand some encyclopaedic source, to find the right name, the true quote and the exact explanation. He demonstrated that you do not take surface for granted, you go uninhibited to check everything, sapere aude, not in trash literature but with the great serious reference books of humanity, and they will not bite you. His excess of scrupulous detail also taught me, unintentionally, that you do not need to know everything; just know where to find it and go to it when you need it. Thank you Father!
He also taught me by his negative example – he was an ivory-tower scholar and Utopian, an introvert, analytical to paralysis, who never applied the wealth he knew – that knowledge hoarded in silence is childless like Sleeping Beauty unawakened. He was a bibliomaniac; he did not drink or smoke or gamble but he bought books with all he earned and studied them with the seeming urge to know everything. All his salary went up on the walls forming a hypnotizing tapestry of volumes among which I lived my childhood. Books were my friends, my refuge, my castle of civilization, but in time I learned that having all the books augments your library not your mind, not yet; and certainly not your ability to do things. They are there, all around, yet not yours: to own them you must read them, understand and digest them. You may even need to forget them.
My second Father, Eric, was the opposite temper, the fixer; he taught me to see the world just as it is and also to dare change it. He proved to me by example that while some things are given, many things you can make and do, even some “impossible” ones. When something was to do, he showed me how to find those who can and how to avoid those who cannot. He proved to me that when you act and when people believe you, you can. Fortune favours the bold! He convinced me that you can be tough, compromise, dissimulate, survive and still remain an uncontaminated good-hearted person able of generous choice; but he ended assassinated because of the too many things he knew about too many bad people. Do not mix with wolves, you will pay the difference!
My Mom was the inflexible, passionate critical thinker. Nothing escaped her scrutiny. She was a historian. Luckily, she was an extrovert. Her warm intuitions, her first impressions, her taste, rarely failed. Curiously, her ulterior educated reasoning was often mistaken rationalization. She proved to me that intuition works where deliberation falsifies. She incited me to ask "what is this", "what is it not?", “why?” “Why not?” and “What is old and what is new in this?”, “Why this and not that?” "Which other things are similar and which are different?" She counterpoised with these deeply subversive questions the politically correct langue de bois which was mandatory in our country for a surviving intellectual.
Alas, she also contaminated me with the hopeless compulsion of perfectionism, of desiring forever more and better, that open ascending spiral never to be satisfied. Such a model of aspirations is a serious hindrance to ever be wisely content and to enjoy life. Perfectionism is not wisdom, it is specialisation. Remember this to have balance when you educate your children. Teach them some modest contentment too. They will live happier.
With amazing naivety, my parents inculcated me to worship truth and justice, as they did, their spiritual alternative to God. Their spirituality was made of Ethic, Reason and Humanistic Civilisation, Art and Culture. They believed that justice must and does prevail by the necessary progress of Humanity and that truth is the highest, sacred, value, worth sacrifice, as if these dry norms were in themselves the end-values of humanity. But now I find that they are only means towards a better life, not ends.
That proud obsession for uncompromising honesty and righteousness cost me needless enemies, humiliation and trouble before I wised up.
A most important learning came to me from my parents errors; I witnessed how their earlier youthful idealism was fooled and abused, how they blundered into captivity, how their life was wasted by that quickly disenchanted belief in Marxism – that yet another genially-stupid, dystopian “ultimate solution” opposed to the German final solution and supposed to solve forever the sufferings and injustices of the world.
We survived in a grey totalitarian regime where "socialist" life was almost as “poor, nasty, brutish and short” as in Hobbes' primitive society the one without a social contract, with an extra of Byzantine crippling perfidy. It was the enslavement of the people in the name of the people. Another failed Utopia, another totalitarian Beast devoured several generations, for nothing. In retrospect, I understand that I lived my youth in the garbage can of History.
