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The Vacuum Issue 10 spacer Issue 10
Wisdom
by John Catherwood
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"Wisdom" is a strange word. It is very hard to say what it means, or what wisdom is. It is a bit like playing a violin - even if we cannot do it ourselves, and could not tell someone else how to do it, we know when someone else is doing it well, and we really know it when they are doing it badly. And just like playing a violin it is hard to learn.
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Samuel Taylor Coleridge said "Common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls wisdom." Yet the sort of 'common sense' that Coleridge is taking about is itself a strange commodity, and not half as common as we might imagine (or desire). "Common sense" here means doing something that is obviously the right thing to do. Of course the right thing to do is often obvious because the situation is a familiar one: 'common sense' solutions are just the repetition of clichés. Which is not a bad thing: after all clichés only become clichés because they are good ideas the first time around, and so become imitated and hackneyed. Wise solutions are not always obvious in this way. Wisdom often requires new thinking about old problems and new ideas may seem heretical at first. Wise ideas are persuasive heresy: wisdom seems obvious because we feel that we should have thought of it. Such ideas strike us like a sudden realisation of a new truth which is destined to become accepted doctrine and end up as utterly common, clichéd, 'common sense.'
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Wisdom is also something more than just straightforward reasoning of the sort that anyone can do. Wisdom is usually practical. Judgements, actions, advice and attitudes are wise. A wise person is one who acts in a certain way, or gives good advice to others about their actions. It is not just a mental attribute. Being a wise person must have expression in the way we live.
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We look up to the wise person, and ask their advice because they have a skill that we lack. They are good at thinking, and better than the foolish person. However it is also something that is not so strange to us that we cannot follow it. It is the fact that we did not think of something, but that it makes perfect sense to us and we feel that we ought to have been able to think of it if we were just clever enough that distinguishes the wise idea. Of course there may be ideas that are wiser than we can comprehend. It is a common experience to ignore advice because it does not make sense to us at the time, but we later recognise the wisdom of the words we did not heed.
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Being wise is not the same as being clever. You can be too clever for your own good. No-one can ever be too wise. Being clever suggests knowing how to do things, but clever people about to cleverly do something foolish can still be asked "are ye wise?"
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Oppenheimer is a case in point - it is a little late to say "what have I done?" when The Bomb goes off.
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Wisdom is also not the same as knowing facts. Of course we sometimes need to know quite a large number of facts to make a wise decision, but often you can act wisely without a great deal of knowledge. Knowledge is not a guarantee of wisdom. We can know too much. We can fail to see the wood for the trees, we can get lost in fascinating facts and become unable to tell the difference between what is important and what is personal. Of course what is personal is often important, even if it is trivial to someone else - witness any discussion in local politics - wisdom lies in picking out what facts ought to be important to everyone.
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Why they ought to be important is usually because they add to the sum of human happiness, rather than perpetuating misery. Wisdom is constructive. The wise action is rarely one that destroys things, unless it is to destroy something that is itself destructive. Which is also why wisdom is often conservative, not seeking radical change. Most systems and situations have evolved to meet specific needs through long testing, and while 'received wisdom' or the 'wisdom of the ancients' often needs questioning, it is often not wise to dismiss it out of hand. Old wives got to be old for a reason.
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Indeed wisdom and age are often entangled. A young person may be 'wise beyond their years' but such a thing is uncommon enough to be remarkable. "Impetuous Pensioners" are even rarer. Of course timidity and cynicism may play their part here, but neither is wise. Timidity holds us back from doing the achievable, fulfilling desires and gaining goods that we might have gained. Cynicism, like its opposite Optimism, is symptomatic of a failure to see things realistically. Wisdom is neither cynical nor unjustifiably optimistic, although it may be argued that a little optimism is usually the wisest attitude to take. A life lived in cautious hope is surely more pleasant than one conducted in fear or expectation of failure.
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Yet, almost paradoxically, failure is also part of becoming wise. Age and experience go together, and it is through learning from our mistakes, and the mistakes of others, that wisdom is gained. Mere book learning is somehow not sufficient to count as wisdom. To repeat what one has learned from a book is just talk. To be wise a person needs to have tried out the theory, taken the risk, walked the walk. You need what Aristotle called 'phronesis', sometimes translated as 'prudence', which cannot not be taught (unlike 'episteme' or factual knowledge) but can only be learned through doing. So wisdom is always won at a price: the loss of naïvety, the end of innocence, the embarrassment of realising that your parents were right after all. It is why wisdom in the young is a mixed blessing. They have gained a skill and perhaps they will be better people and on balance perhaps live happier lives, but only because they have left childhood behind.
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Wisdom
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That is also why the wise need only a word, even if it sometimes comes out of the mouths of babes. From only a few facts about the present, and a wealth of experience in the past, we can predict consequences and patterns of behaviour, and make the wiser choice. Yet even the wisest may fail when presented with something new. Being known as a wise man, or a wise woman, is a hard burden. One foolish mistake may be all it takes to destroy a lifetime of reputation building. Coleridge's friend William Hazlitt wrote of the hazards of being wise in "On the Disadvantages of Intellectual Superiority", an essay that any aspiring artist, author, journalist or academic should read. The inferior person cannot fully understand the Superior, and this inevitability leads to fear, resentment and division. Even the most modest person who does not flaunt his intellect will be resented by others, who take his restraint to be patronising, and an insult to their intelligence. They will look for flaws, for foolish slips, for proof that the wise are not perfect in their wisdom. It is a bleak outlook, but perhaps Hazlitt was more cynical than wise.
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Still, it is a wise man that knows his limitations. Of course in modern times even the wisest person tends to hit those limits fairly fast. A lifetime of experience and accumulated wisdom may be set at nought by a simple change in technology. In past times the experience and wisdom of the old was valued because things had not changed so much since they were young. The problems of everyday life were not so different from generation to generation, and the young could empathise with the elderly. These days the world is a bigger, more complex place, and it is hard to see what relevance Granny's tales of Edwardian values, the Blitz and teetotal dances at the Floral Hall have to a generation of internet browsing, contraceptive equipped, fashion conscious clubbers on a Saturday night.
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Yet many things have not changed. Hormones still rage, passions are enflamed, biological clocks continue to tick: it is still true that boys will be boys, but girls will be women, and once you have kissed a man with a beard you'll never go back. Personal relationships are no more complicated, although we now permit behaviour to express those feelings that Granny would not name (or even admit to knowing about). Teenage pregnancy is nota new phenomenon, nor are sexually transmitted diseases: syphilis wiped out millions long before we had heard of AIDS. Louis Armstrong was done for smoking dope, Bix Beiderbecke died from too much drink, and things really did go better with Coke before they changed the formula. It is the wise who survived these things, and even if we believe that no-one before us ever felt this way, or ever understood the world, we might have to admit that perhaps we are not unique. Perhaps we are not so original. No vice is really new. Perhaps if we could just get over the embarrassment we might all have something to learn from the wisdom of the flapper girls, the teddy boys, the hippies, and the punks that we now call our grandparents.
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Wisdom
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