views updated Jun 27 2018


Historical background

Throughout recorded history, wisdom has been viewed as the ideal endpoint of human development. Of course, the psychological study of wisdom is still rather young compared to its philosophical treatment, for the very definition of philosophy is love or pursuit of wisdom. Historically, wisdom has been conceptualized in terms of a state of idealized being, as a process of perfect knowing and judgment (as in King Solomons judgments), or as an oral or written product, such as wisdom-related proverbs or the so-called wisdom literature. It is important to recognize that the identification of wisdom with individuals, such as wise persons (the predominant approach in psychology), is but one of the ways by which wisdom is instantiated.

Historically, the interest in the topic of wisdom has waxed and waned, (Baltes and Staudinger, 2000). In general, two main lines of argument have been in the center of the historical evolution of the concept of wisdom: (1) the distinction between philosophical and practical wisdom, and (2) the question of whether wisdom is divine or human. Recently, interest in the concept of wisdom has been revived (Welsch, in press). Archeological and cultural work dealing with the origins of religious and secular bodies of wisdom-related texts in China, India, Egypt, and Old Mesopotamia has revealed invariance with regard to core features of the definition of wisdom across cultures and historical time. This relative invariance gives rise to the assumption that concepts such as wisdom, with its related body of knowledge and skills, have been culturally selected because of their adaptive value for humankind.

Psychological approaches to the definition of wisdom

Among one the major reasons for the emergence of the psychological study of wisdom in the late 1970s and early 1980s was the search for positive aspects of aging. An early approach to defining wisdom from a psychological perspective can be seen in its treatment in dictionaries. The Oxford English Dictionary defines wisdom as, Good judgment and advice in difficult and uncertain matters of life.

In a next step, psychologists further specified the content and formal properties of wisdom-related phenomena. In 1922, Stanley Hall associated wisdom with the emergence of a meditative attitude, philosophic calmness, impartiality, and the desire to draw moral lessons, all of which tend to emerge in later adulthood. Furthermore, writers emphasized that wisdom involves the search for the moderate course between extremes, a dynamic between knowledge and doubt, a sufficient detachment from the problem at hand, and a well-balanced coordination of emotion, motivation, and thought (see Kramer, 2000).

Implicit (subjective) theories about wisdom

Most empirical research on wisdom in the field of psychology has focused on further elaboration of the definition of wisdom. Moving beyond the dictionary definitions, research explored the nature of everyday beliefs, folk conceptions, or implicit (subjective) theories of wisdom (see Sternberg, 1990).

These studies, in principle, build on research initiated by Vivian Clayton in 1976. Clayton found that three characters are typical of wise people: (1) affective characteristics such as empathy and compassion, (2) reflective processes such as intuition and introspection, and (3) cognitive capacities such as experience and intelligence.

A study conducted in 1986 by Robert J. Sternberg focused on the relationship of wisdom with characteristics such as creativity and intelligence. Wisdom was found to be defined by six aspects: reasoning ability, sagacity, learning from ideas and the environment, judgment, expeditious use of information, and perspicacity. A large overlap was found between intelligence and wisdom, though sagacity was found to be specific to wisdom. In later theoretical work, Sternberg defined wisdom as balancing intrapersonal, interpersonal, and extrapersonal interests to achieve a common good (Sternberg, 1998).

Another major study on subjective theories of wisdom was conducted by Stephen Holliday and Michael Chandler, also in 1986. A factor analysis of the attributes judged to be most prototypical of a wise person revealed two factors: (1) exceptional understanding of ordinary experience, and (2) judgment and communication skills.

In 1999, Fritz Oser provided initial evidence on the implicit theories about wise acts, which seem to be characterized by seven features. Wise acts tend to be: (1) paradoxical and unexpected; (2) highly moral and (3) selfless; and they involve (4) overcoming internal and external dictates; (5) a striving towards equilibrium; (6) an implied risk; and (7) a striving towards improving the human condition.

Explicit theories and assessment of wisdom

Another recent line of empirical psychological inquiry on wisdom addresses the question of how to measure behavioral expressions of wisdom. Within this tradition, three lines of work can be identified: (1) assessment of wisdom as a personality characteristic, (2) assessment of wisdom in the Neopiagetian tradition of adult thought, and (3) assessment of wisdom as an expertise with regard to difficult problems involving the interpretation, conduct, and management of life (see Baltes and Staudinger, 2000).

Within personality theories, wisdom is usually conceptualized as an advanced stage, if not the final stage, of personality development. Wisdom, in this context, is comparable to optimal maturity. Ryff and Whitbourne, for example, have undertaken an effort to develop self-report questionnaires based on the Eriksonian notions of personality development and focused on integrity or wisdom.

Central to Neopiagetian theories of adult thought is the transcendence of the universal truth criterion that characterizes formal logic. This transcendence is common to conceptions such as dialectical, complementary, and relativistic thinking. Such tolerance of multiple truths (ambiguity), has also been mentioned as a crucial feature of wisdom. Empirical studies in this tradition by Gisela Labouvie-Vief or Deirdre Kramer found that, at least up to middle adulthood, performance increases on such measures of adult thought are observed.

Besides these measures of wisdom as a personality characteristic or as a feature of mature thought, there is also work that attempts to assess wisdom as an expertise concerning the interpretation, conduct, and management of life. This approach is based on lifespan theory, the developmental study of the aging mind and aging personality, research on expert systems, and cultural-historical definitions of wisdom (see Baltes and Staudinger, 2000). By integrating these perspectives, wisdom is defined as a system of expert knowledge in the fundamental pragmatics of life. Such knowledge allows for exceptional insight, judgment, and advice involving complex and uncertain matters of the human condition.

The body of knowledge and skills associated with such wisdom entails insights into the quintessential aspects of the human condition, including its biological finitude and cultural conditioning. Wisdom involves a fine-tuned coordination of cognition, motivation, and emotion. More specifically, wisdom-related knowledge and skills can be characterized by a family of five criteria: (1) rich factual knowledge about life, (2) rich procedural knowledge about life, (3) lifespan contextualism, the ability to view issues in a lifespan perception, (4) value relativism, and (5) awareness and management of uncertainty (see Baltes, Smith and Staudinger 1992).

To elicit and measure wisdom-related knowledge and skills in this approach, research participants are presented with difficult life dilemmas such as the following: Imagine that someone receives a phone call from a good friend who says that she/he cant go on anymore and has decided to commit suicide. What should one do and consider in such a situation? Participants are then asked to think aloud about such dilemmas. The five wisdom-related criteria are used to evaluate these protocols. The obtained scores are reliable and provide an approximation of the quantity and quality of wisdom-related knowledge and skills of a given person (see Baltes and Staudinger, 2000). When using this wisdom paradigm to study people who were nominated as wise according to subjective beliefs about wisdom, it was found that wisdom nominees received higher wisdom scores than comparable control samples of various ages and professional backgrounds.

Part of this paradigm also is a general framework outlining the conditions for the development of wisdom as it is reflected in the thoughts and actions of individuals. The empirical work based on this model has produced outcomes consistent with expectations (see Staudinger 1999). Specifically, it seems that wisdom-related knowledge and judgment emerge between the age of fourteen and twenty-five. During adulthood, however, growing older is not enough to become wise. When age is combined with wisdom-related experience, such as professional specializations that involve training and experience in matters of life, higher levels of wisdom-related performance were observed. Besides experience, it was found that during adulthood wisdom-related performance was best predicted by openness to experience and measures drawing on both cognition and personality, such as a judicious cognitive style, creativity, and moral reasoning.

Is there wisdom-related potential?

Given the fact that wisdom-related performance had been successfully operationalized, a question has arisen as to whether it is possible to increase wisdom-related knowledge and judgment. At least three studies have been conducted to test this idea (see Baltes and Staudinger, 2000). In a 1993 study conducted within the Neopiagetian tradition, Kitchener and colleagues demonstrated that the level of reflective judgment in adolescence could be raised by presenting examples of higher-level responses.

Within the wisdom paradigm just described, two different approaches have been successful in activating wisdom-related potential (see Staudinger, 1999). The first study found that dyads who know each other quite wellhaving had a chance to discuss the wisdom problem before they individually responded (real dialogue)demonstrated performance levels (significantly standard deviation) higher than observed in the standard setting. In line with notions of symbolic interactionism, increases in wisdom-related performance were also identified when participants thought about what other people might say while thinking about the problem (virtual dialogue). A second study focused on one of the five wisdom-related criteriavalue relativismand adopted a successful memory training technique (known as the method of loci ). With this method participants trained to think about life problems as if they were taking place in different regions of the world. This process creates links between geographic locations and life problems in order to make it easier to remember the life problem. Participants trained in this knowledge-activating strategy significantly outperformed the control group (by more than half a standard deviation).

The concept of wisdom represents a fruitful topic for psychological research in that it emphasizes the search for continued optimization and the further evolution of the human condition, and because it allows for the study of collaboration among cognitive, emotional, and motivational processes. It is expected that future research on wisdom will be expanded in at least three ways: (1) toward the further identification of social and personality factors, as well as life processes, relevant for the ontogeny of wisdom, (2) exploration of wisdom as a meta-heuristic, and (3) it will examine how wisdom research can contribute to building a psychological art of life.

Ursula Staudinger

See also Intelligence; Problem Solving.


Baltes, P. B.; Smith, J.; and Staudinger, U. M. Wisdom and Successful Aging. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation 39 (1992): 123167.

Baltes, P. B., and Staudinger, U. M. Wisdom: The Orchestration of Mind and Virtue towards Human Excellence. American Psychologist 55 (2000): 122136.

Kramer, D. A. Wisdom As a Classical Source of Human Strength: Conceptualization and Empirical Inquiry. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 19 (2000): 83101.

Staudinger, U. M. Older and Wiser? Integrating Results from a Psychological Approach to the Study of Wisdom. International Journal of Behavioral Development 23 (1999): 641664.

Sternberg, R. J., ed. Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins, and Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Sternberg, R. J. A Balance Theory of Wisdom. Review of General Psychology 2 (1998): 347365.

Welsch, W. Wisdom, Philosophical Aspects. In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Edited by N. Smelser and P. B. Baltes. London: Elsevier, in press.


views updated May 18 2018


WISDOM . The term wisdom has been used with a great variety of meanings in the course of history. A survey quickly shows that every culture has or has had its ideal of wisdom and recorded it in oral or written sapiential literature. In particular, the relation, both historical and systematic, between wisdom on the one hand and religion and philosophy on the other, varies a great deal. This article can give only a limited selection from the broad range of sapiential traditions and ideas.