Venerating humanism, beauty, sincerity and freedom in a world of malevolence and hypocrisy offered rich occasion for learning and practising wisdom. Life-saving wisdom. Nothing teaches prudence and subtlety of mind like coping for years with tyranny and newspeak. Oppression forces you into scholastic trifrenia: you think one thing, must speak another and do another thing yet, each discordant with the other two. You wear a mask of dissimulation. Your thoughts reserved to the inner circle of family and close friends are in sharp contradiction with what you can and often must say and do publicly; nothing you say or write will represent directly your ideas. In fact, what you say and do does not represent you at all. I found in later years an unexpected advantage to this painful experience. If you learned to host consciously such contradiction in your mind without becoming mad, your thinking will be resilient to complexity and open in meeting the complexity of the world as it is. Some thirty years of life apprenticeship as an intellectual under tyranny provided me with subversive survival wisdom amazingly useful to understand and consult later in big multinational corporations of the West. I learned to see words as re-definable tools, to say things without saying them, to count with stupidity and absurdity, and to think under permanent uncertainty and flow, undisturbed by ever present contradiction. I learned to influence by creating metaphors and compelling questions instead of answers.
One thing is certain; I did not learn much wisdom from school either. There, I was fed basic skills, reasonable information, “data” now obsolete and some valuable evergreen knowledge. School was teaching us to read, pencil and count, but certainly not to learn, understand or think critically, nor to write or communicate with people. School was teaching the manuals, not the children... If you want to educate your child, do it yourself, at home. Collect the useful school grades additionally, without illusions.
Besides "life", I found much wisdom in literature; not in reading the whole Western Canon but in a modest treasury sufficient to make me rich, from the profusion spread by my parents over the four walls of our apartment. At the middle of the last century, people were still able to read books. I devoured numberless works I do not remember, because for a long while I ignored the covers with authors and titles, just rushed and absorbed the action, the situations and the ideas. This barbarian incursion among so many books, the myriad disorderly, disparate bits of general culture absorbed, taught me something priceless; I learned for life how ignorant I was, and I will be, all my life. I learned to accept that I will never know enough, nobody can. I made peace quite early with the idea that I will live forever - like everybody else - in a world here what I will never know is immense, while what I know is a small familiar island in that infinity. I claim that renouncing the arrogant, neurotic need and pretence of knowing enough (or worse, everything needed for a complete system of knowledge) is wisdom. Once familiar with this truth, you stop being defensive, you can remain open to assimilate ever new discoveries, while you can still appreciate that you know much more (or less) than other people.
These are questions confronting all of us when we meet our ignorance: “What do you chose? Despair in front of the unknown? Giving up? Rebellion? Urge to deny or to reduce infinity to what you know? Seeking enlightenment from a prophet or from a great authority? Hiding humbly inside a large community of anonymous scientists and begging the future that it will know it all by faith in progress? Or do you accept with modest friendliness to think with confidence based on the incomplete knowledge you have now, and to do what you reasonably can, to use wisely what you know and just learned, while coexisting peacefully with the Great Unknown, and learning forever?
Among so many forgotten, my literary affinities became, Defoe, Swift, Scott, Stevenson and De Coster, Andersen and the brothers Grimm, countless folk stories, Dumas, Dickens, Verne, Toparceanu, Cervantes, Karinthy, Hašek and Kafka, the precursors of science-fiction, Asimov, Lem, Wells, Bradbury, Saint-Exupéry, La Fontaine, Twain, the Sufi fables of Nasreddin Hodja, Graciàn, Maupassant, Gary, Chekov, Gogol, Poe, France, Hugo, Zola and Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gorky, Ilf and Petrov, Greene, London, Kipling, Rolland, France, Feuchtwanger, Zweig, Boccaccio, Orwell, Melville, Hemingway, Conrad, Werfel, Golding, Lampedusa, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Hesse, Graves... These were my first dead teachers. Much later I discovered Homer, the 1001 Nights, Kahlil Gibran, Carroll, Lao-Tzu, Chuang-Tzu, Sun-Tzu, the KJV Bible, Montaigne, Erasmus, Bulgakov, Borges and Marquez, Rushdie, Gilgamesh, Goethe, TH White, Waltari, the Mahabharata, Dostoevsky, Douglas Adams, Herodotus, Gibbon, Durant, Huxley, Plato, Watts, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Shaw, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, the Æsopic fables and the Greek myths, to mention some readings that I am made from.
