What Is Wisdom Free Essay






On Wisdom


Translations of two other works by Leibniz, both written in 1671, have been published in previous issues of Fidelio: "On the Establishment of a Society in Germany for the Promotion of the Arts and Sciences" (in Vol. 1, No. 2), and "Society and Economy" (in Vol. 1, No. 3). Those two essays establish Leibniz as the founder of the science of physical economy, as it was later adopted by Alexander Hamilton as the basis for the American System of political economy in opposition to the British System of slavery and free trade espoused by Adam Smith.

In his definition of wisdom as the science of happiness, Leibniz's intellectual influence on the concept of natural law adopted by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Federal Constitution is evident. As Lyndon LaRouche emphasizes in his essay "The Truth about Temporal Eternity" [see p. 4, this issue], the Founding Fathers did not adopt John Locke's code words of "life, liberty, and property," but rather the Leibnizian concept of the "pursuit of happiness." The following essay makes clear how Leibniz's concept of happiness is clearly distinguished from the hedonistic concept advanced by the "British empiricism" championed by both Smith and Locke.

On Wisdom

Wisdom is nothing other than the science of happiness, that is to say it teaches us to attain happiness.

Happiness is the state of a constant joy. Whoever is happy, does not indeed feel his joy at all moments, for he rests sometimes from his reflection, and also commonly turns his thoughts toward seemly concerns. It is however enough, that he is in a state to experience joy as often as he wants to think about it, and that in the meantime, a joyfulness arises out of it in his being and his actions.

Joy in the present does not make one happy, if there is no permanence in it; and one is on the contrary unhappy, who for the sake of a brief joy falls into a long sadness.

Joy is a pleasure, which the soul feels in itself. The pleasure is the feeling of a perfection or an excellence, be it in us or in something other; for the perfection of another thing is also pleasant, as understanding, bravery, and especially, the beauty of other persons; also, as well, of an animal; yes, even of a lifeless creature, a painting, or a work of art.

For the image of such perfection in others, impressed upon us, makes it such that also something of it is planted and awakened in us, so that there is no doubt that whoever associates much with excellent persons and objects, becomes also more excellent.

And although at times the perfections of others displease us; as, for example, the mind or the bravery of an enemy, the beauty of a paramour, or the brightness of another's virtue which eclipses or shames us, this does not occur from the perfection itself, but rather because of the circumstance through which the inconvenience arises for us, and thereupon, the sweetness of the first perception of another's perfection is cancelled and spoiled through the result and the bitterness of the reflection.

One does not always observe wherein the perfection of pleasant things rests, or to what kind of perfection they serve within us, yet in the meantime, it is perceived by our emotions, although not by our mind. One says in general: There is something, I know not what, that pleases me in the thing, which one calls sympathy. But those who search for the causes of things, more often find the foundation for this, and understand, that something lies under it which, although unperceived by us, yet truly proves useful.

Music gives a beautiful example of this. All that sounds, has a sound or movement going to and fro in itself, as one sees in strings, and thus what sounds, produces invisible pulsations; when such are now not unperceived, but rather go in order, and coincide with a certain change, they are pleasant, as one also otherwise observes a certain change of long and short syllables, and a coincidence of rhyming between the verses, which, as it were, contains in itself a silent music, and if they fall right, are pleasant even without vocal music. Beats on the drum, the time and the cadence in dances, and otherwise similar movements in conformity with measure and rule, have their pleasantness from the order, for all order proves of use to the mind. And a proportionate, although invisible, order is found also in the artfully created beats or movements of shaking or vibrating strings, pipes or bells, yes, the air itself, which is brought through these into proportionate movement, which also, moreover, produces in us a harmonizing echo by means of hearing, toward which our vital spirits are stirred. On this account, music is so apt to move our minds, although, in general, such a chief purpose is not sufficiently observed nor sought.

And it is not to doubt, that also in the feeling, the taste, and the smell, sweetness resides in a certain, although invisible, order and perfection, or even aptness, which nature has placed therein to arouse us and the animals to that which is otherwise necessary, so that the correct use of all pleasant objects really proves profitable to us, even though, through misuse and excess elsewhere, a far greater damage can more often develop therefrom.

I call all elevation of being perfection, for as sickness, as it were, is a degradation and a decline from health, thus is perfection something which soars above health; but even health itself lies in the middle and on the scales, and lays the ground for perfection.

Now just as sickness originates from a damaged action, such as the intelligent medical mind well observes, thus perfection shows itself on the contrary to work with power, since all being consists in a certain power; and the greater the power, the higher and freer is the being.

