...the judgement of intelligence includes distinguishing a special class of men, the
Masters of Wisdom, who are treated as the bearers of a degree of
intelligence that is vastly superior to anything attainable by
planning, reasoning and organization. This intelligence is itself
portrayed as Wisdom, a high order of action that is not confined to man
but brought into existence all the endless wonder of life on this
planet and even constructed the human mind. The conditions for
partaking of this wisdom are the overcoming of illusions about the
world and self and the liberation of self through conscious labors and
~ J. G. Bennett, from The Masters of Wisdom
Data, Knowledge and Wisdom
I had a sixth-grade social studies teacher, Mrs. Juanola Garriott,
who introduced me to the culture of the ancient Greeks. In struggling
to explain the ancient Athenians' preoccupation with wisdom, she
equated wisdom to being able to use more of your brain. Intrigued, we
pressed her to further refine her definition. She explained that we
ordinarily only use a small amount of our brains, but to be wise would
be like using more of our brains, so we could understand more about the
nature of the world and ourselves.
Caught up in her metaphor, Mrs. Garriott told us that if we could
someday learn to use 100% of our brains, we would be able to transcend
matter – to even walk through walls! Being only eleven, the more subtle
metaphysical implications were lost on me... But enough curiosity and
imagination was sparked in my mind that day that I decided I wanted to
become wise and use all of my brain – a goal I still consider worthy of
active pursuit (though I have long since abandoned any hope of walking
For decades since, I have pursued elusive wisdom down some strange
paths. This is a distillation of some of my observations and thoughts.
While there may be many possible epistemic states, for the sake of
this argument, I am going to posit three main categories. There may be
countless subcategories and as fine distinctions drawn between
epistemic states as necessary, but most states will naturally fall
under one of the three larger categories. Those categories of epistemic
Data; Knowledge and Wisdom.
The first two categories are commonplace in our daily experiences,
but the third, Wisdom, is considerably more rare.
Pinning down precise definitions for each of these three categories
is difficult, as they are each part in the spectrum of knowing, and
sharp borders don't exist. But, for the sake of discussion, let us
assume the following designations.
By Data, I am referring to
raw information, unprocessed and not understood. Data includes
everything from raw sense perceptions to reams of probabilistic quantum
computations to all the books in your library that you haven't read.
Data is just the facts, ma'am, without interpretation or spin.
Knowledge is more difficult to define, but one attempt is:
Knowledge = Data + True Belief + ____(fill in the blank with whatever you deem appropriate) Knowledge is data raised to another level. In
knowledge, data has been (to some degree or another) digested by the
human mind (either through the true belief or through the unnamed
process). Knowledge builds on the foundation of data, and together, the
two have potential to become more than the sum of their parts.
Likewise, I propose that: Wisdom can be defined as Knowledge-Plus.
Wisdom builds on top of knowledge and data, transforming them into
something beyond the range of either of the lower steps. The real trick is in figuring
out what to fill the blank with. I've been chewing on that one for a
long time. But before we get to all that, I would like to consider what
has happened to wisdom in our time and how it could have become so
difficult to find.
Of Sophia's Fall
If Philosophy is the Love of Wisdom, why
is it that academia does not actively study the object of its
discipline? These days, wisdom is regarded as an accidental by-product
of growing old – not a goal to be striven for and achieved – but
something which sometimes develops over time, but most often not. Why
Humanity has grown leaps and bounds in knowledge and experience, but
I don't think anyone would claim that the human race has grown wiser in
the things that really matter. We are able to create, analyze and
produce much, much more stuff...