All those books, while they offered me evasion and refuge, caused me to dream and think, furnished and freed my mind with multitudes of situations, words, values, criteria, feelings and patterns, turns of mind and shades of differentiation; they became my own treasury chest of comparisons and of choices. But wisdom, if any, is of course what remained after I forgot most of what I read.
I studied and re-studied psychology, communication and education science. I used to dream that psychology were the historically accumulated worldly wisdom about how people know, give meaning, feel, judge and act, an endeavour to understand, influence and help persons. Nevertheless, in the sixties of the twentieth century psychology was turning away from the comprehension of man, into a mechanistic sub-science about "subjects" (not of kings but of research) reflexes, mazes, tests, behaviours, pathologies, and statistical correlations. That was not about wisdom. Psychology was working at splitting and turning Man into machine. I did my doctorate in "communication psychology" and shut up; useless to waste my life against the windmills.
I decided to practice my own brand of old-time wisdom about the human person, the one with an identity and selfhood, able to say "I" and to start new things. My rescue was that in fact psychology is applicable wherever people are and whatever they do. You only call it something else; I practised psychology in this fashion, all my life.
For ten years, I played with communicating to wide audiences, trough Television in its early years. We were clever but foolish. We, young TV people, were dreaming then that Television - the nec plus ultra of that epoch - was to be a miraculous window towards the whole world and the highest culture, to freedom, open wide for everyone. I thought that with television, democracy becomes inevitable. It was certainly not meant to be just a funnel used to dumb crowds down with the despair of bad news and the inflation of envy, violence and of greed. In spite of propaganda and censorship, we amused viewers, informed them and tried to instruct people. I tasted the vanity of renown. It tastes good, bitter-sweet. Television commands important means and influence. I tasted the power of having access to almost whoever I wanted, of doing things out of reach for other people and found out that what is impossible for one is feasible for another or with different means, with different understanding or in different places. Having to do things on time, I learned to avoid the one who cannot and find the one who can. This recipe helped me all my life.
I became proficient– because of omnipresent censorship – to communicate things compellingly without saying them directly. Examples and symbols speak silently but are in fact louder than words. And yes, you can launch ideas seemingly tame and "correct", but which will keep working in the receiving minds, until they fruit radical conclusions. Making distant ends meet, ceaselessly absorbing new, interesting things and teaching them to masses through image and example was fun and excitement. I often achieved to make complicated subjects understandable and acceptable. (In time, I made permanent learning and compulsive learning and teaching - what I like to call the power to make things simple - my vocation). At my leisure hours, by academic remorse, I continued my doctoral studies and advised many people as a counselling psychologist. I founded the first “normal psychology” practice in my country; for a few years I consulted in my spare hours, face to face, by mail, by phone, by a newspaper column, along with many other occupations; I learned thus that advice can change people’s life. Through those experiences, I became convinced that what persuades and helps people is not fact and reality but what they understand and feel from it. I also learned that you can take the horse to the water, but you cannot make him drink.
At that time I was also a successful interpreter and translator of film, skilful in subtitling (at that epoch the translation was often done with no written reference text, by listening to the original, then the sub titles were hand calligraphed on scrolls and hand synchronized live). Visibly I had much energy.
Ten years of such translation work made me understand something important: that you can say a lot with a few short words, that context changes meaning radically, that you can say the same things with very different words and even say very different things with the same words. More, you can say things with no words or by causing expected words to be absent.
Being a professional translator is like riding a bike; once learned it stays with you for life. I can say that - starting with my two mother tongues - I was and will be a translator all my life; from one language to another, from one point of view (or even world-view) to another, one context, frame of reference and set of references, level of abstraction and occasion to another, from one image to another, one paradigm to another, from one culture to another, from one understanding and sensibility to another, and sometimes even from one truth to another. I believe that understanding this and doing this responsibly contains some wisdom.
