What Makes Someone Wise?

I think think one core aspect of wisdom, when you experience it in another human being, is that there is an integrity, a connection between inner life and outer presence in the world. Knowledge is something you can possess, intelligence is something you… can point at someone and say that’s an intelligent person. And wisdom is also — it’s a possession, but it’s a possession that is applied.

So the litmus test of wisdom is not just what is contained in that person, but their imprint on the world.

Krista Tippett, in conversation with Pico Iyer

I think we know a wise person when we see them, but it’s often difficult to say exactly why we see them as wise. There’s an essential and critical difference between someone who is intelligent and someone who is wise—but how to describe the difference?

Krista Tippett captures it perfectly in the quotation above (and I strongly recommend you listen to her interview with Pico Iyer in full). The intelligent person is inward-directed. They may have a large inner life, but they draw no connection between their inner life and the outer world. Their knowledge exists within them, for themselves.

The wise person directs knowledge and intelligence toward the outer world, using it to shape and improve the world around them. They not only have the necessary knowledge, but understand how it should be used, leading what they know to be used valuably in their interactions with the world at large. And that makes all the difference.

A Language of Wholeness

At high school the idea is to be well-rounded. Know a little about a lot of things; be good across the board. Do well in academics, music, sport. But don’t be exceptional at anything. At this point, that’s dangerous: you’ll tie yourself down too early, and invite the ire of your peers.

At university the idea is to be well-rounded with a bump. Learn a little more about a lot of things, have a range of interests and talents. But now, you need to become known for something. Be passionate about something. Be exceptional at something. That’s the way to be successful, to get into graduate schools, to land a good first job.

The language of roundedness generally stops there. We speak of successful people from there on. Generally what matters is just that the bump remains. People develop their careers, and the bump becomes how one defines oneself.

I think we need a language of wholeness. Real people are interested in an enormous range of things , and yet remain exceptional at one or a few things. That’s not just well-rounded with a bump or two, but that’s what it means to be a whole human being. We are not our resumes, nor are we just our interests.

Wholeness seems a worthy aim. Interested in the world and in many things throughout life, and good enough to lead and inspire others in one or a few of those things. If we need a phrase to aim for (and do we?), wholeness seems appropriate.

Seneca on the true purpose of philosophy

Seneca diagnosed the problem with philosophy two thousand years ago. In one of his letters that make up the Epistulae morales ad Lucilium (often called Letters from a Stoic when in translated book form), he writes that “What I should like those subtle teachers (philosophers)… to teach me is this: what my duties are to a friend and to a man, rather than the number of senses in which the expression ‘friend’ is used and how many different meanings the word ‘man’ has.” He goes on:

“One is led to believe that unless one has constructed syllogisms of the craftiest kind, and has reduced fallacies to a compact form in which a false conclusion is derived from a true premise, one will not be in a position to distinguish what one should aim at and what one should avoid. It makes one ashamed—that men of our advanced years should turn a thing as serious as this (philosophy) into a game.”

There are some of us who have had a strong gut reaction against every formal philosophy class we’ve ever taken, yet have been quite unable to say why. Was it a certain professor or teacher? No, because my views have been that way across every class and every professor. Was it a certain period of philosophy, a certain philosopher? It can’t be, because I’ve tried such a range, each time thinking it was just that class I didn’t like, and then trying another to find it exactly the same. Just what is it exactly that repels us so? Philosophy is meant to help us live an examined life, and yet in class all we examine are the constructions of sentences and arcane arguments.

Seneca mocks precisely these kinds of things in philosophy:

“‘Mouse is a syllable, and a mouse nibbles cheese; therefore, a syllable nibbles cheese.’ Suppose for the moment I can’t detect the fallacy in that. What danger am I placed in by such lack of insight? What serious consequences are there in it for me? What I have to fear, no doubt, is the possibility, one of these days, of my catching a syllable in a mousetrap or even having my cheese eaten up by a book if I’m not careful… What childish fatuities these are! Is this what we philosophers acquire wrinkles in our brow for?… Is this what we teach with faces grave and pale?”