Moreover, in respect to all power, the greater it is, the more the many is found thereby to be from one, and in one, in that the One governs many outside of itself, and represents them in itself. Now, the Oneness in the Many is nothing other than harmony, and because one agrees more closely with this one than with that one, thus the order, from which all beauty comes, flows from it, and beauty awakens love.

Hence one sees now, how happiness, pleasure, love, perfection, being, power, freedom, harmony, order, and beauty are connected to each other, which is seen correctly by few.

Now when the soul feels in itself a great harmony, order, freedom, power or perfection, and hence feels pleasure therefrom, such produces a joy, so as is evident from all these and the above explanations.

Such joy is constant and cannot deceive, nor cause a future sadness, if it arises from knowledge and is accompanied by a light, out of which arises in the Will an inclination toward the Good, which is Virtue.

If, however, pleasure and joy are directed such that they indeed bring pleasure to the senses, but not to the mind, so can they just as easily lead to unhappiness as to happiness, just as a good-tasting meal can be unhealthy.

And thus must the sensuous desires be employed according to the rules of reason, like a meal, medicine, or invigoration. But the pleasure, such as the soul experiences in itself, in conformity with reason, is such a present joy, that it can even preserve our joy for the future.

From this it follows, that nothing serves happiness more than the illumination of the mind and the exercise of the Will to act at all times according to Reason, and to seek such illumination especially in the knowledge of things, which can bring our Mind always further to a higher light, while from this springs a perpetual progress in Wisdom and Virtue, also, consequently in Perfection and Joy, the profit of which also remains with the soul after this life ... .

Such joy, which man can at all times create for himself, when his mind is well-constituted, consists in the perception of a pleasure in himself, and in his mental powers, when one feels in himself a strong inclination and readiness for Goodness and Truth; especially by means of thorough intelligence, which a more illuminated Mind presents to us, so that we experience the main source, the course, and final purpose of all things, and the unbelievable excellence of the highest Nature which comprises all things in itself, and thereby are elevated above the unknowing, just as if we could see terrestrial objects here under our feet from the stars. Then at last we learn entirely from this, that we have cause to take the highest joy, concerning all that has already happened and is yet to happen, but that we seek, nevertheless, to direct as much as is in our power what has not yet happened for the best. For that is one of the eternal laws of nature, that we shall enjoy the perfection of things and the pleasure which arises from it according to the measure of our knowledge, good will, and intended contribution.

Now when a high ranking person attains this, such that even in the midst of all wealth and honor, he still finds his great pleasure in the workings of his Understanding and his Virtue, I hold him doubly noble. On his own account, because of this his happiness and true joy, but for others, because it is completely certain, that this person can and will share his light and virtue with many others because of his power and reputation, since such sharing will reflect back upon himself and can give new light to those who have the same common purpose of helping each other in the search for Truth, the Knowledge of Nature, the augmentation of human powers and the promotion of the common good.

Thus the noble happiness of high ranking and thereby illuminated persons is apparent, because they can do as much for their happiness, as if they had a thousand hands and a thousand lives; yes, as if they lived a thousand times as long as they do. For so much is our life to be valued as a true life, as one does good in it. Who now does much good in a short time is equal to him who lives a thousand times longer; this occurs with those who can cause thousands and thousands of hands to work with them, through which in few years more Good can happen to their highest glory and enjoyment, than many hundreds of years could otherwise bring.

The beauty of nature is so great, and the contemplation of it has such a sweetness, also the light and good impulse, which arise therefrom, have such glorious benefits already in this life, that whoever has tasted them, holds a low opinion of all other delights by comparison. But if we add that the soul does not pass away, but that each perfection in it endures and must bear fruit, so one sees for the first time rightly, how true happiness, which arises thus out of wisdom and virtue, is totally effusive and unmeasurable beyond everything, that one could possibly imagine about it.

Society and Economy



In this short work and in another, longer essay written in the same year--a translation of which appeared in the last issue of Fidelio--Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz developed a scientific conception of Christian economy. In this particular essay, Leibniz argues that the "entire purpose of Society is to release the artisan from his misery." To accomplish this, Leibniz proposes that society play a positive role in fostering a harmony of interest among merchants and artisans through the development of national industry.

In the deregulated, free-market system of monopoly capital, in which artisans are kept in continual poverty and toil, they are relatively unproductive. However, in a society which considers artisanship "one of the worthiest occupations"--where "the highest rule shall be to foster love" and "the moral virtues shall be promulgated"--the work force will be more productive, to the benefit of society as a whole.

Moreover, a community of principle would exist among all countries in which such a conception were implemented, such that "no country ... will be favored over the other; rather each shall be made to flourish in those areas in which God and Nature have allowed it to excel."