Maybe the deepest thing I learned during my television years was the unnaturally convincing and mind-building might of a mass communication menu conveying an artefact life-world of moving image with its distinctive visual, dreamlike logic in movement. That flow was not mere illustration of words, nor mere copy of perceived reality, it was a mass transmissible intuitive "shared common sense" building way of visual thinking, entirely artificial, recorded, edited and broadcast as if alive; something like reasoning (or dreaming) on behalf of other people...
Broadcasting is communicating pre-fabricated, dreamlike logic to be assimilated by viewers mostly unawares. Add to this the "content" - the mediated perception of a larger, "distal" world never experienced directly but vivid enough to become part of the personal map of reality, image of the world of the receiver.
I understood that - for most of it - the distant world we never meet and even much of the proximal environment, are for us mere received representations and interpretation in words, mainly built on the trust we have in communication, in the witnessing by credible people and the unquestioned language in which we think. Most of the world, we never encounter, never touch, only have it pictured, mediated, testified, attested, named, affirmed, explained and interpreted to us. But we take life decisions and follow ways based on this virtual reality.
This is the everyday reality of our "justified belief". That mediated map is most of the world we live in. We base our image of the world and in consequence our reasonable judgement and many of our crucial decisions on things we never met directly, on received common sense and on ways other people understood them. Much of the rest comes through words.
What is then all this dogmatically correct talk about modern man knowing the world through empirical direct experience, measurement and experiment? Did you, the reader, form your knowledge in this "empirical" way? What percentage of the world population knows scientifically?
Science and even rationality is received by us mortals on trust, by hearsay and authority discourse. Going to school is not so different from going to church.
My conclusion for a theory of mass persuasion was that subtle, sinister, manipulation schemes and conspiracy theories are mere child play compared with the influence of flat assimilation and building up of the daily diet of shaped and censored agenda and artefact representations we consume. Television (and today Internet, mobile communication, social networks and the like) rule the public representation of the World. Changing the image of the world is changing the world. All this is done irresistibly, in full daylight, no tricks, no hands needed. How to protect humanity's good sense and critical thinking against this huge amplifier? How to protect people against the spread of ideas of prey?
As I was a young proud fool, I set out explaining those dangerous thoughts and means in my doctoral thesis; I was very, very lucky that the government's grand inquisitors did not notice what I wrote. They could have forced me to apply that Orwellian knowledge. Explaining powerful influencing means to those people was the wrong thing to do, a very foolish, mindless thing. Later, I became mindful of the danger and stopped writing about this subject.
As my life went on, in my superficial pursuit of vanity and of immediate freedom from constraint, I met another great teacher of wisdom: I did innumerable foolish mistakes, mainly imprudences and useless conflicts with people, and got sanction for them so that I had to learn that in a large part what happens to me is brought about by me and by not learning promptly from my errors.
For long years, in my fascination with freedom, busy with not doing what I did not want to do, I drifted, side-stepped, out-manoeuvred, navigated amid Scylla and Charybdis, responded and seized opportunities instead of building my own destiny. I made some very good and some bad choices, so that I understand now the importance of life choices. I realize only now that I never had a life plan to set who I wanted to be and where I wanted to go in the long term. I was mainly keen with what I did not want to be or do. No surprise that life carried me on its tides: "when you do not know where you want to go, every road will get you there" as Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat warns.
Numberless critical situations, benign or dangerous, taught me most I know and part of what I don’t know (but I cannot describe all that, the map would grow larger than the territory). Armed with the psychologist's eye I observed that in most situations there is a somewhat "objective", given part - call it "blood, steel and money" and also a human side which can worsen and destroy everything uselessly or on the contrary improve things notably. Therefore, there is much room for learning wisdom and skill with people.
I practised my own choice of the capital sins as we all do; pride, sloth, greed, anger and much worse, egotism, inattention to others, superficiality, dissipation and weakness of will. What a waste! I met good people and bad people and indifferent, callous people, who are probably the worst of all; at times, and this still paradoxes me, some good people did harm to me and some bad people helped.
