WISE CONDUCT is the third pillar of wisdom
Nov. 2015 – 1 Jan 2016
"All the world's a stage
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances
And one man in his time plays many parts...” *
Wise conduct**, is the practice of wisdom. Spirit hits the road.
The aim of wise conduct, as I see it, is promethean; to appoint us authors and deliberate actors of the epic in progress which is our one-time life-story; to chose and perform our roles as worthwhile, as fulfilled and as happy as they can be under the realities and times where we chance to be born and live***.
This option of living wisely is very different from the real politick wiseness of prudent submission to superior power, be it “fear of God” or compliance with “might that makes right” or “understanding of objective necessity”. It is grounded by the belief that we are not powerless and insignificant in the multitude; in our life-world we do count.
Living wisely is not necessarily resigned withdrawal from the crazy humanity either. That is dignified but egoistic. Wisdom alive can do things in this world and take part in History.
To go further, the wise actions of a person who has his own head dare also beyond well-advised conformity with group morality and received convention; judgement takes freedom, if good sense requires it, from the normative wisdom of rigidly observing absolute moral principles as if they were superior to the adaptive, feeling, imperfection of life. In fact, principles applied in the absolute – even the noble ones – are evil.
With humble boldness, the kind of wise conduct I value, trusts that happiest of us are those who can say when dying "Yes, I lived!", "I lived my time, not just spent it", “I played my part, to my best!”
What it is
In essence, I understand wise conduct as self-government and agency, spanning from daily life to biography. Wise conduct is strategic as a whole and tactical at every moment; knowing what we do and doing what we know. I see it both as adapting with resilience and also changing or creating one’s environment.
Each time I speak and behave with intention, but also reasonably, with foresight and prudence, I practice wisdom; if I were wise I would act mindfully every day, but particularly in the critical moments and in time. I would do what I had to do, what I feel, spontaneously, enjoying the "now", but also what I wanted, with both prompt and long-term horizons, so that my life would flow meaningful and consistent with my values and worth my dreams.
To act wise, you rise above yourself – to mind, spirit, civilisation, values, significance, to a broad view - and come back reinforced. Higher than the many moves we may do, wise conduct takes charge of who we are in deed, our ethic, our character in the important occasions.
“Wise conduct” also thrives on interpretation, on finding or creating meaning and giving shape to one’s life and environment. Wise persons create and spread around them propitious meaning.
What you can record and measure “objectively” is little; to interpret conduct as wise you must empathize, ask, justify and comprehend within a culture.
Wise conduct starts with understanding that whatever we do has not only a cause and a goal to achieve but also, unavoidably, intention and a meaning and style which we should respect. Conduct expresses and creates the identity of the one who acts. Even the simplest actions, like eating or say, walking, gain a meaning in the street, when other people are present; so much more, the acts of relationship, of work, of conflict and cooperation... all the purposeful human actions gain value when they have meaning. Meaning respected or missed, can raise us or debase us. Many, most actions have a sense beyond usefulness even when we do them alone; a sense that counts for who we are. Alas, while busy, thriving to accomplish task, it is easy to miss taking notice that how we do things, how we respect what we do, grows, unperceived, to become as important as what we do, sometimes even more important.
Doing things well to better ourselves is based on understanding that there is always a double face of whatever we do. Beyond task skilfully done there is always a human side of doing things - while alone, together or in response to other people - evaluated in people terms and civilisation terms, with meaning interpreted through feelings, interests, custom and otherwise shared sense.
Wise acts are defined and led by finalities, norms and values, aware of the regular “social” patterns, sought-out beyond simple task-centred response to here and now.
If you care to observe, the human activities that count, even the simplest – like greeting, eating, working together - taking place in all walks of life, daily, political or religious, tend to increase their meaning by becoming conventional, ritualized in various degrees, with significance given, from simple formality to to habit and often to elaborate ritual. Wise conduct thrives on understanding and learning to practice all this; occasionally by going beyond it.
What it is not
Since it has significance in context and unfolds in time, wise conduct cannot be shrunk down to skilled behaviour or competent procedure.