These are the ideas which were later adopted by the American System of Economy, in opposition to the British System of Free Trade. It is for this reason that Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr. has referred to Leibniz as "the first economic scientist, in the strict modern sense of science."

Society and Economy

translated by John Chambless
in Fidelio Vol I, No. 3, Fall 1992

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Monopoly is avoided, since this Society always desires to give commodities at their fair price, or even more cheaply in many cases, by causing manufactured goods to be produced locally rather than having them imported. It will especially preclude the formation of any monopoly of merchants or a cartel of artisans, along with any excessive accumulation of wealth by the merchants or excessive poverty of the artisans--which is particularly the case in Holland, where the majority of merchants are riding high, whereas the artisans are kept in continual poverty and toil. This is harmful to the republic, since even Aristotle maintains that artisanship ought to be one of the worthiest occupations. Nam Mercaturs transfert tantum, Manufactura gignit. [For trade can carry only as much as the factories produce.] And why, indeed, should so many people be poor and miserable for the benefit of such a small handful? After all, is not the entire purpose of Society to release the artisan from his misery? The farmer is not in need, since he is sure of his bread, and the merchant has more than enough. The remaining people are either destitute or government servants. Society can likewise satisfy all the farmer's own needs, providing it always buys from him at a reliably fair price, whether that be cheap or dear. We can thereby ensure for all eternity against natural food shortages, since Society can then have what amounts to a general grain reserve.

Through establishment of such a Society, we eliminate a deep-seated drawback within many republics, which consists in allowing each and all to sustain themselves as they please, allowing one individual to become rich at the expense of a hundred others, or allowing him to collapse, dragging down with him the hundreds who have put themselves under his care. An individual may or may not ruin his own family, and then may or may not run through his own and others' funds.

Objection: Should money be invested in other countries? By no means. Each country shall, on the contrary, supply itself with those necessary commodities and manufactured goods which previously came from abroad, so that it will not have to procure from others what it can have for itself; each country shall be shown how properly to use its own domestic resources. In a country which has sufficient wool, manufacturing shall be established for the preparation of cloth; a country with an abundance of flax shall occupy its populace with the production of clothing; and so forth. And thus no country among those which permit Society the proper degree of freedom, will be favored over the other; rather, each shall be made to flourish in those areas in which God and Nature have allowed it to excel.

Manufacturing, therefore, shall always take place at the commodities' point of origin; whereas commerce, in accordance with its nature, shall be located at the rivers and oceans--an arrangement which only becomes disrupted (manufacturing being placed near commercial centers, far from its raw materials) when the necessary Society and cohesiveness is lacking in many locations, especially where there are no republics.

A great drawback of many republics and countries is that many places have more scholars (not to mention idle people) than they have artisans. But this Society has something for everyone to do, and it needs its scholars for continual conferences and joyous discoveries. This Society can have others adopt the profession of assuming responsibility for providing for unfortunates--e.g., the confinement of criminals, which is of great benefit to the republic.

One might object that artisans today work out of necessity; if all their needs were satisfied, then they would do no work at all. I, however, maintain the contrary, that they would be glad to do more than they now do out of necessity. For, first of all, if a man is unsure of his sustenance, he has neither the heart nor the spirit for anything; will only produce as much as he expects to sell (which is not very much given his few customers); concerns himself with trivialities; and does not have the heart to undertake anything new and important. He thus earns little, must often drink to excess merely in order to dull his own sense of desperation and drown his sorrows, and is tormented by the malice of his journeymen. But it will be different there: Each will be glad to work, because he knows what he has to do. Never will he be involuntarily idle, as he is now, since no one will work for himself, but rather jointly; and if one has too much and the other not enough, then one will give to the other.

On the other hand, no artisan will be suddenly obliged--as he sometimes is now--to torture himself and his men half to death with excessive work, since the amount of work will always remain more or less the same. The journeymen will work together, joyously vying with one another in the public factories, the masters themselves taking care of the work that requires more understanding. No master need be annoyed that an intelligent journeyman might desire to become a master himself, for how does this harm the master? Journeymen's room, board, and necessities will be provided free to all workers. No master will need to worry about how he is to provide for his children or marry them off respectably. The education of children will be taken care of by Society; parents shall be relieved of the task of educating their own children: All children, while they are small, shall be rigorously brought up by women in public facilities. And scrupulous attention will be paid that they do not become overcrowded, are kept clean, and that no diseases arise. How could anyone live more happily than that? Artisans will work together happily in the company's large rooms, singing and conversing, except for those whose work requires more concentration.

