What is Wisdom? What are the characteristic of wise people? According to philosopher Thomas Aquinas, “Of all human pursuits, that of wisdom is the most perfect, the most sublime, the most profitable, the most delightful”. Wisdom is one of the highest virtues of human beings. Therefore, it is stimulating to analyze the concept of wisdom and what encompasses it. Let’s analyze what wisdom is and what are its constituents and what characteristics wise people possess. Wisdom can be examined from philosophical and psychological perspectives. Let’s analyze wisdom from both philosophical and psychological perspectives.

Philosophy of wisdom

Philosophical wisdom teachings can be traced back to Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations about 5000 years ago. Ancient eastern civilizations also provide remarkable accounts of wisdom writings such as the teachings of Buddha in India and Confucius in China. According to Buddha, wisdom is knowing something by observation and experience.  According to Confucius “To know what you know and know what you don’t know is the characteristic of one who knows”. Ancient Greek philosophers were known as “Sophists”, travelling teachers of wisdom. According to Socrates men do not seek wisdom, they are only “lovers of wisdom” as only God possess true wisdom. For Plato wisdom concerns the true meaning of life and nature of both universe and mankind. Aristotle considered wisdom as the highest form of knowledge and one of the most basic virtues of human beings and differentiated wisdom as either practical wisdom or speculative wisdom. Practical wisdom was called “prudence” whereas, speculative wisdom was termed simply “wisdom”. St. Augustine divided intelligence into two parts: wisdom or “sapientia”, which is eternal and “scientia,” which is knowledge of the real world. Descartes famously said “I think therefore I am”. According to Kant, “The Idea of wisdom must be the foundation of philosophy, just as the Idea of sanctity is the foundation of Christianity”.

Psychology of wisdom

Psychology literature ignored wisdom till late 20th century. Since then many psychologists have come up with different definitions of wisdom without any consensus. According to psychologist Professor Sternberg “Wisdom is a metacognitive style plus sagacity, knowing that one does not know everything, seeking the truth to the extent that it is knowable”.

Constituents of wisdom and characteristics of wise people

Although there has not been any consensus yet on the definition of wisdom but most proposed definitions of wisdom include these five components:

Social decision making and pragmatic knowledge of life

Prosocial attitudes and behaviors

Self-reflection and self-understanding

Acknowledgment of and coping effectively with uncertainty

Emotional homeostasis

Let’s analyze each component of wisdom separately

Social decision making and pragmatic knowledge of life

This component of wisdom characterizes that wise people have an understanding and knowledge of complexities of life. Wisdom arises from coping with critical life experiences and wise people learn from these experiences and increase their knowledge and competence. It also encompasses that wise people possess decision making and problem solving abilities and competencies and are willing to apply it for their own and others optimal functioning. Wise people possess both fluid and crystallized aspects of intelligence and have ability to reason well and think logically about novel and complex problems. Apart from knowing the facts which is “descriptive knowledge”, wise people know how to interpret these facts, through “interpretive knowledge”. This helps them rediscover things with deeper understanding.

Prosocial attitudes and behaviors

Wise people possess prosocial attitudes and behaviors which include empathy, compassion, warmth, altruism, and a sense of fairness. They can relate to individuals by understanding their feelings and emotions and are willing to help, support and comfort others thus working towards improving their well-being. They show high level of concern for other people and improve their well-being by transcending their self-interest.

Self-reflection and self-understanding

Reminiscence, introspection, self-reflection and self-understanding are fundamental to wisdom and wise people. This construct of wisdom is analogous to “know thyself”. Wise people have the ability to reflect and ponder upon past life which help them identifying their strengths, weaknesses and limitations, and apply that understanding to novel and complex situations. This gives them the ability to look things from multiple viewpoints which allow them to develop a broader perspective about life. This also helps them in finding meaning and purpose in their life.

Acknowledgment of and coping effectively with uncertainty

Wise people have the awareness about, and ability to manage uncertainties of life. They are aware of the fact that most things are not certain in life and one should always be ready for the “surprise”. They are mindful of the fact that Life is full of uncontrollable and unpredictable events such as death and illness. This helps them develop tolerance for ambiguity which helps them in coping with complex life circumstances.

Emotional homeostasis

Wise people have greater ability to regulate their emotions. They are sensitive to, and have ability to deal with subtle as well as strong emotions. They also have the ability to recognize and regulate their own and other’s emotions and apply emotions in a constructive and creative way and refrain from inappropriate emotional responses.

 

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