What Is Wisdom and Why Should We Pursuit It?
The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates is famous for having been called wise in part because he would not label himself wise. Conversely, had he called himself wise, he probably would not have deserved the label.
Any of these qualities or circumstances may accompany wisdom, and a few may be natural fruits of wisdom, but none of them define wisdom. And not one of these attributes is essential in order to be on the path of wisdom. This is good news because it means every single one of us has the capability to fully pursue wisdom. Wisdom is also not something we “get” and then we’re done. It’s not like the myth of the hero’s journey where we go out in search of the Holy Grail of knowledge and then return enlightened. Wisdom is more about contemplating the big questions of life than about having sure answers to those questions; in fact, thinking that we have final answers is often a quick detour away from the path of wisdom. And wisdom is definitely a lifelong journey because if we’re doing life well then our understanding evolves through every stage of life. Most of us probably think of wisdom in terms of deep understanding or insight into life or good judgment or the ability to make good decisions or the lived experience that enables us to give sound advice or some combination of these. Yes, these characteristics tend to be natural fruits of wisdom, but they are not sufficient to define wisdom, and they can be misleading as ways to understand wisdom. No one, no matter how wise, has perfect understanding or flawless insight into life. And those who are wise will definitely on occasion fall short of good judgment and make poor decisions or give poor advice. The true beginning of our own pursuit of wisdom may be the realization that all of us without exception make mistakes and misunderstand some of the important areas of life. How, then, can we define wisdom? Like everything else of inner value, wisdom resists the attempts of our intellect to define it. This is why mystics often resort to poetry to describe their experience of something beyond ordinary consciousness. Rather than resort to poetry, let’s try to understand wisdom by recognizing that all of us have a longing for deeper meaning and purpose in life. That longing can easily be silenced by the responsibilities, possessions, and distractions that tend to occupy our daily lives. But all of us have felt that longing at some point in our lives, and it’s always there waiting silently to be nourished. No matter how outwardly successful, a life that ignores this quiet longing will be lacking in an essential kind of fulfillment. Wisdom is this fulfillment. Wisdom is the fulfillment of nourishing our inner longing for deeper meaning and purpose.
After discovering this definition of wisdom, Socrates’ mission transforms from one of learning to one of teaching. He sees himself as on a mission from the god Apollo, who wishes for him to demonstrate his newfound knowledge of the nature of wisdom to all of Athens. Therefore, he continues to travel about the city and question those he sees as wiser than himself, but this time his purpose is not to glean the meaning of wisdom, but to show the people he is questioning their own deficiencies in being wise. In this manner, he sees himself as a gadfly on the horse that is Athens. Gadflies are small, insignificant creatures which have a large impact on the subject of their stinging.