Most of the work will be done in the morning. Pains will be taken to provide for pleasures other than drinking--for example, discussions of their craft and the telling of all sorts of funny stories, whereby they must be provided with something to quench their thirst, such as acida. There is no greater pleasure for a thoughtful man, or indeed for any man once he becomes accustomed, than being in a company where pleasant and useful things are being discussed; and thus every group, including the artisans, should have someone to write down any useful remarks that may be made. But the Society's highest rule shall be to foster true love and trustfulness among its members, and not to express anything irritating, scornful, or insulting to others. Indeed, even rulers should eschew all insults unless nothing else is effective, since such behavior precludes the establishment of trust. No man shall be derided for a mistake, even if it be a serious one; rather, he should be gently admonished in a brotherly way, and at the same time, immediately and appropriately punished. Punishment shall consist in increased and heavier work, such as making a master work like a journeyman, or a journeyman like an apprentice.

The moral virtues shall be promulgated to their utmost and, as far as possible, according to the principle Octavii Pisani per gradus [of Octavius Pisa, by steps]. If it is observed that two people cannot settle their own dispute, they shall be separated. Lies will also be punished. Sed haec non omnia statim initio publicanda. [Let this, even though uncompleted, be published as a beginning.]

Meditations on Cognition, Truth and Ideas


Translated by Marianna Wertz

Since there is intense argument today among important men over true and false ideas, and since this question, which Descartes had never once satisfactorily resolved, is of great importance for cognition of the truth, therefore, I wish in a few words to explain what in my opinion is to be established about the distinctions and criteria of ideas and cognitions. A cognition is now either obscure or clear; the clear, in its turn, either confused or distinct; the distinct either inadequate or adequate, and likewise either symbolic or intuitive. The most perfect cognition is that which is at the same time adequate and intuitive.

A concept is obscure which does not sufficiently recognize the thing represented, as, for instance, if I call to mind a flower or an animal which I have seen once earlier, which is not enough to recognize it and to differentiate it from a similar one when I encounter it; or if I consider a Terminus, which in philosophy school is insufficiently explained as the Entelechy of Aristotle or reason, insofar as it is a common end for matter, form, effect, and other of such types, whereof we possess no precise definition, so too will the judgment come in obscure in such a concept. A cognition is clear, accordingly, when I possess it thus, that I can recognize it from its depiction--and this is again either confused or distinct. It is confused when I am not able to enumerate the individual characteristics, which suffice for differentiating one thing from others, though the thing possesses such characteristics and determinations in which its concept could be analyzed: Thus again do we perceive colors, odors, tastes and other particular sense objects indeed clearly enough and differentiate one from the others, however through a simple testimony of sense, but not through innate characteristics. Hence, we also cannot explain it to others, if we don't bring them before the actual things, in order that they see, smell or taste them--or if we don't at least call to mind an earlier, similar perception; although it certainly is such that the concepts of these qualities are complex and can be analyzed, since they possess their own causes. In a similar way we see how painters and other artists understand excellently, because of their experience, what is well or faultily made, and that yet they often cannot give reasons for their judgment and on questioning say they regretted something displeasing to them in the thing, but they knew not what.

A distinct concept, however, is one such as the assayers of gold have, on the basis of characteristics and probes, to be able to distinguish the thing from all other substances. We have such a concept usually of such characteristics which are common in several senses, like those of number, of size, of shape, and--in one word--of many emotions like hope and fear, finally of all that whereof we have a nominal definition, which is not other than an accounting of sufficient characteristics. Yet there is also a distinct cognition of an indefinable concept, when this, namely, is primitive and generally is the characteristic of itself, therefore, when it cannot be analyzed, only through its self is it known and thus possesses no more embracing exactitude. But since of course in complex concepts the separate characteristics are sometimes clear, but yet are understood only in a confused way, like weight, color, nitric acid content and others which appertain to the characteristics of gold, then is such a cognition indeed distinct, but still inadequate. But if all which goes into a distinct knowledge on the other hand can be distinctly known, if, consequently, the analysis is conducted through to an end, then is the cognition adequate; whether man can offer a perfect example of this I do not know, yet the knowledge of numbers comes very close to it.

But in the majority of cases, especially in a longer analysis, we survey the whole substance of the subject not at once, but rather we employ in place of the subject symbols, whose explanation, by thoughts for a moment of brevity we are accustomed half to omit, in doing which we know or believe that we are master of them: Then I consider, when I think perchance about a thousand-angled figure or a polygon with a thousand equal sides, not always the substance of the sides, the equality and number one thousand (or the third power of ten), rather I employ each of the words (whose sense at least hovers dark and deficient in my mind) in the mind in place of the ideas which I have of these things, since I remember that I know the meaning of these signs, but the explanation for the decision now consider unnecessary. One such cognition I am accustomed to calling blind or also symbolic; we make use of the same in algebra and arithmetic, indeed virtually everywhere. In fact, we cannot, if the concept is very complex, think on all its detailed features at the same time; where, however, that is possible, or at least insofar as it is possible, I call the concept intuitive. Of a distinct, original concept there is no other than an intuitive cognition, while the cognition of most complex concepts, if not already intuitive, is then at least a symbolic one.

