The science of wisdom

Lambari, Brazil ©Steve McCurry | Steve mccurry
Lambari, Brazil, August 2010. Photo by Steve McCurry/Magnum

Psychological science can now measure and nurture wisdom, superseding the speculations of philosophy and religion

Igor Grossmann is associate professor of psychology and director of the Wisdom and Culture Lab at the University of Waterloo in Canada. He is also an associate editor of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. He is the founder of the behavioural and social science Forecasting Collaborative, and co-hosts the podcast On Wisdom. He lives in Toronto.

Edited by Pam Weintraub

Wisdom is full of paradoxes. It is one of the oldest topics in the intellectual history of humanity, and yet talking about wisdom can feel odd and disingenuous. People seem to have intuitions about who is and isn’t wise, but if you press them to define wisdom, they will hesitate. Wisdom, with its mystical qualities, sits on a pedestal, inspiring awe and trepidation, a bit of hushed reverence thrown in. It’s easy to distil wisdom’s archetypes in history (druids, Sufi sages) or popular culture (Star Wars’ Yoda, or Harry Potter’s Dumbledore), but harder to apply to the person on the street. Most people would agree that wisdom is desirable, yet what exactly is it?

It’s tempting to claim that the interest in wisdom emerged with the advent of particular Far Eastern philosophical traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, each emphasising lives of sages and ways to make sense of one’s existence in the ever-changing world. Of course, neither the concept of sages nor the process of making sense of the world are specific to a particular school of thought – most religions and ideologies have their own sages and saints, and attempt to provide a certain worldview. The truth is, the concept of wisdom is incredibly ancient, and not unique to any specific culture or way of being.

For instance, more than 5,000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia, the Moon-god Nanna, the Lord of Wisdom, symbolised the sum of all other Sumerian deities’ powers, including foresight, justice, fertility and love. Wisdom was a prominent topic in ancient Egyptian and Jewish texts, and featured as a requirement in advising professions such as divinity, sorcery or at the pharaoh’s court. In his Maxims, the ancient Egyptian vizier Ptahhotep described guidelines for sustaining social order, achieving political success and cultivating self-control – in other words, the skills of wisdom. In the Old Testament’s Book of Ecclesiastes, where life is beyond comprehension, wisdom recognises the limits of knowledge.

If we had a time machine and could travel to a point in history roughly midway between Ancient Mesopotamia and now, we would find ourselves in Ancient Greece during the time of Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle. Pythagoras advanced mathematics and music theory, and is one possible source for the term ‘philosophy’ – the love of wisdom (philosophia). For Pythagoras, numbers were an underlying feature of reality, mysticism, the harmonic balance of opposites, and wisdom itself. Building on some of Pythagoras’ ideas, Plato and his best student Aristotle considered wisdom an essential human virtue – ‘a habit of mind in harmony with reason and the order of nature’, as the Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero would write a few centuries later. For Aristotle, as for Near Eastern thinkers millennia before him, wisdom was a key element on the path to achieving a good life, a path that required balance and moderation between extremes.

As an ideological backbone to medieval Christian philosophy, Platonic and Aristotelian ideas about wisdom continued to dominate the scholarly debates for centuries. Theologians such as Augustine of Hippo and later Thomas Aquinas interpreted the Greeks’ writings in terms of Christian ideals when debating the foundations of reason, understanding or the nature of ethics.

Despite all this, the fascination with wisdom started to decline during the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. With the advance of modernity, the discourse shifted from the good life toward the pursuit of rational self-interest and usefulness – ideas that focused on immediate benefits and aimed to reduce complex ethical dilemmas to a single common denominator, rather than balance and moderation.

The topic of wisdom didn’t re-emerge in mainstream philosophical circles until the 1970s, along with post-Second World War stability and the New Age zeitgeist. A new focus on ‘optimal’ happiness and psychological fulfilment led to the rediscovery both of Aristotelian ideas about virtues and of non-Western perspectives on flourishing. In philosophy, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981) led to renewed interest in the topic of wisdom from an Aristotelian perspective.

Behavioural scientists were fairly late to the game, with the first humble attempt to empirically study wisdom surfacing in the 1970s in a dissertation by Vivian Clayton. Today a geriatric neuropsychologist in California, Clayton aimed to explore the characteristics a group of 83 lay Americans associated with a wise person, and arrived at three commonly held elements: cognition, reflection and compassion…


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