The Centrality of Wisdom
Considering the complexity of the world situation and the large number of problems that humanity faces, the task of achieving a heaven on earth seems daunting. Where does one start?
Is there by any chance a simplifying element, a focal point, a center from which the needed changes can flow? I believe there is. That point of origin, that central source which allows us to address any problem optimally, is wisdom. Wisdom is an all-purpose aid to creating heaven on earth. Whatever our life-focus happens to be among those ten essential heaven-on-earth elements, wisdom raises the level of our contribution.
Research has shed light on what wisdom is and what it is not.1 There is a growing consensus that wisdom is a state of personal development which involves the acquisition of knowledge, but goes beyond it. Words of wisdom and wise behavior arise from wisdom. But wisdom is not the products of wisdom. Wisdom is a mode of cognition — one rooted in perspectives, interpretations, and values. Wisdom is not about facts per se; it is about the meaning of facts. It is about the significance of facts and their implications. Wisdom is a kind of meta-knowledge that helps us to make better sense of the rest of our knowledge and to apply that knowledge in appropriate ways. Wisdom does this 1) by relating our ordinary everyday knowledge to a variety of contexts, 2) by viewing it from various illuminating perspectives, and 3) by bringing into the decision-making process a set of values that seeks the good of the whole and well-being writ large.
Values are at the heart of the matter. In an April, 1977 article in American Psychologist, Nobelist Roger Sperry put it bluntly: “Human value priorities...stand out as the most strategically powerful causal control now shaping world events. More than any other causal system with which science now concerns itself, it is variables in human value systems that will determine the future.” As we know, human values are a very mixed bag. They range from selfishness, hate, greed, envy, and revenge to wisdom-associated values such as empathy, truth, honesty, justice, cooperation, peace, compassion, universal well-being, creativity, and comprehensive knowledge.
None of us is totally wise or totally unwise. Even among children we see differences. Some kids are reactive and mean. Others are calm and caring. In the past, most people considered the development of wisdom to be totally uncontrollable. A few people became wise. Most didn’t. It doesn’t have to be that way. We now know that wisdom can be developed intentionally. Research reveals a strong correlation between psychological/spiritual development and wisdom. Both psychological therapies and spiritual practices can help us become wiser, and in Ken Wilber’s assessment of the research, meditation has been shown to be the most powerful single tool for advanced inner development.2 The exploration of our own psyche through investigative kinds of meditation leads not only to a quiet, receptive mind, but also to an appreciation of the laws by which our subjective life operates, ethical understanding, moral behavior, and the expansion of our circle of caring in both space and time.
Age itself doesn’t guarantee wisdom. Monika Ardelt’s research3 reveals great differences among the elderly. It has also shown that dealing effectively with difficult life situations can help develop wisdom. Many wise people have a history of overcoming adversity. Like many others, they have faced great challenges in their lives. But instead of feeling diminished and victimized by their circumstances, they dealt with them in positive ways and grew past them.
There are also numerous efforts these days to introduce education-for-wisdom into schools from K-12 through university. Much information on all of this — the nature and development of wisdom, wisdom research, and wisdom education — can be found at www.wisdompage.com.
So how do we move from personal wisdom to heaven on earth? In my view, by introducing “the values of the wise” into the internal guidance systems of society’s institutions. Groups of wise individuals would implant those values (and other aspects of the wisdom process) in ways that insured, as far as possible, wise institutional behavior on into the future.
I close with a question. Because the quality of our doing can only reflect the quality of our understanding, isn’t the widespread cultivation of wisdom absolutely essential for achieving a heaven on earth?
1. See, for example, Richard Trowbridge’s comprehensive review of wisdom research at http://www.wisdompage.com/TheScientificApproachtoWisdom.doc
2. See Ken Wilber’s comments at http://wilber.shambhala.com/html/books/formation_int_inst.cfm/xid,8287/yid,9296268
about Monika Ardelt and access to her publications can be found athttp://www.wisdompage.com/WisdomResearchers/MonikaArdelt.html
Copthorne Macdonald is a writer and independent scholar. Among his eight published books are three that deal with aspects of wisdom: Toward Wisdom, Getting a Life, and Matters of Consequence. Since 1995 he has tended THE WISDOM PAGE (www.wisdompage.com), a website that provides internet access to wisdom-related resources.