Is Wisdom Obsolete?

Our previous post argued that because the world is now changing faster than it ever has, with even the pace of change itself accelerating sharply, any conservative or reactionary ideology that seeks simply to roll back the clock is doomed to fail. What I said was that any hope for an effective New Right depended on whether it could draw for this “brave new world” a blueprint for a living, organic system, built on sufficient wisdom about the permanent features and variations of human nature as to be capable of effective adaptation to a rapidly changing environment.

In the comment-thread, our ex-pat e-pal Horace Jeffery Hodges (you should be reading his excellent blog) asked:

Wisdom is insight gained through reflection on experience, and it worked well as a guide to dealing with a future that would be similar to the past, but the future we face threatens to be radically unlike the past, so what role remains to wisdom?

It’s a stimulating question, and I am interested to hear what our readers have to say about it. I’ll get the ball rolling.

I agree with Jeffery that wisdom is insight gained through reflection on experience. I’ll say also that, like anything of value, it has to be paid for; a life composed entirely of luck and ease may be a pleasant road to travel, but without suffering (intentional suffering will do just as well as the aleatoric kind, if chance won’t steepen your path), you haven’t paid the toll.

There’s an old saw about a student and his teacher:

“Master, what is wisdom?”

“Good judgment.”

“But how do we learn good judgment?”

Bad judgment.”

But is wisdom nothing more than “a guide to a future that would be similar to the past”? It is that, of course, but I think it is much more than that; above all I think wisdom is knowledge of what it is to be human. Real wisdom, and the sort of wisdom we are going to need in these unpredictable times — when the only thing we can be sure of is explosive change — will be the ability to see what we must hold onto, and what we can let go of, in order to shape the future of human societies so as to let us live in harmony with the permanent features of our nature. Many people, for example Edmund Burke, Chesterton, and Hayek, have reminded us that our traditions condense and preserve a storehouse of knowledge and experience vaster than any mind can hold. (I’ve commented on this often myself, for example here.) But Jeffery is right; much of that experience was of a world very different from the one we will soon inhabit.

What makes this explosive transformation so unsettling is that our technology is changing faster than we are. We cannot know what this new world will be, but we are, willy-nilly, going to have to live in it. We must hope at least that we know ourselves.

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9 Comments

  1. Kevin Kim says

    Temet nosce, as the sign in the Oracle’s kitchen said in “The Matrix.” Or γνῶθι σεαυτόν, if you prefer.

    Posted February 28, 2016 at 11:05 pm | Permalink
  2. Harold says

    “It’s a stimulating question, and I am interested to hear what our readers have to say about it.”

    Well, I had things to say but then I read further and you said them.

    My own point of view regarding the unpredictability of the future is simply that great plans are of little use, but spreading the truth and defeating lies will put us in a better position, and so this is what I focus on.

    Posted February 28, 2016 at 11:24 pm | Permalink
  3. …, our traditions condense and preserve a storehouse of knowledge and experience vaster than any mind can hold.

    That is, indeed, a gem of wisdom that I have also relied on. I believe Thomas Sowell has mentioned it, too, in one of his books.

    Tradition is the essence of the wisdom handed down from generations of our antecedents who graduated from their successive schools of had knocks.

    Posted February 29, 2016 at 1:57 am | Permalink
  4. Different T says

    Temet nosce, as the sign in the Oracle’s kitchen said in “The Matrix.” Or γνῶθι σεαυτόν, if you prefer.

    Whenever the film “The Matrix,” is invoked, I am curious to know if the person watched the second or third film that showed the “orgy” scene in Zion.

    Posted February 29, 2016 at 7:34 am | Permalink
  5. Whitewall says

    “Tradition is the essence of the wisdom handed down from generations of our antecedents who graduated from their successive schools of had knocks”. Positive wisdom gained from hard experience is a key to success. How about persistent bad tradition producing provable negative results which is no wisdom at all, simply “bad judgement” repackaged and resold to newer generations of young people? This seems to repeat throughout history and no amount of successful good wisdom can overcome it. If this pattern keeps up, even technology advances won’t stop it.

    Posted February 29, 2016 at 1:47 pm | Permalink
  6. I hear you, Robert, and I agree. The continuing re-packaging of “bad tradition” is what has kept a significant fraction of African Americans on the “plantation”, milking the “benefits” of free shit like 0bama phones. I blame the charlatans of the black community for keeping it going for their own personal gains (and for which no one seems to have a remedy). And politicians like LBJ as well. The latter has been quoted as once saying something to the effect, “Give them something and I’ll have those n*ggers [LBJ didn’t use an asterisk] voting Democratic for two hundred years.”

    Posted February 29, 2016 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  7. Whitewall says

    This “Matrix” movie must be something. I hear about it all the time but I’ve not seen it. Maybe it isn’t geared to seniors.

    Posted March 1, 2016 at 4:34 pm | Permalink
  8. Bluefin Tuna says

    It is that, of course, but I think it is much more than that; above all I think wisdom is knowledge of what it is to be human.”

    This is a very, very important point, and one that needs far more emphasis on the contemporary Right. Tradition is not solely valuable in the sense of Chesterton’s Fence (though it is surely that). The most important traditions are not merely useful habits which we have inherited for reasons we cannot comprehend; rather, they are culturally-specific expressions of transcendent and universal moral truths. For example, codes of dress are deeply shaped in culturally-specific ways by climate, history, marriage laws, and the availability of particular textiles. Underlying them all, however, is the fundamental idea of modesty– that human sexuality is too sacred and too important to be trusted to the natural, unchecked instincts of man in his current fallen, sinful state. That modesty is demonstrated differently in Saudi Arabia, the Faroe Islands, and Papua New Guinea does not diminish its universal significance.

    One danger to modern men of the Reactionary stripe, is that, being surrounded constantly by latter-day relativism and utilitarianism, we tend to grasp only at pragmatic arguments. To effectively find our footing in the coming whirlwind of change, we need to re-establish our sense of the fundamental moral limits which must not be transgressed under any circumstances whatsoever. If we don’t, we’ll never be able to remember what truly makes us human.

    Posted March 2, 2016 at 5:42 pm | Permalink
  9. The most important traditions are not merely useful habits which we have inherited for reasons we cannot comprehend; rather, they are culturally-specific expressions of transcendent and universal moral truths.

    Hear, hear. I would add that some of the most transcendent of them all are those that originally emerged in the form of commandments issued by ancient teachers and prophets. I presume that these visionaries (I am, of course, thinking of Moses as the apotheosis) could not conceive of any other strategy for transmitting wisdom to the largely ignorant masses.

    Sadly, our modern-day cynics deprecate concepts such as “Honor your parents” as trite anachronisms.

    Posted March 2, 2016 at 8:02 pm | Permalink