General Terminology

As far as we can judge from the terms used and their history, wisdom was originally a practical matter, namely "insight" into certain connections existing in human life and in the world and modes of behavior derived from this insight and put into the service of instruction and education. The Indo-European root of the word wisdom, *ueid -, connotes "perceiving, seeing" (compare Greek idein, "idea," and Latin videre, "to see"). The German language has preserved the ancient connection between Weisheit ("wisdom"), Wissen ("knowledge"), and Wissenschaft ("science"). A person's wisdom depends on what he or she has seen and thereby come to know. It is therefore a practical knowledge, the primordial shaper of human behavior toward the environing world (to the extent that this knowledge resists the pressures for immediate action). The same practical element is manifest in other cultures as well. Thus the Hebrew okhmah has to do with "skill, ability" (km ); the Akkadian némequ with "dexterity and skill"; Greek sophia with "cleverness" or "skill" in any of the arts or professions of life (carpentry, medicine, poetry, music, etc.). The Akkadian word for a teacher of wisdom or learned person, ummanu, was borrowed from Sumerian and originally meant "master craftsman." The cultivation and transmission of cumulative experience in coping intellectually with the world was done mainly in schools that were the seedbeds of literary culture and the forerunners of the later "schools of wisdom" or universities. Oral tradition was likewise controlled by specific groups that were responsible for the maintenance of tradition.

Wisdom, Religion, and Philosophy

If religion can be broadly conceived as a way of coping, theoretically and practically, with the problems of the world, nature, and society, then wisdom is one part of this effort. In fact, wisdom and the various contents of the religions have historically been closely connected. Wisdom was regarded as an area of religious tradition and derived its authority from its relation to particular gods (especially the sun, as in Mesopotamia and Egypt) or religious principles (e.g., concepts of world order, such as the ancient Egyptian maat ). In this form, wisdom contributed to the development of theological thought and is part of its history ("priestly wisdom"). Particular divinities were venerated in cult and magic (the two are difficult to distinguish) as protectors or representatives of religious knowledge (Ea and Marduk in Babylonia, Ptah in Egypt). The legitimation of wisdom by more or less religious figures, such as kings, teachers, and priests, belongs in the same context. We know instances of wisdom being personified as a divine hypostasis (e.g., in Buddhism, Judaism, gnosticism, Zoroastrianism). In many religions wisdom is an attribute of the divinities; in monotheistic religions it is an attribute of the supreme God. The wisdom of God transcends that of human beings and makes it pale into insignificance; in Christianity the wisdom of God even turns human wisdom into folly (see below). This Christian revaluation of the value set upon wisdom in antiquity did not, however, lead to an abandonment of wisdom but to its relativization and to a radical transformation of the whole concept.

This more or less positive relation between wisdom and religion is only one side of the coin. Just as often, wisdom went its own way alongside official religion; it was even, as in the ancient Middle East, in tension or conflict with it. To the extent that this was true, it was a profane, secular way of coping with the world that avoided or excluded any appeal to traditional religious entities (gods, cult, priests). It thus paved the way for philosophical and ultimately also for scientific thinking (see the etymological connection mentioned earlier between the German words for wisdom and science). This development is most easily seen among the Greeks, where the concept of philosophy, or "love of wisdom," took shape. According to tradition (Diogenes Laertius, 1.12; Cicero, Tusculanae Disputationes 5.3.8) the term went back to Pythagoras and was then taken over by Plato and Aristotle, who gave it its normative meaning. It is clear that the projection of the Platonic conception of philosophy and science back onto Pythagoras meant a reinterpretation of the latter's simple, prescientific notion of wisdom. Pythagoras was undoubtedly a teacher of wisdom, not a scientist or mathematician in the later sense of these words; his explanation of the cosmos had at its center a number symbolism that could not yet be called scientific, since in it number, ritual, and doctrine of the soul still formed a unity (Burkert, 1972). In any case, philosophy retained its practical meaning of "way of life" down through the centuries and has not lost it even today. Ancient Greek wisdom, documented in gnomic poetry (Hesiod, Mimnermos, Solon, Phocylides, Theognis), with its simple key idea of "moderation" (mēden agan ) or "fitness of act to time and situation" (kairon gnōthi ), found its extreme application in the so-called Sophists, who converted wisdom (sophia ) into practical rationality and thereby brought its dangers to light for the first time. In contrast to the Sophists, Socrates avoided the concept of wisdom and reserved this quality for God alone (Plato, Apology 2022). For Plato wisdom was the supreme virtue (Republic 441cd). Aristotle distinguished between the practical wisdom of everyday life (phronēsis ) and speculative wisdom (sophia ), which concerns itself with "first things" (Nicomachean Ethics 4.5.2, 15.1.5). The distinction marked the transition to systematic wisdom, or philosophy. Nonetheless, in the history of philosophy its ancient root"wisdom for living"has repeatedly surfaced; in particular it has found ever new expression in ethical systems and endeavors (e.g., those of Spinoza, Kant, Fichte, and Schopenhauer). In his Wörterbuch der Philosophie ([19101911] 1980, vol. 1, p. 446), Fritz Mauthner formulates the difference between wisdom and practical "prudence," and between wisdom and philosophy or science with their goal of theoretical knowledge, as follows:

In my opinion, wisdom seems to mean not only that those who have this quality, possession, or way of thinking are able on every occasion to act or think with rare prudence in pursuing their theoretical or practical goals; it means that in addition they are able to judge the value of the theoretical and practical goals in question. It also means perhaps that such persons act according to their judgments. Schopenhauer was certainly a philosopher but hardly a wise man. Montaigne was a wise man but not really a philosopher. We think of Socrates as being both wise man and philosopher.

Problems of a Typology

Since it is not possible at present (or ever, in my opinion) to write a history of the various ideas of wisdom, scholars have quickly settled for providing at least a typology of the concepts of wisdom. Wisdom has taken these broad forms: an anthropological ability to cope with life (the oldest and most widespread form); a rational system (interpretation of the cosmos, philosophy, beginnings of science); and a personification, hypostasis, goddess, or attribute of God.

Any attempt at greater detail becomes mired in the problems of the given historical context. It is possible, for example, with Edward Conze to compare the Buddhist (Mahāyāna) Prajñapāramitā ("perfect wisdom") with the figure of Sophia in early Judaism and to find surprising similarities (Conze, 1968, pp. 207209). There are even chronological correspondences: the hypostatization of both ideas of wisdom began about 200 bce and yielded similar conceptions. Yet differences of content are unmistakable: Prajñapāramitā is a personification of Buddhist insight into the "emptiness" of the world and has no connection with an idea of God; the Jewish Sophia became a divine hypostasis that can also be mediator of creation and identifiable with the Law (Torah). The situation is the same with parallels between Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Iranian ideas of wisdom, each of which retains its own special character and cannot be wholly assimilated to the others and made to coincide with them. By and large, the only common element is the shift in the thematization of wisdom from an anthropological skill to a central religious figure or person who mediates wisdom. In this shift wisdom changes from subject to object; an anthropological capacity for insight becomes a form of revelation about the cosmos or God. The content of wisdom as insight into the coherence of the world and life takes on a religious and, to some extent, esoteric character (as in the Wisdom of Solomon, gnosticism, and Mahāyāna Buddhism). This development did not occur wherever ideas of wisdom existed (thus except for Israel and Iran it did not occur in the Near East or in Greece). It looks as if a necessary condition of this development is the existence of a canonical literature that accepts the idea of wisdom. "Revelation" is identified with wisdom inasmuch as wisdom becomes the content of revelation and as a result either heightens the importance of canonicity or permits an extension of canonicity (as, for example, in the Prajñapāramitā literature or the gnostic writings).

This literary documentation for the idea of wisdom makes possible some typological classifications that should not be overlooked. Thus the "typical" wisdom genre is the gnōme (Lat., sententia ), that is, the tersely formulated "sentence" or maxim, or, more generally, the proverb. The oldest collections of wisdom traditions are collections of proverbs that can be developed into literary works on the theme of wisdom or can at least supply material for such ("teachings," "disputations," dialogues). Omens, riddles, fables, parables, and metaphors are also frequently storehouses of wisdom. Wisdom is thus not limited to a particular literary form, although it is closely linked with the proverb and maxim. Its origin in the oral tradition of the preliterary period of history can be demonstrated only through inference from the presence of such traditions among contemporary nonliterate peoples. There is hardly a people that does not possess some stock of wisdom traditions; this stock is the source of wisdom in the original sense of the term. Its beginnings are lost in the darkness of prehistory. The question whether the often asserted "international" character of wisdom literature is to be explained by evolution (from an original common possession) or by diffusion (through spread and borrowing) cannot be further answered. There are many arguments for the second hypothesis, but the first theory can also be helpful in examining many cultures. In any case, both forms of development can be seen at work in the course of history (the ancient Near East is a classic example of the borrowing of wisdom traditions). The important thing, however, is what particular cultures, literatures, and religions did with the common treasury of wisdom; these results are attractively multifaceted and pluralistic.

The Many Forms of Wisdom

Space allows only a limited survey of some of the principal forms taken by ideas of wisdom. The emphasis will be on the ancient Near East, which decisively molded the image of wisdom (transmitted through the biblical heritage). Only a brief glance can be taken at India and East Asia, which developed an independent form of wisdom that has influenced the culture and life of these peoples down to our own day.

Mesopotamia (Sumer and Babylonia)

The Near East possessed expressions of wisdom at a very early date, although these did not lead later on to a unitary concept of wisdom. The dominant element in this wisdom was skilled proficiency in insightful understanding of the world, human beings, and society. No one doubted the divine origin of wisdom, even if an increasing awareness of the difference between divine and human wisdom manifested itself in later literature and led to a crisis in the wisdom tradition. The basic idea of the wisdom tradition was what scholars have named the "act-consequence connection," that is, the early insight that specific actions have or can have specific consequences in the lives of human beings. People attempted to find rules of behavior by observing their human environment, but they did not advance as far as systematic reflection or even develop an ethic of behavior (this step was left for the Greeks and the Chinese). Their observations, handed down in the form of aphorisms, provided valuable counsel for kings, officials, and scribes. The storehouse for this wisdom was the school, and its teachers were the scribes, who were therefore regarded as wise beyond others. Wisdom derived its authority from its being traced back to divinities (especially Utu, Shamash, Ninurta, Enki, Inanna) or prehistoric wise men (Shuruppak, Gilgamesh). Because of its origin and approach this wisdom had a eudaimonistic and at times even a mantic character, but in the late period it turned pessimistic and skeptical. The dogma of the act-consequence connection to a great extent prevented the raising of new questions; when these were finally asked they led to a helpless skepticism (the problem of Job, the suffering just man; the problem of a just world order). Modesty, uprightness, consideration for others (love of neighbor), and deliberation were the principal virtues; their cultivation brought life, happiness, children (sons), and God's providential care.

