Rembrandt's Scholar in Meditation (1633) seeks...

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Dictionary.com: the quality or state of being wise;  knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action; sagacity,discernment, or insight

A very common phrase when I was younger was “wise beyond his/her years”. Most of the time when people say this, they’re confusing wisdom with knowledge. A person can have great depth of knowledge and yet not be particularly wise.  To be wise, you need both knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge effectively– information and technique.

In many old stories, there’s a wise old man on a hill or in a cave or in the woods. Seekers go to ask questions, and usually the answer is quite obtuse. He’s an archetype, of course. Most of us are not lucky enough to have an Obi-Wan to guide us through our One True Quest, or even “simple” decisions like what career decision will work out best or what to do about the cranky neighbors.

The reason that the wise old man answers are usually cloaked in metaphor and riddle is because although you can be guided by someone else’s wisdom, you can’t experience wisdom second-hand. The best and only true wisdom is cultivated in oneself, not borrowed from gurus, hermits, wizards, Jedi knights or self-help books. Wisdom takes time,  contemplation, and self-knowledge to build up.

It’s not just old guys that get to be wise guides either. A rarely discussed feature of Arthurian legend is the quest maiden who accompanies and encourages knights on their quests.  Lancelot has a quest maiden companion, the Maid of Many Years, in several tales. The Redcrosse Knight of Spenser’s Faerie Queen has his Una, who is a guide, his conscience keeper, and an allegory for True Religion. While the “true religion” is of course mainly Elizabethan politics inserted into poetry for the purpose of royal flattery, in a greater sense Una and Duessa are great metaphors for true and false wisdom.

As a closing thought, I’ll point out that wisdom is not all encompassing. Just because you are wise in, for example, woods-craft, does not mean you’re an expert on happy marriages or vice versa. We tend to talk of true wisdom purely in terms of spiritual wisdom, but I think that’s unnecessarily limiting and not particularly useful. Wisdom is most helpful when it’s topical as well as accurate. With applied, topical wisdom, we can make the right decision at the right moment and that is the most useful sort of wisdom of all.

  • Wisdom (1stvillager.wordpress.com)
  • Wisdom (Druid of Fisher Street)

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