I gather now that I probably learned much more wisdom from my mistakes or vices and certainly from my encounters with mindlessness, weakness, absurdity, hate, greed, cowardice, wickedness and stupidity than from the wisest sages. As Cato the Censor said in Plutarch's "Lives..", wise men learn more from the fools than fools from the wise." Sadly, fools also learn more from the fools than from the wise, but not the same thing. The most useful of the insights was, I guess, to understand the omnipresence and the substantial importance of "negatives" in human reality. Uncertainty, fear, absence, ignorance, transience, loss, imperfection, error, imprecision, appeared to me as ever present, active factors one must include in good judgement in all matters; neglecting them makes reason stupid.
The hard thing was to cope and learn from so much falsity and evil but not to let it corrupt and embitter me. It was hard to dissimulate and to lie daily but keep cherishing sincerity and trust. In time you become what you do. As I learned to hit, the danger was to start liking it for the sake of power. It was also hard to stop engaging in futile shows and conflicts, to refrain from dying for other people’s misfortunes, but still to stand up for things that count for me whenever I can and to have compassion for people so imperfect.
I found that the hardest thing is to make the good choices for the long-term while you do the best immediate ones; to chose within a conflict of values - between good against good or the least bad from two evils, between values incommensurable (as Isaiah Berlin explains them), to balance the many conflicting good things you desire now, with a most important thing you believe to be desirable for your life, in the distant perspective. That is a mark of the wise.
When based on what I learned, I did better, I also fared better. I learned that being good feels good and makes you good. You can be good because you chose to be good. Each point of wisdom understood, helped me help other people. With each wise finding applied, I helped myself greatly. Unfortunately, many of my own weaknesses of temper and character never improved. It is hard to change your temper, it is a kind of destiny. Moreover, knowing some wisdom is insufficient to become wise.
After ten years of sparkling showmanship and opportunism among wolves and sheep, for the sake of my freedom and dignity, I tore myself out of television “celebrity,” changed forever country, language, culture and occupation. Contrary to Maxime Leforestier's exhortation, my country was not one to leave and regain freely ": Etre né quelque part/c'est partir quand on veut,/Revenir quand on part" (To have a place of birth, /Means that you have a right/To leave when you would and to come back too). I gave up "forever", as I thought, everything I possessed, except my family, my freedom and my mind.
Starting from scratch as an immigrant stranger was for me an urgent occasion for practical wisdom; wise choice too, as it seems. One penalty, which I understand now as a life sentence, was - after being a gifted wordsmith in my mother tongue - to live all the rest of my life in foreign languages, exclusively.
Since people are not really equal, since labels as "refugee" or "migrant" are mere stupid, ugly, evil urge to turn living people into objects and figures, I did suffer much less than I expected. Armed with an inherited intellectual baggage, I did not suffer segregation, xenophobia or hopeless poverty as many immigrants do. There was place for me too in the boat of Switzerland. I respected the country generous to accept me at the time of need and the country respected me. We, Swiss, must keep aware how lucky we are to live in such an exceptional place and protect this island of democracy and of well being.
I worked some five comfortable and boring years for a Swiss university, compared and found that the “science” of psychology kept utterly astray from seeking helpful human wisdom, obsessed, as it was to become academic, logical, behavioural, experimental and objective, free from human bias, ideally mathematical and programmable. For my generation psychology was dead. It is only now, in the new millennium, too late for me, that I start finding exciting books and research proving that the old generation grew weary of being scientifically correct and that a new generation rises unafraid of mechanistic dogma.
Disappointed, I “moved into business” and used my theoretical and practical experience to design advanced courses of applied psychological awareness and understanding, for consultants and managers in multinational organisations. Privileged events, individually crafted, competing with the abundant, cheap, introductory simplifications offered on the market. In the 1980’s those professional and business people were still considered valuable and still needed to become better at understanding people and dealing with persons. People and groups still counted in the business models, not only costs and profit. In the beginning, I did not realize that I was practising the luxury to teach wisdom, but this is what it was attempting . My students were presented with "comprehend-what" "live it" "make it yours" and with "know-how" distilled from social sciences and humanities, made understandable in rational but “simple”, metaphoric or experiential form. The learners appeared pleasantly charmed and often made superlative appreciations. Some pretended – making me quite suspicious – that this or that instant when they said. “Aha!” was unique for them, that they “never learned like this in their life”. Was I becoming some sort of guru or a ham actor cast-off from Television? I suspected this was empty flattery or maybe I did something cheaply manipulative. After a while, it dawned on me that it was in fact the blend of common sense and paradox, of common-place simplicity and complication, of metaphors, emancipatory challenging and dramatised experiencing of critical situations – that produced such sense of personal transformation. (Unfortunately, some sects and charismatic tyrants also use such methods). Yes, it is true: a moment of discovery, a paradox that reveals you your limits, an unforgettable word or tale that makes one understand, a sudden feeling, can awaken a person and change a life story. They learned what they were ready to learn; I learned about learning and unlearning.
