What does it mean to be wise?
Do we just learn more and more facts until eventually, we know so much that we are inevitably wiser? Look around you, the highly respected academics, advisers and some of their preposterous theories? Clever maybe, but not wise.
Do we just gain more experience of the world, of doing things, of managing people, getting our way? Look around you, the top businessmen and politicians – are they managing the world wisely? Cunning maybe, but not wise – although there are remarkable exceptions with obvious wisdom: Mandela, Havel, King, Gandhi… but the list soon runs out.
Do we become judges, so that we weigh complex matters of law in the balance? The judgement of Solomon? Well actually judges seem so constrained by the laws they administer and their ‘sentencing guidelines’, do they actually have the room to be wise? Whatever happened to natural justice?
Do we just live our lives and relate honestly to other people, making the best contribution we can? Think of the neighbours, friends, the family, people you meet shopping? Well a few maybe a, but not in general.
Do we follow a religion and in so doing become good and wise? History shows a lot of examples of religious people doing the exact opposite of wise, but again there have been highly respected exemplars, such as the occasional pope and saint.
Do we simply wait until we get older and become wiser? Well many older people just become encrusted with habitual behaviours, so no guarantees there.
Look at it psychologically. From childhood we develop the psychological ego, which enables us to function in the world. Along with that we develop facility in language, which enables us to be ‘educated’ and to rationalise everything, but tends to distance us from the reality of experience. This enables us to function in modern societies.
However, I suggest that rationalising and language are not the route to wisdom. Wisdom comes from perceiving a situation in its essential whole and doing what is needed for the whole (ie not for the ego), which may be nothing. Rational analysis may be relevant, but will not provide the answer.
So to be wise we must have moved in some degree beyond that attachment to the rationalising ego. In fact we must be operating from our true inner selves.
Evidence suggests that people following some sort of spiritual path, perhaps involving techniques such as meditation which help to see and then detach from the ego, will eventually get more in touch with that inner self – and that is the route to wisdom. This is usually, but not always, a long process – hence there is some association of wisdom with older age. Indeed the infirmities that beset the body as it ages bring the receptive person right up against the illusions of ego, ‘encouraging’ this process.
So, indeed, as in traditional societies, ‘elders’ can be wise – hence the wisdom of the World Council of Elders initiative.
[Looking at our own UK parliament, the famous unwritten constitution has at its heart the ‘House of Lords’, which performs a valuable service in providing a leavening of (hopefully) wisdom to the more youthful follies of the government of the day and the House of Commons. Shame then, that despite some recent progress, key criteria for Party Leaders topping up the population of ‘Lords’ appear to continue to be political subservience and money donation, rather than wisdom. ]
One could almost say that the purpose of human life itself is to go through this process of ego development and then ego dissolution, to become a truly wise person – to make the best contribution to an increasingly wise society.