"Our wisdom comes from our experience and our experience comes from our foolishness."


Wisdom and cleverness

What is wisdom? Perhaps a good place to start is the misconception that wisdom and cleverness are similar, differing only in degree. On the contrary, I think cleverness is actually inimical to developing wisdom. The incidence of highly intelligent people who are also unquestionably neurotic and make a mess of their private lives, is suggestive of this. It is instructive to compare the different characteristics of wisdom and cleverness.

Some characteristics of wisdom:
1) timeless, free of any particular context
2) intuitive - rather than intellectual or rational
3) free of the ego
4) relates to understanding rather than knowledge
5) deep - on a completely different level to cleverness
6) non-directed, without any goal, purpose or ulterior motive
7) synthetic, holistic, integrated
8) there is an element of "going with the flow"
9) it is characterised by moderation, the middle path
10) accepting of reality, comes to terms with how things really are; based in experience.
11) impartial, objective
12) puts things in perspective.

Some characteristics of cleverness:
1) often context-dependent and compartmentalised
2) rational thinking ability, mainly left-brained
3) can be ego-driven and infatuated with itself, smart-alecky
4) relies on knowledge
5) often superficial
6) it is a means to something else (perhaps only to gratify the ego), purposive
7) analytical
8) may involve doing violence to the context or material, such as breaking the rules or "going against the grain"
9) seen in speed of thinking
10) involves resourceful manipulation of elements
11) akin to cunning, can be devious
12) relies on memory
13) seen in showy brilliance
14) can be cynical.

Cleverness seems more like left-brain (linear) or yang thinking, whereas wisdom appears more like right-brain (holistic) or yin thinking.

I work as a computer programmer and so I am daily - sometimes painfully - reminded of the difference between what is logical (what the machine does) and what is reasonable (what I want it to do). There is a similar difference between cleverness and wisdom. Cleverness without wisdom is intellectual capacity without something higher to guide it. Referring to the gross misconceptions of Western intellectuals about China, Pierre Rychmans observed, "There's little relationship between intelligence and apprehension of truth."

Wisdom and experience

One thinker who strikes me as having an uncommon measure of wisdom is the modern Indian philosopher Krishnamurti. He asks whether experience makes us wise. Krishnamurti's answer is that learning through experience is merely the accumulation of conditioning:
But have we learnt about war through making war? We have learnt to make war more deadly, more efficient, but we haven't learnt not to make war. Our experience in warfare endangers the survival of the human race. Is this learning? You may build a better house, but has experience taught you how to live more nobly inside it?

Experience has taught us to have better food, clothes and shelter, but it has not taught us that social injustice prevents the right relationship between man and man. So experience conditions and strengthens our prejudices, our peculiar tendencies and our particular dogmas and beliefs.

Experience teaches me to strengthen the family as a unit opposed to society and to other families. This brings about strife and division, which makes it ever more important to strengthen the family protectively, and so the vicious circle continues.

Thus unreflective people do not become reflective when life gives them a hard lesson. They'll try to handle it in their normal way, i.e. through action or denial. Another instance of what Krishnamurti describes is the practice of 'fagging', whereby junior boys in a boarding school are bullied and abused by their elders. When these boys are older they continue the pattern. In other words their pain and humiliation has taught them to mete out the same to others, not that it is wrong to do it in the first place. The same pattern is apparent in men who are violent in the home - they were mostly beaten by their own fathers. Israel is another example. You would think that after centuries of persecution that the Jews would know all about racism and be particularly sensitive to it. Yet their treatment of the Arabs in the Jewish state is reminiscent of what they themselves received in the past.

According to Krishnamurti, true learning - wisdom - is observation without accumulation, and is not directed from the past. Fromm calls this learning in the being mode, where we are open to experience, rather than trying to capture and hold onto it. When we meet a new person, one possible response is to categorise them as being a certain type, whether positive or negative. In the being mode we simply pay attention to the person in an open way.

Wisdom and books

Can wisdom be found in books, or humble articles, for that matter? My answer is, "Yes, but..." Through experiences as a human being, a writer acquires a certain store of wisdom. In so far as this can be expressed in words, wisdom can be found in the book that is written. Though it is hard to acquire wisdom and nearly as hard to put it into words, there is a greater obstacle. Namely that the reader will only recognise the wisdom of what they read if it resonates with their own experience, that is if their life and personal development have prepared them to understand it. Perhaps it isn't an overstatement to say that the most any book can do is to help the reader recognise the wisdom they have already. Orwell wrote that the best books tell us what we already know. Wisdom does not reside in symbols on a piece of paper but in the minds of the author and of the reader who understands what they read.

