(I) Wise Knowledge; a way to understand knowledge
The first pillar of wisdom is wise knowledge
I see wise knowledge as a distinctive part of human knowledge, a deliberate selection and interpretation of it, which has the dedicated purpose to help us live a fulfilled life, the best we can achieve in the times and conditions where we live. Such understanding is to change ourselves before changing other people, History, Society, the World or the Universe.
The highest values wise knowledge serves are those of "happiness" and well-being for living persons: life, peace, cooperation, freedom, generosity, tolerance, beauty, mutual respect, a life well lived... and the like. No abstract and absolute social, scientific or religious value comes before or at the expense of a good life for living people.
Such interpretation looks at our surrounding world, at the knowledge about the world and also above all at the knowers - us, from the human person's point of view.
I also believe that "wise knowledge" can best be expressed in examples, words and ideas that make sense for those concerned, familiar to their life-world, showing ways of living it better. Wise words are wise indeed when they come simple enough to be understood by everyday people.
This view of the world certainly includes, at the core, knowing ourselves - the knower and doer - and understanding other coexisting people, that is, "thinking people".
Opposite to this, in our modern world, while wisdom is definitely more than just knowledge, it is most often defined as knowledge only.
Worse, it is not easy to agree which knowledge constitutes wisdom.
Is wisdom Truth and nothing else?
How complete, how absolute, how secure must wisdom be? What grants it? To avoid the dangers of going astray from Reason and Reality, mainstream scholars today work to limit wisdom to justified beliefs - the ones coming from practical experience, expressed in explicit notions, elaborated by correct operations of logical thinking, verified and verifiable by everybody through experiment and measure, at least accessible to observation; thus, from this rational point of view, wisdom is truth and (important) truth is wisdom. You may sense that the second part, "important truth is wisdom" is a questionable generalization.
From the Objective Truth-angle, the wisdom of the fools, poets, doubters and visionaries – and certainly the wisdom of believers in supra-natural planes of faith - is unwelcome. What you cannot see and touch and measure and prove, cannot exist or at least does not count. The believer in justified belief is justified to look the other way. The contribution of Religion, Art, poetry and intuition, the vague remembrances of History, even moral thought, do not qualify. With this, to take an impertinent example, the negative Socratic wisdom which consists in knowing how ignorant we are is thoroughly ignored.
People who start on this path, are often at loss to find anything special or different about a quality of knowledge called wisdom; some will admit that it is knowledge of deeper or higher – more abstract or general - truth; others, more practical, claim modestly that wisdom is some kind of know-how, technique, expert knowledge about important domains of human life. They may be right all of them, what do I know? One thing I do know is that such definitions did not help me personally advance my quest to find ways for people to grow wiser.
What common people think or are convinced they know, the common knowledge they share, is still shunned by serious scientists as "folklore", as biased, unchecked, uncritical, superficial popular ideas in need to be corrected, eliminated and replaced with exact, methodical knowledge. With these scholars one thing is crystal-clear - for good reason of Method; it is inconceivable that something could be stumbled-upon, obtained by uneducated intuition and "gut" or even worse - imaginary, emotional, wishfully made-up, willed, established by convention, purposefully invented and artificial, impossible to know for certain and still wise. The observation that some unproven beliefs were proven effective to better a person's or many persons' life does not count.
Let me ask: why not?
If dreams, hopes, wishful beliefs, visions of perfection, values, enthusiastic elevating faith and other noble man-made conventions make people live a better and civilized life why not recognise those things to be wise? (Of course, Pontius Pilate will wash his hands and not stay for an answer.)
Certainly, scientifically correct, impersonal truth is reliable and universal and that appears to be vital for humanity at work. But wisdom is also - and mainly - personal, local, addressed to persons who make it theirs. I claim that wise knowledge is observed to be and must be, understandable to people; since people do not exist in general as a collective abstract giant, it must care for individual people and thus it takes sides; objectivity and its indifference are incontestable values but they are not wisdom.
In the best case important truths - established and applied but not understood for their significance of human beings are not yet wisdom; in many cases they will never be because they ignore the human interest.
I propose - and I find that I am not alone - that the truth criterion unaided is not the solution to recognize wisdom; there is little wisdom in a pyramid of true sensations, signals, information, data, strict descriptions and explanation of things in themselves, elaborate knowledge, even in the total of the huge progress of knowledge available to our society.
