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Where is the Wisdom we have Lost in Knowledge?

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi.
T.S. Eliot
T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) Poet and critic, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948 and the American Medal of Freedom in 1965.
If you travel northwest from Athens, on the road to Corinth, you will come to the ruins of the once great city of Delphi. Delphi is the place once thought by the Greeks to be the center of the world. Here, in the 6th century B.C., the Oracle in the Temple of Apollo, was at its busiest, as it was called upon to dispense wisdom and to give answers to some of the pressing questions of the day. But, the Oracle of the classical world was silent before the age old questions like Who am I? Why am I here? What should I be doing? and Where am I going?

From the beginning of time man has been trying to make sense of himself and his world. He has been seeking understanding. But as time marches on, man isn't getting the understanding he seeks, he isn't happier, and he hasn't been able to conquer his own nature.

What's wrong? With all the great minds and thinking that have gone before us, with all the lessons of history left for us to examine, it is difficult to imagine why we aren't further along than we are. Why are we asking the same questions in our search for meaning, the Greeks were asking 2600 years ago. Do we not yet have enough information available to us?

We now live in a world where we are inundated with more information, on a daily basis, than we can possibly process. It is an over-communicated environment. There are so many unwanted messages bombarding us, that often the ones we want get lost in the noise. The average person can now communicate faster, with more people—without thinking—than ever before. Information has become disposable. It doesn't matter whether you are connected to the Internet or not. We get hit with it at every turn. At work. At home as we try to relax. And at all points in between.

So what about it? What are we doing with this information? Is all this information really doing us any good? Are we living happier lives? Are we experiencing fewer problems? Are our decisions better? Are we any wiser? History tells us that we haven't learned much in spite of all we know. The situation changes, but the problems remain the same. Clearly, we need to do something better with all of this information.

T.S. Eliot posed the question: "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" In a day and age where the number one shows are sitcoms and we commonly find best sellers written by those on the fringe of society, we are clearly in need of better thinking. We need wisdom.

Proverbs 4.5-7

Knowledge comes by taking
things apart: analysis.
But wisdom comes by putting things together.
– John A. Morrison

There's no inherent meaning in information—it's what we do with that information that matters.
– Beau Lotto at TED 2009

The Bible has a lot to say about wisdom. In Proverbs, a book devoted to wisdom, we are told that wisdom is the principle thing. Though it cost us all that we have, get wisdom.

What is this elusive quality called wisdom? How do we get it? First, let's begin by taking a look at the four levels of thinking.

The first level is data—simple facts and figures. Next we have information. Information is data that's been collected and organized. It is a reference tool. Something we turn to when trying to create something else.

The third level is knowledge. This is information that we have digested and now understand. Organized as knowledge, the information we have collected is given a context.

The fourth and final level is wisdom. Today, wisdom has become for many, indistinguishable from knowledge. But they are two different things. Often, what we find touted as wisdom is simply opinion. Knowledge is not wisdom. There is a big difference. Wisdom is the proper use of knowledge. To be more precise, wisdom is knowledge that has been applied in a way that takes into account all its pertinent relationships and that is consistent with universal laws.

A glut of information can be a kind of Catch-22. While it adds to our knowledge, it can be a block to our wisdom. We can be so busy trying to process more and more information, that we don't have the time for the quiet contemplation that is essential for the development of wisdom. Without contemplation, we lose perspective and can lose our grounding. Without our bearings we lose a sense of place. Confused, we are more easily swayed.

It is essential then, that we learn to let the unwanted information we receive go in one ear and out the other and to get the knowledge we need, to stop somewhere in between. It is interesting that armed with mountains of information, we have turned arguing into a national pastime. It seems one can always provide more information to support a claim. We begin to think might makes right—more is better. In turn, relationships fracture as we go off with our own tangential, myopic views. We lose perspective.