Even if all goes well - the author has a piece of wisdom, which they are able to convey to a reader, who has the requisite preparation - this may still be to no avail. It can remain merely at the level of intellectual insight, however clever or deep it may be. The piece of wisdom will only make a difference if the reader is able to assimilate it into their being. Note that unlike with wisdom, one can directly teach techniques, skills and facts by means of books.

A writer can do no more than present a verbal description of their wisdom. This picture is at the level of knowledge. It is up to the reader to transform this into understanding in their own mind. The crucial and far more difficult step is to integrate it to the level of wisdom, a level of intuition rather than of rational thought. We often know that a certain course of action is the appropriate one without thinking about it. An esteemed friend of mine expressed this by saying that though it is OK to think and deliberate about minor decisions, in important ones it is unwise to do so.

Let us turn to specifics. I consider the following statement to embody a deep wisdom: that the one freedom which cannot be taken away from us is our choice of response to the situation we are in. I am able to see the correctness of this statement and I appreciate its fundamental nature. Yet I find it really difficult to apply in my life. Instead of it becoming a part of my store of wisdom, it remains at the level of intellectual insight.

As for oral transmission, it is probably not much more effective than writing in passing on wisdom. That is why every new generation needs to learn its lessons the hard way. We cannot start off at the point our parents have reached. Each new being begins the task of learning afresh and on their own. The most important learning comes mainly from their own experience, not from what others have learnt. All this duplication seems a great shame, but that's the way of the world.

From knowledge to wisdom

One can identify three separate levels of the recognition of truth: knowledge, understanding, wisdom. It is knowledge that a particular billboard is green, or that the Christians drove the Moors out of Spain in the 15th century. Understanding is something different. It represents an integration of knowledge so that patterns are recognised, from which inferences can be made. Another way to look at understanding is that it is the perception of meaning. Wisdom itself is different again, representing a deeper level of integration of truth, one that goes beyond merely intellectual processes.

To illustrate these differences, take the statement about our freedom to choose our response, quoted above. If I read and remember this statement, that is knowledge. My knowledge can include an awareness of where this insight comes from, how it forms a part of some philosophy etc. Understanding is an intellectual grasp of how the statement applies to daily life situations. Wisdom is not understanding this insight but living it. In fact one may have the wisdom without being able to put it into words. Thus at each point there is a greater integration and a deeper realisation of the truth in question.

Wisdom is an entirely different level of experiencing truth than are knowledge or understanding. Wisdom is something lived, not something known. We sometimes do things that we know are not good for us, yet we do them anyway. With wisdom it is different: it makes no sense at all to say, "He is a wise man but he does stupid things." A wise person lives wisely, that is the proof of wisdom. Wisdom is living intelligently, which means more than being effective in daily life. It means that our basic priorities are well chosen and that we live by them.

As a computer programmer, I intellectually understand that when one of my programs does something bizarre, that this is because I have unwittingly written the instructions for the machine to behave in this unwanted way. Wisdom would be a reflexive and intuitive realisation of this.

I have intentionally chosen a trivial example because I want to stress that wisdom is truth lived, whether that truth is superficial or profound.

Doing our best

To approach some idea of what wisdom is, we need to take into account levels of assimilation of learning, in particular to distinguish between intellectual and felt beliefs. Thus I may believe something intellectually, e.g. that it is much better to be open with others, but unless this is a felt belief, it will probably have only a marginal influence on my behaviour. On the other hand, a felt belief is so integrated that we follow it spontaneously. This is analogous to being unconsciously proficient in a skill, such as riding a bike or counselling.

Louise Hay and other New Age people state that all of us are always doing the best we can, that if we knew how to do better we would. I think this is untrue. We often do things that we know are unwise, not because we don't know any better but because of a failure of will, lack of motivation, lack of caring, the desire for immediate gratification, or some other psychological factor. People commit crimes knowing that they are doing the wrong thing. So how can we say that such people are doing the best they know how?

