Why Is Wisdom Important?

Let wisdom be defined as right conduct flowing directly from right understanding. That is, the wise person is known through her conduct. Yet because “one swallow does not make a summer” (Aristotle), wisdom is demonstrated through countless virtuous actions. Go further: somehow it can be ascertained that each of these actions arises immediately out of the wise person’s deepest understanding of oneself and reality. (Indeed, it may turn out that knowing thyself is knowing reality–but this for another occasion.)

Given this understanding of wisdom, it can be asked, “Why is wisdom important?” Three straightforward reasons come to mind:

  1. Diminishing Human Suffering.– If the Buddha is right, then egoic experience is laced with suffering. But then not being wise, it turns out, leads one to suffer while also leading one to cause others to suffer unnecessarily. Therefore, wisdom is important in that it diminishes one’s own suffering as well as that of others.
  2. Coming to Greater Depth.– If depth, as I see it, refers to the transmogrification of one’s struggle with suffering through the gift of thoughtfulness, then the wise person may be regarded as one of the deepest persons there is. Indeed, there is “something to” or “something about” this person that can’t be put into words. Perhaps it could be said that such a person is radiant.
  3. Fostering Human Flourishing.– At the high end, wise people are actually able to foster human flourishing. Amazingly, simply being in the presence of a wise person is enough to make life feel more open, lighter, and more inviting. How much better can life get for those who are able to discourse with a wise person and, in time, to allow their conduct to conform to their burgeoning understanding?

Wisdom, it should be obvious, is more important than smartness. A smart person may be effective and yet also unhappy whereas a wise person can never be unhappy. Modern culture, unfortunately, has been oriented toward smartness and not toward wisdom and thus is founded on a grave mistake.