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Four Definitions of Wisdom


Consider Solomon, the two women, and the disputed child. 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 Solomon heard of this dispute, he did not plan to solve it with a sword. Indeed, for a king, solving problems without resort to the sword is when wisdom shows. 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 divide not a child’s body, but its life, 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.

Obviously, wisdom is imagination.


Wisdom is more than thinking. Everyone thinks, and there is no wisdom is thoughtlessness, but we are not wise in proportion to our thinking. The difference is that, confronted with a problem, most of us 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 to be prudent – prudence is folly when little is at risk. 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.

Obviously, wisdom is iteration.


The brilliant general Hannibal was beaten by the even more brilliant general Scipio; but he was defeated first by the wise general Fabius, called Cunctator, Delayer. Fabius could never have beaten Hannibal in battle, 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.

Obviously, wisdom is restraint.


The worst mistakes happen when we believe a mistake is impossible. Doubt is to thought as air is to life. Of course too much doubt risks over-anxiety; but then too much breathing risks hyperventilation. A mistake is most condemnable when it is made despite warnings. 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 a 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 disasters tragedy. 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 – than to admit that, knowing it could happen, no one got around to doing anything about it. It is the same for other disasters, as if lack of foresight is always excusable mischance, but failing to heed warnings is always hubris.

Obviously, wisdom is humility.