Wisdom, Human

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Wisdom is irretrievably linked with age and experience in human societies. If wisdom comes mainly through age and experience, it also requires "sense" to achieve. It is associated with the capacity to deal with experience in a constructive manner. If someone acts in a way that seems sensible, we may use the phrase "he has sense." Sense is the internal quality that promotes the learning process.

The question of the knowledge of creative activity, of intellectuals, of originality, even if this is viewed in a more limited way as only having a better memory, has little directly to do with the notion of wisdom but it has some overlap. A wise individual is definitely someone who knows about human affairs, or at least some segment of these affairs such as midwifery (sage femme, wise woman in French). Equally, the three kings in the story of the magi at the birth of Christ were wise men, not only in realizing the importance of that event, but also perhaps in the way they carried out their ritual and religious roles. Wisdom, knowledge, and common sense are all interrelated in complex ways.

Oral Cultures

Unwritten languages do not lack abstraction, as has sometimes been suggested; language use itself depends on that very process. But in purely oral cultures words do tend to be more concrete in their reference, established as they are by face-to-face interaction. There seem to be relatively few nouns for qualities such as wisdom (nouns in any case being more common in written languages).

In an oral culture, one acquires wisdom and more generally knowledge through the aging process. The young can hardly be wiser or more knowledgeable than the old since they have had less experience, on which wisdom is based, and have acquired less knowledge, which in any case comes from the elders. There are no books that the young can read to acquire wisdom and learning independently of their seniors, who are largely members of the same family.

The discussion of wisdom ties up with the question of whether we find "intellectuals" in oral cultures. Clearly there are not only different levels of knowledge about cultural affairs, but also differences in the ability to create that knowledge. In his work on the cosmology of the Dogon of Mali, Marcel Griaule offers his Conversations with Ogotemmêli (1948) as if they presented a picture of the people's worldview. It is not altogether clear how much of this account comes from the actor's mouth and how much from the interpreter and the anthropologist. But what is apparent is that Ogotemmêli was an exceptional man who was capable of shaping his own view of the world. Exceptional, but not all that rare. In nonliterate societies, in the absence of a written text to which they can refer, many elaborate their own version in areas of what is often thought to be "common knowledge."


The Bagre is an association found in various groups in northern Ghana to which the majority of the inhabitants belong in order to ward off disease. It consists of a series of initiatory performances over six months at which elders repeat a recitation in two parts, the White and the Black, that comprises an account of the ceremony itself and, in the Black, a version of how the people came to have the culture they do and the problems they face as humans. The extensive Bagre recitations of the LoDagaa, which display some features of later philosophic discourse (for example, an awareness of "the problem of evil"), do not refer to anything that has been translated as "wisdom." On the other hand, "wise" as an adjective is something used in the translations.

In the Bagre, the notion of wisdom is closely connected with age. In the Black Bagre, the "deepest" of the two parts, a repeated phrase has been translated as "little old woman"; in the other, White Bagre, a similar phrase has been translated as "wise old woman." The shift could be an error of transcription, but it is not all that important, since the notion of aged already implies wisdom. While you may find foolish old men or women, generally age proclaims wisdom.

For the LoDagaa, the capacity to act in a wise manner is helped by learning from one's elders, who are more experienced in the ways of the world. But it also comes from one's knowledge of "oral literature," with having a wide range of reference to common culture, starting with proverbs, running to folk tales (mainly told to children, often with a "moral" ending, though not of the Rudyard Kipling sort), but more thoroughly with the knowledge of the Bagre recitation. Not everyone belongs to the association whose members have this "myth" repeatedly recited to them, but the majority of men are initiated and so too are women, at least as far as the lower White Bagre, as a result of which restriction they lack some ritual knowledge, though they acquire this after menopause, when they count "as men." In this recitation, especially in the Black, many matters concerning the human experience are discussed, including the problem of evil. But the role of God as Creator and as Supreme Being is also frequently referred to, especially in what has elsewhere been called the First Bagre (Goody, 1972).