A key to recognise and to produce wisdom
My quest to make wisdom understandable and accessible to myself and to other people leads me to claim that wise knowledge is created or found in-and-by a persons-centred point of view from which sages look at the world and interpret all knowledge, be it about the world at large or about people; the generator of wisdom is the constant angle of that which is meaningful and valuable for the human being, the person able to be "I" who takes initiative, in a quest of fully human, better, happier life.
Besides the desirability of truth, the wise point of view includes as essential criteria other man-made values of equal or even higher priority; preserving life, happiness, fairness, freedom, compassion, dignity, respect, responsibility towards the human being and human well being. A whole host of non-scientific values, irrelevant to the pure rule of rationalism.
An interpretation meaningful from the point of view of human understanding and relevance is the key to wisdom, the tool to judge quickly if some interpretation is from the domain of wisdom or not.
I will constantly ask:
"Does this mean something for actual people?”
“What does this mean for people?"
"Is this understandable and actionable?"
"Is this considering people? Does this take persons and their situation into account? Does this serve the living and their children?"
If not, without denying other respectable values, the knowledge at hand is not wisdom. With all my respect!
From the total of information, data, fact, explanations, theories which constitute knowledge, the wise one is indeed a "biased", soft-hearted part.
I see wise knowledge as the one obtained when we consider things from the knowingly anthropocentric point of view. This means making the effort to know ourselves and to interpret our experience of the world we live in and also the mass of other knowledge we receive from other people, from THAT particular perspective; of persons seeking to live their life better, constantly asking:
How does this relate to me, to who I am, to what is important to me?
How does this count to people around me, to where we are?
What does this mean for me, for us, for the other? How to make it understandable for me and receivable from other points of view, so that we all can judge? How, if needed, to make it as simple as possible (but not simpler than that)?
What will this thing do to me, to us, now and later, what should we hope or beware and do about this?
Wise knowledge comes from the shared but self-interested choice that all the human means and activities and values serve one ultimate end – human life and well-being. The survival of living nature and the persistence of the Universe is our own interest. My reserve is that the “well-being” and interest so announced must be of the actual people concerned, living persons and actual generations, not of abstract Nature, Society in general or the future history, grand principles or the like; that distant well-being proved to be evil Utopia and a lie too many times.
Our knowledge, resources, science, technology, work, power, achievement, truth, faith, justice, beauty, all these ideals, institutions, means and methods, serve a final mission – persons living well, each fulfilling in their limited turn of life a civilized human condition of the level we achieved in our own times. We are not "forces" means and pawns and fodder to serve ideals and fields of human endeavour, historic "processes of progress" or divine purposes; knowledge, technology, ideas, society, were made by the like of us to serve us, to make us better. In the company of humans, man is the measure of all things we understand and do. Geniuses who forget this are fools. They lost the common touch.
The chronicle of understanding the world and us with such an attitude and the offering of advice with such an aim, form the wise knowledge - a scattered treasury of people centred understanding - a perennial wisdom of the ages.
This is what I understand by wise knowledge, a first pillar of wisdom. This is how I try to differentiate wise knowledge - concerned with people - from unattached, "universal, abstract, unowned, disinterested and critically purified" knowledge - concerned with some theoretical aim.
Wisdom" indifferent towards living persons may be abstraction immensely valuable on the altar of Truth, Spiritual elevation and technical progress but it will tend to neglect with a blind eye the human face of Planet Earth.
A scattered but enduring treasury
It is generally accepted that judicious knowledge can be found in wise words: there is wisdom in books and in oral memories of the cultures, in ideas conceived by the best minds of history.
The historic records of "wise" comprehension formulated; thoughts about wisdom or containing wisdom, created a dispersed multitude of experience understood, to be passed on, hopefully a growing one. Those wise words of generations past interpret us, human nature, how the human-related world actually is, within our Terrestrial bubble, and how our world works.
Wise knowledge is about what appears to be important, conducive to "happiness" and to lives worth living, fulfilled, satisfactory for us people, enviable and admirable for those around us or posterior to us. Wise knowledge is also about whatever is instrumental in achieving these final aims of wisdom and avoiding the contrary.
