What Wisdom Is

The word wisdom is thrown around a lot these days, especially in business circles. This person is wise; that was a wise thing to do; what wise leadership; such wise counsel indeed.

The explosion of interest in philosophy in Silicon Valley (I’m thinking of Stoicism, Buddhist philosophy, and to a lesser extent Aristotelianism but also of philosophically minded people like Paul Graham, Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, and Reid Hoffman, among others) has resulted in the word wisdom getting bandied about even more.

It would, let’s say, be wise not to speak bullshit, however, when we’re talking about wisdom. Better yet, it would be wise not just to want to be wise but also, actually, to be wise. Therefore, it would be good to go back to the beginning and ask: what is wisdom?

Here’s one pithy definition I’ve come up with: wisdom is right conduct flowing directly from right understanding. 

Start at the back. Right understanding refers to empirical, theoretical, and experiential knowledge of the nature of the cosmos and human nature.

Right conduct refers to almost always doing the right thing in whichever situation one finds oneself.

Flowing directly from means that right conduct is neither willy-nilly nor shot out of a cannon. It wasn’t a lucky guess, a good shot, or a spot-on intuition. No, the conduct came directly from the understanding. It’s as if the understanding were the gentle hand guiding while supporting the action.

Is this right?

Tests and Observations: (1) See that we often use maxims (“Be kind.” “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”) when we’re referring to wisdom. Each maxim embeds within itself a kind of knowledge that the wise person actually, remarkably embodies. (2) See that a single act of compassion (e.g.) can only be said to count as a wise act if it really was based on right understanding. (3) See how wise people are often quite spontaneous because their knowledge is so aligned with their habits that they don’t, in many cases, need to deliberate. Simply, they act laudably. (4) Even so, wise persons are also, when need be, capable of ethical deliberations, which enable them to harmonize their understanding with their resultant conduct.

If this definition is correct, then plainly most people are not wise. Ourselves included. In a good sense, this is humbling. Maybe, just maybe this insight will loosen–or shatter–our egocentrism.