Perhaps the answer is to be found in the difference between knowing and being wise. Knowing something (e.g. that smoking is harmful) at the level of knowledge may or may not make a difference to our behaviour. Knowing something on the level of wisdom, i.e. when it is integrated to the level of living the knowledge, is another matter. Thus a person who truly feels that taking a puff would damage their lungs simply will not do so.

Awareness of AIDS is an illustrative example. John Lankiewicz, a fellow of the London Institute of Human Sexuality, said, "... it seems to me that a lot of young people, heterosexuals, know about HIV, know what they 'ought to be doing' and then don't do it. Like everyone knows about smoking, or drinking, or seatbelts in cars. The relationship between knowing and taking these things into account in practice is a loose one."

Clare Campbell commented on youth awareness of AIDS in the 1980s, "It's still: It won't happen to me. Which is why it's increasing so dramatically... [My daughters] get biology lessons, and I noticed some stuff about AIDS, how it's transmitted. But I don't think they're taking it in. They'll reproduce it for an exam, but I don't think it affects their behaviour... What they see on adverts has nothing to do with them, nothing do with the guy they're meeting tonight."

One eighteen-year-old man, Stuart, stated he wasn't worried about AIDS: "In the end it's as simple as this: I don't care, I literally don't care. If I am supposed to die of AIDS then I will. That's the way I think. Whichever way my fate lies, then that's it. AIDS or whatever."

Kim West: "In theory, every single person I meet, I'll be using a condom. But if it turns into a relationship, I'll say let's have an AIDS test, then go for it, don't use a condom. But I know in my heart that's not going to happen. Every time I'll take the risk."

I saw an anti-smoking poster that showed a woman with a blackened face, with the caption: "If smoking did this to your outside you wouldn't smoke." I thought this was a very powerful message and it captures an important truth. It's a variant on 'What you don't see doesn't hurt you'. I think we are all guilty of this fallacy. To the extent that we do so, we are not wise.

Montaigne wrote, "We can be knowledgeable with other men's knowledge, but we cannot be wise with other men's wisdom."

Amiel stresses the depth of integration of truth necessary for us to be wise:

Only those truths which have entered into this last region, which have become ourselves, become spontaneous and involuntary as well as voluntary, unconscious as well as conscious, are really our life - that is to say, something more than property. So long as we are able to distinguish any space whatever between Truth and us we remain outside it.

Eknath Easwaran explains the meaning of the Sanskrit word, shraddha, usually translated as 'faith':
It is literally "that which is placed in the heart": all beliefs we hold so deeply that we never think to question them. It is the set of values, axioms, prejudices, and prepossessions that colors our responses, and shapes our lives, generally without our even being aware of its presence and power.

When a piece of valid knowledge is added to our shraddha, it becomes part of our wisdom.

All of us know that we will die. Yet how many of us unwittingly hold ourselves to be immortal in our hearts? This accounts for the prevalence of behaviours like unsafe sex, dangerous driving and drug abuse. Not to mention the soldier who goes off to war believing that not he, but the man next to him will be killed.

A word from the heart

Wisdom must somehow encompass living from the heart. It is better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all. We are faced with the eternal conflict between head and heart. Perhaps the solution is to be sensible, but only in moderation. So if wisdom is knowledge lived, then it needs to be the knowledge of the heart, as well as that of the head.

Personal growth

It is instructive to look at knowledge, understanding and wisdom in the context of personal growth. Personal growth may be defined as a process of self-change in the direction of living wisely. I may be aware of some quality or trait in myself that I dislike. I may even have a deep understanding of its causes. Yet all this is of little benefit unless it helps me to modify or ameliorate the problem in question.

I may be well aware that I have a rejection complex or that I project nastiness onto another person, but this is not the sort of awareness that allows me to eliminate my psychological problem. My thinking about an unconscious process does not render it conscious, nor does my knowledge stop its operation.

Self-knowledge is not enough. It's like the story of the man with the super-intelligent dog: "She understands every word I say. The only problem is she takes no notice." All too often, I have caught myself being such a super-intelligent dog.

On the other hand, if I achieve a measure of wisdom in some area of my life then my behaviour will change accordingly. Self-knowledge is, "I do X...". Self-understanding is, "I do X because of..." Wisdom is, "X is harmful and I will not do it." Yet this explanation obscures the essential point - that wisdom is not a statement or a thought; instead it is found in being and in action. In other words, the person who has grown doesn't necessarily see more clearly or understand more - they are different.