The decisive force in the development of ancient Mesopotamian wisdom was that of the Sumerians. The Akkadians for their part mainly translated, transmitted, and interpreted, while adding a few new forms of their own (Wisdom of Ahikar, omen literature). The beginnings of wisdom are to be found in the early "lists" or "inventories" in which language was used as a means of "inventorying" the world and thus to some extent ordering or systematizing it. This kind of wisdom has therefore been called "list wisdom" and understood as a first approach to scientific effort (Soden, 1936). More developed approaches led from a simple listing of objects to an appraisal of them; this has come down to us in the form of disputations (literature of disputes over relative values). This kind of wisdom has been described as "value wisdom" (Hans Heinrich Schmid, Wesen und Geschichte der Weisheit, Berlin, 1966). The rise of proverbs relating to occurrences in nature and society brought for the first time the formulation of simple factual situations (called therefore the "wisdom of events"). This stage paved the way for wisdom sayings in the narrower sense. The latter emerged from observation of human behavior (initially without thematizing the act-consequence connection), first in proverbs and then clearly in various "counsels," which unfortunately have come down to us only in fragmentary form (Counsels of Shuruppak, Counsels of Wisdom ). Wisdom gradually made its way into various other genres; meanwhile links were also established between wisdom and ideas of a socio-ethical and legal kind from royal and legal texts (e.g., conceptions of protecting the weak, widows, and orphans; doing good and hating evil; practicing righteousness). Wisdom thus sought to formulate and thereby give insight into the basic rules governing the cosmos. The gods had established a just world order; it was for human beings to learn this order and act accordingly. The challenge to this outlook by, for example, historical events led to a crisis of wisdom, since the act-consequence connection came into question and the theme of the "suffering just man" became topical. This was the subject of the "Job poems," which followed the "complaint and response paradigm" (ersha-hunga ). To this genre belong the following: Sumerian Job, the Poem of the Righteous Sufferer (also called I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom [Ludlul bel nemeqi ], from its opening words), the Babylonian Theodicy, and the satirical Dialogue of a Master and Slave (or Dialogue of Pessimism ), which probably does not belong to the wisdom literature but is nonetheless very informative in regard to it. The conclusion reached in these works is that God's action is inscrutable and his wisdom different from that of human beings. The act-consequence connection is pushed into the background but not abandoned, since insight into the order governing the world is denied to human beings. In all this we can see wisdom in the process of leaving our earth and becoming a supratemporal system and part of the divine world (to which in fact it had always belonged).


Unlike Mesopotamia, Egypt did not have a "list wisdom" as a preliminary stage of wisdom; instead the sapiential saying (maxim) served as the starting point of a wisdom literature (the various "counsels"). The sapiential saying either contained a simple statement about the world and social relationships or it already connected consequences with specific actions that were either recommended or disapproved. Unlike the Mesopotamians, the ancient Egyptians developed the concept of a cosmic order (maat ) that became basic to the idea of wisdom. The goddess Maat was a daughter of Re, the sun god, and symbolized truth, justice, and order in cosmos and society. The pharaoh was her representative on earth. The wise had to act like Maat; agreement with her bestowed success, disagreement brought punishment (unhappiness). Subordination to Maat was therefore the mark of the wise. Wisdom supplied the needed rules, which were based on tradition and experience (which included successive reinterpretations). Examples of wisdom or, as Egyptologists prefer to say, of "counsels" or "instructions," go back to about 2800 bce. Only the names of the earliest have come down to us (Instructions of Imhotep, Instructions of Djedefhor ). The Instruction of Ptahhotep is the oldest surviving document of this genre (fifth dynasty). It is filled with optimism about the order (maat ) that exists and is known and with an unbroken confidence in the act-consequence connection. Modesty, uprightness, self-control, subordination, silence, are virtues of the wise. The idea of the silent sage influenced Egyptian biographical literature. Citations from the wisdom literature can be demonstrated in numerous inscriptions.

Most of the remaining "instructions" are from the Middle Kingdom (c. 21351660 bce) and are "tendentious writings" that discuss problems of wisdom and are therefore also called "disputation literature." Among them are the Instruction for Merikare (tenth dynasty), in which the first mention is made of the judgment of the dead; the Instruction of King Amenemhet to His Son Sesostris (twelfth dynasty), which was probably a model for Proverbs 22:1724:22, although the former is more pessimistic and materialistic; and the Instruction of Cheti, Son of Duauf, a piece of publicity for the civil service. The threat to the old order shows through in the Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage and the Protest of the Eloquent Peasant.

To the period of the New Kingdom (c. 15701085 bce) belong the Instruction of Ani (eighteenth dynasty), which defends traditional authority against criticism, and the Instruction of Amenemope (twenty-second dynasty), which is strongly pietistic and calls for humility toward the hidden rule of the sun god. From the late period (first millennium ce) we have only the very homespun Instruction of the Papyros Insinger and the instruction of a certain Ankhsheshonk. Characteristic of later wisdom (from the eighteenth dynasty on) is the realization, in Egypt no less than in Babylonia, of the limitations of human knowledge and the freedom of the divinity; this meant that the act-consequence connection, though weakened, was not completely abandoned, but was considered to reside in the impenetrable recesses of the godhead. Authority, tradition, humility, circumspection, and silence continued to be themes of wisdom. In fact, in the late period wisdom and piety came to be more closely identified. Maat yielded to the godhead (Re). Devout individuals had as their partner no longer Maat but God; God became the guarantor of the act-consequence connection, which was hidden from the devout but which they nonetheless humbly accepted as existing. Wisdom now consisted in this knowledge of God and his free will, a knowledge that was familiar to the Bible and probably exerted an influence on it. For that matter, a monotheistic or henoheistic current runs through the entire wisdom literature.

Ancient Israel, Judaism

Israelite wisdom literature (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes ) underwent developments comparable to those in Babylonia and Egypt. In its earliest, preexilic form, wisdom is here, as in the ancient Near East generally, not specifically religious but focused on the act-consequence connection in the cosmos and in individual lives (see Prv. 22:1323:11). It is not opposed to faith in Yahveh but on the other hand has only peripheral contacts with it (see Prv. 16:122, 16:2829). Yahveh, like the ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian sun god, is guarantor of the cosmic order that governs the lives of human beings. Wisdom is primarily concerned with this-worldly questions affecting the order and security of human life; observation and insight into what goes on in the world and society play their part here. From a literary standpoint the proverb or maxim is the basic form of transmission (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes ; later on, the Book of Ben Sira and the Wisdom of Solomon ). Ascription to Solomon (c. 970 bce) has a historical basis to the extent that international communication (especially with Egypt) flourished during that period (see the First Book of Kings 5:914). From that time on in Israel, as elsewhere, the "wise man" (ish akham ) had his place alongside the priest and the prophet, and the area of tradition with which he dealt soon became one of the most important in Israelite literature (see Ben Sira 24:37).

In its historical development this literature reflects shifting approaches to wisdom until the latter's crisis and disintegration (Job, Ecclesiastes ). To begin with, ancient wisdom is increasingly theologized, that is, connected with the Yahvistic faith, but also systematized or dogmatized and reduced to a series of anthropological contrasts (see Prv. 1015). The wise and the foolish are turned into contrasting types, as are the devout and the ungodly, the sensible and the ignorant, and so on. The act-consequence connection changes (in the post-exilic period) to a connection between behavior and its results (Prv. 10:30, 11:34). Corresponding dualistic traits make their appearance as human beings are divided into the just and the wicked, and the cosmos into good and evil, just and unjust. Wisdom itself withdraws into heaven and is personified (see below). The ancient program of wisdom, which urged insight into human beings and the world through observation and its application, comes under the control of strict monotheism and the doctrine of creation, both of which leave little room for independent human thought. As a result, the crisis of dogmatized wisdom becomes radical and leads in the Book of Job to its rejection. As in the Babylonian world, an appeal is made at this point to the inscrutability of God (see Jb. 40), a solution that is accepted in later Judaism. At the same time, however, a return to the ancient, authentic concept of wisdom is urged (Jb. 3839): understanding of the world consists in the acknowledgement of its given order, even though insight into it is limited. The most radical break with the wisdom tradition comes in the Hellenistic period in the person of Qohelet (the purported author of Ecclesiastes ), who abandons the act-consequence connection as a means of insight, is skeptical about an order in the world, and demonstrates the meaninglessness of human existence. Wisdom is no longer available in this world (see also Jb. 28). Reverence is still shown toward creation and its distant creator, but the "historicality of human existence" and its transitory character are thematized for the first time. Qohelet offers no solution for the crisis; the world and human beings remain unintelligible.

This situation, which we meet only in the Bible, had consequences that probably led to the disintegration of the biblical worldview in gnosticism. But Jewish apocalypticism too had some of its roots in wisdom: the removal of wisdom from the world led to an eschatological hope; the introduction of dualism into the cosmos (see above) led to the apocalyptic doctrine of the two kingdoms; historical events had deprived the scribes, who were the transmitters of wisdom, of their ancient theater of operations, the royal court, and they dreamed of its future restoration. Gnosis and apocalyptic were connected.

Hellenistic influence probably played a part also in the complete transformation of the figure of wisdom (okhmah). It becomes a suprahuman, otherworldly personage, a divine hypostasis (Prv. 8:2231; Ben Sira 4:1119, 24:322; Wis. 69), a mediator of revelation and creation (Prv. 3:19, Ben Sira 24:3); it is even identified with the Torah, or Law, as the content of the word of God (Ben Sira 24:8, 24:23; 1 Bar. 3:94:4). It takes on the traits of a goddess (perhaps Isis Panthea) and, as Lady Wisdom, becomes the antagonist of Lady Folly, another personification, modeled on Aphrodite or Astarte (Prv. 7:913, 9:118). "Kinship" with her, such as the just or the wise have, bestows immortality (Wis. 6:17) and even makes one like God (Wis. 6:18). This shift from a horizontal role, as an anthropological skill in understanding of the world, to a vertical role leads in the Wisdom of Solomon (first century bce) and then especially in the work of Philo Judaeus (first century ce) to the idea of wisdom (Gr., sophia ) as an otherworldly figure accessible only through esoteric "knowledge." Communication with this distant heavenly wisdom is accomplished in the philosophy of Philo through the Logos (the divine intelligible word), which represents "wisdom close to us." Sophia is thus accessible only through revelation and knowledge of the Logos. It is no longer available in this world, but has vanished from it (Ethiopic Apocalypse of Enoch 42:18, 4 Ezr. 5:910, Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch 48:36). At this point the way is already being paved for the gnostic conception of wisdom.

