The Wisdom Page 


By Trevor Curnow

(Review by Copthorne Macdonald)

This amazingly comprehensive book will prove a valuable resource for anyone wanting to explore the history of wisdom in the West and the East, the nature of wisdom, and/or wisdom's relationship to ethics. In the first of the book's three sections, British scholar Trevor Curnow traces the history of wisdom in the West from its earliest roots in Egypt and Israel, to the many schools of Greek thought on the subject, to early and later Christian understandings of it, and finally to various Renaissance and Modern views. We learn, for example, that the sage figured prominently in the literature of Stoicism, and "could be seen as an individual with a highly developed sense of ethical intuition. …the sage can be relied upon to act appropriately in any situation." Curnow tells us about Heraclitus and the theory of the Logos, "the universal principle, underlying and moving through everything which is the basis of the cosmic order. …the regulator of the universe," and how in this view wisdom is "a matter of seeing how everything relates to everything else, of perceiving the order of things, of understanding the integrated nature of reality." Regarding the modern-era Russian philosopher Valdimir Solovyov, Curnow says: "Solovyov set up the 'integral life' as the human ideal, and this was understood both in terms of inner unity, and communion with the Absolute. Part of this integral life was the development of 'integral knowledge' which reconciled and harmonised science, philosophy and religion."

In the book's second section - The Nature of Wisdom - Curnow explores four themes intimately connected with wisdom: self-knowledge, detachment, integration, and transcendence. He does so by referring to Western perspectives already introduced and by introducing additional perspectives from the East (Advaita Vedanta, Buddhism, and Confucianism) and from Western psychology (including Freud, Jung, and Maslow.) His many observations include the following: "For Maslow…self-knowledge offers contact with the highest values that lie within us. The process of self-actualisation is also the process of the actualisation of these values." Regarding detachment: "What is sought [according to a number of writers] is detachment from the level of consciousness which is rooted in the sense of a separate self, in order to reach up to a higher level characterised as union." Curnow refers to integration as "the other side of detachment," and for Maslow integration is psychological integration: "The healthy person is all of a piece, integrated we might say. It is the neurotic person who is at odds with himself, whose reason struggles with his emotions." From the nondual perspective of Advaita Vedanta, Buddhism, and Ken Wilber, reality is already integrated, and "it is dualism itself, in all its manifestations, which constitutes the target against which detachment is directed." Curnow notes that from the nondual perspective the four themes "seek to give expression, in different ways, to a process, the end point of which is held to be beyond expression altogether. It is the end of this process which is given the name of wisdom."

In the book's third section - The New Intuitionism - the focus is ethics and its relationship to wisdom. Intuitionism is one of Western philosophy's technical terms, and I agree with Curnow that "an alternative and perhaps better name for 'the new intuitionism' might be 'sapiential ethics'." Curnow's view, which reflects a repetitive theme in the wisdom literature, is that an aspect of the development of wisdom is the development of an intuition-based ethical sensibility. "To put the matter in terms of Maslow, there are healthy choosers, and they are integrated people who perceive and integrated world. It is not difficult to see resemblances between Maslow's healthy choosers and the traditional figure of the sage, nor between healthy choosing and wisdom."

Wisdom, Intuition and Ethics covers much historical and conceptual territory, and in its 346 pages usually does so in satisfying if moderate detail. The book includes a 25-page bibliography, and for those who want to dig deeper, Curnow invariably provides references to relevant works.

Wisdom, Intuition and Ethics is part of the Avebury Series in Philosophy, published by Ashgate in Aldershot, England and Brookfield, VT USA. Its ISBN is 1-84014-840-3, and the book is available from the publisher,, and other book retailers.

Trevor Curnow is a lecturer at St Martin's College, Lancaster, UK