Knowledge too, is a funny thing. It can deceive us into thinking we are wise. Knowledge alone is not wisdom. For example, have you ever known someone who is incredibly smart, maybe they get straight A's in school, or maybe they have several degrees, and yet their life is a complete mess? Perhaps you know someone who is sufficiently educated and yet they can't hold a job, can't act on basic instructions, and they seem to be constantly faced with a host of problems. What's wrong? These people aren't dumb. They don't seem to lack the necessary information to be a success in life. Yet for them, life is one struggle, one upset, after another. Sadly, they lack wisdom. Many people know a great deal but are all the more foolish because of it. They have not yet learned how to apply the knowledge they have. For the successful conduct of life, mere knowledge is not enough.

Common sense is the knack of seeing things as they are and doing things as they ought to be done.
– Stowe

It is a thousand times better to have common sense without education, than to have education without common sense.
– Robert G. Ingersoll
Sometimes we say that someone has no common sense. Indeed, common sense is a part of wisdom. Common sense is applying knowledge to solve the everyday problems common to all people in a way that is better than that which might come naturally. As a society, in trying to create a law for every situation, we have lost the perspective of the principles common to a community of people. We too can become so tightly focused that we lose our ability to apply what we learn generally to our own lives specifically. And so we lack common sense.

Knowledge that doesn't take shape in deeds—that doesn't apply itself to life—is trivia. If you can't apply it, it's just knowledge for knowledge sake; it's just something to get intellectual about. Knowledge alone leads to arrogance. This is not to undervalue knowledge, but there must be some thinking as to what are the ends of the knowledge being attained, of the relationship of the knowledge you are gaining to the conduct of your life and to the life of those around you. Why do you know what you know? And what are you doing about it?

Knowledge alone does not result in clear vision, a proper perspective, meaning, and the right behavior. But when this transformation does occur, we call it wisdom. How do we get wisdom? How do we develop it and make it a part of our lives?

He is happy in his wisdom who has learned at another's expense.
– Plautus

Learn from the mistakes of others—you can't live long enough to make them all yourself.
– Martin Vanbee

Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.
– Auguste Rodin

Good people are good because they've come to wisdom through failure.
– William Saroyan
Fundamentally, it is important to understand that wisdom is grounded in reality in two ways. To connect with reality and develop wisdom, we need to learn to be aware. Aware of ourselves and aware of those around us. We can learn from other people's success and we can learn from their mistakes. From early on, we have all been told that we should learn from other people's mistakes. Yet we see people in trouble all the time, but we forget to learn from their mistakes. Every person you come into contact with, good or bad, is for you, a lesson in living if you will only be aware. You need to define where they are off or what they are doing right and then determine what that means for you. Everything that you observe is a chance for you to figure out what it means and what you are supposed to do about it. When you see a problem in life, yours or someone else's, something is wrong. What is it you are seeing? Figure it out. It is important that you know.

Second, if you know something works and you don't do it, that's being disconnected from reality. We Human Beings are the only living things that can decide to disconnect ourselves from reality. We are inclined to do what we want and not what we know we should do. We can, and often do, choose to live according to what is unreasonable; what makes no sense. We can do things in the same old way and justify doing it. But, we are only kidding ourselves. Living with reality takes an effort on our part. But, it is essential that we do the things that we know must be done and stop doing those things we know we shouldn't be doing.

Understand the law of Cause & Effect. Things happen to us for a reason. We are the sum total of the decisions we have made and the actions we have taken to this point. When you make a mistake, don't gloss over it. Take a look at it. Seek to understand why you did it and why it doesn't work, why it doesn't get you the results you want. Articulate it. To learn something is to be able to put it into words. Then when you catch yourself doing something that is counter productive, something you know from observation doesn't work, stop. Make one little change in your life. Begin to practice what you learn in order to create habits. If it is right, keep at it whether you see immediate results or not. A successful life is made up of a series of course corrections. They all add up to create the substance of your life.

We must learn to step back from any situation and look at it objectively. It is helpful to take the personalities out. Take out all of the emotions and egos and determine the right thing to do regardless of who is involved. Then put the personalities back in and proceed with what must be done. This is living by principle and wisdom. It will help you not compromise what is right and to live consistent with universal laws.