Christianity and gnosis

Early Christianity accepted the early Jewish conception of wisdom at various levels. On the one hand, the early Jesus tradition (the purported source of the sayings of Jesus, known as the Q source) took over the ancient Israelite proverbial wisdom (explicit reference is made to Solomon in Mt. 12:42, Lk. 11:31); on the other hand, Jesus himself is understood as the embodiment of wisdom (Lk. 7:35 and parallels; cf. Mt. 23:3436 with Lk. 11:49). He is "filled with wisdom" from his childhood (Lk. 2:40, 2:52) and surpasses even Solomon in this respect (Mt. 12:42, Lk. 11:31). His deeds and teachings demonstrate his wisdom (Mk. 6:2, Mt. 13:54). Scholars therefore speak of a "wisdom-Christology" as one of the earliest forms of christological statement. In the letters of Paul wisdom plays an important role in his dispute with the community in Corinth (1 and 2 Corinthians ), where a wisdom that was probably already interpreted in a Gnostic manner was being preached and was finding expression in ecstatic utterances (revelations). In response, Paul conceives the momentous idea that Christian wisdom, represented by the Redeemer, is foolishness (mōria ) to the world, this wisdom being the cross that as sign of the "weakness of God" (1 Cor. 1:25) is the very sign of his "strength." God has destroyed "the wisdom of the wise" and turned it into "foolishness" (1 Cor. 1:1822, 2:68). In the presence of the true wisdom of God, which has been revealed in Christ, the traditional wisdom of this world has been reduced to naught, but at the same time it has also been fulfilled. Those who believe in Christ possess "the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor. 1:24, 1:30, 2:1012, 3:18). Old Testamental and Jewish wisdom literature of two centuries before the common era is here given a completely new interpretation and thereby rescued from the crisis into which it had fallen; on the other hand, limits are also set for any future Christian conception of wisdom. The critical acceptance of ancient wisdom traditions and the ambivalent response of Christian theology to philosophy both have their roots here (see Thomas Aquinas on the one side and Martin Luther on the other). Meanwhile, as the Letter of James in particular shows, the principle is still accepted that wisdom shows its truth in ethico-moral practice: Christian life is wisdom made manifest (Jas. 3:1317; cf. Jas. 1:5). The ancient idea of wisdom is thus revived here; it becomes a Christian virtue for coping with life.

In my opinion, Gnosticism has its roots in those parts of early Jewish sapiential teaching that, like Ecclesiastes, challenged the traditional picture of the world. Independently of this heritage from tradition and the history of ideas, Gnostic literature too continues to present wisdom in the guise of transmitted sayings, for the most part in Christian form (from the Nag Hammadi corpus, the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip; see also Silvanus and the Sentences of Sextus ), but also in new forms of its own (The Thunder, Perfect Mind ). Most notable, however, is the figure of Sophia, or Pistis Sophia ("faith wisdom"), an ambivalent embodiment of the Gnostic Pleroma, especially in the Barbelo and Valentinian forms of gnosis. According to some heresiological accounts and original (Nag Hammadi) texts, Sophia is a companion of the most high God; more precisely, she is the feminine aspect of his first manifestation or emanation, whose masculine aspect or consort may be identified with the Primal Man, the Son of man, or Christ (Seth). A second, lesser Sophia must also be included in the series of "syzygies" (paired aeons) that derive from the first pair. Other passagesand these are in the majoritydescribe Sophia variously as one of the final aeons: the one that, as mother of the demiurge (Ialdabaoth), is indirectly involved in the fate of the created world. But she is simultaneously active in the work of redemption, repairing the harm done by the loss of the spark of light, inasmuch as Sophia herself, split into two partsan upper and a lower, a greater and a lesser, a part of life and a part of death, of truth and of lie, or simply as Sophia and Achamoth (the Aramaic word for "wisdom")suffers in an exemplary fashion the fate of the fall and redemption. This version is characteristic of the so-called Barbelo Gnostics and of the Valentinians; it is also attributed to the Cainites and the Ophites, as well as to the Sethians. Several texts from Nag Hammadi also belong here (e.g., Apocryphon of John, Hypostasis of the Archons, Gospel of the Egyptians, Trimorphic Protennoia ). Gnostic wisdom (sophia ) serves to express many sides of gnostic thought. It serves as an image of the self-estrangement of God in emanation and reflection; thus it represents the feminine aspect in God, while leaving his perfect unity undiminished. But Wisdom is also (as aeon) the consort of the Savior and is intimately connected with both demiurgic (cosmological) and soteriological processes. This has nothing to do with feminist ideas; behind it, rather, stands the heritage of the Jewish wisdom tradition in its later form.

Iran and Zoroastrianism

It is often forgotten that Iran too has produced an extensive wisdom literature that goes by the Middle Persian name of handarz (early New Persian, andarz ), meaning "advice, instruction." This too has been handed down in various forms of gnomai. It is preserved only in Middle Persian, but it doubtless had Avestan (Old Iranian) precursores (such as the now lost Barish nask ). At the center of this literature is "wisdom" (MPers., khrad, or xrat ), whose representatives or transmitters were kings of the prehistoric period (e.g., Jam, Ōshnar) and the Sasanid period (e.g., Chosrau I), viziers (e.g., Wazurgmihr ī Bokhtagān), and priests (e.g., Ādurbad ī Mahraspandān). Here again collection and transmission were the work of priestly schools or the (fire) temples. Since thought, along with speech and action, played a dominant role in Zoroastrianism, great attention was paid to the teaching of religious knowledge. This knowledge was identified with wisdom. But in fact the "knowledge" in question was not only religious, theological, and cultic. Iran had either taken over (via Hellenism) or had itself produced a great deal of secular knowledge.

Nonetheless, the religious framework within which the wisdom tradition was placed played a very important role. According to one of the principal works, Mēnōg ī Khrad (Spirit of Wisdom), all wisdom flows from a single wisdom that goes back to God. Two works in particular are important in this context. One is the sixth book of the encyclopedia Dēnkard (Acts of Religion); the other is Dādistān ī Mēnōg i Khrad (Book of Judgments of the Spirit of Wisdom). Both originated in the Sasanid period but preserve older material as well. Book 6 of the Dēnkard goes back in part to the Avestan Barish nask; other material comes from oral tradition. Its content is largely religious and has to do with Zoroastrian teaching on cleanliness; it is therefore highly ritualistic in character. In this context wisdom is correct knowledge and correspondingly correct behavior in things religious. "This world was created by Ōhrmazd the Lord [Av., Ahura Mazdā] with knowledge (dānāgih ). He maintains it with sagacity (frazānagīh ) and manliness (mardābagīh ); ultimately He will become joyful through it" (Shaked, 1979, sec. 311). This is interpreted as follows by the sages (dānāgān ): "The thing of Wisdom (khrad ) is this: sagacity (frazānagīh ), manliness (mardābagīh ) and the hope of the Renovation" (ibid., sec. 312). The same passage goes on to say: "The substance of wisdom (khrad ) is similar to that of fire. For nothing in this world may become so perfect as that which is done by wisdom (khrad )" (ibid., sec. 313). In the Dēnkard, "character" (khēm or xēm ) is superior even to wisdom, since "wisdom is in character; and religion is in both wisdom and character" (ibid., sec. 6; see also sec. 2). Ōhrmazd creates creatures through "character," "holds them with wisdom, and takes them back to himself by religion" (ibid., sec. 11).

In other, more secular handarz texts wisdom is at the head of the virtues and leads human beings to a knowledge of their duties. Ōhrmazd created the following spiritual realities that help human beings to that goal: "innate wisdom, acquired wisdom, character, hope, contentment, religion [dēn ], and the consultation of the wise" (Āyadgar ī Wazurgmihr 43, cited in Shaked, 1979, p. xxvi). Acquired wisdom is gained through education; innate wisdom preserves human beings from fear and sin. Clearly, in Zoroastrianism wisdom is firmly embedded in a religious context (although secular wisdom is not completely absent). Wisdom is primarily a matter of Zoroastrian knowledge; the latter defines its essence. It is therefore the duty of the faithful to follow the "wise" (teachers, priests) and ask them questions; association with them brings God close to one. Parts of Iranian wisdom literature, however, are also marked by a fatalistic pessimism reminiscent of Ecclesiastes (Shaked, 1979, sec. D). "Destiny" (bakht, brēh, zamān ) determines human beings; their action is geared to its accomplishment. We see here the influence of Iranian teaching on fate (i. e., Zurvanism), an influence also to be seen in modern Persian literature wherever this is in continuity with ancient Iranian wisdom traditions (proverbial literature, didactic poetry).

Wisdom clearly emerges as a heavenly person or hypostasis, the Spirit of Wisdom (Mēnōg ī Khrad), in the work of the same name. Wisdom is here viewed as one of the "holy immortals" (Amahraspandān; Av., Amesha Spentas); in fact, the author devotes more prayers to her than to the others (1.53). She is "original wisdom (āsn khrad ) from the heavens and the worlds"; she dwells with Ōhrmazd and combines all wisdom in herself (57.332); she was created by Ōhrmazd (8.3, 8.8), and through her he created the world (1.11, 1.49, 57.5); through her Ōhrmazd keeps the world in existence (1.12). Her most important function is instruction or, as the case may be, revelation. Each of the sixty-two chapters following upon the introduction to the work begins with questions by an (anonymous) "wise man" (dānāg ), which Wisdom then answers at length. The book is thus a compendium or catechism of Zoroastrianism and derives its authority from the heavenly wisdom of God. The "wise man" who passes its contents on is evidently a representative of the Zoroastrian community or priesthood. He had wandered through the world, from land to land and city to city, looking for wisdom, until he realized that true wisdom was to be found in his religion; then this wisdom appeared to him in bodily form as Ōhrmazd's Spirit of Wisdom (Mēnōg ī Khrad) and instructed him (1.1461). The most likely equivalent of this Wisdom in the Avesta is Vohu Manah (Vahuman, Vahman), the Good Mind; "primordial or inherent wisdom" (āsn khrad) is found in Yasna 22.25 and 25.18 (āsnō khratush ) in connection with the Zoroastrian concept of faith ("the innate understanding Mazda-made").


Some of the earliest Indian wisdom literature is found in the collections of proverbial wisdom that were made for rulers or kings, as, for example, the well-known Pañcatantra or the Hitopadeśa (Instruction in What Is Beneficial). The Mahābhārata, the Indian national epic, contains in its didactic sections a good deal of ancient wisdom tradition; this includes the Bhagavadgītā in particular. The important part played by knowledge or insight (jñāna ) in ancient Indian thought (especially in the Upaniads) has given wisdom a central position in India. It is difficult to distinguish this wisdom from philosophy, and philosophy in turn from religion; each shares in the character of the others. The Bhagavadgītā praises "the way of knowledge or wisdom" in preference to the way of action (karman ): "A man of faith, intent on wisdom (jñāna ), his senses (all) restrained, wins wisdom; and, wisdom won, he will come right soon to perfect peace" (4.39; trans. Robert C. Zaehner, The Bhagavad-Gita, London, 1973). Brahmanic philosophy or religion did not, however, reach the point of personifying wisdom or knowledge. This step was taken only in Buddhism, in which the Indian ideal of knowledge, the way to deliverance from the cycle of births (sasāra ) without reliance on the priestly tradition or extreme asceticism took new forms. But the objectification (hypostatization) of redemptive knowledge or transcendental wisdom (prajñā ; Pali, pañña ) came only in Mahāyāna Buddhism, beginning in about 100 bce in southern or northern India. A whole literature arose (originally in Sanskrit) consecrated to what it termed the "perfection of wisdom" (prajñapāramitā ; lit., "the wisdom that has gone beyond"). The earliest Prajñapāramitā works were composed between 100 bce and 150 ce; from the fourth to the seventh centuries ce compendia and short versions were redacted under the influence of the Mādhyamika school; from the sixth century on, Tantrism also gained control of these texts and gave them ritualistic interpretations (to the extent even of introducing antinomian practices). As mentioned above, there are a number of parallels between the Buddhist and the early Jewish conceptions of wisdom. The Buddhist "wisdom books" (Conze, 1975) introduce a specifically new type of knowledge about redemption: an insight into the "emptiness" (śūnyatā ) of existence that promises deliverance. These teachings are presented in the form of dialogues between the Buddha and some of his disciples. The manner of presentation lends authority to the new teaching and gives it canonical status. Here the virtue (pāramitā ) of "insight" (prajñā, pañña ), perhaps under the influence of the South Indian mother goddess, is sometimes personified as a goddess of wisdom, Prajñapāramitā. In this form she is regarded as "mother" of all the Buddhas (buddhāmati, jināna mātā ) and bodhisattvas.