Such accumulated learning, hints to desirable life-paths and ideals, warns of the ever reoccurring traps, waste and errors already known, weaknesses, dangers and false paths individuals and Humanity had trodden in the past, which persist - seemingly forever - because they appear to stem from the limitations of human nature. Human nature, be it our animal heritage or the paradoxical condition of its coexistence with social life and of thinking - our cultural nature, seems to me to change so slow that we can count on it as if forever the same. The worst of anti-wisdom - hubris, hate, greed, fanaticism, violence - seem to eternally return with no historic improvement, in fact strengthened and amplified. Perhaps, better guided by wise knowledge of the past, persons, families, communities and nations may learn to avoid doing the same errors and mad crimes in spite of the same drives always present.
A fallacy of one-way progress is wasting wisdom
Because for the past ten thousand years – about our whole “History” - human nature and the human condition stemming from it changed so little in spite of huge advance in means and in knowledge, much of old wisdom learned preserves its life value and is worth rediscovering perpetually.
Unfortunately, Enlightenment, so admirable in its struggle to free reason and human dignity from past shackles of authoritarian obscurity - unintendedly but destructively - devalued tradition and common sense, the witnesses of the past, as if they were made obsolete by irreversible progress and better method. Those great but imprudent spirits of awakening, decided that the past remains somewhere lower, behind, and cannot come back; but in fact it can, in new cloth. They made people believe naively that the future is entirely different when it is not. It may be never the same water flowing but it is still water.
As a result, perhaps, instead of accumulating in some orderly way, old wisdom keeps being scattered, shrugged off, buried and rediscovered as if it were new by each generation, at its own expense. Unfortunately, past wisdom sleeps, only half-alive; it can be forgotten and lost, mocked or misunderstood, so that we keep repeating foolishly the same old journey. The genius of a Buddha would call this Samsara. Where is the Cumulative World Wisdom Project to complete the Human Genome with some chromosomes of accumulated progress in wisdom? Insufficient funds? No profit? Too many owners of ultimate truth and end-of-history delusion?
To pass on wisdom, you impart a way of looking at the world
Most of the wise words preserved, sleep in books and in popular memories of tradition while the simple old key to producing and of deciphering wisdom - the wise way of looking at the world - appears to be handed over mainly person to person. Wise ways of thinking are transmitted by means of apprenticeship and example. This is in sharp contradiction with the industrial canning and mass diffusion of standardised knowledge and mass education.
Some wise knowledge comes back to life now and then, in people who read, listen, understand and apply the experiences and the comprehension of times past to their particular life. I mention "coming to life" because - while explanations can be written - understanding only becomes true as a state of mind, a living, personal insight.
Sages of the day, discern, age after age, anew, the pinnacle value of the human-centred point of view and finality. Armed with this simple key-to-wisdom they comprehend, appreciate and learn assiduously from the sources of the past and present, from the experiences of other people and from their own; they assimilate rich wise knowledge and we call their erudition, their way of interpreting the world, wise.
Is knowing wisdom sufficient to live a good life?
Wise knowledge accumulated and its' civilised view of the World cannot be all we need to consider about wisdom. We cannot stop here, satisfied with the one pillar of experienced, humane erudition.
Wisdom, conceived as a theory, a truth or a knowledge as if final, for its own sake, does - as they say about money - not bring happiness; on the contrary. It may even prevent happiness.
This was an elementary but important thing for me to understand, in my turn, after so many people who understood it before me: I can discover great humanistic culture, learn, comprehend and communicate deep human truth and still behave and live like a fool. The knowledge of wisdom can coexist and does coexist with foolishness and stupidity. Even worse, one can think right, precisely, with method, with excellent knowledge of reality and so better lead other people into error and miserable life.
One thing is to possess much wisdom, another to make good use of it when you think practice. High culture and deep humanity in understanding, can dream away, distracted throughout one’s life, sterile and idle like dusty, never opened coffers.
Or, be used poorly, with dried out, utopian intelligence, flying too high, abstracted, dogmatic, distant and uninterested to fit the life-situations of mere people whose existence could be improved.
Curiously, some knowers of wisdom fail even to examine their own life. Admirable, creative, charming erudites, can be unbelievably out of touch – that is stupid, in their practical judgement and in their simplest actions; like Plato’s philosophic geometer Thales (in Thaetetus) tumbling one night into a well while examining the stars of the sky so familiar to him*.
Wisdom distilled in bright maxims of essential understanding is one thing: live thinking with good sense is quite another world - another pillar of successful life.
Good Judgment is the Second Pillar of Wisdom