This is the original version of an article published as “A formula for wisdom” in Psychologies (South Africa), August–September 2010
Every society venerates the wisdom of its elders, at least in principle. Wisdom is seen as a consolation for the physical decline of age and the approach of death. And although not every old person is wise (and not every wise person is old), it is partly wisdom that distinguishes elders from those who are merely elderly.
It seems clear that wisdom is something we should want more of, particularly here and now. And not just for our own sakes. For better or worse, disease, violence and tumultuous social and technological change have ruptured the traditional passage of wisdom across generations. So how do we get it?
Confucius has a very concise and helpful answer: There are three methods to gaining wisdom. The first is reflection, which is the highest. The second is imitation, which is the easiest. The third is experience, which is the bitterest.
What are the conditions for reflection? You have to be still, like a quiet lake. Your mind has to be focussed and precise, but also open and spacious. You must be curious and patient, honest and courageous. Through reflection on what is true and what is right, we develop our faculties for reason and ethics. Reflection is good in every aspect, making it the highest and most noble way to wisdom.
Imitation is easier because it isn’t so lonely. You find someone wise and try to act as they would. The imitation of Christ is an age-old practice for Christians. You could find a role model in a wise family member, a teacher, even a boss. How do you know a wise person when you meet one? According to Montaigne, “The most manifest sign of wisdom is a continual cheerfulness; her state is like that in the regions above the moon, always clear and serene.”
Cheerfulness, clarity and serenity sound right, but the wise people I’ve known are also very down to earth, skilled in practical wisdom, creative and spontaneous. They’re comfortable with themselves – but you never feel completely relaxed with them! They can be forceful, even rude, when they need to be. Imitating them involves spending time with them, paying attention, noticing what they notice and the way they carry themselves, and trying to conduct oneself accordingly.
Or it might be different for you. There is a broad affinity of wisdom, but it takes on different characteristics in different times and cultures, for women and men, or those with different kinds of education and experience. Epicurus, who taught that tranquillity in body and mind was the best way to live, claimed that “of all the things which wisdom provides to make us entirely happy, much the greatest is the possession of friendship.” African and other sage traditions cherish community and the relatedness of the sacred world, its creatures and its spirits, including past and future generations. Would Confucius and Montaigne each think the other man was wise? Perhaps, but they’d also find a lot to disagree about.
If imitation is like training wheels on your bicycle, eventually you do have to ride on your own, no matter how wobbly you are or how rough the road. Which brings us to the wisdom of bitter experience.
Why does Confucius say that experience is the most bitter method? He is not saying, as so many do, that adversity should toughen us up (make a real man of us!) and make us strive harder. Bitter experience often makes for bitter people. Disappointments and failures can wring us out to dry. With wisdom, we appreciate hard times and let the world transform us from the inside, like some kind of alchemy. Wisdom isn’t dry and bitter and twisted. It’s soft, ripe and rich. Learning how to get from one to the other is precisely the acquisition of wisdom.
As Hélène Cixous writes, “We are shaped by years and years of all kinds of experiences and education, we must travel through all sorts of places that are not necessarily pleasant to get there: our own marshes, our own mud. And yet it pays to do so. The trouble is that we are not taught that it pays, that it is beneficial. We are not taught the pain nor the hidden joy.” Hard times can be opportunities to soften up, to redeem our bitter and wounded selves with a bit of grace and humour.
All three of Confucius’s methods of attaining wisdom fold into each other in a life. We practice acting wiser than we are, we reflect, we mess up, we reflect, we get a bit more wise.
You don’t need a lot of education to become wise. You certainly don’t need a lot of wealth. You don’t have to be young or thin or even good-looking. (Socrates was notoriously ugly.) In fact, all these things that people chase after are well known impediments to wisdom and living well.
Real wise guys don’t think they know it all. On the contrary. Socrates says that wisdom begins in wonder and that “true wisdom comes to each of us when we realise how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.”