Four definitions of wisdom


The brilliant general Hannibal was beaten by the more brilliant general Scipio; but he was defeated first by the wise general Fabius, called Cunctator, the Delayer. Fabius could never have beaten Hannibal in battle—that was for Scipio—but he defeated Hannibal in war, simply by never giving battle. Hannibal provoked him; the Senate pressured him; but Fabius never fought Hannibal, only haunted him, the ghost of the Romans dead at Cannae, an omen of bad fortune, denying him allies, denying him provisions, receding from his challenges like water before Tantalus. Fabius became a great general simply by never making a mistake. Carthage had Hannibal's brilliance; Rome had Fabius's wisdom; and though Scipio won the war for Rome, Fabius lost the war for Carthage. Therefore: wisdom is restraint.


Consider Solomon, the two women, and the disputed child. Granting its truth: where is the wisdom in this story? As told, it is clever, but not wise. We must guess at the wisdom in it. We must suppose that when he heard of this problem, he did not plan to solve it with a sword. Indeed, for a king, solving problems without resort to the sword is the proof of wisdom. And it was neither a repeatable solution, nor a convincing one. Courts today do not offer to cut disputed children physically in half—and when they offer to halve a child's time, both sides usually accept.

If Solomon was really wise, he would have known, before he brought out a sword, which woman he wanted to take the child. Perhaps he had observed that one was furious, and the other mild. Then the sword was a prop for a kind of rough equity—the furious woman might have supporters who believed the child was rightfully hers; but even they would have to see that he could not give the woman a child that she was ready to see dead for spite. Thus Solomon in the story was subtle enough to feign trickery to dissemble wisdom. But that is not to say that wisdom is subtlety, because that would be a circular definition—what was formerly called subtlety being the wisdom of the enemy; what is now called subtlety being the indirect or insignificant, to be avoided by wisdom. What is admirable in Solomon's judgment is his imagination—the imagination to cover a difficult judgment with an easy story. Therefore: wisdom is imagination.


The possibility of a mistake always increases with the belief in its impossibility. Doubt to thought is as air to life; and the danger of over-anxiety no more forbids doubting yourself, than the danger of hyperventilation forbids breathing. A mistake is most condemnable when it is made despite warning. This is worth dwelling on: how the same mistake, with the same consequences, is worse if it has been warned against than if it happens unexpectedly; how there is more shame in failing to heed warning, than in failing to see ahead. What makes tragedy of Caesar's death is not the death itself—it is, "Beware the Ides of March." Emperors would die by worse betrayals; but those were unexpected. Caesar was warned.

Even vague warnings seem prescient after disaster; and that makes tragedy. Thus attention to warnings seems more important than foresight. In life as in weather, a clear horizon is not to be counted on; and for a fresh illustration, note that it is thought better to say "no one knew the levees could break"—admitting blindness to danger—that to say that, knowing it could happen, no one got around to acting on it. It is the same for other disasters, and if lack of foresight is always excusable mischance, but failing to heed warnings is always hubris, therefore: wisdom is humility.


Wisdom is a kind of thinking; but everyone thinks, and not everyone is wise. Even those who think well are not thereby wise. The difference is that, confronted with a problem, most only think harder; but a wise person both thinks hard, and thinks over their thinking. Most people, of ordinary intelligence, know how to exhaust a line of thought; fewer know how to conduct several at once, holding them in tension. This is most obvious in the misapplication of sound principles—how a good idea can be carried too far, if it is not applied to itself—as it is sometimes good and sometimes bad (when little is at risk) to be prudent. Wisdom in that case is prudence about prudence. Such iterative virtues often have names: loving to love is benevolence, fearing to fear is courage, daring to dare is audacity. And these can be applied to themselves as well: benevolence in benevolence makes philanthropy, courage in courage makes discretion, audacity in audacity makes enterprise. Therefore: wisdom is iteration.