But we are no closer to understanding the mysteries of the good life
than our forebearers. Some may claim we know much less about how to
achieve eudaemonia (flourishing happiness) than
the ancients – but at least they had a word for a fulfilled life. No
one claims that we are wiser than our ancestors. Indeed, to many,
wisdom conjures up images of hoary sages of days long past. Today, we
honor the smart, the cunning, the shrewd... but few of our cultural
icons reflect a reverence for wisdom. The few icons of wisdom in our
culture are usually associated with religion: the Pope, the Dalai Lama,
Historically, to grow in wisdom has meant to become more like the
divine. To study wisdom and to actively seek it used to be equated with
the search for immortality. (Arendt, P. 136) Maybe that is why wisdom
has gone out of fashion – because immortality is perceived to be an
impossible goal, and so wisdom might also be impossible and all our
efforts to achieve it could be wasted.
Many ancient traditions believed that focus of thought on the
immutable confers immutability to the thinker through a kind of
sympathetic magic. But if faith in the immortal immutable divine order of the cosmos is damaged by post-industrial neo-Nieszchian nihilism, then the faith in wisdom
likewise diminishes. One could even go so far as to claim that the rise
of Liberalism in our culture and academia has caused the public neglect
of wisdom, while promoting a misguided faith in science and technology
(articles of knowledge, not wisdom) to secure human eudaemonia. That
may be putting things too strongly. But I think it is fair to say that
most people do associate wisdom with some sort of spirituality,
orthodox or not.
Or perhaps wisdom has fallen into disfavor due to its elusive
nature. The pursuit of money is something that is theoretically
available to everyone able to work (and these days, able to find work),
but wisdom is seemingly restricted to a very small number willing to
devote their lives to contemplation and the service of others.
Therefore, wisdom can be perceived as elitist and contrary to democracy
and capitalism (or socialism, for that matter).
Science is very democratic. Repeatability by anyone is part of its
criteria. But wisdom seems to be more selective. We can strive to be
wise, but there is no guarantee that we won't end up a crazy old fool,
tilting at windmills. So, in terms of risk-to-benefit analysis, the
search for wisdom is egregiously inefficient, as the actual pay-off
ratio in the attainment of wisdom is very low compared to the cost of
investment in the project.
The acquisition of wisdom apparently requires special conditions not
readily available in our culture. The would-be sage must have the
material conditions enough to withdraw from engagement in the world for
long enough to ponder the immutable. Which brings us to another
possible cause for the loss of wisdom-study in our culture: we value
the new and changing, not the old and enduring. Capitalism is built
upon planned obsolescence. Here today, gone tomorrow.
It's hard to market eternity. There are no repeat consumers, only
converts. Wisdom resists "commodification." It cannot be measured nor
manufactured. It lies outside the reach of our science. As the
Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics teaches us, the
scientific method is not a sufficient means with which to "experimentally
locate or demonstrate a 'deep reality' that explains all other relative
(instrumental) 'realities'." (Wilson, P. 25)
Cracking the Cosmic Egg
Ultimately, it all boils down to what absolute conception of reality
are you going to buy into. Either we are passive victims of inexorable
fate, or we actively participate in the creation of reality (whether we
know it or not). Being a fan of both autonomy and quantum mechanics, I choose to believe I have a hand in what life I experience.
But, if I have free will and can actually have an effect on the
universe, then, unless I am willing to admit solipsism, I must grant
equal reality-creation capacity to everyone. But that's not enough to
account for the existence of the universe. And here's where it starts
to get tricky, because it's the old "necessary being" argument all over again. The positing of an ultimate cause becomes unavoidable. If you chose not to accept the hypothesis of deity, then you deny a divine order of the cosmos. If wisdom is epistemic access to
this posited divine order, then both agnostic and atheist stances are
eliminated from access to wisdom. Traditionally, this has meant a
religious context, though not always.
As quantum mechanics acknowledges, we cannot divorce the knower and
the known. Our claims to objectivity are merely airs we put on to hide from our responsibility for creating the reality we experience.