Study reduced to "behaviour" is a silly approach to this subject. Watching movements and transcribing words, we can only observe an iceberg tip of one’s wise conduct, because the real thing cannot be reduced to perceptible response, adjustments and isolated acts.
The certain manner to understand nothing from wise conduct is to reduce it to some monkey “behaviour" or “skill”, “expertise” or “competence” seen from outside, as in a cage, maze, a sociology statistic, or other mechanistic utopia, reduced to impersonal reproduction, and substantial "evidence", with causality dimensions which ignore identity, culture, mind, sentiment and intention.
The substance of wise conduct is – at the core - intent-full action in the mind, expressed as action in the world; choices made and rejected, new things started, keeping direction on track, waiting, holding back judiciously, avoiding, and not doing things contrary to what we know to be wisdom. The art of wise conduct is “immaterially” armed with a great treasury of mental tools, turns of mind, as I like to call them, and know-how – known ways of doing things properly – some born, some learned and developed. I do not expand this subject for the time being, to avoid being absorbed in it for a long while, preventing me to advance this study.
We share necessary functioning and adaptive behaviour with most of the other animals learning to respond properly or trained to do the required thing less they die. We can certainly learn some wisdom going back occasionally to their naturalness and simplicity. We are all of flesh and bone that will turn to dust. However, wise conduct is, above this, that of conscious persons, of non-interchangeable people with ancestors, names, roles, life-histories, world-views, values and egos not entirely rational; who they are and what they believe and desire counts. We are rational or irrational agents, not just the “subjects” of research to which the detestable reductionism of last century’s psychology tried to cut us down.
Wise conduct is not limited to the observable moves of the body. We judge that people act wisely not only by what they do or don't, but often by what they set in motion, cause indirectly or allow other people to do.
In time, you observe that wise conduct has echo; people around the wise tend to become somewhat better and fare better relative to the given circumstances. It feels good to have wise people round. People who act wisely appear to predictably better things.
Those who make other people feel inadequate and bad are arguably not wise enough. This is a good criterion to detect what conduct is wise.
How many grains make a heap?
Every one of us can act wisely on occasion and the more often we do, the more we amass of a wise life achieved; a harvest nothing could take back from us.
The wise do not act wisely without exception, rather mainly so. It is often humble daily wiseness which adds up to admirable life but one’s whole life grows fulfilled from the modest adding up, not from grand resolutions. Accordingly, let me coin a propitious common-place definition which allows us to do something about becoming wiser:
Wise conduct is a coherent sum of things we all do when we act wisely.
The rational verification of wise conduct is given when you know what you do and why; you are able to justify to yourself why you do it.
Certainly, our spontaneous moves and intuitive initiatives have value without a need of theory, only a readiness and an attitude; certainly, in time we become what we do and do even complicated things effortlessly; however, major, long–term plans can hardly be wise without being well thought. Such projects start and take place with the end, with a way of being constantly kept in mind. They are not only triggered by a cause, a spur and a beginning. Additionally, to live as you want is to be capable to actually do what you know that you should, but to reconcile the aiming to evolving result and effectiveness with being reasonable all the way. Wise in practice is a quality of conduct which is competent, fit to intention, task and object but also fit to evolving situation and people concerned. Moreover, the ends do not justify the means; inescapably, in time, you become what you do.
Along the individual acts of competent behaviour, the manifestation of inner wisdom appears as constant and reliable practice of savoir-faire and manner, the savoir-être of the civilised person.
Instead of behaviour, evaluate curriculum vitae
Wise conduct is confirmed when it turns into curriculum vitae; reliable pattern, character and a coherent track of heedful, prudent, forward looking, competent, timely deeds; a style of doing and of not doing things, with attitude.
The wise itinerary includes the succession of ages, the whole host of roles and activities of the civilised human: everyday chores, work and leisure, learning, planning, choosing, making decisions and applying them, waiting, timing, beginning and stopping, allowing things to happen, initiating new things, interacting, responding adequately and relating with sensitivity to people and situations that keep changing... With an outstanding mark; this complexity which we all share is steered – if wise - with the long term view of doing our best, learning from experience, improving things and steadily homing towards what we chose as valuable goals and way of life.
