What is Wisdom?

So, I promised that I’d write more about each of the virtues that I’d put forth concerning masculinity. I already wrote a little about courage, though probably not nearly enough, and the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be wise. This is not to say that I’ve actually come to a conclusion about it, but I have some thoughts. First, I think we often confuse knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Every journalist knows that there are six (not five) important questions: who, what, when, where, how, and why. I think that these questions also provide a good progressive exemplar for the differences between the above terms. Knowledge is simple information that has been memorized. A person with knowledge can determine the who, what, or where of a question, perhaps the when of a historical question, but he can’t go beyond this point. The knowledgeable man has only plain information at his disposal. A man with understanding not only can determine the who and what, but also the where and importantly the how of a question. While knowledge provides only rote information, understanding brings with it the ability to apply that information. For instance, a man with the knowledge of punching may be able to tell you what a punch is or where to hit someone, but he can’t show you how to actually throw an effective punch. This requires understanding. Understanding moves this person from simple knowledge of what a punch is to the ability to use that knowledge effectively. Wisdom, however, adds a third dimension: the when and why.

That is to say, in my example of the punching man, a man with wisdom will not only be able to throw an effective punch, but will be able to determine when it is good to throw that punch. He can answer the question ‘why would you punch someone’. This is, I think, exceedingly rare. Many people, like Richard Dawkins, dismiss the why questions of life as entirely unimportant (perhaps one of the greatest mistakes I’ve seen anyone make). Many others never even reach the point of considering the why questions of life. It’s not that these people have dismissed the questions as unimportant, it’s that they’ve never even considered whether the why questions might be important. So, having said this, I’m not at all sure that I’m wise. Being wise requires not only knowing enough to ask the why questions, but being able to answer them. Honestly, I don’t think that I have many meaningful answers. I can pretty easily give a lecture about what lots of other people think about a particular question, and there are some question that I can even tell you what I think, but to actually answer a why question. I don’t know about that.

About a week ago a friend called me ‘a wise man’. I responded by saying, ‘I make too many mistakes to be wise’. He asked, ‘Isn’t that how you become wise?’ When he asked that question I realized that I honestly didn’t have an answer. I have the beginnings of an idea of what wisdom is, but I can’t really say how one actually becomes wise. There are lots of people in the world with lots of opinions, and I’m fairly sure that wisdom means ignoring 90% of them. However, even with that tongue in cheek definition, I’m not entirely sure how to actually do that. Don’t get me wrong, I can ignore people with the best of them, but actually knowing who to ignore and who to listen to is another issue entirely. Take the current scandal involving Mark Driscoll, while it’s fairly clear that Driscoll hasn’t been particularly careful with his writing, there are a hundred different opinions ranging from people screaming for his resignation to people claiming that he didn’t do it in the first place to people claiming that even if he did, it wasn’t wrong. The sheer amount of voices is quickly overwhelming (I spent 3 hours last night just reading about this), not to mention the people connecting this to his teaching on Esther and his views of women in general.

So, how do we begin to parse this situation? Does a wise man simply sit back and wait? Perhaps for a while, but certainly not forever. A wise man is not an eternally passive man. However, we can say that the wise man knows when to act. A man with understanding might know what to do, but a wise man can see when to do it. He knows when to wait and when to step forward. He knows when to listen and when to speak. This isn’t an easy thing. I think that’s all I’ve got for now. I definitely need to think about this more.