Thursday, May 31, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty-Three

“Knowledge and Wisdom,” pages 173-177

That knowledge has increased though wisdom has not is a common observation. But what is wisdom? In part, it involves taking a balanced view of an issue, where the weights attached to different elements are appropriate. As professional specialization intensifies, the resulting narrowness of expertise makes this component of wisdom harder to come by. The problem is closely connected with unanticipated and undesirable consequences, as when inquiry into the nature of the atom eventually gave lunatics the power to destroy humanity. Wisdom likewise requires that breadth of knowledge be matched by breadth of feeling, so that understanding and empathy extends beyond our own narrow (or national) circle.

Private relations need wisdom as much as public affairs do. People can be at odds with each other through a version of what now [i.e. 2012] we would term the fundamental attribution error. Convincing personal enemies that their rivals are not particularly wicked, though they may seem so, would lead to an uptick in wisdom.

“I think the essence of wisdom is emancipation, as far as possible, from the tyranny of the here and the now [p. 175].” We start as fully solipsistic infants, and maturity (and wisdom) broadens our horizons. We can learn about things that are remote, and wisdom requires that we do so, and that we then give remote effects sufficient weight in our decision making. The evolution towards impartiality is simultaneously the path of wisdom. This type of wisdom can and should be taught. Loving our neighbor as ourselves is a step in the right direction, though we must extend the meaning of neighbor to Communist or some other detested type.

But what if those whom we hate are evil doers? Must we love them and allow them to threaten us? No. But if we want our resistance to be effective and beneficial, it “should be combined with the greatest degree of understanding and the smallest degree of force that is compatible with the survival of the good things that we wish to preserve [p. 176].” Great leaders like Elizabeth I and Abraham Lincoln have possessed these elements of wisdom, and not been in thrall to the common errors of their times.

The dire consequences (visited upon their possessors) of hate and tunnel vision should be imparted in the course of education. While specialized skills need to be taught, and moral education will not feature in this pragmatic education, nonetheless, the broader context in which specialization operates needs to be conveyed. The increasing power of what can be accomplished (or destroyed) via specialization puts a premium on instilling wisdom.

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