Your conduct becomes wise when you have strategy in your mind about what you prefer to achieve in your life as a whole. But you also know how you intend to live everyday as you follow that permanent or distant goal. For life, as we all should know, is what happens and what we keep busy doing while we harbour the big plans.
Wise conduct does not oppose distant goals to living well the present moment, that would be foolish; on the contrary, the sages of tradition teach us “Carpe Diem” and the Ecclesiastes warns sternly: "... a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun..". To seize the day and enjoy it fully when not at the expense of your higher life, to keep both in balance, is wise.
Dramatis persona; scenarios we live
Let our world be a stage but we witness our part, our life-story from inside, as it unfolds with authenticity. It feels as if it happens by itself; the real thing. It feels unique, surprising, future unknown, not written in advance, except for those who submit to their faith in assumed divine fatality. Kierkegaard found strikingly that we live life forwards and understand it backwards . Is that so?
Let me take advantage of this metaphoric view of the human world being a stage and us being actors:
Consider for a moment how powerful it could be to understand our life forwards, as a scenario with foreseeable turns; consider the very reasonable thought that lives have their pattern, that similar lives happened before and reoccurred many times in history.
The person - the mask of character we wear half knowingly, was worn before, in known roles and story lines, on this big stage which is the world. If so, we could not only learn from the sleeping wisdom and comedy of times past but also reflect to those patterns compared to the unfolding of our present story, to the probable narrative ahead and to the possibility to change it or at least to live it better.
For this, we must look at our life story from outside, from above, from possible end to beginning, like an author of drama. Suddenly we will see conflicts or dreams or encounters or roots that put our own story in motion; the choices of truth and the lies that led us until we faced their outcome; the successes, critical turns, disenchantments, losses, betrayals that altered our course; the way we formed our pattern and style of living life.
Imagine for a moment your own life-story as an intriguing parchment you could unroll and read ahead, in the form of an account one can tell or write; reflecting in this way may be not so difficult. Would you consider re-writing some parts laying ahead?
You could then compare with similar stories to learn from them. There are great exemplary biographies to read, legendary or real, where we could recognise our own tendency and course. Gilgamesh is the first who comes to my mind for someone asking why we live and why we must die. It may be a life of the Buddha, Confucius or Jesus if Spirit is your choice. My unexamined dream was to be myself and to be free. I would love to have known earlier some detail about the half-legendary Socrates or about Montaigne; they could have spared me many foolish mistakes I did while wasting my biography as a professional gadfly, free for the sake of freedom. Some may wish to emulate great warriors; they could read the accounts of Alexander the Great, Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, even Tamerlane if their stomach can bear the bloody truth of flourishing as a warrior. You may prefer makers of concord as Asoka or Gandhi instead. You may admire Copernicus or Marie Curie or Darwin. Visit the life of the captains of industry if that is your dream. Such narratives represent somewhat typical life-stories, itineraries of self-fulfilment based on radically different models of wisdom and different wise conduct...
People who never lived offer great narratives of wise life. Those myths and literary fictions were elaborated to present essential and ideal human types. Your life can imitate art, not only the reverse is true. Some archetypes, heroes, exemplary personages are eternally reborn across history with admirably shaped destinies; there is truth in the fortunes of an Odysseus or Prometheus or Arjuna or Han Xin. Dream to be a hero? Read Don Quixote. Read at least Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”  and be informed what you will pay and what to expect.
Grand writers offer us stories, Bildungsromane - coming-of-age stories, like Hermann Hesse’s, Goethe’s, Thomas Mann’s. There are there entire life blueprints, synthesised by geniuses to inspire us, just watch the end too, before you chose the model. Such literature may indeed shape one’s life.
It occurs to me that maybe we could also pick some good hints on how to author our own life from the more modest professionals of drama-writing; they study in concrete practical detail how such human itineraries are purposefully built, with a plausible air of consistency. The logic of narratives is good reasoning for complex subjects.
