Wisdom is, fundamentally, good judgment.
So wisdom involves the ability to reason well. It involves paying attention, in any given situation, to the relevant evidence, and drawing well-founded conclusions from that evidence. So many instances of foolishness—the opposite of wisdom—involve paying insufficient attention to the relevant evidence, or involve logical errors—drawing conclusions that are not well-supported by the evidence, or failing to draw the conclusions which plainly are well-supported. A prime example of such foolishness is our natural tendency to draw the conclusions we want to be true rather than the conclusions which the evidence indicates actually are true.
But, of course, we all know people who we would not think of as great reasoners but who are plainly wise. They are not logically brilliant. They do not possess great “book learning.” They would not make great scientists or mathematicians. They are not particularly eloquent. But they have good basic judgment. They do not claim to know what they do not know. (Claiming or believing we know what we plainly do not know is one of the primary types of foolishness.)
But the wise know how to treat other people. They know how to relate to others. They know how to make good practical decisions in their everyday lives. They are the sort of people we admire, and love having in our lives. We all also know, or know of, on the other hand, people who are in some ways plainly brilliant—they may be great scholars, or they may be cunning and successful manipulators of political power. But they are also, just as plainly, not wise. They have a kind of brilliance, in a certain area. But in making good practical decisions in their everyday lives, and in how they relate to others, they’re actually, well, dumb.
So wisdom involves good reasoning. But it is not a matter of simply, rigorously and deductively, drawing conclusions from a body of evidence. If it were that, wisdom would correlate with mathematical ability. It doesn’t.
Wisdom involves, rather, the ability to look at a complex, even messy, situation and be able to distinguish better from worse approaches. It is not a matter of rigorously deducing the answer, but a matter of being able to intuit the best solutions.
Aristotle expressed this well more than two millennia ago. Wisdom requires good judgment—phronesis, as Aristotle expressed it in Greek. There are many, many individual expressions of wisdom – many individual pieces of good advice – many good rules of thumb. But there is no one algorithm that will tell you exactly what to do in every situation. Wisdom simply requires good judgment.
Some are more talented than others at this, obviously. But we can all improve. We can expose ourselves to wisdom and the wise, and actually pay attention to all the good advice—expressions of wisdom—that are everywhere, actually.
As I said in my other post, there are expressions of wisdom everywhere. And there are many expressions of true wisdom coming out of every society and culture. I would personally recommend the ancient Hebrew wisdom literature (the books of Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes) and also Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. It is not easy reading – because it’s lecture notes. But it is brilliant. For a diverse audience, or for people coming from any cultural or ethical tradition, it is a great place to start. It starts from absolute scratch. It does not even assume the more Judeo-Christian concept of actions being right or wrong. It simply asks, ‘What is the smart way to live?’
God grant me this gift!