If a mother with many sons had fallen ill, They all, sad in mind, would busy themselves about her: Just so also the Buddhas in the world-systems in the ten directions Bring to mind this perfection of wisdom as their mother. The Saviours of the world who were in the past, and also those that are (just now) in the ten directions, Have issued from her, and so will the future ones be. She is the one who shows the world (for what it is), she is the genetrix, the mother of the Jinas, And she reveals the thought and action of other beings. (Conze, 1973, p. 31)

Prajñapāramitā is depicted iconographically with two, four, six, ten, or twelve arms. Her color is gold or white; her symbols are the lotus and a book (colored blue or red). She often resembles depictions of Mañjuśrī (the male personification of wisdom) or Sarasvatī (the Hindu goddess of learning, eloquence, and intelligence) or Avalokiteśvara, Tārā, and Cunda. To ordinary Buddhists she is a goddess who can be invoked and who bestows merit, well-being, and blessing. Buddhist theologians, however, see in her simply a "spiritual" manifestation of redemptive or enlightening ("bodhi -giving") wisdom, which contains and sustains all things and is called "mother of enlightenment." Here the very essence of Buddhist doctrine is manifested and personified. The various interpretations of this doctrine in the Mahāyāna schools (Mādhyamika, Yogācāra, Tantra) are also reflected in the figure of Prajñapāramitā and the literature about her. One of the best-known hymns to her was composed by Rāhulabhadra (c. 150 ce):

Homage to Thee, Perfect Wisdom, Boundless, and transcending thought! All Thy limbs are without blemish, Faultless those who Thee discern. Teachers of the world, the Buddhas, Are Thine own compassionate sons; Then art Thou, O Blessed Lady, Grandam thus of beings all. When as fearful Thou appearest Thou engender'st fear in fools; When benignly Thou appearest Comes assurance to the wise. By all Buddhas, Single Buddhas, By Disciples courted, too, Thou the one path to salvation, There's no other verily. By my praise of Perfect Wisdom All the merit I may rear, Let that make the world devoted To this wisdom without peer. (Conze, 1959, pp. 168171)

The Tantric school produced magical incantations or formulas (mantras ) for Prajñapāramitā, which were given by the goddess herself. The recitation of these sayings has liberating power; it is also meritorious on behalf of others. In this form of Buddhism the figure of Wisdom unites in itself all aspects of religion, both in theory and in practice. In fact, Prajñapāramitā is probably its most notable expression.


Finally, I shall add a brief word on China, where, in contrast to India, wisdom has minimal connections with religion. In Confucianism it has an unambiguously ethico-moral character. We are reminded of the Greeks when we find wisdom consisting in the avoidance of extremes and the following of the mean. Chih ("wisdom") is one of the five cardinal virtues that characterize the Confucian "wise man" (chün-tzu ). It includes knowledge of human nature and society, a command of language, and a practical behavior that obeys the Confucian rules (li). "The sense of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom (chih )" (Fung Yu-lan, 1952, vol. 1, p. 121). Every human being has the native ability to become wise and needs only instruction and practice, since in the prevailing Chinese view human nature is good (another point reminiscent of Greek thought). Confucianism nonetheless also offers the ideal of the "noble man" or "holy man" (sheng-jen ) who surpasses even the wise man, since he complies perfectly with all the principles (li), lives in harmony with nature and society, and thus is the peerless teacher of an age. The ancient meaning of wisdom as the practical management of life through knowledge of the world and human beings has probably found its most impressive development in China and has for thousands of years profoundly shaped the character of the people. Wisdom is embodied in behavior and can be acquired by practice; it then becomes a habitual attitude.

See Also

Avalokiteśvara; Buddhism, Schools of, article on Mahāyāna Philosophical Schools of Buddhism; Goddess Worship, article on The Hindu Goddess; okhmah; Jñāna; Knowledge and Ignorance; Li; Mañjuśrī; Mengzi; Prajña; Sarasvatī; Sophia; Tārā; Tathatā; Upāya; Wisdom Literature.


There is no monograph that completely covers the concepts of wisdom that are found among various peoples and cultures. Only A. R. Gordon's "Wisdom," in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 12 (Edinburgh, 1921), attempts a survey; the areas most fully studied and described are the ancient Near East (including Israel), Greek thought, and early Christianity. The following bibliography lists other articles and books that I have found helpful and that can serve as an introduction to the subject.

Burkert, Walter. Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism. Translated by Edwin L. Minar, Jr. Cambridge, Mass., 1972.

Conze, Edward. Buddhist Scriptures. Harmondsworth, 1959.

Conze, Edward. The Prajñapāramitā Literature. The Hague, 1960.

Conze, Edward. Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays. Columbia, S. C., 1968.

Conze, Edward, trans. The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and Its Verse Summary. Bolinas, Calif., 1973.

Conze, Edward, trans. and ed. Buddhist Wisdom Books, Containing the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. London, 1975.

Conze, Edward, trans. The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom. Berkeley, 1975.

Dijk, Jan van. La sagesse suméro-accadienne. Leiden, 1953.

Fohrer, Georg, and Ulrich Wilcken. "Sophia." In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 7. Nashville, 1967.

Fung Yu-lan. A History of Chinese Philosophy. 2 vols. 2d ed. Translated by Derk Bodde. Princeton, 19521953.

Gese, Hartmut. "Weisheit." In Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 3d ed., vol. 6. Tübingen, 1962.

Gladigow, Burkhard. Sophia und Kosmos. Hildesheim, 1965.

Küchler, Max. Frühjüdische Weisheitstraditionen. Freiburg, 1979.

Lambert, W. G. Babylonian Wisdom Literature. Oxford, 1960.

Langdon, Stephen H. "Babylonian Wisdom." Babyloniaca (1923): 129194.

Mack, Burton L. Logos und Sophia: Untersuchungen zur Weisheitstheologie in hellenistischen Judentum. Göttingen, 1973.

Noth, Martin, and D. Winton Thomas, eds. Wisdom in Israel and in the Ancient Near East. Leiden, 1955.

Rad, Gerhard von. Wisdom in Israel. Nashville, 1972.

Ringgren, Helmer. Word and Wisdom. Lund, 1947.

Rudolph, Kurt. "Sophia und Gnosis." In Altes Testament-Frühjudentum-Gnosis: Neue Studien zu "Gnosis und Bibel," edited by K.-W. Tröger, pp. 221237. Berlin, 1980.

Sasson, Jack M., ed. Oriental Wisdom. Special issue of the Journal of the American Oriental Society 101, no. 1 (1981).

Shaked, Shaul, trans. The Wisdom of the Sasanian Sages: Dēnkard Book Six. Boulder, 1979.

Soden, Wolfram von. "Leistung und Grenze sumerischer und babylonischer Wissenschaft." Welt als Geschichte 2 (1936): 411464, 509557.

West, Edward W., trans. and ed. The Book of the Mainyô-i-khard (1871). Amsterdam, 1979.

Wilcken, Ulrich. Weisheit und Torheit. Tübingen, 1959.

New Sources

Collins, John Joseph, Seers, Sybils and Sages in Hellenic-Roman Judaism. New York, 1997.

Curnow, Trevor. Wisdom, Intuition, and Ethics. Brookfield, Vt., 1999.

Day, John, Robert P. Gordon, and H. G. M. Williamson, eds. Wisdom in Ancient Israel: Essays in Honor of J. A. Emerton. New York, 1995.

Harrington, Daniel J. Wisdom Texts from the Qumran. New York, 1996.

Kekes, John. Wisdom and Good Lives. Ithaca, N.Y., 1995.

Kinnard, Jacob N. Imaging Wisdom: Seeing and Knowing in the Art of Indian Buddhism. Curzon Critical Studies in Buddhism. Richmond, U.K., 1999.

Langan, Thomas. Tradition and Authenticity in the Search for Ecumenic Wisdom. Columbia, 1992.

Murphy, Roland Edmund. The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature. New York, 1990.

Raphals, Lisa Ann. Knowing Words: Wisdom and Cunning in the Classical Traditions of China and Greece. Ithaca, N.Y., 1992.

Reichert, John. Milton's Wisdom: Nature and Scripture in Paradise Lost. Ann Arbor, 1992.

Kurt Rudolph (1987)

Translated from German by Matthew J. O'Connell
Revised Bibliography


views updated May 17 2018


Wisdom in every culture, pagan or Judeo-Christian, suggests a kind of intellectual perfection. It may be given speculative or practical emphasis or even special religious value, but it always implies a type of knowing and usually a capacity to judge. In Christianity the roots of wisdom doctrine are to be found in the twin sources of her culture, Israel and Greece; thus, before analyzing the nature of wisdom as understood in later Christianity, this article gives a historical conspectus of the development of the concept.

Historical Conspectus

The main stages in the evolution of the notion of wisdom are found in pagan cultures, biblical literature, patristic writings, medieval thought, the Renaissance, and modern and contemporary thought.

Pagan Cultures. In the Egyptian, Babylonian, and Chinese cultures of the past, wisdom was considered as something distinctly practical, embracing both moral value and good sense. The wise man was seen as one who knows the principles of right living and who can instruct his fellows. In the literature of these civilizations the maxim or proverb was the ordinary form of wisdom writing. India and Greece, however, gradually gave to wisdom a purely intellectual cast. India's classic literature, its wisdom literature, is called Veda (meaning knowledge), a term that undoubtedly shares the etymology of the Latin videre, to see (see vedas).

In Greece wisdom (σοφία) enjoyed a varied usage before being given its primarily speculative overtones by aristotle. It was attributed to those possessing a savoirvivre in general, to men of artistic ability, to religious men respecting the gods; even the dialectic of the sophists was thought to be wisdom. Before socrates, plato, and Aristotle, Homer, Sophocles, Phidias, and Policlitus were the heroes of wisdom (cf. Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea 1141a 915).

In the tradition of Socrates and Plato, wisdom was thought to be knowledge of self and of one's own ignorance. It also became identified with the ordering of one's conduct and then with the whole complex movement toward contemplation of the beautiful. In this Platonic tradition wisdom suggests a unified view of ends and means, resulting from an examination of the various arts (τέχναι). Hence the maxim that "it belongs to the wise men to order."