As you can see I do not believe that we are the submissive product of fate or of material forces of history’s necessary development. In part, as individuals, what happens to us is because of us.
Rituals we respect and games we play
Let me advance that when they are wise, people understand and take into consideration that we tend to live life stories oriented and coloured unwittingly by metaphoric Weltaschauung, coloured by Zeitgeist, structured by old narratives, myths, symbols, characters and scenarios; our encounters with other people are more often than we think shaped by custom, ceremonies, rites, common place, masks and “games people play”. Almost everything we do among people is shaped - most often unawares - by such customary forms.
Many such narratives, ritualized interactions and games were studied and understood. The seekers of wisdom will study them and they will educate their children to respect them and to practice them usefully. I am sad to have missed such luxury education. These models – often tacit - are inherited from our parents, nations and civilisations, with a fateful impression that “this is how things are” and “this is how things happen”, “how the world works”; but if we are to be wise, conduct is carried out aware of following such example and path. Wise conduct is to make use of these regularities instead of being determined by them, neglecting them or failing at them.
Being conscious of the pattern – often aimed to avoid surprise and to give rules to respect - makes one more able to avoid stupid disconnect, to take instead command of the story, to perfect it and particularly to change it. Wise conduct is competent in using the many ubiquitous rituals and ritualized ways of acting – some religious but many more cultural or social, political and occupational – which make a person’s life-seasons and social interactions predictable and thus reassuring.
It is arguably wise to be aware and to use consciously the shapes, regularities and expectations observed in collective behaviour instead of just being absorbed and carried by them, or even worse, colliding with them to useless destruction in the name of some absolute principle of freedom or truth. Using skilfully symbols and rituals or coping with them is a relevant part of wise conduct while neglecting this is foolish.
Of course, the history of symbols, life stories and patterns of interaction is not exhausted; at times, people of genius create new interpretation, new paradigm and original scenarios to live. The seeker of wisdom will understand the quality of freedom and beauty, the guidance such dimensions add to the human condition; and but also the sway and the risk taken.
Fools live on their feet but wise people live in the World
Except for those whose choice of wisdom is to only value the moment, discerning people have sufficient imagination to understand that our own situation is influenced directly by a wide environment; to have true choices we must be informed of what happens on the Globe.
Most of what people do is in response to their perception of the environment, of events; however, the amplitude and nature of the environment one relates to makes the difference. Some relate to what they see and feel in the proximity; the wise also relate to what they know and learn from afar.
It is sane to adapt to what is close-by and present, but wisdom grows by taking into account a world much larger than our direct experience – in space, time and human culture.
Wise conduct is based on an art of applying good judgement; in turn, good, informed judgment has multiplied possibilities and references in a wider world. We act wisely when we use the amplified means given to find more numerous appropriate choices and thus gain more freedom, instead of reducing possibilities to a local horizon.
By trust in the witness authority of acquaintances, teaching and communication, we amplify our knowledge manifold. In exchange of gaining this, we take for granted represented realities and interpretations out of proportion with our possible experience and thought. One gains to be aware of the disproportion of things known by more or less credible mediation compared with our direct validating experience. This is one of the meanings of knowing how little we know. Discernment in trust, gives to our wisdom the ability not only to respond – with confidence - but also to doubt, select, understand, judge, discard rubbish, decide and act with multiplied choices, perpetually higher, wider, deeper, different - compared with the busy people around. Wide view teaches us healthy scepticism to the deluge of “obviousness”.
It is wise to amplify our means
Wise conduct is amplified by its means. You will see some but little “wise behaviour” when looking at people naked. All humans act empowered and armed with tools, they are defined including tools; when wise, they take responsible advantage of this immense power, out of proportion with our biological heritage. To appreciate how wise one’s action is, we must consider the tools used or ignored, outcome amplified, mediated, often indirect, in chains of effects reverberated.
I do not like this, but it seems true; wisdom at work also depends on how well we assimilate and use the technologies available.
Using the tools as means rather than ends, splits people into wiser ones doing things, against fools done by tools, becoming mere extensions of machines, of communication networks and contagious messages.
