“A powerful tide is surging across much of the world today, creating a new, often bizarre environment in which to work, play, marry, raise children, or retire. In this bewildering context, businessmen swim against highly erratic economic currents; politicians see their ratings bob wildly up and down.Value systems splinter and crash, while the lifeboats of family, church, and state are hurled madly about.” —Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave
1-Sources of Modern Conflict
We live in a society deeply troubled and increasingly distressed, partly because we have refused to accept a definition of what constitutes “truth”.
For some, True is what is sincerely believed; for others, True is what is scientifically proven. Some believe that the True is what works, and others define Truth as that which sells.
One solution is to substitute Wisdom for Truth. Can’t we all agree that, whatever sources and methods will give us ultimate truth, we can certainly learn wisdom from many (perhaps most) sources?
From ancients to moderns, our sages have urged us on a pursuit of wisdom. Stephen Covey recommends that people make a lifetime study of the great “wisdom literature,” a profound term for the classics and great books of human history. Indeed, the idea of wisdom literature narrows the classics that must be read and simultaneously broadens the list of books that should be considered “great.”
Plato considered wisdom the ruler of all other virtues, and Socrates dedicated his life to showing that no men were entirely wise. He said that humility is necessary for wisdom, and that only God is truly wise. Both the Greeks and the Hebrews were seekers of wisdom. Sophocles wrote, “Wisdom is the supreme part of happiness,” and Aristotle agreed.
Interestingly, as Mortimer Adler points out:
“Wisdom is more frequently and extensively the subject of discussion in the ancient and medieval than in the modern books. The ancients seem to have…a greater interest in understanding what wisdom is and how it can be gained.”
We may well have lost much wisdom simply because it is not a priority in modern times.Is it any wonder that we don’t find what we aren’t even seeking? We don’t begin to approach the ideal that we never aspire to.
“In the tradition of the great books, the moderns usually assert their superiority over the ancients in all the arts and sciences. They seldom claim superiority in wisdom. With the centuries, far from increasing, wisdom may be lost.”
A unique and potent feature of wisdom is that it “cannot be misused”—unlike art, science, technology, leadership skills, knowledge, courage, loyalty, belief and power. All of these have at times been used for destructive or narcissistic goals, but any misuse of wisdom is patently un-wise, and therefore a counterfeit.10 Real wisdom is always, by definition, used positively—wisely.
Art, science, religion, mathematics—all celebrate wisdom, and all profess to seek wisdom. Yet few textbooks or academic manuals make any claim to it. Modern scholars are not expected to be wise. They are instead asked to be expert, focused, precise and prolific, among other things—but seeking wisdom is often a dangerous tact in many modern academic settings.
And our culture does little to learn wisdom from its elderly, despite the fact that this was the major source of wisdom for most people in history.
2-The Fall and Decline of a Primary Value: Wisdom
Some historical societies have placed duty as the highest goal, while others emphasized righteousness, and still others strength or progress. All of these require wisdom. For example, to paraphrase Aristotle, if a society’s definition of duty, righteousness, strength or progress is noble, then seeking duty, righteousness, progress or strength is laudable.11 But if the society’s definition of these things is bad, then seeking them is mere “cleverness.”
A society like ours that frequently puts success as the highest priority needs a wise definition of success. Otherwise, seeking success is merely selfishness.
A wise definition of success necessarily includes genuine happiness. In other words, part of wisdom is prudence, which includes the ability and habit of seeing how the lessons of the past and events now occurring will most likely impact the future and allow us to provide for it. Another vital part of wisdom is knowledge, and still another is understanding.
Aristotle went a step further: “…it is impossible to be practically wise without being good…”
Socrates says that no talents, strengths, abilities or virtues are of any real value absent of wisdom. Wisdom strengthens every other strength, and its absence nullifies or at least weakens any supposed strength. Socrates says that “…everything the soul attempts, under the guidance of wisdom ends in happiness.” Aristotle applies this same thing to nations.
Wisdom is the indispensable element of success—personal, national, societal.
Likewise, for those who see progress as highest goal of society, a wise definition and application of progress is needed. Progressives at times forget this, as do those seeking success. While some have defined progress in terms of economic justice, others have put it more in terms of political liberty.
The American founding ideals combined these in a complexly considered yet ultimately simple formula: All people must have equal opportunity before the law by being treated as part of the same class.
The innate differences in individuals and their choices preclude an exact equality of results, but equality of opportunity before the law is the starting point of real freedom. The goal of the American framers was thus a truly wise government.
In our time, unfortunately, the goal of wisdom has been largely lost and is certainly undervalued and seldom discussed. It may be assumed by some, or even many, but it has lost its place as the first and most prominent value in our society.
Societies that once held wisdom as the highest value only to lose it later include Athens, ancient Israel, the Roman Republic, and Britain, among others. When they lost the central priority of wisdom, they soon lost their place as world leader. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that the wisdom priority was part of what brought them each to power in the first place.
One key to overcoming this modern slide away from wisdom is to remember what government is really for. Aristotle taught that “…the state is the last stage in the development of social life which begins with the family” and therefore all government actions can be easily, and effectively, judged by how they positively impact the family.
Sometimes a return to the most basic principles is the height of wisdom.