In the Bagre a great deal of attention is paid to learning and to knowledge that brings wisdom. In a way, the whole of the recitation is about how humans learned to do what they do, who taught them, who deceived them. The knowledge comes from supernatural agencies, ultimately from the creator god, more immediately from the beings of the wild who can deceive. It was they who instructed our ancestor(s), who in turn passed the knowledge on to us, often in the course of recitals such as the Bagre. We have to understand (hear) this knowledge with the aid of our sense (yen ). Wisdom consists in the judicious application of knowledge and experience to actual situations; it is based on a knowledge not so much of the supernatural as of the natural world, the world of man. While there is no general quality translatable as "wisdom," the wise application of knowledge both religious and secular does seem to be recognized by the actors. And part of the knowledge on which it is based does emerge from the recitation of the Bagre, which could be seen as a kind of "schooling" processthat is, it aims to transfer knowledge to the initiates. However, it is possible for elders of either sex to be perceived as wise without actually being a member. There are other ways of becoming a sound counselor and solving disputes in the course of ordinary life.

While wisdom is a feature of human relationships, sense is also an internal quality that can manifest itself in the young. In the Bagre, God's child is said to have

had much sense
in his head (Goody, 1972, First Black Bagre, l. 14801481)

At one point in the recitation, he has just been told by his father, who claims possession, that a woman passing by was not his mother:

"You have no mother."
The boy
laughed softly
and asked his father,
"Have you seen anyone
who has no mother
and yet has a father?" (l. 14381444)

While this child has sense, mainly it is the old who are wise. When the father and mother of God's child are quarrelling about the ownership, "the wise old woman"

laughed loudly
and said
that one child
is causing two people
to quarrel. (l. 864868)

She takes the case before God himself (a bearded old man sitting on a cow's hide), who asks them to keep calm and "resolve" the problem by asking the mother and the father to urinate down a hollow stalk. This arbitrary task hardly matches the wisdom of Solomon in similar circumstances and in fact resolves nothing. The quarrel continues, but the problem of the duality of parenthood has been made explicit. This situation seems not atypical of oral cultures.

As is shown by the various published versions of the Lo-Dagaa recitation of the Bagre, memory is rarely verbatim, and the performers are therefore "forced to be free," obliged to fill in the gaps and in many cases wanting to make their own contribution. Changes, often creative changes, are frequent. And there is considerable difference in that creative ability, which is recognized in the recitation itself in the injunction to new initiates to learn to recite. In the recorded versions, the First Bagre, both Black and White, is considerably more sophisticated, partly because the speaker was more of an "intellectual," a person who gave more thought to the nature of things, which is how later philosophers like to think of themselves.

Written Cultures

In written cultures, wisdom is often associated with the elders and their experience. But it is largely expressed in their writings, in the wisdom literature of the ancient world, in Proverbs and the wisdom of Solomon in the Bible, the wisdom books of ancient Egypt, of the Baghavad Gita in Hinduism, and of the equivalents in Buddhist writings. Once again these texts are concerned with relations between humans rather than about relations of humans with gods. There are right and wrong ways of conducting the latter, but in general wisdom is not a notable feature. Wisdom literature, however, is concerned not with the more abstract questions of the ethical philosopher, whose activities are involved with general principles, but with the immediate problems of daily life.

Priests may be knowledgeable, even wise, about the ways of the gods, but there is no special wisdom automatically attached to being a priest, although they are often expected to conduct themselves in a restrained manner. Wisdom is more likely to be seen as the result of reading the works of secular authors, especially philosophers, interested in morality and the daily conduct of human affairs.

Societies with writing were heavily divided, until very recently, into those who could read and those who could not. The latter are sometimes spoken of as belonging to an oral culture; some would rather see them as attached to an oral tradition, one that has been significantly affected by the "high culture" of the written. An oral tradition, when combined with a written culture such as the biblical, has its own characteristics. The written culture may incorporate and transform earlier oral culture and myth and produce a "folk wisdom" that enters into oral repetition. That may consist in the appropriate reference to proverbs, such as "a stitch in time," but it also produces a kind of wisdom, more often associated with the country rather than the town, that draws on a wider experience not of books but of life as it is lived in the round. The paradigmatic example of such unlettered wisdom is provided by the peasant Karataev in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, whose "wisdom" is contrasted with the anxious cleverness of the aristocratic, cosmopolitan Pierre, a great reader.

The unlettered still had a wisdom to offer in a society many of whose activities were dominated by the written text. By contrast, in mixed societies too much reading is sometimes seen as leading to the loss of wits, of "sense," of contact with the real world. The text is distanced from human affairs and may prevent the profound contact that encourages wisdom, at least folk wisdom, and that comes from an unmediated experience of human affairs.

See also Knowledge ; Life Cycle: Elders/Old Age ; Oral Traditions ; Philosophy .


Goody, Jack. The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

, ed. The Myth of the Bagre. Oxford: Clarendon, 1972.

Griaule, Marcel. Conversations with Ogotemmêli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

Jack Goody