Human conduct is insulated by a dome of human environment, empowered with the extensions of civilised life and its technology. To appreciate how wise people are you cannot separate actions from their environment and the extensions from the authors; in what situation, to what to whom they are directed, the references they carry, what they communicate and whom they move. Today, means like the World Wide Web push their way into people’s very personality and thought paradigm. No wisdom though comes from merely belonging to networks; it is instead how you relate and act autonomously and the effect you have on them; that relationship may be wise or enslaving.
When they act wise, people apply the commonsense observation that we achieve much more, beyond our own contribution, not only by tools but also in resonance with other people and by causing other people to move and cooperate. Thus the things they initiate are multiplied as part of complex networks of knowledge, contagious movements of belief and feeling and action. Indirect, “viral”, action used mindfully, is protean and difficult to record but it is nonetheless owned and should be included in “wise conduct”. Wise people contribute to our world. I wish they cared more.
When they act wisely, people avoid moving alone. Action that counts is usually with other people. This is not melting selflessly into groups and masses. The competence to cooperate and help advancement in spite of so many oppositions, competitions, inertia of collective activity belongs to wise conduct. Whatever you are set to do, other people are more competent and also complementary to you. Other people have inevitably the qualities and the knowledge, the social intelligence, the energy, the power or the status, something we lack. "Wise conduct" must therefore include an association of action.
Wise conduct borrows wisdom from other people. The plainest person can be much wiser by asking and humbly listening to advice and direction from better people, precisely as a wise king cannot rule without a wise fool, a jester, a counsel, to tell him the truth, holding up a mirror to show him his errors; government needs advisors and rulers. A utopian humanist dreamer like Pharaoh Akhenaton would not survive without an advisor like biblical Joseph (I think of Thomas Mann's Joseph). However, asking and using advice is an art, a competence which we must learn.
Wise conduct can serve good or evil
Being a means, an instrument, techné (art), wise conduct can be used to many ends, mostly good, constructive ones, leading to success in what is done and to well being; it is in the nature to success and well-being to be constructive and positive. The politically correct common place is that wise conduct is goodness.
However, it is possible as well that wise, open-minded conduct would serve egoistic, hostile or disastrous goals.
The wise warrior like say, Alexander the Great (wise because he conquers to build, not to destroy), does no good to his enemy and little for his army or his people, he obeys his pride and hubris. The wise Machiavellian counsellor may serve, as it happened so often, a tyrant or an evil cause; if not a noble cause, with evil means excused by the ends. Thus, wise conduct alone, particularly the one observed in the short term, is no proof of goodness. Nor is success a proof of wisdom. Genius, even wise genius seems fascinated to open Pandora’s Box.
I still believe that in the long run there is no wisdom in doing the wrong thing well.
Let me reassure myself that when free, the wise chose to be good people.
The discreet visible face
When I tried to illustrate this chapter with a meaningful image, as I find very useful to do, it proved almost impossible to find one, or even to imagine one still picture which exemplifies "wise conduct" in progress. This, simply because wise conduct is not an instant-picture of a graphic or static shape and size or unambiguous symbolism. The best I can is to show Mahatma Gandhi reducing to absurdity the British Empire’s monopoly on salt in India by the simple, “non violent” gesture of gathering a handful of dried salt from the Ocean shore; but what you see in the picture is just an old man gathering dust.
If I ask myself what we see when wise conduct is in our presence, the first answer that comes to my mind is “Not much, often nothing” certainly not the essential part. Why?
Firstly, because it is wise not to be conspicuous, certainly not to show off. Big things move slowly or seem immobile.
Second, wise action is minimal, effortless, pulling, not pushing. When the outcome is visible, wise conduct results most often in bad things not happening and good things invited; harm prevented long before it starts, so that “nothing happens”. Or, propitious things are allowed to come about and evil things let to perish; as the Taoist teach, because nothing is “done” the desirable is achieved. All we may see is some minute encouragement.