I criticise my philosophy classes at the same time as I read philosophy each day in my spare time. The two are not the same. I read philosophy, and do not know what I’d do without it; I study philosophy, and wonder what the point of it is. Maybe the difference is, I enjoy philosophy, but do not enjoy the study of philosophising, which often seems to be what we do in university—the constructions a thinker used to make a point, rather than whether and how their point can help us live our lives.

When I read philosophy, I love it for its practicality. It’s often like having a chat about the important things in life with an old friend. In your head, you argue back and forth, put a philosopher’s argument up against another’s that you’ve read, and listen while they debate what you should do in a given situation. There are no rules, no rights and wrongs, though they can help you discover what you believe to be right and wrong, good and bad, wise and stupid. When studying philosophy at school and university, however, there are rules: it’s all about the precise meaning of words, the structure of your sentences, the strictness of your prose. This all becomes so important in this kind of philosophy—and your professor always demands it—that the more real purpose of reading philosophy is completely forgotten.

Seneca tells us exactly what philosophy is for, what it should aim at:

“Shall I tell you what philosophy holds out to humanity? Counsel. One person is facing death, another is vexed by poverty, while another is tormented by wealth—whether his own or someone else’s; one man is appalled by his misfortunes while another longs to get away from his own prosperity; one man is suffering at the hands of men, another at the hands of the gods. What’s the point of concocting whimsies for me of the sort I’ve just been mentioning (the mouse trap example)? This isn’t the place for fun—you’re called in to help the unhappy… All right if you can point out to me where those puzzles are likely to bring such people relief. Which of them removes cravings or brings them under control? If only they were simply unhelpful! They’re actually harmful.”

I think we all understand, at some deep level, the real kind of philosophy that Seneca describes; it’s just a shame that philosophy in universities, developing as they have along the analytic tradition, have become focussed on exactly the kind that he writes against. It’s easier, after all, for a teacher to grade a paper on logical fallacies or mechanics of argument than it is to grade a paper on how philosophy can help us live. But when it comes to our lives—and that’s what education is for—the former matters very little, and the latter a great deal. So it’s up to us to find a teacher who understands this (and they do exist, don’t get me wrong!), or whether we can learn from university philosophy while working around its frustrating requirements. Whatever the case is, philosophy is too important to ignore entirely, and let’s hope studying philosophy at university hasn’t put some people off forever.

The Prestige Paradox

The prestige paradox works like this: An enterprising, promising high school senior manages to secure admission to Harvard. Soon, this lucky kid is greeted with admiration and awe by those who hear of this impressive honor. The glow continues to follow our golden child throughout her college life. Every time she meets someone on an airplane, runs into an old friend from high school or talks to Aunt Clara, she is reminded of her special distinction. She can’t help but begin to define herself by it.

Unfortunately, however, once inside the Yard, this identity is complicated by the hundreds of other golden children that surround her. She is then faced with a problem: the rest of the world defines her by this admittedly arbitrary and superficial standard of success. But once here, this distinction is no longer so distinctive. In the midst of this impressive bunch, she must figure out how to maintain this hollow distinction.

The only way to maintain this fragile, prestige-based self-image, then, is to acquire more prestige. Hence, the paradox: The constant hunger always leaves one, well, hungry.

— Rustin Silverstein in The Harvard Crimson, 1998

There’s always more prestige to be had. When you’re on the outside of what is more prestigious, you want to be on the inside of it. When you’re on the inside, you see through it, but cannot admit it; so you strive for what is yet more prestigious, thinking this time it’ll be it. Years could pass rather quickly like that.

We learn not for school, but for life

And yet how often we forget that.

The phrase is in fact a reversal of Seneca’s original, which put the matter as it was: we do not learn for life, but for the schoolroom. And today we learn not for school, but for an exam.

How do we make learning about life? How do we make what we learn matter?