From this it already becomes clear, that we only comprehend ideas of that which we distinctly know, insofar as we make use of intuitive thoughts. To be sure, it happens that we often erroneously assume that we had already explained true symbols which we utilize. Also, it is not true or not without ambiguity, if some assume we could not with understanding speak of a thing, without possessing its idea. For often we understand clearly the specific words, or we remember having once earlier understood them; since we nevertheless are content with these blind thoughts and don't sufficiently pursue the analysis of the concept, then it can happen that to us that it remains an obscure contradiction, which perhaps contains the complex concept.

For a more precise view of this thing I was first led to an argument, already made long ago by the famous scholastics, and renewed by Descartes, for the existence of God, which runs as follows: What follows from the idea or from the definition of a thing, can be affirmed from the thing. The existence follows from the idea of God, hence of the most perfect Being, of which one can think of none greater. (The most perfect Being, namely, includes all perfections, to which also existence belongs.) Consequently, existence can be affirmed from God. In fact, however, one must know that hence it follows only: if God is possible then out of this follows that He exists; for we cannot use definitions as anchors before we know that they are real definitions or that they contain no contradiction. The reason for this is that we can deduce from concepts which contain a contradiction opposites at the same time, which is absurd.

In order to explain this, I bring up the example of performing the fastest motion--which contains something absurd. For if we employ a wheel which turns with the fastest motion, who then doesn't see that a lengthened spoke on its end will move faster than a nail on the rim of the wheel? Contrary to assumption, therefore, the latter's motion is not the fastest. At first glance, meanwhile, it could so appear as if we had the idea of the fastest motion, because we understand absolutely what we say thereby, and yet we have absolutely no idea of impossible things. Just so, it does not suffice that we think to prove we are able to know the most perfect Being, that we had His idea, and the possibility of the most perfect Being must be either proved or assumed, as in the just cited demonstration, in order that we conclude correctly. Nonetheless, it is not truer than the fact that we not only possess the idea of God, but also that a perfect being is possible, indeed even necessary. The proof, however, is not sure and therefore already has been thrown out by the school of Aquinas.

Therewith we also have a difference between nominal definitions, which only include the symbols of a thing, in order to differentiate it from others, and real definitions, from which follows the possibility of a thing. In this manner it will also give satisfaction to Hobbes, who would admit all truths--because dependent on nominal definitions--as arbitrary; he considers not that reality is not in our discretion and that not all concepts may be combined with each other to one's liking. Nominal definitions do not suffice for perfect knowledge, if not established on other grounds that the defined thing be possible.

From this it also becomes clear what a true, what a false idea is; an idea is namely true, if its concept is possible, false if it contains a contradiction. We recognize the possibility of a thing {a priori} or {a posteriori,} and indeed {a priori,} if we analyze the concept into its components or into other concepts whose possibility is known, and if we know that in it nothing incompatible is contained; this is, for instance, the case, if we conceive how a thing can be produced; thereby are the causal definitions above all useful. But we recognize a thing {a posteriori} if we experience that the thing really exists; for what really exists or has existed is in any case possible. If one now possesses an adequate cognition, then he possesses also {a priori} a cognition of its possibility; for if one has carried out the analysis to the end and if then no contradiction is evident, then the concept is possible. Whether, however, a perfect analysis of a concept from first possibility to the impenetrable concepts is ever feasible for men, whether they (which means the same) can attribute their thoughts to the absolute attributes of God Himself, which are the first Cause and the last Reason of things, that might I now not venture to determine. Generally we are satisfied therewith, to have the reality of a certain concept shown through experience, in order then from that, according to the model of nature, to piece together other concepts.

I believe one can learn from this, that one is never safe to appeal to ideas and that many misuse these beautiful names, in order to support certain conceits; for we have not always exactly the idea to think about a thing of which we are conscious, which I have shown before in the example of the fastest motion. Not less does one practise today--as I see it--misuse of the most glorified principle: {What I comprehend clearly and distinctly from a thing that is true can be respectively affirmed from it.} Frequently, namely, that which appears clear and distinct to frivolously opinionated people is actually dark and obscure. The axiom is thus useless if it does not exhibit the criteria of clarity and distinctness known by us and if the truth of the idea is not certain.

