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Reclaiming wisdom
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I'm reading
Reclaiming wisdom
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Reclaiming wisdom
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16 November 2017

Reclaiming wisdom

Never has the problem of the disparity between the technical intelligence and the wisdom of our species been starker or more pressing.

Written by Pierz Newton-John

This story originally ran in issue #50 of Dumbo Feather

Feature image by Judy Schmidt

On November 8, 2016 the cog of history turned almost audibly as Donald Trump was elected president, against nearly all prognostication. The world’s future seemed to grow darker and more uncertain as the reins of the world’s greatest economic and military power were handed to a man who denies climate change, has boasted of sexual assault, and promises to divide the nation against itself by deporting millions of immigrants and building a 2000-mile wall on its southern border. After a Brexit vote largely empowered by rejection of immigrants, and with far right populist leaders on the rise across Europe, a shocking sea change of political values seems to be in progress in the developed world.

Of course this lurch to the right is disturbing for those of us for whom equality and the respect and appreciation of diversity are core values. But the problem runs deeper than the age-old wrangle between left and right. Everywhere we see evidence of the profound interdependence of our world. Whichever lens we choose to look through—economic, ecological, social, biological, physical—we see a world consisting not of isolable parts, but of interconnected webs of relationships. As in a spider’s web, every action sets off tremors that ramify throughout the whole. As the world contracts and the power of human technology increases, the aggressive tribalism which once helped us conquer the world can no longer serve. Isolation and aggression no longer make sense.

It is clear that American supremacy and prestige cannot be reinstated by the simplistic measures suggested by Trump. Isolationism is a doomed project in a globally interdependent economy, and there can be no turning back the clock to a lost monocultural idyll that is in any case entirely mythical. As oil reserves dry up and climate change accelerates, policies such as the deregulation of oil exploration seem to fly in the face of all sense. Ultimately the problem with the policies of populists such as Trump is not their underlying values, it is simply that they fail to recognise the nature of reality. They are, in a word, foolish.

It has often been remarked by historians that for all of humanity’s remarkable technological accomplishments, we seem to have made relatively little progress in the realm of wisdom. The central human follies of vanity, short-sightedness, stubbornness, greed and aggression which have plagued human decision-making since history has been recorded seem as evident today as ever. And yet the costs of folly are increasing, precisely because of our immense technological power. The vast reach of our globalised civilisation is such that decisions made by a powerful few can have significant implications for the lives of billions of people, for entire ecosystems which have evolved over millions of years. Never has the problem of the disparity between the technical intelligence and the wisdom of our species been starker or more pressing.

Yet wisdom is subtle, slow, difficult and deep, the very antithesis of our cultural values, which prize the obvious, the fast, the easy. The word “wisdom” has acquired an old-fashioned ring and largely fallen out of public discourse. It is sometimes said in information science that data is not information, information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom. And yet “In Information We Trust” might be the motto of the times. We seem stuck at the bottom end of this pyramid. The concept of wisdom persists in fictional caricatures—Gandalf and Dumbledore, old men with long beards and kindly eyes—but has lost any immediate force.

When we choose our leaders, we consider competence, we consider likeability, relatability, charisma. We may, if not blinded by emotive appeal, examine their policies. But rarely does anyone speak of wisdom, and indeed it is not a quality that our politicians—with their bickering and backstabbing, their flat bureaucratic speech and blatant political expediency—exactly exude.

There have been some exceptions in recent memory. Uruguay’s José (‘Pepe’) Mujica, president from 2010-2015, eschewed all trappings of power and lived humbly on his farm, donating 90 percent of his presidential salary to the poor. His politics were flexible and pragmatic, unwedded to ideology. Václav Havel, president of Czechoslovakia from 1989-1992, was a philosopher and intellectual who espoused a humanitarian, environmentalist, anti-consumerist politics grounded in his experience as a dissident under authoritarian communism. Nelson Mandela, another dissident, exuded tremendous humour, gentleness and wisdom despite decades of persecution and imprisonment by the apartheid regime. Obama too, though a disappointment to many who invested messianic hopes in him, is clearly a man of reason, balance, insight and depth.

Yet the rise of the wise to positions of power is the exception rather than the rule, occurring at least as much by accident as by the designs of wisdom itself. Why is this? Partly the reason must lie in the fact that wisdom is not conducive either to the lust for power or to the ruthlessness by which that ambition frequently realises itself. If wisdom lies at least partly in the capacity for objectivity and the ability to see beyond the horizons of the ego—in fact in the dismantling of all illusions that obscure the truth—then the shark pool of political life must look a dismal prospect to the wise.