If everyone and I and God are all in collusion to create this
experience, there are profound moral implications. That may also be
another factor in the neglect of wisdom – Sophia does carry a lot of
The study of wisdom is not analytically clean or neutral. Serious
consideration of wisdom requires the positing of a larger order at the
very least, up to and including God and all the orders of angels
dancing on the head of a pin – something empirically untenable. In this
light, it is no wonder that Sophia fell from grace in the post-modern
The moral implications of a higher order and our active
participation in it would necessarily have a profound effect upon one
exposed to it. And the more prolonged the exposure, the more pronounced
the moral impact on our wise person. This theory would account for
people like Mother Teresa, Ramana Maharshi, Mahatma Gandhi and the
I have heard it said, "the enlightened man is compassionate out
Access to the divine plan would necessarily
inform the wise man of the reach of his influence, forcing him to
acknowledge full responsibility for all his actions, intentional or
not. Therefore, the prudent position to adopt is one of compassion and
universal love, for any other position is not ethically defensible in
the light of the sacred knowledge of the cosmos.
Wisdom requires some degree of "subjective" objectivity. Being a
participant in life, we are often too caught up in the drama to
understand the whole story unfolding. Wisdom comes from a type of
introspection in which you disengage from ego projections and
expectations, reflectively observing the tapestry of experience without
psychological barriers. In this light, wisdom is a holistic
comprehension of both context and structure.
This profound structure is beyond the reach of words. As Henri
Bergson noted, "My initiation into the true philosophical method
began the moment I threw overboard verbal solutions, having found in
the inner life an important field of experiment."(Bergson, P. 89
This is why religions have been a traditional breeding ground for
wisdom: religious recluses are actively encouraged to contemplate non-verbally
and to identify themselves with the cosmic order. One could argue that
it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. But all the religious orders in the
world throughout history have turned out many ordinary priests and nuns
and relatively few sages and saints, proportionally speaking. As I
noted before, wisdom is not guaranteed, even in the most conducive of
The spiritual disciplines of religious orders have all developed
symbolic language to describe the indescribable. Those who have reached
some measure of wisdom are forced to use metaphor to communicate their
experiences to those who have not had the same experience. Something
like trying to describe the color blue to someone born blind. Those who
come after fossilize the words of the sage into canon, not
understanding the metaphor and insisting upon the letter of the text in
blind devotion to another man's vision.
But the words are not the experience, just as the map is not the
territory. It is not the words of the sage that contains the wisdom, as
much as what is indicated by the sage's words: a larger context that
imparts greater meaning to the seeming arbitrary events in life. As
with science, semantics also cannot contain wisdom, though it can be
the medium of communication. The ancients believed it was through
identification with the eternal that one grew in wisdom. The Greeks
used philosophy as the means to become immortal through concentrating
the mind (nous) on immutable, eternal things. <em>"Philosophy begins
with an awareness of this invisible harmonious order of the kosmos,
which is manifest in the midst of the familiar visibilities as though
these had become transparent. The philosopher marvels at the
'non-visible harmony,' which, according to Heraclitus, is 'better than
the visible.'" (Arendt, P. 143)
In the late Hellenistic Period, the Roman stoics used philosophy to
escape from unhappiness and disorder once the Res Publica was under
threat of loss through erosion. They had lost the sense of admiration
and wonder with the cosmos that the Greeks held. Thinking was explained
as the desire to escape from an unbearable world by becoming unmovable.
Wisdom was sought as the means to avoid suffering and not for its own
Christianity and Islam brought a wisdom revival, especially in the
mystic sects (more on this shortly), but the arrivals of the
Reformation and the Industrial Age quickly curtailed saint production.
Protestants don't recognize saints, and buddhas don't usually work in
coalmines and factories. The conditions of Industrialism fostered
social interdependence, but it also carried underlying assumptions
antithetical to the cultivation of wisdom.
These underlying assumptions destroy the necessary psychological
conditions for the emergence of wisdom. They include: 1) the idea that
humanity is at war with nature; 2) evolution; and 3) progress. The idea
that man is at war with nature makes unity with the divine plan
impossible, as nature is not to be trusted. It is to be dominated and
exploited according to man's desire.
The assumption of evolution is often taken as being the antithesis
of creationism, but in this case, the sharper barb is not against a
creator, but rather, is against the ideas of eternity and immutability
to which wisdom is connected.
