Nine Virtues: Wisdom

Feb 24, 2016
ADF lists nine Virtues which they ask their members to understand, if not necessarily to endorse as their primary ethical system: wisdom, piety, vision, courage, integrity, perseverance, hospitality, moderation, and fertility.

Wisdom. n. 1. The quality of being wise; knowledge, and the capacity to make due use of it; knowledge of the best ends and the best means; discernment and judgment; discretion; sagacity; skill; dexterity. 2. The results of wise judgments; scientific or practical truth; acquired knowledge; erudition. (Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1913)

Wisdom is the toughest one for people to grapple with, says all the documentation; I’m definitely feeling it. It’s tremendously hard to pin down because nothing seems to get at the whole concept. Which is appropriate, I think, but still frustrating.

I also feel obliged to point out that the recommended reading for this Virtue was The Velveteen Rabbit and The Little Prince, which made me laugh and then, when I read them, made me think.
The DP docs suggest a list of questions to help you work through the idea.

1. Who is wise? Gandalf and Granny Weatherwax. Writers, generally (at least good ones). Odin, Brigid, the Cailleach. In real life… I have this tendency to attribute wisdom to people in authority and then withdraw my generosity completely the first time it’s abused, which I’m aware is not the best or most productive response but which I also can’t seem to stop doing. I think my boss is wise, actually.

2. What is the definition of wisdom? The Dedicant’s Handbook defines wisdom as “Good judgment, the ability to perceive people and situations correctly, deliberate about them and decide on the correct response.” I’ve listed a dictionary definition at the top (from Webster’s 1913, my favorite dictionary). I like the dictionary definition better because it seems to get more of the aspects in it. Perception and action is discernment, which is a component of wisdom, but not the whole thing. “Knowledge, and the capacity to make due use of it” is as close as I can get to the core of wisdom, but that’s not the whole of it either. I keep coming back - I often do - to Terry Pratchett, and what he describes as the core skills of a witch in Wee Free Men - First Sight, the ability to see what’s actually in front of you; and Second Thoughts, thinking before you move. That plus Granny Weatherwax’s pronouncement that sin is treating people like things pretty much sum it up.

Actually, now that I mention it, I think Granny’s statement there is more central than I previously thought. Wisdom has to take into account people, real people and how they really are, or it’s just knowledge and reason. Wisdom has to be as organic and messy and complicated as real people to be true wisdom.

3. Who is wise in the lore? The archetypal example from Irish mythology is Fionn, who tasted of the Salmon of Knowledge and grew wise. The salmon gained its wisdom from the hazelnuts that fell into the Well of Wisdom that is the source of all rivers; Fionn was meant to be cooking the salmon for his master, but burned his thumb on it and, after putting his thumb in his mouth, gained the wisdom instead. He was thereafter asked by his men to pass judgment, and when he did he would put his thumb in his mouth to think. His wisdom allowed him to become the leader of the Fianna and the doer of great deeds.

4. When have I been wise? Oof, this is hard. I had to take an extra day and think about it for a while. I have been wise, I think, in supporting my sister and my friends through their hard times: I think very hard before offering advice or words of support, to avoid accidentally making things worse, and the responses I get have been very positive. I have also been unwise with my friends (most often, honestly, with my roommates), when frustration and exhaustion have overpowered my good sense.
I want to call my decision not to take the job that was offered to me in December wise, but I honestly don’t know if I can say that. There was so much emotion involved, and I never know how heavy to weight that. My feelings are important in making decisions that impact my life, of course, but how important? (And how many of them are my feelings and how many of them belong to the mental illness that possesses me sometimes?)

Wisdom is a difficult virtue, both in practice and in concept, and I think that partly stems from the fact that it’s so rooted in experience. What feels wise at twenty may look foolish at thirty, but the twenty-year-old just plain didn’t know enough to be wiser. Wisdom can certainly be taught, but it must be by example, because wise decisions by definition cannot be made by following a set of rules. I think of Nero Wolfe’s instructions to his assistant Archie: “Use your intelligence guided by experience.” It’s as good as summation as any.

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