Aristotle says that the study of truth is “…in one way hard, in another way easy.” It is hard when we want to know every detail of truth, easy when we simply seek to find and apply wise principles.
3-An Indispensable Element of Success
What if we turned the modern debate between science, art, politics, conservatives, liberals and all the various “-isms” away from ultimate truth and focused instead on wisdom. A return to studying wisdom would likely coincide with what Covey called the replacement of the Success approach with a renewal of the Character ethic.
Are we a society obsessed with noticeable achievement or dedicated to meaningful contribution? Do we mostly value marketability or quality?
These naturally separate into competing categories. The first category, called Great, includes wisdom, character, quality and meaningful contribution. Against this is pitted the second category, Good, which includes the positive but lesser values of success, marketability, notability and achievement.
In business parlance, the good is the enemy of the great.
Which is more important to our future: a society arguing about truth or a society seeking to learn and apply wisdom? Do we need a nation of people who want to be seen as leaders, or do we need a society of people who lead?
Too often the language of modern experts is like the following talk show parody: “All brontosauruses are thin at one end; much, much thicker in the middle; and then thin again at the far end.” This is a factual statement, but it’s not very helpful. You can prove it using science, but knowing this truth doesn’t accomplish much.
Another example: “Even if World War I consisted of nothing but a very, very large number of quarks in a very, very complicated pattern of motion, no insight is gained by describing it this way.”
These ridiculous examples are a lot like the reality, however. Steven Pinker wrote:
“Social psychologists have amply documented that people have a powerful urge to do as their neighbors do. When unwitting subjects are surrounded by confederates of the experimenter who have been paid to do something odd, many or most will go along.
They will defy their own eyes and call a long line ‘short’ or vice versa, nonchalantly fill out a questionnaire as smoke pours out of a heating vent, or suddenly strip down to their underwear for no apparent reason [just because everyone else in the room is doing so].”
Certainly politics frequently proves this sad reality.
Truth alone is limited. It needs wisdom to make any sense.Indeed, only with wisdom can we actually understand truth when we find it. Yet we have emphasized and idealized truth for over a century in modern society—leading to stagnation in our political and national progress. Those on the right have tended to seek truth for success, while their counterparts on the left have sought truth for progress.
Both have achieved much, but we have reached a point where both are failing to deliver solutions for our major challenges.
4- A Solution
Today we need a widespread paradigm shift to a Wisdom society—a people diligently seeking wisdom.
Does it make any sense in our increasingly post-modern society to keep engaging in the debates between science, art, religion, conservative, progressive, socialist, libertarian, hawk or dove? These dialogues have been in a rut for decades.
If real progress in such arguments seemed likely, we would of course keep talking.But America is increasingly divided into like-thinking cliques that reinforce shared views and attack everything about alternative perspectives. These voluntary factions frequently isolate themselves from competing viewpoints and increase their adamant views.
This enclave style of thinking is the norm in our current world, and the Internet has drastically exacerbated the problem.
There are fortunately some exceptions to this trend. The rise of political independents may be the rescue of the current e-closing of the American mind. It also remains to be seen how the Millennial generation (born between 1984 and 2001) will combine social media with political involvement—they might choose a more inclusive, open and dialogue-oriented approach than Boomers and Gen Xers.
Given their generational values and tendencies, this could well be the case.
In the meantime, how can we resurrect a belief in the importance of wisdom? So far wisdom hasn’t been a driving force on social media. But then neither has it been a major priority in modernism itself. Our schools seldom emphasize teaching us to be wise, and few business, government, religious, media or other major institutions seem committed to such a course either.
Despite notable exceptions, in general wisdom is a lost priority, like fertile soil or turntable records. A few people care a great deal about these things, it is true, but the society has moved on.
Putting the goal of wisdom behind us is a major mistake. Wisdom should be the ultimate purpose of every school, every American teacher,every business and social leader, and a high priority for the rest of us. A national revival of the search for wisdom is long overdue. Only the incredibly naive claim to be wise, but the free nations of history were made up of citizens deeply committed to the continual search for wisdom.
We must also recognize and utilize wisdom when we do find it. Tocqueville noted that while Americans were less formally educated than the European elite of his day, they were constantly learning and prone to apply their knowledge in practical ways.
Indeed, advanced formal education is at times a roadblock to creative thinking.
Ultimately wisdom is about more than mere knowing—it requires doing. We must apply wisdom, or it isn’t really wisdom.
This is true both in domestic and international affairs. Washington has lost its reputation for wisdom across America and around the globe. Our increasing dependence on experts since the 1950s has even reduced the role of parents as the wise ones in the home. Wisdom is undervalued at nearly all levels of of our modern world.
Our society is deeply in need of a rebirth of interest in wisdom. We talk incessantly of things like Success, Talent, Progress and Getting Ahead. We trust IQ, promote EQ, and try to stay well-versed on the latest theory of personality types. Regular citizens across the nation keep an eye on fashion, health, technological, parenting, architectural, entertainment and cultural trends.
We glorify high test scores, prestigious associations and personal status symbols.
But we undersell, or simply ignore, the indispensable element of lasting success and truly progressing society—wisdom. We need a healthy dose of optimism in our society, and perhaps nothing would merit more optimism than a national paradigm shift to A Wisdom Society.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.