Moreover, for the truth of assertions the rules of universal logic are not to be disdained, of which also the geometers make use, when they accept nothing as certain which is not proven through thorough experience or strict proof. But a proof is strict which accords with the prescribed form of logic; indeed it never needs the customary, scholarly syllogisms (like those Christian Herlinus and Conrad Dasypodius made in the first six books of Euclid), but the proof must yet for all that at least be determined by virtue of its form. As an example of such a proof conducted in strict form, you may also carry out whatever normal calculation pleases you; one may on this account leave out no necessary premiss, and all premisses must already either have been proven before or at least be accepted as hypotheses, in which latter case also the conclusion is hypothetical. He who considers this carefully will easily guard against deceptive ideas. Fully in accord therewith, the extremely sagacious Pascal said in his celebrated writing on the geometric mind (of which a fragment is contained in the excellent book of the famous Antoine Arnauld on the art of thinking), it is the duty of geometers to define all and any dark concepts and to prove all and any uncertain truths. I would only wish he had defined boundaries, across which a concept or a statement is no more in the least dark or uncertain. What is necessary here, one can conclude from attentive examination of what has been said by us, and to this we wish briefly now to apply ourselves.

What the controversial question involves, whether we all behold God (by the way, an older proposition which--rightly understood--is not entirely indefensible) or whether we also have our individual ideas, then is to consider that we necessarily--and if we all beheld God--must have had our individual ideas, for this reason not as small images but rather as agitations or changes of our mind, which conformed it with what we observed in God. Under all circumstances, that is, some change occurs in our minds whenever other thoughts crop up again; the ideas of the things, about which, however, we don't think directly, are in our minds as the form of Hercules in raw marble. In God, on the contrary, not only must the idea of absolute and infinite extension be real, but also the very form, which indeed is not other than a modification of absolute extension. In other respects, when we perceive colors or odors, we have thus thereby not other than the cognition of forms and movements, which indeed are so abundant and so tiny, that our mind does not suffice in its present condition to consider them detached and distinct, and therefore notices not that its cognition is only composed out of cognitions of the smallest forms and smallest movements. Thus we feel, when we perceive a green color, which is produced from the mixture of yellow and blue parts, not other than the intimate mixture of yellow and blue, likewise when we are not aware of it and in place of that, imagine that it were something new.

We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, and effort which no one can spare us.

— Marcel Proust

Proust was on to something.  I think there is profound truth to the notion that it is only through our own experience that we gain wisdom.  I also believe that there are certain kinds of experiences that are particularly suited to the development of wisdom.

Take a moment and think of someone whom you consider wise.  Perhaps it is a revered spiritual or political leader, a grandparent or one of your high school teachers, maybe a pastor or a college professor, or perhaps, as one medical student expressed, it is the person who cleans the hallways of the hospital at night.  What qualities or behaviors make you think they are wise?  Finally, how do you think that they got so wise?

Then, let’s back up for a minute.  What exactly is wisdom?  Truth be told, wisdom is not so easy to define in the abstract.  Why is that?  It may be, in part, because we understand wisdom in the context of a life, of decisions and actions, so it is difficult to define in the abstract.  This is, in part, why psychologists and sociologists have done research on wisdom by studying people who are exemplars of wisdom. This is not as easy as it might seem, because one of the characteristics of wise persons is humility, so a wise person is unlikely to say that they are wise.  Often, then, we identify these people by having other people nominate them, and it is interesting who gets on those lists. It can range from the Dalai Lama to Abraham Lincoln to Oprah Winfrey.

The other reason wisdom might be difficult to define is that wisdom actually has many dimensions.  I imagine that if I polled all of you about what qualities you selected as wise, we could create a long list of answers. Researchers have actually confirmed this, and the list includes things like compassion, ability to see the big picture, to put things in perspective, to see things from many points of view, to be able to reflect on and rise above one’s own perspective.  Wisdom is different from intelligence.  Intelligence seeks knowledge and seeks to eliminate ambiguity.  Wisdom on the other hand, resists automatic thinking, seeks to understand ambiguity better, to grasp the deeper meaning of what is known and to understand the limits of knowledge. (Sternberg).  Monika Ardelt is a modern wisdom researcher who has put all of these into a 3 dimensional model of wisdom: cognitive, reflective and affective.   The cognitive dimension includes the desire to deeply know and understand things, including the limits of our knowing.  The reflective dimension represents the capacity for self-reflection, and the capacity to see things from many perspectives.  The affective dimension of wisdom is empathy and compassion.  So, a wise person is one who desires to deeply understand things, who is humble and aware of the limitations of knowing, who can see things from many perspectives and avoids black and white thinking, and who radiates compassion.