Carl Rogers writes about effective therapy:

These moments of immediate, full, accepted experiencing are in some sense almost irreversible... Once an experience is fully in awareness, fully accepted, then it can be coped with effectively, like any other clear reality... It is always recognised for what it is when it recurs.

An example of wisdom was the conclusion of a friend of mine that it is important to be kind to one's parents, because once they die nothing more can be done. Such regrets can haunt one for life. A person who lives this piece of wisdom will behave differently towards their parents from one who doesn't.

Are we becoming wiser?

While it seems that human nature has not improved during recorded history, society has. Nowadays, a number of important ideas are taken for granted and are implemented in Western societies: the rights of the individual; religious, cultural and political tolerance; decrease of sexual repression; the fight against racism; the welfare state; the equality of women; free education for all; and many others. Society is less cruel and is no longer the possession and plaything of arbitrary rulers claiming divine rights. It took five thousand years of history before the emergence of the first organisation concerned with human rights irrespective of national boundaries. Yet now that a number of such organisations exist, the mental climate is different. Even the growth of cynicism has its plus side - people are far less gullible than they were fifty years ago.

Short of a major cataclysm that would usher in a new dark age, this social progress cannot be turned back. The rabid conservative of today would have been seen as a radical libertarian two hundred years ago. Each person born into our society starts well ahead of anyone born in 1600 AD in terms of the humanitarian values that are all around them. This humanistic climate ensures that the individual has a better chance of acquiring wisdom. Or does it? The riots in Los Angeles, widespread drug abuse, ever increasing crime, and the unspeakable brutalities daily occurring in Bosnia raise serious doubts. On a more mundane level, are people in Australia living their lives more wisely now than a hundred or two hundred years ago? I think it is an open question.

The getting of wisdom

If neither book learning, personal instruction, nor experience in general are reliable teachers of wisdom, then how do we learn wisdom? The traditional answer is that suffering is the great teacher of mankind. This is because suffering forces the individual to make changes. Being able to affect habits of thought and feeling, suffering has the power to break down the old ways. But is suffering the only teacher able to break through the protective shell our ego builds around our ignorance?

In certain circumstances, an experience and my reflection on it may make a positive change to my shraddha, to what I "hold in my heart". For this to happen, some kind of prior preparation for the change is essential. Openness and willingness to learn probably facilitate the process. Powerful new experiences, whether pleasant or painful, are likely to initiate the process. Yet even extreme suffering does not necessarily imbibe wisdom. This is shown by people who suffer from mammoth depressions or those who are broken by traumatic experiences. While Victor Frankl was enlightened by his stay at a concentration camp, others were psychologically crushed by the same experience. I believe it is much easier to say what wisdom is than to describe how it is acquired.

Another suggestion is that great art has the power to take us out of ourselves so that we can acquire new wisdom. I don't think it can. We only respond to what we are prepared for. We only take in what we are ready to receive. I am reminded of Krishnamurti's dictum that experience confirms whatever we happen to believe. For example, when people were shown a sympathetic film about a black child, those who were already positive about black people had their attitudes strengthened, but so did those holding racist views. The same applies to any play or film that we see - we merely fit it in somewhere within our world view. What does not fit is rejected.


Wisdom is only a distant relative of cleverness. Experience is not a reliable teacher of wisdom. Instead, it may deepen us in our folly. Wisdom cannot really be imparted by one person to another. Intellectual beliefs do not make us wise; only felt beliefs reliably shape our behaviour. Wisdom is a deeper level of integration of truth than are knowledge or understanding. Wisdom is not something thought but something lived. To be wise is to live intelligently. While society might be seen as becoming wiser during the course of history, it is far from clear that this is also true of the individuals that comprise it. As for how we acquire wisdom, this is an open question.

Tad Boniecki

Wise sayings

The alert reader will have noticed that I have used the word 'wisdom' in at least two quite different senses. Firstly, I used it to mean insight of a fundamental nature. Secondly, I used the word to mean knowledge of truth that is lived, not just thought. Both meanings are important and are used when people talk about wisdom. By way of coda, I return to the first meaning, wisdom as profundity.

Here is my selection of the wisest and most profound quotes I have come across. Obviously this is an entirely subjective and personal compilation. These quotes probably represent the things I most need to learn. I begin with my favourite aphorism.

