A silhouette of an owl at night
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Living a life of virtue is the chief aim of the Stoics. To do so, we must understand what Virtue is. Here is my take on it. The four virtues in Stoicism are; Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Temperance. To start delving into each of the Virtues, we begin with Wisdom.

“Know Thyself”

apollo’s temple at Delphi

Named first by most because it is the driver of the other virtues. If you are just, courageous, and tempered that means you also display traits of Wisdom. But what is it exactly and what does it mean to be wise. Can we set that as a goal or how do we determine that we are living a life of wisdom? 

What is Wisdom

Three of wisdom in the field
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Would a wise person ever claim to possess Wisdom? How would he know? What factors come to play to determine that? Is it how much you know, how well you speak, write, or give advice? It can be all of those and more, but for someone to say that they are wise contradicts the statement itself. 

What is Wisdom? According to the Oxford dictionary, it is the ability to make sensible decisions and give good advice because of the experience and knowledge that you have.

We see here that it includes making decisions and giving advice based on experience and knowledge. Of the four virtues, this one can be referred to as the rational part. The one that sets us apart from the other animals on this planet. Since we can use reason to reflect on our actions and on our existence as a whole. 

Wisdom is like a muscle

Wisdom can stagnate if we are not careful. It requires us to keep experiencing and learning things if we don’t our growth and progress will be lost. Our judgment and advice will then no longer be the best that we can provide. Thus, what is missing in the definition is that we must keep our hunger to learn and stay curious and do so with an open mind. When we approach new information with a vision that is directed towards what we think is right, then we can’t process this justly. This creates preconceptions before we even know the details. 

Children in school learning
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An old person can be wise but also stubborn or closed. How well would you rate her judgment if there is only one point of view she considers. But someone younger could look at your situation objectively and give you guidance based on the total situation. Wisdom is like a muscle that needs to stay limber and trained. We can train it by asking questions and avoiding looking for answers. 

The danger with knowing the answer is that it can mislead you into knowing. Once you think you know something, you stop learning. We can see that happening in schools. Students are drilled to learn certain topics, take an exam, and when they pass that exam they ‘know’ it. But can they apply it or even worse, has it stopped them from discovering more? A question shouldn’t lead to an answer, but an answer should lead to a question. Thus we should teach our children that knowledge is important, but curiosity is key if they wish to learn for a lifetime. 

Who do you go to for advice?

We gain knowledge by experiencing life. Nowadays, it seems that we are experiencing multiple lives at once with all the input we receive. Access to other people’s lives seems limitless with the internet and social media. But there is one vital aspect of life that we tend to neglect; that is our own life. We stretch our limits to try and keep up with everyone around us, while we break down ourselves. Why is that and why do we see it happen more and more? Because we don’t know who we are. That first and most important question is the one we are forgetting to ask. Who am I? We can only live a Virtuous life if we at least try to begin to understand ourselves.

Mother and Daughter walking on a country road
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A wise person looks within first. To help others, one must first be at peace with himself. We must have the courage to let go of all that happens around us, check our ego at the door, and take the time to examine our own minds. Who would you go to for advice first: someone who seems unstable or someone who is calm? Someone who knows what questions to ask you because she has asked these questions to herself first? Someone who shows you who they are, by listening and showing interest. They can do that because they are certain of themselves and can now direct their attention to you. 

Who is wise?

Then let’s ask the question; Who is wise? We can refer to the known philosophers like; Socrates, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca, Michel de Montaigne, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, and others. But why not look closer to home. I can call upon these people through books, which does help. But if I want advice, I turn to my family and friends. Those around me who I trust will give me honest advice or share their judgment. Not because they will gain from it, but because they want what’s best for me. They listen to me and tell me what they think, whether I like to hear it or not. The wise person should keep an open mind and be honest and just. 

Know Thyself leads to Wisdom
Know Thyself – Apollo’s Temple at Delphi, Photo by Faye Cornish on Unsplash

Be critical about the people in your life whom you go to for advice. Do they tell you what you want to hear or tell you what is best for you? These wise people should demonstrate that they listen, observe, and ask questions. They don’t judge you, but speak truthfully, honestly, and clearly. It is then up to you to see whether what they say is in line with your nature. And you can only do that if you know who you are and where your priorities lie. 

Experience and marvel at the beauty of nature

Wisdom doesn’t come with age, it is an ongoing process that can start at an early age. It doesn’t solely come from books, because reading is only one part of it. Experience is required, but if you don’t learn from it is useless. Judgment is one of its outputs yet it can get clouded with too many preconceptions. The wise person can only give non-judgemental advice if they are confident about who they are.

Don’t strive to be wise, because then it will elude you. Instead, focus on what wise people do. Listen, observe, learn, stay curious and keep an open mind. And focus these inward first. That’s where your answers lie and more questions arise. And live your life, experience the world, and marvel at its wisdom.

Read about the other virtues: Justice, Courage, Temperance

What is Wisdom
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4 thoughts on “What is Wisdom

  • 15 May 2022 at 13:00

    I am fond of the stoics and philosophy in general, so this was another great piece to read. Yes, I do agree that wisdom comes from the combination of reading and experience, but moreover of how much we are willing to know ourselves.

    • 15 May 2022 at 13:28

      Thank you, Eri! I love your feedback and it always motivates me to keep writing.
      You are right, it is mainly on our willingness to know ourselves. I completely agree and do my best to know myself as good as I can.
      Guess that is something that never stops, right?

  • 19 May 2022 at 15:52

    Great post! Definitely agree that we must always keep growing and learning. Wisdom and continuous growth go hand in hand. I always think of ancient trees as being very wise, even though they can’t speak. They’ve lived through a lot!!

    • 19 May 2022 at 15:59

      Thank you, Fiona.

      You are right and I love the tree analogy. I’ll keep that in mind for my future writings. 🙂


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