Does Adversity Make Us Wise?

But how do we become wise? Think about that person that you identified at the beginning of this essay.  How do you think they got wise?  This question takes us back to Proust.  If no one can hand us wisdom on a silver platter, and we must discover this for ourselves through our own experiences, our own journey, what kind of experience might be the best teacher?  I would argue that for all the downsides of adversity, just like necessity is the mother of invention, adversity is the seedbed for wisdom.  What better teacher of compassion than one’s own experience of suffering?  How better to learn humility than to make a mistake?  And what better to discover the deeper meaning of one’s life than to face a circumstance that forces you to focus on that which is of most value to your life?  An unexpected turn of events is likely to help us to understand the ambiguity and uncertainty in life, and the limitations of our own perspective. But what evidence do we have that adversity can lead to wisdom?

When researcher Judith Glück and colleagues asked subjects to describe a situation in which they acted wisely, compared to a peak experience, they found that the wisdom situations more often involved difficult or negative events, implying that wisdom perhaps develops through the experience of adversity. Pascual Leone and colleagues described these challenging situations as “ultimate limit situations,” circumstances that “cannot be undone and are nonetheless faced with consciousness and resolve…situations like death, illness, aging, …absolute failure…uncontrollable fear.”  Psychologists Tedeschi and Calhoun have been studying this positive response to trauma for the past ten years, a phenomenon they call post-traumatic growth.  We’ve all heard of post-traumatic stress, but these researchers noted that when asked about how trauma might have changed them for the better, people began to describe the positive ways in which they had changed because of what they had lived through.  This complex set of changes fall into five domains: increased appreciation of life, warmer relations with others, recognition of new possibilities for one’s life, a greater sense of personal strength, and spiritual development.

Tedeschi and Calhoun suggest that trauma induces a disruption in our understanding of ourselves and the world (our schema) and that disruption forces us to re-work our understanding of ourselves and the world, resulting in learning and growth with the potential for wisdom as the final result. In the Wisdom in Medicine project we were interested in this question of whether moving through a difficult circumstance in a positive way can result in wisdom.  We studied patients who had coped with chronic pain, and physicians who had made a serious medical error. When asked what they had learned and how they had changed for the better because of their experience, they used the language of wisdom.  They talked about having increased compassion for others, increased capacity for forgiveness and humility, an increased desire to understand things, but also a deeper understanding of the ambiguous nature of things, and becoming more aware of the limitations of our knowledge.

Wisdom and Courageous Choices

Of course, not everyone who suffers through a difficult experience comes out with something positive.  In fact, you could argue, adversity is just as likely to make someone bitter, angry, cynical and entrenched as it is to make them compassionate, humble, more able to see things from other’s perspectives. So I will argue that it is not just adversity, but rather adversityplus the right matrix and the inner capacity to use that difficult experience in a positive way that leads to wisdom.

We asked the Wisdom in Medicine exemplars  “what helped?”, what made it easier for them to move positively through their difficult experiences?  Here’s a summary of what they told us.  Having a community, someone they could talk to, to tell their story, was important.  Cultivating gratitude and positive emotion, quiet reflection (whether meditation, mindfulness, prayer) was helpful.  Doing something positive, which often involved doing things for others, was helpful.  And having a moral or spiritual grounding helped to guide them through this process and helped them to “do the right thing” when it was hard.

There was something else surprising in the data.  As researchers we experienced an ah ha moment as we painstakingly combed through the data.  All of the exemplars had at one point made a choice, a conscious, deliberate choice to pursue something that was hard.  It may not have been what they really wanted to do, and certainly not something they thought would necessarily end up well.  But it was something they felt they had to do to set things straight.   They chose, in many cases, the harder course of action.  They chose to face their circumstances face on.  We say, they “stepped in”.  They may have decided to apologize to a patient or family, to go into a room full of intense judgment.  It might have meant that they had to face their addiction, or take control of their health.  At some point they made a courageouschoice to make a difference in their own lives.

But how did these exemplars have the courage and the capacity to make these choices?  I believe that the matrix in which we experience these difficult circumstances has a lot to do with how we move through them.  Researcher John Meachum talks about a wisdom atmosphereas being one in which doubts, uncertainties and questions can be openly expressed, and ambiguities and contradictions can be tolerated, so that individuals are not forced to adopt the defensive position of what he calls “too confident knowing”.

So, the next obvious question is, assuming that we think wisdom is worthy of pursuing as an individual, or a society, how do we foster wisdom?