Both evolution and progress assume a linear arrow of time, not a
reoccurring eternity. This view of time was necessary for Industrialism
to have synchronization and standardization. And along with this
world-view, we were also given the concept of the autonomous atomistic
individual, divorced from kin and tribe. (Toffler, P. 123)
Without a supporting network, the task of pursuing wisdom is nearly
impossible. The time and space required for inner reflection needed for
the cultivation of wisdom is hard-won in the age of the nuclear family.
It seems unrealistic to spend time contemplating the eternal when you
have young children to clothe and feed. Our high standard of living
leaves us far too little leisure to enjoy the fruits of our labors. In
ages prior to the rise of Industrialism, people had much more time for
reflection without the distractions of cell phones, television, the
internet and soccer practice.
People of our age are divided and confused by a multiplicity of
choices and alternatives – more choices than any other generation in
history. (Pearce, P. 13) And we have been handed conflicting systems
for evaluating our options. With the disappearance of the divine order,
any logically coherent ethic seems as right as any other. There is no
"Archimedian point" to make any one system "better," no criterion for
judgement other than functionality.
But without the divine order, I argue that you cannot have wisdom.
Therefore, as appalled as I am to be writing these words, secular
liberalism is itself doomed to tilting at windmills, as wisdom cannot
be attained outside the structure of a cosmic order.
So, where does that leave us?
Either we become deists of some stripe if we ever hope to have
wisdom, or else we're condemned to foolishness? Seems a bit unsporting
to me... Of course, we could reject the claim that the link between
wisdom and divine order is necessary. It could be argued that my
definition of wisdom is too strong – that maybe wisdom in the ordinary
sense is just learned. I feel that this objection leaves out something
vital, for I have known highly educated idiots. Education alone is no
guarantee of wisdom. Nor is living a long time, because I've also known
old idiots. And I've heard the purest wisdom coming out of the mouths
of very small children (but they always seem to lose that honesty too
But maybe wisdom is more like Mrs. Garriott's definition. What if
seeking wisdom is the cultivation of specific faculties, which, in
concert, reliably result in holistic knowledge of a high order?
Now, that sounds a bit more tangible...
Hearing Voices: of Daemons, Inner Teachers and Channelers
I wasn't kidding when I said the search for wisdom would go into
some strange places.
Socrates was devoted to his daemon – an inner guidance; it
guided him, forbidding certain actions. Others than Plato noted the
singularity of Socrates. The oracle at Delphi declared him the wisest
man living. The life of Socrates had a huge impact on the psyche of the
West. Was this because of his singularity, or is it because of his
daemon giving him access to knowledge of a higher order, or maybe even
some combination of the two? But, Socrates definitely claimed access to
knowledge of a higher order – both through the theory of recollection
and through the theory of forms. What was this daemon of his, and what
connection does it have to the attainment of wisdom? I've got some
Augustine consulted his Inner Teacher, contending that each human
carried the capacity to "tune in" the their own inner Christ. Augustine
definitely believed himself to be the recipient of knowledge of a
higher order. And Augustine's life had a huge impact upon the psyche of
the West. Who is this inner Christ and what is its connection to wisdom?
In the two main mystic traditions in the West, Kabbalism and mystic
Christianity, the Holy Guardian Angel (AKA the Inner Christ) is
invoked, for the express purpose of gaining access to the divine plan
and becoming a conscious instrument of God's will. What do Socrates'
Daemon, Augustine's Inner Teacher and mysticism's Guardian Angel all
have in common, besides being a portal to knowledge of another order?
This is where it starts to get weird.
Each of these is apparently an inner being or voice that somehow has
the power to impart knowledge not consciously known prior to the inner
conversation. The company of this inner being is sought out and
cultivated. And somehow, in the truly wise this inner source turns out
to be reliable. Augustine and most other mystics believed that everyone
has the capacity for developing this inner guide, but very few actually
do. This inner guide is at the root of the appeal of born-again
Christianity – a personal relationship with Jesus. "What would
Jesus do?" serves as the reminder to the new converts to seek
guidance from within.