Wise conduct often takes the form of what I like to call negative action: to leave place and time for things to happen, to let things happen, to let other people do things... when you refrain from interfering too much, do not stop or push back more than the strict necessary on what other people initiate and do, just shape imperceptibly into the right direction. This wu-wei like doing-by-not-doing is well understood by eastern cultures but slow to gain its deserved consideration in the Occident.
Moreover, wise people achieve most of what they “positively” do with quiet words and silences; sometimes just looking. This is why it is said that the master's gaze gets the cow fat in the field.
You recognise wise conduct by the apparence of economy, the elegance, the minimalism of action giving just the minute initiating or supportive coup de pouce, the minimal impulse, often a mere hint, a smile, a question without answer, pointing discretely to some inconsistency or opportunity - sufficient to touch, to start something working in the minds of other people, irresistibly.
Opposed to the discretion of wise conduct, it is easy to observe actions in which wisdom is missing. They are loud and striking; acts of arrogance, bursting pride, bragging, forcing ways, humiliating and assaulting people, callous indifference to suffering and need of help.
When you see obstinacy, pride at work or overwhelming greed, reckless imprudence, excess of many kinds, people embracing extremes and utopian absolutes, you can judge without much subtlety what wisdom would be instead.
When you observe anger left loose, hate, blind love or devout fanaticism (or its equivalent, righteous dogmatic narrowness of blinkered view), you know that whatever wisdom was available is at least temporarily impaired and clouded.
To look carefully at this pathetic sight and to avoid acting in such sorry ways is a great teacher of wisdom; a rich source of wise conduct. The wise learn more from the fools than the fools from the wise.
Wise conduct takes place, shows meaning and gains importance mostly in time; a long time, so that you cannot see it all by looking once, through an allotted slot. Wise conduct may have started long ago and finishes, usually not soon, but in time. But wise conduct finishes what it started, which is by itself a sign of wisdom...except when the aspiration proves to be an error; then, it is wise to accept loss humbly, to recant, to stop damage and to change swiftly; this is what you will observe and possibly misjudge.
Wise conduct has yet another quiet face, decisive for the life-long result - the resilience of intention; the imperceptible everyday persistence, readiness and build-up, adhering to long-term plans giving a meaning to life, building the future while navigating with prudence the unspectacular chores and the perilous storms of the “now”. Like water which will keep ready indeterminately to flow lower, whenever some opening allows it, wise intent will wait as much as it has to wait, but seize each occasion opening to evade the unwanted and advance long term, important goals.
I figure wise conduct as often composed of almost imperceptible small, constructive steps. It avoids being conspicuous or dramatic, but slowly builds up treasuries. The wise never discard achievements of the past, know-how learned or friends. Never wasting, results (hopefully) in accumulation of value. This leads, I think, to quantum leaps changing who one is and what one can. Wise conduct is choosing path for long journeys.
At once, in a hurry, we may also observe at the surface, some reliable “behaviour” or “attitude”: the calm, the politeness, the helpfulness, the rapport, the expressions of respect, the adequate smile, the control in voice but also in the content of speech, the moderation in what wise people affirm.
The critical situations of life - crucial choices, danger, loss, victory, unique opportunity, conflict, betrayal, love, crisis, newness, parenthood, among so many others, are the defining times when wise conduct shows its quality; and its benefit. Observably or unobserved, wise people improve the critical situations, as much as possible, instead of worsening them. You observe the constant helpfulness, the steady move to improve things and to avoid or resolve conflict whenever possible.
You remark the wise manner as showing patience, able to wait and see, to wait and do things in due time. You observe people who listen, who look at people, in their eyes, if local culture allows it. It is wise and powerful to let other people speak and to listen carefully. Wise conduct includes the ability to keep silent and to use silence.
You observe preference for simplicity and lack of affectation as a mark of the wise; nevertheless, the needed form and ritual will be respected. Humility is known to be wise and minimally, flirting with it by means of purposeful modest attitude is unquestionably wise.
It is wise to be inconspicuous, with exception of well thought situations when renown is a resource of social action and when communication must be compelling, as bold and loud as needed.
In interaction and work it is not only instrumental but also wise to constantly “be part of the solutions rather than of the problems” with an inclination to make things easier, to contribute with useful questions and solutions rather than creating problems... except when needed to put people in motion; it is wise to be steadfastly helpful and constructive.