The early Aristotle continues the Platonic heritage wherein wisdom (σοφία) is not really distinguished from prudence (φρόνησις). But as he moves from the Eudaemonean Ethics (1215b 12) to the Nicomachean Ethics (1141a 9114lb 8) and the Metaphysics (981b 25983a23), Aristotle is more careful in making this distinction and in characterizing wisdom ultimately as a disinterested, nonpragmatic type of knowledge. For the later Aristotle, only first philosophy, or metaphysics, meets the requisites of true wisdom. As a speculative knowledge of highest causes, wisdom grants a certain omniscience, involving the knowing of difficult things beyond the ordinary mind. It is most certain, eminently teachable, and, as above, disinterestedall of which grants to metaphysics the right to be called wisdom.

Biblical Literature. Within ancient literature the other important source of traditional Christianity's wisdom doctrine is the sapiential literature of the Old Testament. Although commentators on Israelitic wisdom may differ, two currents of thought seem to be discernible. From the secular, aristocratic milieu of the surrounding cultures Israel inherited an interest in a wisdom born of good sense, experience, and observationsomething essentially rational and practical. The so-called wisdom schools developed in this tradition, dedicated as they were to teaching the rules for a happy, successful life. At the same time, within the more immediately religious context of Jewish cult and culture, another wisdom appeared. Born of faith, this is a gift of God, sought in prayer and bestowed upon man by a special grace. On the one hand, one finds an acquired savoir-faire, the subject of the didactic, moralistic poetry of wisdom. On the other, there is the mysterious wisdom of divine origin, personifying an attribute of God and sometimes God's own spirit, the source of knowledge and happiness and immortality, of all good things. But throughout the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, even in the more sublime poetry describing divine wisdom as personified, there is an accent that is distinctly moral and practical. The stress is rarely speculative, as it had been in the golden age of Greek writing.

Moving beyond the profane wisdom of philosophical speculation and the Old Testament portrait of wisdom as good sense linked with obedience to the Law, but in direct contrast to the verbal wisdom of the Sophists, St. Paul presents the wisdom of Christianity as radically Christocentric: "to the Jews indeed a stumbling-block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor 1.2324). New Testament wisdom is, first of all, the divine Logos, Christ, and second, man's taking on the "mind of Christ." The spiritual man is able to judge all things, because his union with Christ in the Spirit gives to him the very thought of Christ. In a context thoroughly existential, i.e., the emphasis is not on abstract essences and laws but on the concrete and personal, wisdom is salvationas person and as participation. (see wisdom [in the bible].)

Patristic Writing. Among the Fathers, St. augustine added significantly to what had already been written. The Eastern tradition does not seem really to differ from his all-embracing idea (see, e.g., T. Spidlik, La Sophiologie de S. Basile [Rome 1961]). Augustine combines the Platonic ascent to contemplation and St. Paul's insistence on accepting the folly of the Cross. In a context of Christian contemplation, Augustine sees wisdom as understanding, but understanding based in love: "no good can be perfectly known unless it is perfectly loved" (Divers. quaest. 35.2). This insight seems to prompt the identification of wisdom with holiness:"Hominis sapientia pietas est" (Enchir. 1.2; Civ. 14.28; Spir. et litt. 13.22) Ultimately, for Augustine there is very little that wisdom is not. It embraces all the Christian values, intellectual as well as moral, and implies a state of perfection in which the soul is anchored in love, enjoying interior peace and habitual joy in God. Although Augustine does make much of a distinction between science and wisdom based upon their respective objectsscience is of human things, wisdom of divine (Trin. 14.1.3)wisdom remains for him deeply affective in character, conditioned throughout by the influence of happiness and love.

Medieval Thought. The transition from St. Augustine to St. thomas aquinas moved through eight centuries of emphasis on the affective aspect of wisdom; after all, sapientia finds its etymological roots in sapor (taste), and this must indicate affectivity of some kind. From St. Anselm's fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding), a faithful echo of St. Augustine's thought at the beginning of scholasticism, to the writings of St. bonaventure, St. albert the great, and robert kilwardby, the doctrine on wisdom was cast in a distinctly affective mold. This is evidenced by the consistent characterization of theology as primarily affective.

When the established religion of philosophical platonism was challenged by the introduction of Aristotle in the West, however, the primacy of wisdom's speculative value was reasserted. It was St. Thomas Aquinas, who, accepting Aristotle's teaching on the intellectual virtues, brought into focus again the speculative dimension of wisdom (see In 1 meta. 13; Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 57.2). Together with this reevaluation of speculative excellence, he introduced the distinctions separating metaphysics formally from theology and these two acquired wisdoms from the gift of the Holy Spirit. Yet these apparently extreme departures from Augustinian tradition were really not as extreme as a cursory reading of historical and doctrinal commentaries might lead one to believe. This will become evident in the doctrinal analysis below.

Renaissance. The writers of the 14th to the 16th centuries, when not simply repeating St. Augustine or St. Thomas or more directly the writers of pagan Greece, witness an evolution toward a radical skepticism coupled with an emphasis upon wisdom as moral virtue. The docta pietas of F. Petrarch and the docta ignorantia of nicholas of cusa set the stage for the avowal of P. charron, at the height of humanism's ascendancy, that wisdom is realized only in intellectual skepticism. The latter's De la sagesse marks the end of this period, as it combines within wisdom a complex of moralism, humanism, secularism, and skepticism.

Modern and Contemporary Thought. In R. descartes (Princ. phil., praef., 12) wisdom continued to be given a distinctly moral cast, also noticeable in the socalled moral intellectualism of G. W. von leibniz, B. spinoza, and G. W. F. hegel, and especially in the ethico-pragmatic doctrine of Kantian voluntarism. Then, at the dawn of the contemporary period, S. A. kierkegaard reacted in claiming that all ethics is worldlythe only true wisdom is "existential anxiety," which should force one into the presence of God. And although the word wisdom rarely appears, the thirst for "authentic existence" in M. heidegger, the "ultimate concern" of Paul tillich's writings, and similar positions reflect this attitude in the writers of the 20th century.

Doctrinal Analysis

Throughout the literature, wisdom as a perfection in man appears as a special kind of knowing, open to religious meaning, and therefore of ultimate value to the person who possesses it. Most simply, whether the emphasis be speculative, affective, or practical, wisdom suggests immediately or by implication a knowledge of God. For Aristotle it is the grasp of highest causes; for Old Testament writers it involves knowing God in the Law; for St. Paul and St. John it is knowing God in Christ. SS. Basil and Augustine see wisdom in all human knowing crowned by love of God in purity of heart, and for St. Thomas wisdom is open to three realizationsone based in reason (metaphysics), one based in faith and reason (theology), and finally the gift of the Holy Spirit (mystical wisdom). (see wisdom, gift of.)

As a knowledge of God, who is at once supremely knowable and supremely lovableHe is the first truth and the highest goodwisdom becomes truly contemplative. One might say that wisdom's primary act is divina amata contemplari to contemplate divine things (persons) loved. Only in wisdom is the object known capable of evoking the personal surrender implied in genuine contemplation.

Besides contemplation in this higher sense, there are other acts proper to wisdom. They involve its relationship to other sciences, its concern for and defense of its own principles, its direction of man's practical or moral life. But an examination of these various acts demands distinct analyses of metaphysics and theology.

Metaphysics. The study of being leads the metaphysician ultimately to affirm god. Confronted by the limited, contingent being in human existence, the philosophically wise man sees in reason's light the necessity of an unlimited ground of that being. And this ground of being is not merely the source, but the end and goal as well, of all existence.

With the awareness of God as principle and end, as ground and goal, of all things, the true metaphysician must recognize that the infinitely desirable Person of God is also his own proper end. He cannot remain indifferent. Here the object itself as the ultimate end and happiness of the individual can and should evoke an affective response. The truly wise man, the perfect metaphysician, cannot remain in detached disinterestedness. He is immediately engaged, involved, committed. As person confronts Person and the identification of infinite truth and supreme goodness is discovered, metaphysics becomes contemplative. One might argue that in metaphysics God is not fully discoverable as a "Thou" who calls for a personal response and that this awareness must await God's revelation from within. It is true that God as Person becomes more evident through the Judeo-Christian record of salvation history, above all, in His personal self-gift proclaimed in the New Testament; but this does not preclude the possibility of discovering God in the created universe as one who knows and loves and cares.

Besides contemplating God as the personal ground and goal of all being, the metaphysician reaches deep into the interior of being. This grants to reason's wise man the prerogative and obligation to judge, order, and defend the first principles of being and knowingcontradiction, causality, and othersall of which depend upon being for their existence and meaning (see Summa theologiae la2ae, 66.5 ad 4). The examination of these first principles adds an important characteristic to metaphysical wisdom, for science as such cannot discourse about its principles; it must simply accept them.

A final privilege of metaphysical wisdom based on its concern for ultimates is its architectonic function regarding other sciences. Only the broader view of wisdom makes possible the ordering and using of less universal disciplines: "The ultimate perfection of the human intellect is divine truth; other truths perfect the intellect as ordered toward divine truth" (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 18.04 ad 4). Yet if it belongs to wisdom to order and to use other sciences, the autonomy of the latter must always be carefully protected.

In metaphysical wisdom, God is attained not in Himself but as reflected in creation, and therefore He remains unknown from within. The contemplative act of metaphysics, though true knowledge, is plunged in mystery and best expressed in negation; for the infinite cannot be contained in finite concepts. It thus creates a longing for a more adequate knowledge of God, another and more perfect wisdom. (see christian philosophy; theology, natural.)

Theology. God has graciously made such a wisdom possible. He has revealed himself to man in the Judeo-Christian tradition, climaxed in the gift of His Son, His Word, Jesus Christ. Man responds to this Word of God by faith, that complex personal commitment that involves obedience, trust, and repentance, as well as assent. But the faith by which man responds is not yet wisdom, or is only inchoatively so. The assent of faith lacks the order necessary to be a conceptual wisdom, and its affectivity is too elemental to qualify it as affective wisdom. Faith remains open both to reason in the quest for intelligibility and to charity in the thirst for union, that is, to theological and to mystical wisdom (see Summa theologiae 1a, 1.6 ad 3; 2a2ae, 45.2).

Since God's truth is received on authority and not by vision, the natural wonder of the human mind remains unsatisfied and prompts the quest for understanding. From this encounter of faith and wonder is born a new wisdom called theology.

In the genesis of theological wisdom two levels of reason's effort are distinguishable but not really separable. First, the believing Christian must discover what is revealed. This is "faith seeking documentation"; its concern is the investigation of the authoritative documentsthe constitutive, declarative, and corroborative sources of revelation (Scripture, magisterium, liturgy, Fathers, theologians). Second, the theologian seeks to grasp the intelligibility of God's revelation, essentially and existentially, in the order of being and the order of action. This complex task is "faith seeking understanding" in the Anselmian phrase; but lest this be understood as too abstract, it might be called "faith seeking relevance." On both levels theology is ultimately concerned with God and all else as related to God. This concern eminently qualifies it as wisdom.