In busy years of teaching educated audiences in various countries across the globe, from North America to South Africa to Israel, France, Switzerland, Italy, Hong Kong, Australia, Norway or Japan, I concluded that all people are very much the same in their differences; the deeper you go, more similar they are. Montaigne was so right in studying himself in order to understand other people! I found that a limited number important situations of life and work are typical and timeless - “critical situations” forever repeated in human lives, generation after generation, so that we can describe their pattern and improve them wisely. All people, in all cultures, long for such a treasure of understandable interpretation of their world and for recipes that apply to their life; many can improve, based on other people's experience, provided they can make sense of it. I found that the most important teaching I can offer is to cause people to learn how to learn from what they live, how to give meaning to what they learned; they will do the rest. Knowing how to learn is wisdom; being able to learn and to unlearn is a part of being wise.
To build up my treasures of ideas that work in practice, while revisiting my childhood and youth experience, I went to read, discover, and plunder the eastern wisdom of Taoist philosophers and writers, the koans and haikus of Zen masters, the teaching stories of the Sufi. I listened with regard to the wisdom gathered by the great religions. I went mainly East and came back West; eastern cultures - and scriptures in general - favour wisdom because they encourage analogy and metaphor and cope with imprecision. I sieved the deep thoughts of the Qohelet, the myths, sayings, stories and fables of the world, the turns of Socratic tactics, the 36 Stratagems, the Art of War, the paradoxes of the philosophers and other sources of the like. I skimmed the psychology tomes and translated whatever looked useful from academic jargon into understandable images, examples, stories, simulations and role-plays.
Surprisingly for me – an agnostic – I found that deep human wisdom about what could be a worthy satisfying life and about the ways of the world is respectfully treasured in the scriptures of the religions but appears to be ignored or discarded in the writings of secular materialistic tradition in which I was educated. I found little wisdom in modern scientific literature. Why did Enlightenment and science throw out the baby with the tub water of bigoted obscurantism? Why is it so difficult to draw wisdom into science and from science? Why does science - with its incontestable value of truth and reliability - deny spiritual life, breed coldness, mechanical thought and cynicism?
By teaching so many managers and business people how to counsel, I became inevitably a consultant myself, called to intervene with “real things” in “real situations”. This exciting work grew for a number of years and it became my final profession. Soon, my speciality appeared to be the change of culture intervening in critical organisational change.
Because of the unconventional courses they liked, people expected me to be a wizard, which I did my best to be: I was presented “impossible situations”, blocked relationships, miscommunication, moments of personal or organisational pathology and panic, and interpersonal warfare among individuals, groups and in mergers of organisations. A fascinating world! Because people trusted me - and when they were ripe to listen - I succeeded quite a number of times to help, except when I was requested to proceed by plan and by the book, in order and discipline, as it was done before.
Finally the money-people got me: My last company proceeded to turn me into a salesman and a yes person. I felt that again an establishment wanted me to become a scoundrel: "Look what they've done to my song, Ma!" That was the end of my employment and hefty wages with the capitalists.
Before being exposed by the order-and-discipline-value-chain and and-profit-margin crowd, my successes were mainly connected with unfettered simplicity combined with unexpected complication (the detail of what I mean remains my strategic secret). Mostly, I would see complicated situations in simplest human terms, I would evaluate how impossible something is by considering it in a higher, wider or deeper context. Socrates would help me constantly to help people know what they did not know and Eastern thought mixed with paradoxes enabled me to help them see what they did not see. My boldness helped them to do what they "could not do". You can read elsewhere my accounts of N±1 approach and the practical value of emptiness, silence and action by non-action.
