• Sam Willis

Wisdom - The Principal Thing

Wisdom, it is said, is a combination primarily of knowledge and experience among other things. Just as on their own red is red and blue is blue, likewise on their own knowledge is knowledge and experience is experience. But, just as red and blue combined make purple, so do knowledge and experience combined make wisdom, or, at least the start of wisdom.

Everyone experiences life intrinsically, though to varying degrees, and to varying degrees satisfies that component of wisdom. Not everyone reads however. Thus many never satisfy that principal element of wisdom; knowledge.

There is one vital misconception regarding knowledge which must at the outset be cleared away: that 'knowledge is power'. While knowledge is certainly a vital element of power, it is safer to assume that the competent application of knowledge by good judgement more roundly represents the principal requisite of power. Simply, a man may obtain all the knowledge in the world yet lack the depth of chest to act upon it. There is no power in this.

With that out of the way, let us begin with what, in my experience, is the first leap on the path to wisdom as regards knowledge: a humble intellect that welcomes and accepts the appraisal of others.

Everyone who holds a semblance of a humble spirit might find themselves irritated at those who, with great confidence in their own mind, will accept no correction, for others know nothing and he knows all, or so he thinks. This type often finds himself embarrassingly corrected by an often quiet soul who speaks little but knows much and judges well. Therefore the usually loud boaster of his own greatness of mind places himself in a fruitless circle consisting only of those below him in knowledge and experience to avoid further embarrassment.

Conversely, borne of breadth of experience and depth of knowledge, the wise man is keenly aware of the fallibility of his own opinions and faculties of mind, and will accept criticism with a glad heart from a circle ideally above him in all things. John Stuart Mill said this:

"In the case of any person whose judgement is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious."

The glad acceptance of correction, even of the piercing blade of an admonition is the joy of a wise man. To have his opinions and conduct scrutinised, especially by those wiser than he is, he knows, his greatest hope of becoming like them.

The second step toward the knowledge component of wisdom is a heavy and effortful one: endeavouring to understand and accept the strength of argument on all sides of a matter.

Misrepresenting or being entirely ignorant of an opposing argument or opinion in order to attack it more easily, (known as a strawman argument) is undoubtedly the most common logical fallacy in public debate. It shows a slothful mind not willing to seek objections to and difficulties with its own position, and instead avoids them.

A personal example: I am not a communist because I have read John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith as well as Marx and Engels. I am not an evolutionist because I have read Stephen Meyer and David Berlinski as well as Darwin. I vote the way I vote because I have read the writings and heard the speeches of the leaders of my party, past and present, as well as those of the leaders of the opposing parties, past and present.

John Stuart Mill continues from the previous passage as follows:

"...The only way in which a human being can make some approach at knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner."

It is one thing to hold inner convictions, to think about important things, and be certain of principles deeply adhered to. It is a higher and more noble thing, indeed it is wise, to hold these things up against opposing convictions, thoughts and principles, to weigh them against and expose them to their objections and difficulties. Then, and only then, can you be as certain as is humanly possible of your deepest seated and truest wisdom.


Many wise men live today. But many more wise men have lived before us. Reading is the means by which we acquire their knowledge and coupled with our own experience and reflection, how we gain their wisdom.

Reading in the company of others in pursuit of wisdom and understanding quickens the intellect and multiplies the effort of such a pursuit. In fact, reading for reading's sake and allowing one's self to be content with only with opinions drawn by himself has a deleterious effect on the pursuer of wisdom.

So, to conclude, friend, put on a humble intellect; accept the just appraisal of those wiser than you; and whatever wisdom you seek, endeavour to understand what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion and study all modes in which it can be looked at by all characters of mind. For no wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of the human intellect to acquire wisdom in any other manner.

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