Wise conduct appears and is flexible, not obstinate; action flows, or cuts if needed, along the shape and lineaments of the given, like Quangzi's legendary Taoist butcher. It goes its way around obstacles instead of crushing into them.
You observe, if you look carefully, that wise conduct prefers to pull instead of pushing.
Wise conduct is described as prudent, in the best sense of Aristotle's courage that is taking pondered, justified risk, instead of recklessly or obstinately barging ahead.
Above doing things and responding, wise conduct consists in attitude, in genuine and visible respect for you and other people; in not doing to other people that which we deplore to be done to us. It is wise and beneficial to be makers of peace... whenever possible.
Do not be cheated by the apparence of softness. Appeasement at all cost, tolerance towards destruction, indulging violence or prejudiced conformity and pain-spearing submissive opportunism can hardly considered wise as they appear in history to lead inevitably to worse life, to misery for all. Cowardice is not wise; it is degrading and invites more evil. There is a wise limit to prudence, flexibility and compromise. Tolerance must be mutual and reject rejection. Freedom must reject the destruction of freedom. Wise conduct is constantly steered by the Golden Rule.
You may want to observe that wise people do most things with words, rather than with hands.
What I discern when people are free to speak wisely is an amazing blend of the commonplace and the surprising; I interpret that it is a mix of obviousness to be easily understood and accepted and of paradox to spark needed newness and change.
I find that it is wise to practice the art of many questions and to act by this means; it is preferable to ask questions than to take and offer answers prejudged in advance.
It seems to me that examining everything, without taboos, is a wise attitude; indeed unexamined life is less free and hardly civilised. How tactfully criticism is practiced publicly is another competence of wisdom though. It is proverbially wise to avoid conflict and making enemies... whenever possible.
On occasion, the traditionally observed manifestation of wisdom is good advice, even better when followed by showing how to apply it, completed with help and leadership. We consider that the good advisors act wisely when they help other people more than when they help themselves. It is recognized that people be wise when their counsel proves effective and life-saving. To practice wisdom in this way one must of course learn the art instead of believing that it comes by itself, naturally.
Wise people make things simple for other people; you see them causing understanding, confidence and hope to develop in other people.
Even when spontaneous, wise behaviour can be mindful and prepared. Wise people form habits of open response to newness and to the unknown, to not understanding, their own optimal style when facing the unexpected; preparing for surprise is possible.
Response to the unexpected, the unknown, to not understanding, are occasions to observe wise conduct at work. One appears prepared for the unexpected, ready to use surprise, with care: preparing against it and for it, producing it to startle and throw adversaries out of balance and change things, but avoiding it carefully, like a driver on the highway, to prevent confusion and hostility among one’s own people who need to keep steady and confident.
The wise response to ignorance – one’s own and other people’s is not defensive but tolerant with uncertainty, rather like recognising an old and inevitably visiting acquaintance. The wise attitude to stupidity and incompetence is similar; for one who values advice and help, it is wise to control becoming irritated by people who do not understand and cannot do things. Certainly, you will hardly observe wise people denying that they do not know and their limits of understanding.
Wise conduct has a major character strength component beyond intelligence and understanding; it is wise, but it also requires energy and will to master one’s disposition, weaknesses and vices, to find the courage and resilience, to do the right thing. Many knowers of wisdom fail this "pillar" of action, by weakness of character and therefore keep living like fools in spite of their great wisdom. The worst for them is that they are probably aware of their misery.
I do not hope that wisdom is obtained by ablation of our weaknesses and vices; in my moments of wisdom I manage to control and cheat and even put to good use some of my flaws; I exploit my pride to do things well, my tiredness to leave space for other people, greed to accumulate knowledge, my complacency to be nice or cowardice to keep prudent. The essence is to catch myself when being weak and to decide knowingly what I do with this weakness; allow it go on or do something about it?
As we are born with bodies, tempers and instincts, there are some born features which make people unequally gifted for some of the components of wise conduct - like well-controlled behaviour, patience and positive disposition.