Theology as wisdom, however, differs from metaphysics on two important counts. First, the theologian contemplates God not just as the One Who Is, but as He is, i.e., as a Love-Community. This deeply personalist dimension of theologyGod reveals Himself as Father, Son, and Spiritmakes possible a degree of affectivity impossible in metaphysics. Faith itself begins in affectione (De ver. 14.2 ad 10), which gives an affective cast to all theology whose principles are held in faith. Here, especially, one can say with St. Thomas that "the ultimate perfection of the contemplative life is realized: that divine truth not only be known, but that it be also loved" (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 180.7 ad 1). This is the act par excellence of genuine wisdom, "to contemplate divine things [persons] loved" (In 3 sent.

The other significant aspect of theological wisdom distinguishing it from metaphysics is that theology realizes the traditional adage sapientis est ordinare (it belongs to the wise man to order), in the practical as well as in the speculative domain. Revelation presents the mystery of a God who is Love not merely for man's intellectual assent but, above all, for his life. And theology, as man's attempt to grasp the mystery in all its intelligibility, must examine the moral principles of Christian living together with the doctrines of Christian belief. To what degree holiness of life is itself required in the theologian is debated. But if theology is indeed a practical wisdom, its integral, if not its essential, perfection demands application of the knowledge (De ver. 14.4). Theology can in no sense be isolated from the spiritual life of the individual theologian.

This ordination to contemplation and to life can be understood only in the context of theology's concern for its principles. These reveal the unique God who relates to man as a self-manifesting, self-offering Love-Community of Persons. The theologian, reflecting upon the saving events of God proclaimed in Scripture and celebrated within the Christian community, is a man forever concerned with that mystery of Person and Love communicated to him in faith. Herein are discovered the principles of theology. And just as metaphysical wisdom is privileged and indeed obliged to judge, order, and defend the principles whose source is being, theology must judge, order, and defend the principles whose source is God. Further, as a rational enterprise concerned with revelation's intelligibility, theology, like all science (scientia), makes use of all the resources of reasonfrom the inductive search for meaning to the conclusiveness of demonstration.

Theological wisdom also shares with its philosophical counterpart the prerogative of judgment, defense, and use of other disciplines. Without being in any way doctrinaire, theology must confront the world of human knowledge to serve it and to be aided by it. Only in this way can this wisdom of "faith seeking understanding" be made truly relevant to a contemporary world.

Finally, the wisdom of theology, like that of metaphysics, must also end in desire. The mediate knowledge of faith guards the mystery of God in conceptual chains that bind the theologian. In this opaque world, where vision is impossible, the wise man desires to be freed from his conceptual bonds to enjoy a more immediate knowledge of God, a more perfect contemplation, a higher wisdom.

See Also: dogmatic theology; moral theology; philosophy; spiritual theology.

Bibliography: General. k. conley, A Theology of Wisdom (Dubuque 1963), comprehensive bibliog. m. j. adler, ed., The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, 2 v. (Chicago 1952); v. 2, 3 of Great Books of the Western World 2:110218. m. j. congar, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350; Tables générales 1951) 15.1:346502. j. maritain, Science and Wisdom, tr. b. wall (London 1940). Ancient Wisdom. a. r. gordon, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. j. hastings, 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827) 12:742747. a. m. j. festugiÉre, Contemplation et vie contemplative selon Platon (2d ed. Paris 1950). m. d. philippe, "La Sagesse selon Aristote," Nova et vetera 20 (1945) 325374. Biblical Concept. r. e. murphy, Seven Books of Wisdom (Milwaukee 1960). m. noth and d. w. thomas, eds., Wisdom in Israel and in the Ancient Near East (Vetus Testamentum [Leiden 1951] Suppl 3; 1955). e.b. allo, "Sagesse et pneuma dans la première épitre aux Corinthiens," Revue biblique 43 (1934) 321346. a. feuillet, "Jésus et la sagesse divine après les évangiles synoptiques," ibid. 62 (1955) 161196. j. de finance, "La ΣΟΦΙΑ chez s. Paul," Recherches de science religieuse 25 (1935) 385417. St. Augustine. f. cayrÉ, La Contemplation augustinenne (Bruges 1954). h. i. marrou, Saint Augustin et la fin de la culture antique (4th ed. Paris 1958). e. portaliÉ, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350; Tables générales 1951) 1.2:2268472. St. Thomas. c. journet, The Wisdom of the Faith, tr. r. f. smith (Westminster, Md. 1952). j. lenz, "Thomistische Philosophie als Lebensweisheit," Pastor Bonus 49 (1938) 323337. f. p. muÑiz, The Work of Theology, tr. j. p. reid (Washington 1953). Modern Concepts. e. f. rice, The Renaissance Idea of Wisdom (Cambridge, Mass. 1958). s. pignagnoli, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 4:275277.

[k. conley]


views updated May 08 2018


"Wisdom" in its broadest and commonest sense denotes sound and serene judgment regarding the conduct of life. It may be accompanied by a broad range of knowledge, by intellectual acuteness, and by speculative depth, but it is not to be identified with any of these and may appear in their absence. It involves intellectual grasp or insight, but it is concerned not so much with the ascertainment of fact or the elaboration of theories as with the means and ends of practical life.

Wisdom Literature

Concern with the art of living long preceded formal science or philosophy in human history. All ancient civilizations seem to have accumulated wisdom literatures, consisting largely of proverbs handed down from father to son as the crystallized results of experience. Perhaps the most ancient known collection of these sayings is the Egyptian "Wisdom of Ptah-hotep," which comes down from about 2500 BCE. The writings of Confucius (sixth century BCE) and Mencius (fourth century BCE), though more sophisticated, are still concerned chiefly with the Dao, the good or normal human life. The early writers of India held views at once more speculative and more disillusioned than those of China; both Buddhists and Hindus found the greatest happiness of man in deliverance from the grinding round of suffering and death and in absorption into ātman or nirvāa, where personality and struggle alike disappear. But large parts of the Bhagavad-Gita and the Dhammapada, two classics among the scriptures of India, are devoted to maxims and counsels for the conduct of life.

Of far greater influence in the West has been the wisdom literature of the Hebrew people, which consists of the more philosophical parts of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha. Perhaps the most important of these are the books of Job, Proverbs, and Psalms and the apocryphal book called The Wisdom of Solomon. There is no certain knowledge of who wrote any of them; they are probably the work of many men, extending over centuries. They differ strikingly from the writings of Greek and Chinese moralists in the closeness with which morality is identified with religion. The Hebrew sages were all monotheists who held that God fashioned the world but remained outside it; he had made his will known in the law delivered to Moses. This law set the standard and pattern of goodness for all time; the good man will make it his study and seek to conform his life to it. At the same time these sages reduced the miraculous element in Jewish history; they made no claim to being inspired themselves, and inclining, indeed, to assume that the sole motive of conduct was self-advantage, they offered their prudential maxims as not only conforming to the divine law but as also the product of good sense and sound reason. There is very little evidence that they were affected by Greek thought, though Greek influence must have flowed around them after the conquests of Alexander. It is possible that in their cool and reasonable note, contrasting so sharply with the visionary fervor of the prophets, there is an echo of the reflective thought of Greece.

The Greeks had a wisdom literature of their own that long preceded the appearance of their great philosophers. Hesiod (eighth century BCE) and Theognis (sixth century BCE) summed up in poetic form the maxims of traditional morality. Pythagoras (sixth century BCE), a curious combination of mathematician and religious seer, seems to have found in philosophy the guide of practical life. This view was further developed by the Sophists, who, at a time when libraries and universities were unknown, undertook to instruct young men in the arts, theoretical and practical, that were most likely to lead to success. In their emphasis on success, however, there was something skeptical and cynical; the art of life tended in their teaching to become the sort of craft that enabled one by clever strategy to achieve place and power.

The Greek Conception

The first full statement and embodiment of the classic Greek conception of wisdom came with Socrates (c. 470399 BCE), who insisted that virtue and knowledge were one, that if men failed to live well, it was through ignorance of what virtue really was. He had no doubt that if men knew what virtue was, they would embody it in their conduct. Thus, he set himself to define the major virtues with precision. His method was to consider particular instances of them and bring to light the features they had in common; this would give the essence and true pattern of the virtue in question. He did not profess to be satisfied with the results of his inquiries, but his acuteness and thoroughness made him the first of the great theoretical moralists, and the courage with which he carried his principles into both life and death gave him a unique place in Western history.

The stress on wisdom was maintained by his disciple Plato. For Plato there are three departments of human nature, which may be described as the appetites, directed to such ends as food and drink; the distinctively human emotions, such as courage and honor; and reason. Of these reason is the most important, for only as impulse and feeling are governed by it will conduct be saved from chaos and excess; indeed, in such government practical wisdom consists. In one respect Aristotle carried the exaltation of reason further than Plato; in addition to this practical wisdom, he recognized another and purely intellectual virtue, the wisdom that pursues truth for its own sake and without reference to practice. In this pursuit, which can be followed effectively only by the philosopher, lay the highest and happiest life.

It was among the Stoics, however, that guidance by reason was most seriously and widely attempted. In the thought of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121180 CE), both nature and human nature are determined by causal law, and the wrongs and insults that other men inflict on us are therefore as inevitable as the tides. The wise man will understand this inevitability and not waste his substance in futile indignation or fear. He will conform himself to nature's laws, recognize that passion is a symptom of ignorance, free himself from emotional attachments and resentments, and live as far as he can the life of a "passionless sage." The account given by Marcus Aurelius in his famous journal of his struggle to order his practice and temper by this ideal of austere rationality has made his little book a classic of pagan wisdom.

Modern Philosophers

The opinions of modern philosophers on the meaning of wisdom are too various for review here. But it can be noted of these thinkers, as it was of Marcus Aurelius, that their standing as purveyors or exemplars of wisdom bears no fixed relation to their eminence as philosophers. If their chief work lies, as Immanuel Kant's does, in the theory of knowledge, or as John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart's does, in technical metaphysics, it may have no obvious bearing on practical life. Furthermore, by reason of an unhappy temperament, some philosophers of name and influence, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, have been far from notable exemplars of wisdom in either controversy or conduct. On the other hand, there are thinkers who have shown in their writing, and sometimes also in their lives, so large a humanity and good sense that they have been held in especial esteem for their wisdom whether or not they have been of high philosophical rank. Michel Eyquem de Montaigne and Ralph Waldo Emerson are examples on one level; John Locke, Bishop Butler, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick are examples from a more professional level. Among technical thinkers of the first rank, a figure who has left a deep impression for a wisdom serene and disinterested, though a little above the battle, is the famous philosopher of Amsterdam, Benedict de Spinoza (16321677).