I observed that often, as the sages teach us, the sorrows called “problems” grew from bad definition of a situation and from the inability to see beyond one’s own horizon.
My teaching travel of the world made me learn many things:
If you really want to learn something, teach it. If you want to know people, try to change them. If you want to change them, start from where they are. If you want to understand where they are know thyself .
You can educate and change people (a bit) in silence, by listening, asking them to tell you what they know, inciting them to teach each other. I learned that you could teach life’s savoir-faire and choices by telling stories, by metaphor, asking questions (and listening to the answers), by pointing your finger, by showing what and how. The strongest is to make people experience, feel, see, taste and imagine. Like Pygmalion, you can even better people by simply believing in them; but keep a prudent distance too.
You can teach by confusing and luring folks into meaningful errors, by refraining from doing whatever, by leaving space and time, by being absent at the right moment and by helping them to forget, as much as by telling them your truth in full honesty or crossing wits with them.
I found out that deep wise thoughts must dwell in simple words but not be excessively clear. They should remain ambiguous enough for people to understand them, which is only possible by adding some meaning from themselves so that they grow to own them.
I learned that some things you build, hammer, carve and push, but other things you pull and some you seed, water and wait to grow. I learned that to make something grow you water it but to kill it you flood it. Moreover, some things you do not touch but leave alone. I still try to do this, to this day; I only gave up expecting recognition and thanks for such mastery.
Gradually, as I reflected and wrote the present study, it also dawned on me that all the topics I ever taught or wrote about in my life were an instinctive quest for a wise attitude, wise choices, a wise style of doing things. All this develops instrumental wisdom, smartness, the means and know-how to do properly what we want to do and to keep away from what we do not want.
Communication with impact, skilful criticism, tooling the freedom of thought, the art of giving advice, the Tao of pull instead of push, telling meaningful stories and fables, competent listening, asking productive questions, using void, paradox and surprise, being strategic - are all tools of wisdom for good judgement and wise conduct. I spent my life serving in the light cavalry of wisdom. No I see the need for heavier cavalry too.
As a father, I tried to apply what I knew to educate my little prince. This experience taught me that we educate our children not by what we say but by what we are. My son is as wise as I was at his age.
As for myself, I am still very far from being able to apply without wavering the simple wisdom I learned and I taught, not to speak about actually being wise. I know some of it, understand it, believe it, invent some of it, explain it usefully, use some of it, but I do not manage to live my life by it. All I achieved is to be a wise fool. I still get irritated like the untrained fighting rooster in a Chinese story. I still fall to the weakness of inattention, forgetfulness, pride, selfishness, sloth, miserliness or negligence. I still waste these late days that will never come back instead of delighting in each moment of this late autumn. I still do not a give and live centred meaning or an ultimate goal to my life. I still struggle with the priority and the conflict of values. I still wonder what is really desirable. I still dread old age, illness and death. I still need to influence what will happen after I am gone. In this disorder, it is lucky that unlike some philosophers I love wisdom and delight in it as if it were the highest good!
There is an exasperating gap between what I understood, the way I think to advise other people, and what I do for myself. In addition, there is so much I am certain that I do not even guess about! Nevertheless, as the story goes, I do deserve recognition for what I know: for, if I were to be rewarded for what I do not know, all the treasuries of the world would be insufficient.
This is my schooling and research of wisdom; of course, I also consulted a few scholarly books.
Now when I look at what I wrote I see the omission; it is all intellectual; does wisdom come mainly from the experience and knowledge I described? No! It comes from what you do with all that experience and learning, from the way you relate to it and the manner you use it. As John Dewey said, we do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting to experience . I would say that you learn only what you learn from your learning and from what you do about your deeds.