If this is a common feature of humanity, then it is something we are
"hardwired" to be able to experience, something built into the very
structure of our being. Many mystery schools have been claiming this
for centuries, and now it appears that brain science is beginning to
catch up. Brain researchers are quickly unlocking the neuroscience of
higher states of consciousness and reproducing the same effects in the
laboratory. (Discovery Dateline, aired 5/9/01). It would seem that we
all have equal biological capacity for these states, but the difference
is whether or not we choose to cultivate them. The vast majority of
humanity does not.
But that also casts a different light on a lot of so-called "psychic
and new age" weirdness. Channeled entities, from Ramtha to Seth,
Abraham-Hicks to Jesus, can be seen as an extension of this apparently
very human capacity. I am making no claims as to the truth content of
any channeled material, but this phenomenon does make sense in this
context. To whatever degree the medium is a clear channel, the divine
message is received or muddied. Thousands have derived great meaning
and connection in channeled material such as Theosophy, the Course in
Miracles and the Book of Mormon, regardless of the original source of
Theoretically, then, it should be possible for all of us to develop
our minds to the state of the attainment of the conversation of the
inner guide. But it isn't as easy at all that. The would-be sage must
be of an interior bent, who enjoys a great deal of time alone. Also,
the cultivation of the inner guide requires both a long attention span
and an active imagination – but interestingly enough, it does not
necessarily require much intelligence or education.
The rub is that people matching this kind of personality type are
often prone to schizophrenia.
A psychotic split is always a risk should the would-be sage stray
from the path. Most mystic schools have stringent rules for who they
will accept for training and typically very slow advancement through
the program, requiring total commitment. As yet, science can repeat the
physical function of "turning on" the part of the brain which receives
this knowledge, but it cannot provide a symbolic system of
representation through which to understand the experience. In this
respect, it is similar to psychedelic drugs – it provides a shortcut,
but does not give a conceptual framework for making meaning out of the
mental realms contacted.
Wisdom and Philosophy's Duty
Mrs. Garriott, it would seem, was right to connect brain function to
wisdom. And, while we may have an equal biological heritage, we must
have desire, opportunity and discipline to manifest wisdom in the
robust sense. These conditions are extremely hard to fulfil in our
In spite of this, it is imperative that we do begin to actively seek
wisdom once more. Without it, humanity is out of balance with the
cosmic order. Those of us who call ourselves philosophers – lovers of
wisdom – bear a burden of responsibility to bring wisdom back into our
lives and nations. In the absence of substantive public debate of means
to reclaim wisdom, we get "pop" wisdom from marginal sources, such as
Dr. Laura and Joyce Meyers. Or else we end up with Sedra channeling the
Professional philosophers have shirked their obligation to lead in
the way to develop wisdom for far too long. If we truly love wisdom,
then we must be willing to commit to bringing as much of it into
manifestation as we can manage, regardless of the personal risk.
Without wisdom, humanity threatens to destroy itself and our planet
through our greed and shortsightedness. When weighed against those
odds, the risk of seeking wisdom does not seem too much to ask.
Arendt, Hannah. The Life of Mind. 1971
Harcourt Brace & Co. San
Diego, New York, London
Bennett, John G. The Masters of Wisdom.
1992 Bennett Books. Santa Fe, New Mexico
Bergson, Henri. The Creative Mind - An Introduction to Metaphysics.
1946 The Wisdom Library. New York
Dennett, Daniel. Consciousness Explained.
1991 Penguin Books.
London, Toronto, New York
Pearce, Joseph Chilton. The Crack in the Cosmic Egg. 1971 Washington
Square Press. New York
Toffler, Alvin. The Third Wave. 1981
Bantam Books. New York
Wilson, Robert A. Quantum Psychology.
1990 New Falcon Publications.
Province Of The Mind
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