I believe that we can, if we are intentional about it, foster an atmosphere of wisdom, in ourselves and in each other, and I believe it will help us along the path to wisdom when we face difficult circumstances.  When we foster compassion, empathy and forgiveness, in ourselves and in others, we are opening up the possibility for wisdom.  When we foster the capacity for self-reflection in our children, or our community, we are creating the matrix for wisdom to develop. When we foster gratitude, wisdom is likely to follow.  When we accept the complexity and ambiguous nature of things, and refuse to accept a simplified black and white explanation, we are increasing the likelihood of wise decisions.   Wisdom does not arise out of the easy, simple parts of our lives.  Wisdom lives in the most messy, hard, complex and painful of our experiences.

Rumi has some important advice.  In his poem The Guest House Rumi suggests that “this being human is a guest house”.  We need to welcome each guest, “even if they’re a crowd of sorrows who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture.”  He implores: “Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond”.

(Note: References are included in links in the article.)

Questions for Discussion

How might our educational system change if it was wisdom rather than knowledge that we were trying to develop in our children?

For those who are parents, how might your parenting foster wisdom in your children?

Can people be wise in one context and unwise in another, or is wisdom a deeper attribute that, once gained, is visible in all contexts?

Discussion Summary

In my initial “what is wisdom?” essay, I make the case that wisdom arises out of experience, and that adversity is an experience uniquely suited to the development of wisdom.  One of the first questions raised in our discussion was whether wisdom is innate in us as human beings, something that rather than receive or create, we discover or tap into.  This is not just a philosophical question, because what we think about this is directly relevant to how we approach the notion of teaching or fostering wisdom.  Discovery is a fundamentally different process than receiving or creating.

For some reason as I thought about this question I started thinking about hand me down clothes, something I am quite familiar with as the youngest of four kids.  We talk about wisdom being handed down through the generations, just like that beautiful dress that my older sister wore to her elementary school graduation.  When I first tried to wear it, it was way too big.  Everyone, including me, was quite aware that the dress was really not “mine” because it didn’t fit.  My aunt tried to alter it, but it was not until I wore it many times, got my own blueberry syrup stains on it, grew into it and in fact wore it down in certain places, and connected my own indelible memories to it that it really became my own.  Even then, it was not fully my own because it was imbued with the lived experience of my sister as well.  So now that dress really was “ours”.  I wonder if that is how wisdom is.  Others can offer wisdom, but it is really through our own experiences, particularly of adversity, that we discover our own capacities for wisdom and create wisdom in our own lives. The wisdom that results is connected to the wisdom of other human beings (those who offered wisdom and those who fostered the capacities for wisdom in us), so that wisdom is really “ours” not “mine”.

Which brings us to a deeper question of what does it mean to foster (or teach) wisdom?  Is it the same as teaching chemistry?

Pioneers in the field of education are beginning to take on the big questions of how to “teach” emotional awareness, emotional regulation, relational skills and mindful awareness to our children in schools, all capacities for the development of wisdom.  Linda Lantiere and others, including congressman Tim Ryan, are taking on this task in the schools of Youngstown Ohio.

I believe that we are at an evolutionary tipping point in regard to wisdom.  On the one hand, our technological age is pushing us in a direction which could undermine our capacity for attention, a quiet mind, relationality and compassion.  Our love affair with science, reductionism and evidence has, over the past century, sidelined those things which are harder to measure, like love, compassion, relationality, contemplation and spirituality.

On the other hand, we are on the brink of an explosion of scientific investigation into these previously off limits topics, and both contemplative practice and contemplative science are growing exponentially.  We are beginning to embrace the importance of compassion and wisdom in ways we have not seen before.  I just returned from a conference at Virginia Tech (http://www.cpe.vt.edu/cpts/) that was all about bringing contemplative practice into our highly technologic world.  It was a fascinating and energizing two days.

So here are the new big questions:

How do we foster wisdom (capacities for reflection, compassion, humility) in our current technological age?   How do we foster the capacity for reflection in a world where technology provides continuous bombardment of information, where multitasking threatens our capacity for attention?  How do we foster compassion in a world in which relationships are more commonly “on line” than “in person”, where we are desensitized to suffering through constant exposure to “unreal” violence through video games, and where death can be delayed seemingly endlessly by technological advances?  How do we foster humility, an understanding of the limits of our knowing, and a sense of our common vulnerability in an age where knowledge of everything seems possible, even at our fingertips, and where the human being’s command over our environment limits our vulnerability in everyday life.  All of these challenges exist in a context of increasing awareness of the importance of these capacities for human flourishing.  These are indeed exciting times for wisdom enthusiasts.


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