If there is to be any remedy for this—and there must be a remedy if we are to steer humanity to a safe and humane future—it must lie in the widespread cultivation of wisdom. Only when wisdom is sufficiently developed in a population can wise people find the support they need in order to govern. Is the prospect of a wise society in any way achievable? Perhaps not, if we expect to make a Voltaire of every voter and find a Mandela in every minister. But such a political utopia is not required. The follies of history do not consist of subtle missteps or momentary lapses of judgement, but rather in monumental blunders repeated in the face of all evidence and common sense. Such egregious mistakes are all too common in the annals of history. We can think of the Vietnam and Iraq wars as obvious recent examples. Nazism was clearly evil; it was also grotesquely stupid and deluded: its goosestepping and absurd pomposity would be comical if we didn’t know the ghastly realities.

But what is wisdom exactly? Is it nothing more than sound decision-making? I’d like to argue for a notion of wisdom that embraces more than merely good judgement, and more than a general capacity for rationality and common sense. Wisdom certainly requires rationality, but it also embraces subtle human qualities of compassion, humour, kindness, patience and humility. It is, in other words, as much a matter of heart as head. Heartless rationality defines much of modern life. We need to do better than this, and seek an intelligence in which spiritual values of compassion, empathy and kindness are fused with reason.

Our problem lies perhaps in the historical origins of modern science. During the Enlightenment of the 18th century, Western civilisation dragged itself out of a mire of superstition and intellectual confusion by defining the scientific method and adhering to a procedure of doubt and experimentation. Nothing was to be taken on authority; no knowledge was too sacred to be subject to questioning and enquiry. Centuries of destructive religious dogma and internecine sectarian disputes had left deep wounds in the human psyche, and reason was embraced as the light that would lead people towards a better future. A deep suspicion of anything outside the ambit of empirical investigation ensued.

Yet wisdom cannot be proven by experiment, as it transcends data, information and even knowledge. It arises from the intelligent synthesis of understanding and is thus beyond the scope of reductive methods to examine. This very intangibility is what has tended to push the discussion of wisdom to the sidelines of mainstream debate. Both psychology and philosophy—disciplines whose concerns should directly relate to the sphere of wisdom—have veered increasingly into narrow specialisation and ungrounded abstraction. Academic psychologists occupy themselves with endless variations of the same experimental paradigms, tilling a sterile field for ever-diminishing shards of insight, while the deep and pressing problems of how to become wiser people go unexamined. Philosophers turn away from the existential problems which occupied thinkers like Sartre, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, to niggle over the post-modern equivalent of angels on pinheads. Of course this is a generalisation (think of Peter Singer for a philosopher tackling pressing issues), but recognisably true to many who study these fields with a half-formed notion to acquire wisdom—and come away disillusioned and dissatisfied.

The truth is that reason and evidence have in any case proved inadequate to overcome folly on their own. We’ve seen this with climate change denial and widespread acceptance of right-wing conspiracy theories founded on nothing but an appeal to emotional prejudices. Even simple arithmetic can be rejected by a person who is motivated enough to do so. Logic alone often does not suffice to persuade. We should not fear to study or speak about wisdom because its truths cannot always be arbitrated by some experiment or demonstrated by some rigorous method. Even mathematics has truths that are not susceptible to proof. The important thing is to commit ourselves to wisdom, to share with those who will listen what we have found and continue to believe in a truth accessible to us despite the roar of conflicting opinions.

People sometimes speak of wisdom as the product of experience, but that is not the whole truth. It is the product of experience plus reflection and courage. It is the result of a conscious, sustained search for understanding and a willingness to look truth in the eye, including the uncomfortable truths of one’s own darker nature. The compounding experiences of a lifetime can bring wisdom, or they can bring bitterness and despair, depending on how we make meaning of them. This is where something beyond logic must play its part, for a rationale for despair can certainly always be found. Therefore courage and love must play their part, guiding us to overcome our greatest challenges and grow in compassion and understanding.

Certainly we need all the tools of rational science at our disposal to tackle the issues of climate change, food security, mental health and disarmament which face us. But we need more than that. As a society, we direly need the concept of wisdom to be restored to a place of honour in our public discourse. As individuals, we need to carry it as a guiding principle of action within us. As participants in democracy, we need to look for it in, and demand it of, our leaders. It is a uniquely rich principle to live by, as it makes every experience and difficulty we face into potential grist for deeper understanding and learning. Who knows, if we stick at it long enough, it may even be enough to save us from ourselves.

Pierz Newton-John

Pierz Newton-John is a writer, psychotherapist and founding faculty member of The School Of Life Melbourne. His short story collection Fault Lines was published by Spineless Wonders in 2012.


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