“Wisdom” is arguably one of the most slippery, and yet important, concepts that concern us all. One way to summarize humanity’s problems over the past several millennia is that our intelligence and technology have far outpaced our wisdom. And things are likely to get worse, since our technological advancements are accelerating, possibly leading in the near future to the development of very intelligent, but unlikely to be wise, AI.
That, of course, is the point of studying philosophy, which, after all, is defined as “love of wisdom.” That’s also why, despite my background as a scientist, I think humanities courses (not just philosophy, but literature, history, and so forth) ought to be mandatory even at the pre-college level. We are making new generations of smart and technologically savvy people, who however will lack the wisdom to use well that technology, or to live meaningful (as opposed to merely “productive”) lives.
All of this is predicated on the idea that we know what wisdom is and how to become wiser ourselves. You can easily look up definitions of wisdom in the dictionary, and you will find something like the following:
“Wisdom: The quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment. … The soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge, and good judgment: some questioned the wisdom of building the dam so close to an active volcano.” (New Oxford American)
The ancient Greco-Romans thought quite a bit about the concept of wisdom, and came up with an interesting angle, which I think would be valuable for us to reconsider and take on board: wisdom as “fitting expertise” about “impressions.” Yeah, I know, not exactly catchy. But let me explain. Galen, Marcus Aurelius’ physician and part-time philosopher, puts it this way:
“Others defined philosophy as the exercise of fitting expertise of the best life for human beings, saying that philosophy is exercise, and calling wisdom fitting expertise, which is also a cognition of human and divine matters.” (On the History of Philosophy, 5, 602.19–3.2)
“Human and divine matters” here refers to an understanding of human nature and the nature of the cosmos. Even though Galen was a critic of the Stoics, he agreed with them that one cannot possibly be wise if one does not take into account how both the world and human beings work before making decisions on a course of action. That is why the Stoics thought that working toward wisdom requires bettering one’s reasoning abilities (“logic” in the broad sense of the term) as well as learning about natural philosophy, or what we today call science. In a deep sense, then, wisdom becomes knowledge of how to live well as a human being situated in the cosmos at large.
Imagine if we took this seriously today, in the course of developing sound education curricula: our young people would then be studying philosophy and the humanities (ethics in the broad sense of learning how to live one’s life); logic, mathematics and cognitive science (to improve their reasoning); and the natural sciences (with a particular emphasis on notions that are helpful to situate one in the world). The current spats about favoring STEM fields over the humanities would then seem profoundly misguided, as they in fact are.
Back to wisdom as understood by the Greco-Romans. René Brouwer, author of The Stoic Sage: The Early Stoics on Wisdom, Sagehood and Socrates, notes that early definitions of philosophy as loving wisdom — for instance in Herodotus and Heraclitus — were framed by assuming that the “lover” (i.e., the philosopher) already possess it. It is Plato that shifts to what then became the standard take, philosophy understood more modestly as striving toward wisdom, as the Stoics and several other Hellenistic schools also maintained. Brouwer adds that philosophy should more specifically be conceived as expertise of what is really useful — i.e., not just theoretical knowledge, but practical knowledge. (Hence the distinction, drawn by Seneca and deployed many centuries later by Dante, between curiositas (seeking knowledge for its own sake) and studiositas (seeking knowledge because it helps us live better).
A further elaboration of the concept is found in Seneca (Letter LXXXVIII.26.7) where he presents a picture of different types of expertise as instances of “knowing how” (to play an instrument, to solve a geometrical problem, etc.), with wisdom being a superior type of “knowing why,” that is, knowing when and how to use every other kind of knowledge. But what does “fitting expertise” really mean? According to Olympiodorus:
“Cleanthes, then, says that an expertise is ‘a tenor that accomplishes everything methodically.’ But this definition is considered to be incomplete, for nature is also a tenor that does methodically all it does. Accordingly Chrysippus, after adding the phrase ‘with impressions,’ said ‘an expertise is a tenor that proceeds methodically with impressions.’” (SVF 1.490)
“Tenor” here has nothing to do with opera. It is a technical term that refers to an enduring disposition. What Chrysippus is saying, then, is that wisdom is the ability to correctly interpret “impressions,” which as we have seen, in Stoic psychology are our first reactions to things, including our implied judgments that some things are good and some are bad.
For instance, if I pass a gelato shop in the street, my first impression (in the Stoic sense) is that it would be good to get me some chocolate hazelnut flavored cone. However, as Epictetus so often advises, I got into the habit of questioning my impressions, telling them that that’s what they are, impressions, and not necessarily what they portray themselves to be. So then I give enough time to what Daniel Kahneman calls our “slow thinking system” to get into gear and reflect: is it really the case that the gelato is good for me? Well, it tastesgood, but lately I’ve been struggling to lose a bit of weight, so no, all things considered I’m better off rejecting the impression by way of a more considerate judgment.
All of the above is why Epictetus insisted that the most important thing to do for a student of Stoicism is to improve her faculty of judgment (prohairesis), i.e., the very faculty by which we assess (and give or refuse assent to) impressions:
“What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions — reason.” (Discourses I, 1.5)
Wisdom, then, is helpfully defined, just as Chrysippus maintained, as a disposition to properly interpret our impressions, and act accordingly. It is achieved by improving our ability to correctly judge those impressions. That is, among other ways, by Stoic training.