Be proactive. This does not mean to be more assertive. Proactiveness is not an attitude, but is instead a product of our thinking that comes from being connected to our own behavior; by seeing how we contribute to our own problems. It means to determine in advance your response to any situation that may come your way. Don't allow yourself to just react to the stimulus of your environment. Of course, it's hard to do this when you are in the middle of an action. Your emotions are in the way and your perspective is gone. It's hard to stop and ask yourself, What am I doing? This is why you must think through the events in your life and think through to the conclusion of the approach you are using. If then, you don't like the results, change your approach, before you're caught behaving in way you'll wish you hadn't. A wise person will think about situations he might become involved in so that he might know in advance how he will respond.

A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.
– Francis Bacon

To admit ignorance is to exhibit wisdom.
– Ashley Montagu

Very few men are wise by their own counsel, or learned by their own teaching; for he that was only taught by himself had a fool as his master
– Ben Jonson

A wise man gets more out of his enemies than a fool gets out of his friends.
– Baltasar Gracian

Related Articles

Wisdom: The Interval Between the Notes

Don't just get through a day. Absorb the day. Make it a part of your life. You can't afford to take an aimless approach to life. Take it seriously. If you don't, no one else will. Pick up on everything that is happening around you. By asking yourself, What am I supposed to be doing? How am I going to do it? and When am I going to do something about it? you avoid a lot of mistakes. When you start thinking about your life, many problems disappear. When you live perceptively, when you get in touch with reality, and start doing what you know is right, many problems disappear.

In 1677, the Dutch philosopher Spinoza, suggested that wisdom is seeing things sub specie eternitatis, that is, in view of eternity. A foundational principle of wisdom is to have a long term perspective; to see the big picture; to look beyond the immediate situation. Of course, an all encompassing, total perspective is possessed only by God. Although it can only be approached by humans, it is an ideal we should seek.

To gain perspective, it is helpful to study events and people throughout history. The past is the sum of all we are today. Understand it. Know why we are where we are today. Napoleon said, "May my son study history for it is the only true philosophy, the only true psychology." Take time each day with those who have left their lives for our example. In time, it will broaden your perspective and deepen your understanding. You will gain many lifetimes of experience in your own.

Walter Lippmann observed that "a boy can take you into the open at night and show you the stars; he might tell you no end of things about them, conceivably all that an astronomer could teach. But until and unless he feels the vast indifference of the universe to his own fate, and has placed himself in the perspective of cold and illimitable space, he has not looked maturely at the heavens. Until he has felt this, and unless he can endure this, he remains a child, and in his childishness, he will resent the heavens when they are not accommodating. He will demand sunshine when he wishes to play, and rain when the ground is dry, and he will look upon storms as anger directed at him, and the thunder as a personal threat." He may know knowledge but he doesn't have wisdom. Wisdom places us in our proper roles in relationship to everything else around us and in so doing helps us to develop emotional maturity.

Wisdom requires humility. You must be teachable. If you are to put these things into practice, you must be willing to take a look at what you thought you knew about yourself and the ideas you hold. It requires an outward focus not a selfish one. Often people who know a lot can't get past that fact and as a result never gain insight into what they know. A wise man never stops asking questions. He realizes that what he knows is but a drop in a sea of knowledge.

As we examine the results of our behavior and learn from the experiences of others, and conform to the laws common to every living thing, we begin to create a yardstick to judge what we know and the knowledge we come into contact with. We can learn what is acceptable. You are the only one that can gain wisdom for yourself. No one can make you wise or make you not wise. It's up to you. Any time you see, hear, or experience a lesson for better living, it's up to you to do something about it. The job of living is to make this decision. Put what you have learned into practice or you will never be wise.

Dare to be wise; begin!
He who postpones the hour of living rightly is like the rustic who wants for the river to run out before he crosses.
– Horace
A philosopher by definition, is a lover of wisdom. We should all be philosophers. You can talk beautiful ideas, but if you don't put them into action, it is as if you know nothing. Ask yourself, what did I learn today? How would I do it differently? and How do I transfer this lesson to my own life? Then, apply it. You then begin to live intelligently. To live with understanding. To live with meaning. To live with wisdom.F

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