Some people are calm and some must pain to learn to wait and to time action. Some are placid and some impulsive; the later have more work to do. Some are quick and others slow; they will have to put those different features to advantage.
Certain classical personality psychologies went deeper in differentiating "secondary" characters functioning best over time and "primary" tempers excellent in swift adapting to context; each requires appropriate style to compensate and develop their formula of wise conduct.
Born styles of intelligence count too; their variety needs specific, tailored education to support wise conduct.
It appears obvious that for people addicted to substances or to their instincts and various vices, wise conduct is far from reach.
Power of will, strength of character, whatever it may be, and their contrary – a rich choice of human weakness - will have an influence; it may in part depend on constitution, age, health and energy available. I believe that this can be intelligently compensated through steadiness of purpose and improved self-organisation; also by associating with those who have the resources you lack.
It occurs to me that no beginner of wisdom should really need this, my never ending litany of wise things to do and foolish things to avoid. We all know by common sense a great number of do’s and don’ts which respected would turn us instantly into authentic sages. The common places we know already are wisdom enough for a hundred years. And yet... why don’t we do as we know we should? Is actual wisdom an endless uphill against the weakness of human nature?
In all humility I would propose that a major part of wise conduct is doing, with time, less stupid and foolish things towards which human nature and the limits of human mind seem to naturally or culturally incline us.
To control the bugs of intelligence and of the human nature, wise conduct should include an awareness of inevitable weakness, error and stupidity.
I still struggle with the legitimacy of defining “living wisely” as being less stupid or less foolish, preventing our miraculous human intelligence to act foolishly, to be disastrously efficient, disconnected from understanding and respect for people, from our best interest.
* The Shakespearean crowdpleaser is worth at least a glance for the reader who feels still forever young:
"All the world's a stage
And all the men and women merely players: 140
They have their exits and their entrances
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms;
Then the whining schoolboy with his satchel 145
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school; and then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow; then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard, 150
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble 'reputation'
Even in the cannon's mouth; and then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut, 155
Full of wise saws and modern instances -
And so he plays his part; the sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well saved - a world too wide
For his shrunk shank - and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound; last scene of all
That ends this strange eventful history
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."
Shakespeare, As You Like It, 2.7,140-175 Cambridge UP, 2000
** conduct, n.1 (Oxford English Dictionary second edition, 1989):
I. 1.I.1 The action of conducting or leading; guidance, leading... II. 5.II.5 The leading or commanding of an army, a vessel, etc.; leadership, command; management... a.II.5.a of the army, etc., led. (Now somewhat rare.) ...6.II.6 The action or manner of conducting, directing, managing, or carrying on (any business, performance, process, course, etc.); direction, management... †7.II.7 Aptitude for leadership or management; good generalship; skill in managing affairs; practical tact and address; discretion. Obs. ...8. a.II.8.a Manner of conducting oneself or one's life; behaviour; usually with more or less reference to its moral quality (good or bad). (Now the leading sense.)
*** Acting wisely can be described, with less lyricism, as autonomy, good practice with people and prudence, both with people and with nature: competent, considerate, well thought out communications, actions and inactions, presences and absences, adroit behaviours and competent, constructive relationships and activities that help success, life-quality, harmony and collaboration, lead and keep you and other people out of harm’s way. Acting wisely in our world is genuinely wise when it works towards a better, flourishing life, well lived by free people achieving the best allowed by the human condition.
 “Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun.” (King James Bible Ecclesiastes 8:15 KJ Bible, "Authorized Version", Cambridge Ed.
 'Life is to be understood backwards, but it is lived forwards', Søren Kierkegaard in Hong: KW I, From the Papers of One still Living, p. 78 and in Hong: KW VII, Philosophical Fragments, p.80. Also in: JP 1, A-E, entries 1030 and 1025. cf http://www.utas.edu.au/docs/humsoc/kierkegaard/resources/Kierkquotes.html
 Campbell, Joseph, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton U.P., Princeton, 2004
© 2011 - 2016 Ioan Tenner & Daniel Tenner