What is Wisdom?

In our post, “Boethius and the Path to Wisdom, we began our review on Boethius's ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’. In that article, we explored the path to wisdom alluded to by Boethius in this description of the personification of Philosophy. In particular, we discussed the relationship between contemplation and action as represented by the Greek symbols, Π(Pi), representing the life of action, and θ(Th), representing the life of contemplation, joined by a set of stairs (see Figure 1) representing the pursuit of wisdom. This post will continue the work started by explaining firstly what wisdom is and why it is critical for the achievement of the purpose of life, namely ensuring the welfare of our families and communities.

Figure 1: The Path of Wisdom

Wisdom is, as Aristotle said in the Nicomachean Ethics, “The ability to deliberate well about which courses of action would be good and expedient”. Or doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, to the right person, for the right reason. This is, of course, far from easy. But the rewards are great. Consider the last time you argued with your partner. How different would it have been if you could have been wise enough to choose the optimum path for resolving the argument?

If you were in the wrong, you would have realised your mistake and resolved your failing. If they had made a mistake, you would have been able to help them realise it without engendering animosity. If the argument were a stand-in for some other issues, you would be able to decipher it and help them. If, as is common in my house, the argument was at least partly based on misunderstanding, then you would be able to communicate in a way that they could understand and know when to let it go.

In short, wisdom is the quality of understanding where the optimum path for the achievement of your purpose lies and conforming your actions to it. If you believe, as we do, that the purpose of life is to promote the survival and welfare of our families (see The Code Chapter 9), then wisdom is acting in such a way as to enhance the achievement of the Purpose.

The development and exercise of wisdom is a vital element in Codism because, simply put, you do not get points for your good intentions. If your aim is to enhance the welfare of your family, then it is the outcome that matters, not that you meant well. You are responsible for your actions or inactions. While the influence of chance is recognised as a constant in human affairs (see The Code Chapter 2), the inconstancy of fortune must be accounted for in your plans.

Even in ethics (see The Code Chapter 18), wisdom is required. In the ethics espoused in the Code, you are prohibited from harming others except where it is necessary to protect your family or community (see The Code Chapter 19). This requires judgement and wisdom to determine when harm is necessary and also to what extent harm is allowed. For instance, in war, while it is necessary to harm those who are your enemies, to what extreme to go is the province of wisdom. To not go hard enough is to risk the prolonging of the conflict and thus expose your community and family to greater risk, while to go too hard may be counterproductive, preventing lasting peace or causing such destruction as to harm your family in the long run.

This is a big ask for any of us, especially as wisdom only comes slowly by itself. As Seneca said in his famous letters to Lucilius, ‘No man becomes wise by chance, but only through hard work’. However, it becomes easier if we use the path of wisdom to guide our steps. Contemplating the right way to live and act, and through the cultivation of the virtues and suppression of the vices, developing the ability to act in accordance with the ‘good’, while refraining from acting in ways that are ‘bad’ or harmful to the purpose.

We will examine the virtues starting with Honour in the next series of Monday posts. Until then, remember that today could be your last, live it well.

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