If you look up the word wisdom you will find that its definition is ‘knowledge’, and that to be wise is to ‘have and to use knowledge.’ Aristotle described two types of wisdom, the first being what we would now call scientific knowledge, and the second he called Practical Wisdom. This is the knowledge you need to have to live your life well.
Human history is full of people who have been called wise because they seemed to understand the answers to the problems of life. It has long been acknowledged that wisdom increases with age, as people learn from their own, and other’s mistakes, and sort out what works and what doesn’t. Most of these wise people were not scholars and historians, but some were, and because they wrote down what they discovered about how to live life well, they passed on that knowledge, their wisdom. Over the many centuries this knowledge has been added to and built on, as scholars, priests and thoughtful people have confronted the inevitable questions of what it is to live life well.
So wisdom is knowing how to think about life problems in a way that taps into the knowledge that we as humans have collected over our history, and then using it in a way that takes the unique circumstances of the here and now into account. Since wisdom is knowledge, it is not opinion. Knowledge is backed up by evidence.
Wisdom is also about what is right and true. When we speak about living well it is within the framework of ethics, of universal principles of what is the right way to act. The idea of living your life well, is firmly grounded in the reality that humans live their lives in families and communities. We are social and relational and do not flourish alone. Practical Wisdom addresses the problems of those relationships, of competing demands and desires, distribution of time and resources and how to treat each other so all have a chance to live good lives.
Like all knowledge Practical Wisdom is something we need to learn. Socrates said that the unexamined life was not worth living. I think that the unexamined life is one that puts you at risk of repeating the same mistakes. Of missing out on the possibilities that emerge, when you critically reflect on your worldview and core beliefs, your self and the way you live your life. We can’t do this on our own. Wisdom is learnt through the experience and the knowledge of others being synthesised through our own understanding of ourselves and our values.
A highly respected twentieth century philosopher, Martha Nussbaum said that the whole point of philosophy is human flourishing. Given that the search for wisdom is the main task of philosophy, it would seem to me to be a sensible place to start. Many modern philosophers have turned their attention to how they can bring wisdom to the community, and they have developed the idea of the Philosophical Practice. An opportunity ‘to draw on thousands of years of thinking, and the insights of some of history’s wisest minds, who have left guidelines for us to use’.[Lou Marinoff, 1999.p5.]
Philosophies for Living is a Philosophical Practice offering support to those seeking Practical Wisdom in their lives.