Wisdom: It’s Time to Refurbish an Old Ideal


I prefer to call it a distillation of seasoned experience by the battle-hardened veterans of the vicissitudes of life.

“Wisdom”.  The very word inspires awe.  It suggests pronouncements from the Oracle on Mount Olympus, or the stone tablets that Moses (purportedly) brought down from Mount Sinai, or the Analectsof Confucius, or Plato’s Republic, or the sayings of Mark Twain and Yogi Berra.

I prefer to call it a distillation of seasoned experience by some of the battle-hardened veterans of the vicissitudes of life– people with a good heart who have served their time on the battlefield and want to pass on to others what they have learned about the art of living, and of politics.  Although constant change is now the rule in most human societies, there are certain basic principles and strategies for living that have been battle-tested and have proven to be universal, and dependable.  They’re the workhorses of social ethics and the social contract.  As Mark Twain famously put it, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does tend to rhyme.  Rachel Maddow commented recently that sometimes history even seems to plagiarize itself.

In an age when all we know, it seems, is what we have seen on Twitter or Facebook (or Fox News) within the last 24 hours, and when the public discourse is awash in lies and wishful (or malicious) thinking -- and predatory manipulation -- all of us ought to go back to wisdom school long enough to get in touch with this treasure trove of good advice.   It matters in the end because the values we live by and the social choices we make as a society can have life-and-death consequences and, indeed, determine the fate of a nation.  Our legacy of shared past experience provides us with an operating manual for the good life. And all of it is available to us virtually free of charge, and with no strings.  What a good deal. 

Even if we’re too busy, or distracted, or struggling with the immediate problem of getting through each day, we ought at least to demand that our leaders/rulers have done their wisdom homework, for the obvious reason that they have the power to do good or evil on a large scale and, very possibly, shape the course of an entire society.  That’s why both Confucius and Plato, two of the world’s greatest ethical teachers, stressed the critical importance of making wisdom a job-qualification for leadership.  However, in a democracy, where the citizens also exercise an influence over the course of events, perhaps it should also be a prerequisite for exercising the voting franchise; everyone should be required to get a passing grade in a basic wisdom examination. 

If wisdom has not, so far, been one of your aspirations in life (money often seems to take precedence these day), here’s just a brief overview.  It’s a start, anyway.

If wisdom has a foundation, a bedrock, it derives from the fundamental, existential fact that biological survival and reproduction is the basic challenge for all living organisms, including humankind. Life is quintessentially a “survival enterprise,” and a prerequisite for any more expansive goals in life.  Thus, every organized human society is, first and foremost, a “collective survival enterprise” – a joint venture for the purpose providing for our ongoing “basic needs” (some 14 categories all told).  As Plato long ago pointed out, the chief benefit of living together in society is that we can meet our basic needs much more effectively if we cooperate and participate in a division of labor (or better said, a combination of labor). Confucius, likewise, stressed that “reciprocity” is perhaps the most fundamental and sacred ethical principle, precisely because of our interdependence.  There is in every successful society an implicit “social contract” to ensure that our common basic needs are provided for. 

What this social contract implies for any ruler – or ruling class – is that they are betraying a sacred social obligation if they perpetrate (or permit) any harm or exploitation of other citizens (workers peasants, consumers etc.).  Plato made this deep obligation the very core of his definition of social “justice”, while Confucius invoked an early version of the Golden Rule: “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”  

Wisdom, quite simply, means having respect for this fundamental social obligation and a gut-level appreciation for the potentially dire consequences if a leader (or an elite) is cavalier, or obtuse, or (worse) exploitative toward his/her/their fellow citizens.  The basic social glue – the “legitimacy”, or the willing consent of the people – will break down and coercion of various kinds will be required to sustain the political regime.  In the extreme, even lethal force will not work.  The great political revolutions historically – from the collapse of the Tang dynasty and the Nationalist regime in post-World War Two China to the French and Russian revolutions in the West and the current “civil war” in Syria – were all rooted in desperate reactions by desperate people. 

Going forward from here, the world is in very great danger that we will witness many more “rhymes” and plagiarism – repetitions of this sad history.  There is an ominous negative synergy at work – a combination of stresses that resemble a gathering storm:  Extremes of wealth and deep poverty (almost one-half of the world’s population), unchecked population growth, declining top soil and fresh water resources, an increasingly unstable global climate, and (most serious) a global elite that seems to be living in an Ayn Rand fantasy in which the “deserving few” have permission to disown the lazy “moochers”, and “spongers”, and “terrorists”.

If we can find a way collectively to come to grips with this transcendent survival challenge, we will be well on our way toward earning our first merit badge for wisdom – maybe even a medal.   





Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


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