One place to start: demand it of your own education. Don’t settle when you know it’s a waste. There’s not enough time for that; there’s too much important stuff to learn.

Dubious Lessons of a Well-Intended Education: On Fakework

Let’s be honest: education teaches us some truly dubious life lessons.

A friend of mine recently took a class in which the sole assignment for the whole semester was a single 6,000 word research paper on a topic of one’s choice. Despite giving her professor assurances to the contrary, she began the assignment the night before it was due. She wrote the entire paper in one sitting, editing as she went, and submitted without proofreading.

She said she deserved a bad grade, and would’ve accepted one with resolve. She’d been unengaged by the class and was planning to declare it as a pass/fail. And yet—when she received the graded paper back a few weeks later, it had received an A, and her professor was effusive in his praise. He wrote to her in an email something along the lines of: this is one of the best undergraduate papers I’ve ever read, and I can tell how much effort you’ve put into this. Keep up the hard work, and may your successes continue.

The lesson my friend learned was one of smart work, as opposed to hard work. Pretend to work hard, put in the minimal amount of effort necessary, confuse with big words, elegant sentences and a complex thesis, and the rewards will follow. Success depends as much on impression as on reality—the impression of hard work, the impression of intelligence.

The kind of ‘smart work’ I’m talking about is more than the “hack” mentality put forward by blogs like Lifehacker, and more than the productivity mantra of Silicon Valley. Where those look to help reduce the time it takes to carry out a given task (and that is, after all, the idea of technological progress), the smart work taught by our schools and universities changes what it means to complete a task. A task is complete so long as it gives the impression of it, no matter the thought, detail, care, conscience or morality behind it. Perhaps a better term is fakework.

“Yes, and?”, some will ask. “The activity is still complete. What’s it to others how it was completed? And besides, they’ll never know.”

Modern culture itself seems built on a similar kind of impressionism. It is probably a result of modern advertising, the ever-increasing fight by companies for our attention, the ever-decreasing time we feel we have. Politics is now the competition of the sound-bite. Advertising gives the impression of life transformation through the purchase of a product, when of course the underlying product can never live up to the impression that was sold.

We are taught the lesson in our schools and universities, because everyone—teachers and professors included—are subject to the same laws of impressionism. Teachers have similar constraints on their time as students, if not more, and it seems the trick, for many (though by no means all!), is to give the impression of having thoughtfully read and graded a paper without having truly done so. Because both students and teachers engage with it, it becomes one of the unspoken myths of one’s education. So long as you give the impression of hard work—and don’t call others out on theirs—all will be fine.

We take the lesson with us to the workplace, and it moves us onwards, forwards, upwards.

The problem is, we come to believe it. Fakework becomes not just an unspoken reality of our education systems, but a rule of modern life. If we could once switch fakework on and off depending on the activity, soon we forget it underlies our actions. And for some things in life, hard work is the only solution. It’s those times when the mere impression of it counts for absolutely nothing.

Like when your doctor tells you you’re at risk of a heart attack, and that you urgently need to get fit to improve your heart.

Like when you’re about to become a mother or a father and have just a few months to learn everything you need to know to keep your child safe and healthy and to give them the right start in life.

Like when you’re laid off at 55 and decide to write the novel you always wanted to write.

Like when your father has a stroke and you’re his sole care giver.

In these situations, and so many more where the only one watching is our own conscience and the only people affected are the ones we care most about, hard work is all there is.

Education is so all-encompassing, all-consuming, that we fail to see how the lessons we learn, no matter how broken were the incentives through which we learn them, are lessons we take with us through life. Our views, habits and approaches to life are formed when we aren’t watching; they’re formed when we’re looking the other way, trying to get an assignment done the night before it’s due. I suppose one should try always to keep a watchful eye turned in this direction, and to see every assignment and task as an opportunity to practice the habits and approaches we’ll need when life most tests us. We don’t want to be left floundering, wondering why fakework isn’t working exactly when we need it most.