Nothing human is alien to me.

- Terence (190-159 BC)

Whenever there is other, there is fear.

- the Upanishads

No-one can humiliate you, only you can humiliate yourself.

- imprisoned Russian dissident

To the pure all is pure.

Relationship is the mirror in which we discover ourselves.

- Krishnamurti

The criterion of erotic love is that I love from the essence of my being and experience the other person in the essence of their being.

- Erich Fromm

Every real experience of the self involves a defeat for the ego.

- Jung

The only time we grow is when we face a fear.

He who takes the sure road is as good as dead.

- Jung

The reason why we don't see reality are the noises of the mind.
- Krishnamurti

It does not take much strength to do things, but it requires great strength to decide on what to do.
- Elbert Hubbard

It is a terrible, an inexorable law, that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one's own.
- James Baldwin

Carpe diem! - (Seize the day!)
- Roman saying

We should strive to be objective about ourselves and subjective about others.
- Soren Kierkegaard

Personality is nothing but the set of barriers we erect between ourselves and other people.
- Tibetan Buddhism

We teach what we most need to learn.

He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.

Happiness is largely a matter of where you place your attention.

- Tristine Rainer

The incentive to all action is the search for happiness, and the only difference between the saint and the sinner is that the former searches the direct way and the latter the indirect way.
- Rutledge

You can never get enough of what you don't really need.

The purpose of the ego is to resist change.

Where love is, the self is not.

- Krishnamurti

Some 2,300 years ago, Mencius was asked to explain the paradox that while we are all equally human, some are great men, others little men. His reply: "Those who follow that part of themselves which is great are great men; those who follow that part which is little are little men."

All paths lead nowhere. Therefore choose the path with heart.

- Don Juan quoted by Carlos Castaneda

Freedom is a state of mind in which there is no fear or compulsion, no urge to be secure, The moment we want to be something, we are no longer free.
- Krishnamurti

Freedom is the absence of choice.
- Sufi saying

Knowledge is like an island. The bigger the island, the greater the shore of the unknown.

All that is not given is lost.

- Indian proverb

The selfish person is one lacking in self-love, who greedily pursues the satisfactions they block themselves from attaining.
- Erich Fromm

Life is like a bridge. Cross it, but don't try to build your house on it.
- Indian proverb

Our economics does not operate as if people mattered.
- Maybury-Lewis

We prefer to be right than to be happy.

There is no better idea of rationality than that of a readiness to accept criticism.

- Karl Popper

Opportunities for personal growth coming from the environment are called upsets.

The freedom to let oneself be known is also the freedom to be oneself.

- Montague Ullman

That which is most personal is most general.
- Carl Rogers

No success can compensate for failure at home.

There are two sentences inscribed upon the ancient oracle: "Know thyself" and "Nothing too much"; and upon these all other precepts depend.

- Plutarch

Men want certainty, not truth.
- Bertrand Russell

The only security is courage.
- La Rochefoucauld

When you think you have got it you can be sure that's not it.
- Walter Bellin

The facts are always friendly... Being closer to the truth can never be harmful or unsatisfying.
- Carl Rogers

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.
- Albert Einstein

Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian poet and philosopher, wrote this about death:
My mind must realise itself anew. Once I give form to my thought, I must free myself from it. For the time being it seems to me that I want absolute freedom to create new forms for new ideas. I am sure physical death has the same meaning for us - the creative impulse of our soul must have new forms for its realisation. Death can continue to dwell in the same sepulchre, but Life must increasingly outgrow its dwelling-place; otherwise the form gets the upper hand and becomes a prison. Man is immortal; therefore he must die endlessly. For Life is a creative idea; it can only find itself in changing forms.

I said, 'Never did I ask to go that road, never did I wish to be here with you, gone with you.' Jesus said, 'Always you wished it, and most of all when you put hand and foot to that ladder of love and pleasure. In your soul you called to me, you longed for me when you climbed that ladder. With eager hands you reached for pleasure and held it fast but whoever holds on wishes to let go because attachment is not wholeness: the only wholeness is in being with everything and attached to nothing; the only wholeness is in letting go, and I am the letting go.'
- from the novel 'Pilgermann' by Russell Hoban

Ayam atman brahman.
("The Self is one with Being", or "The soul and the world are not two", or "Subject and object are one".)
- the Upanishads

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