I figure that our awareness and the network, the configuration of our understandings, grow, assimilate and change inside us like a baby in its mother, not like a heap or a brick-house of knowledge. It was well said that the lion is made from digested sheep , not from corralled herds of sheeplets.
A large part from what I understood I learned from myself. Let me say that I learned much from working out things in my mind and from observing my process of learning; from the way the learning happened, from its taste, the triumphs and the disasters, from what worked and what not; I also drew life conclusions and preferences from what I could not learn – that which I was - and am - unable to understand, which puzzled me or beat my mind, taught me that there are limits and what they are and how to live with them.
We learn from what we feel, from intuition and from the way we learn. What we learn, must depend on some born abilities like a style of perception and intelligence and features like our character and temper. I believe now that some well-balanced people are born with a higher chance to be wise; I also believe that some people less talented or intelligent can grow wiser than the gifted ones who lack the proper temper to control themselves, the energy and courage to do the right thing, or are flawed in character so that their wisdom grows corrupt.
I learned my wisdom in the way I did – among other possible ways - because I was born with an ease to see connections and forms, with an impatience to jump and see the global behind the local; my way of wisdom is intuitive because I am born a fast-thinker of representations not a slow, careful thinker of words.
My choices of wisdom were determined by my preferences, I am aware that very different choices of wisdom exist; as a child I felt instinctive empathy and thus compassion for everything living which was not a threat; I would pay ransom to rescue lizards from my mates to save them from torture, I would sympathize with a dog, a cat a bird and try to make peace between them. Killing is horror for me. I sympathize with the weaker against the oppressor. When I can, I chose compassion, peace and diversity, tolerance and agreement to disagree. No doubt this shapes my views of what wisdom is. I believe that the meaning of life is to keep alive and spread and the measure of all things is - for man - himself. Life is sacred and so is civilisation, our spiritual life. I chose that the highest value for humanity is the pursuit of better, happier life, on Earth and not the service of servant, instrumental values like truth, justice, equality or faith which are valuable means but not ends. Above all, I am aware that all these things are axioms, things which I take for self-evident.
Does my meagre familiarity with relatively quiet life give me the right to project my own ideal and to write about wisdom?
I think it does. I feel entitled to make explicit my personal experience with one kind of wisdom. I know, there are several sorts of it, because there is more than one ideal of life worth living. There are also incongruously different times people are given to live. Inevitably, my lines will express what I conceive, the way I reason, the values I cherish. My introspective bias may be a limitation but it is also strength. Impersonal, theoretical representations of wisdom are utopia similar with science without conscience. They lack soul. Wisdom, as I conceive it - different from knowledge about wisdom - can only be personal, relative to context and engaged in vivo. I believe that even the discourse about it, its understanding and its description need to be personal.
I am not a wise one but I did meet and practice wisdom - and its opposite, foolishness and stupidity– enough to have relevant familiarity with them. This was sufficient to feel the difference, to develop a taste for sapience and to steal some good learning. It gave me an intuition of what it is. I think I grasped some words of wisdom and turns of mind worth learning. I witnessed some wise conduct worth emulating. I read about some worthy goals of life. I feel qualified to pass on my understanding even if my stronger claims should be read with a question mark after each phrase. Avra kehdabra, I will create as I speak.
So much for the research method: “…like as much of this play as please you!”
Last but not least: Unfortunately for style, I write and re-write these pages while I think and clarify my mind. I cannot stop learning and changing mind as I advance. This means that my text cannot use my favourite recipe of wise power, the power to make things simple, but on the contrary, shows how complicated things are. As for the examples of wisdom I will offer – limited by my own ability to evaluate my evaluation – I wish at least that you will say, with a condescending feeling of déjà vu: “Yes, I knew this all the time!” or “Interesting! I didn’t see it this way.” Is it not a talent of wisdom to make new things familiar and familiar things new?
The "State of the Art" - an Impression
 “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience” (Dewey, J., How We Think, heath, Boston, 1933, p. 78)
 "Rien de plus original, rien de plus soi que de se nourrir des autres. Mais il faut les digérer. Le lion est fait de mouton assimilé." Paul Valéry, Choses tues, Tel Quel Pléiade page 478