Components of Wisdom

Are there any traits uniformly exhibited by the very diverse minds that by general agreement are wise? Two traits appear to stand outreflectiveness and judgment.


By reflectiveness is meant the habit of considering events and beliefs in the light of their grounds and consequences. Conduct prompted merely by impulse or desire is notoriously likely to be misguided, and this holds true of both intellectual and practical conduct. Whether a belief is warranted must be decided by the evidence it rests on and the implications to which it leads, and one can become aware of these only by reflection. Similarly, whether an action is right or wrong depends, at least in part, on the results that it produces in the way of good and evil, and these results can be taken into account only by one who looks before he leaps. Common sense, with its rules and proverbs, no doubt helps, but it is too rough and general a guide to be relied on safely; and the reflective man will have at his command a broader view of grounds and consequences, causes and effects. He will more readily recognize the beliefs of superstition, charlatanism, and bigotry for what they are because he will question the evidence for them and note that when reflectively developed, they conflict with beliefs known to be true. In the same way he will be able to recognize some proposals for action as rash, partisan, or shortsighted because certain consequences have been ascribed to them falsely and others have been ignored. In some activities wisdom consists almost wholly of such foresight. A general, for example, is accounted wise if he can foresee in detail how each of the courses open to him will affect the prospects of victory.


There is a wisdom of ends as well as of means, which is here denoted by "judgment." The goal of the generalnamely, victoryis laid down for him, but the ordinary man needs the sort of wisdom that can appraise and choose his own ends. The highest wisdom of all, Plato contended, is that required by the statesman, who is called upon to fix both the goals toward which society strives and the complex methods by which it may most effectively move toward them. Unfortunately, at this crucial point where the ends of life are at issue, the sages have differed profoundly. Some, like Epicurus and Mill, have argued for happiness; others, like the Christian saints, for self-sacrificing love; others, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, for power. Many philosophers of the twentieth century came to hold that this conflict is beyond settlement by reason, on the ground that judgments of good and bad are not expressions of knowledge at all but only of desire and emotion. For these thinkers there is properly no such thing as wisdom regarding intrinsic goods; knowledge is confined to means.

Whatever the future of this view, common opinion is still at one with the main tradition of philosophy; it regards the judgment of values as a field in which wisdom may be preeminently displayed. It must admit, however, that this judgment is of a peculiar kind; it seems to be intuitive in the sense that it is not arrived at by argument nor easily defended by it. One may be certain that pleasure is better than pain and yet be at a loss to prove it; the insight seems to be immediate. And where immediate insights differ, as they sometimes do, the difference appears to be ultimate and beyond remedy. Must such wisdom end in dogmatic contradiction and skepticism?

That it need not do so will perhaps be evident from a few further considerations. First, differences about intrinsic goods may be due to mere lack of knowledge on one side or the other. The Puritans who condemned music and drama as worthless could hardly have excluded them if they had known what they were excluding; in these matters wider experience brings an amended judgment. Second, what appears to be intuitive insight may express nothing more than a confirmed habit or prejudice. Where deep-seated feelings are involved, as in matters of sex, race, or religion, the certainty that belongs to clear insight may be confused with the wholly different certainty of mere confidence or emotional conviction. Fortunately, Sigmund Freud and others have shown that these irrational factors can be tracked down and largely neutralized. Third, man's major goods are rooted in his major needs, and since the basic needs of human nature are everywhere the same, the basic goods are also the same. No philosophy of life that denied value to the satisfactions of food or drink or sex or friendship or knowledge could hope to commend itself in the long run.

It should be pointed out, finally, that the judgment of the wise man may carry a weight out of all proportion to that of anything explicit in his thought or argument. The decisions of a wise judge may be implicitly freighted with experience and reflection, even though neither may be consciously employed in the case before him. Experience, even when forgotten beyond recall, leaves its deposit, and where this is the deposit of long trial and error, of much reflection, and of wide exposure in fact or imagination to the human lot, the judgment based on it may be more significant than any or all of the reasons that the judge could adduce for it. This is why age is credited with wisdom; years supply a means to it whether or not the means is consciously used. Again, the individual may similarly profit from the increasing age of the race; since knowledge is cumulative, he can stand on the shoulders of his predecessors. Whether individual wisdom is on the average increasing is debatable, but clearly the opportunity for it is. As Francis Bacon, a philosopher whose wisdom was of the highest repute, remarked, "We are the true ancients."

See also Bacon, Francis; Butler, Joseph; Confucius; Emerson, Ralph Waldo; Epicurus; Freud, Sigmund; Locke, John; Marcus Aurelius Antoninus; McTaggart, John McTaggart Ellis; Mencius; Mill, John Stuart; Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Philosophy; Plato; Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism; Sidgwick, Henry; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Socrates; Stoicism.


For proverbial wisdom see Archer Taylor, The Proverb (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931), andold but suggestiveR. C. Trench, Proverbs and Their Lessons (London and New York, 1858).

For the problems of determining right and wrong, see any first-rate work on ethics, such as Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

For an analysis of reflection, see, for example, John Dewey, How We Think (Boston: Heath, 1910).

For the place of reason in valuation, see L. T. Hobhouse, The Rational Good (New York: Holt, 1921), or Brand Blanshard, Reason and Goodness (New York: Macmillan, 1961).

For some useful popular works see T. E. Jessop, Reasonable Living (London, 1948); H. C. King, Rational Living (New York, 1912); and A. E. Murphy, The Uses of Reason (New York: Macmillan, 1943).

Brand Blanshard (1967)


views updated May 18 2018

701. Wisdom (See also Genius.)

  1. Amenhotep (fl. 14th century B.C.) pictured as bearded man holding papyrus roll. [Ancient Egypt. Art: Parrinder, 18]
  2. Athena (Rom. Minerva) goddess of wisdom. [Gk. and Rom. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 713]
  3. Augustine, St . (354430) patron saint of scholars; voluminous theological author. [Christian Hagiog.: Brewster, 384385]
  4. Balder most beautiful, luminescent, and wise god. [Norse Myth.: Parrinder, 40]
  5. blue salvia traditional symbol of wisdom; indicates mature judgment. [Flower Symbolism: Flora Symbolica, 177]
  6. Bodhi knowledge by which one attains Nirvana. [Buddhism: Parrinder, 48]
  7. Bragi god of wisdom, poetry, and eloquence. [Norse Myth: Parrinder, 50]
  8. Chiron knowledgeable Centaur; instructed Achilles, Jason, and Asclepius. [Gk. Myth.: Parrinder, 62]
  9. Confucius (551479 B.C.) Chinese philosopher and writer. [Chinese Hist.: Parrinder, 65]
  10. Enki god of wisdom; counterpart of Akkadian Ea. [Sumerian Myth.: Parrinder, 90]
  11. Fudo Japanese god of wisdom. [Jap. Myth.: Leach, 427]
  12. Ganesha wisdom god having a human body and an elephant head. [Hindu Myth.: Leach, 440]
  13. gold symbol of sagacity. [Color Symbolism: Jobes, 356]
  14. Hiawatha wise man; legendary founder of Iroquois Confederacy. [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 229; Am. Lit.: Hiawatha in Benét, 466]
  15. Jerome , St. Latin doctor of Church; preeminent biblical scholar. [Christian Hagiog.: Attwater, 185]
  16. Mimir guardian of well of wit and wisdom. [Norse Myth.: Wheeler, 244]
  17. Nebo god of sagacity; inventor of writing. [Babyl. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 749]
  18. Nestor sage counselor and just king of Pylos. [Gk. Hist.: Wheeler, 257; Gk. Lit.: Iliad ]
  19. Odin god; drank from fountain, became all-knowing. [Norse Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 774]
  20. owl associated with Athena, goddess of wisdom. [Gk. Myth.: Hall, 231]
  21. Plato (427347 B.C.) Greek philosopher revered for wisdom. [Gk. Hist.: NCE, 2165]
  22. Sarastro High Priest represents benevolent guidance. [Ger. Opera: Mozart The Magic Flute in Benét, 619]
  23. scroll early form of manuscript; symbolic of learning. [Christian Symbolism: Appleton, 85]
  24. Socrates (469399 B.C.) wise and respected teacher adept at developing latent ideas. [Gk. Hist.: EB, 16: 10011005]
  25. Solomon invested by God with unprecedented sagacity. [O.T.: I Kings 3:713; 4:2934]
  26. tree of the knowledge of good and evil eat of its fruit and know all. [O. T.: Genesis 2:9; 3:6]
  27. white mulberry traditional symbol of wisdom. [Tree Symbolism: Flora Symbolica, 176]


views updated Jun 08 2018

wisdom wisdom literature the biblical books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom of Solomon, and Ecclesiasticus collectively; similar works, especially from the ancient Near East, containing proverbial sayings and practical maxims.
Wisdom of Solomon a book of the Apocrypha ascribed to Solomon and containing a meditation on wisdom. The book is thought actually to date from about 1st century bc to the 1st century ad.
wisdom tooth each of the four hindmost molars in humans which usually appear at about the age of twenty; the phrase (in plural) represents Latin dentes sapientiae, as the teeth were said by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates not to appear until years of discretion were reached.

See also experience is the father of wisdom.


views updated May 18 2018

Wisdom (Heb., ḥokhmah, binah, ‘discrimination’). An ethical and religious quality of life as advocated by the Hebrew scriptures. Wisdom is sometimes used in the sense of ‘intelligence’ (e.g. Ecclesiastes 2. 3), but it came to symbolize a particular cultural tradition within Judaism. The wisdom books of the Bible are Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. The Apocrypha includes Ecclesiasticus (Ben Sira) and the Wisdom of Solomon.


views updated May 17 2018

wis·dom / ˈwizdəm/ • n. the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise. ∎  the soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of such experience, knowledge, and good judgment: some questioned the wisdom of building the dam so close to an active volcano. ∎  the body of knowledge and principles that develops within a specified society or period: oriental wisdom.PHRASES: in someone's wisdom used ironically to suggest that an action is not well judged: in their wisdom they decided to dispense with him.


views updated May 23 2018

422. Wisdom

See also 216. IDEAS ; 233. KNOWLEDGE ; 240. LEARNING ; 393. THINKING .

a maxim, axiom, proverb, or old saying.
a collection of teachings, as the Analects of Confucius.
a superior form of wisdom, as that of the Gnostics, supposed to have been acquired mystically. See also 285. MYSTICISM .
maxims or sayings attributed to a religious leader. See also 79. CHRIST ; 349. RELIGION .
Rare. a proposition or maxim. See also 127. DRAMA ; 186. GRAMMAR .
an excessive respect for ones own wisdom.


views updated May 17 2018

Wisdom ★½ 1987 (R)

Unemployed young guy (Estevez) becomes a bank robber with Robin Hood aspirations, coming to the aid of American farmers by destroying mortgage records. Estevez became the youngest person to star in, write, and direct a major motion picture. And, my goodness, it shows. 109m/C VHS . Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright; D: Emilio Estevez; M: Danny Elfman.

About this article


All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic