UNBOXED: The Difference Between Knowledge & Wisdom

Philosophy literally means “Love of Wisdom”.  What is wisdom?  Gathering knowledge is good, but being wise is more than simply having knowledge.  It is one thing to memorize books and facts.  It is another to use this knowledge wisely.  Boxing up concepts is good, but the ability to think outside the box is greater.

We all use our minds to understand ourselves and our world.  Often, these understandings are wrong or incomplete, and we must reason, interpreting and reinterpreting our situation.  When things are known, set and steady, we have beliefs and answers, understanding and knowledge.  When things are unknown, changing and unsteady, we have doubt and questions and need to reason and re-reason.  The ability to question and reason well, to think critically when things are unknown, is wisdom.  As life is always somewhat unknown, wisdom is always useful and valuable.

Across ancient and modern cultures, we generally speak of knowledge and understanding as grasping, as if we are holding ideas set and steady with our hands, and speak of wisdom and reason as seeking, as if we are searching and exploring a space with our eyes.  While we hold on to what we have, it is wise to look down the road and see what changes are coming.

All of us experience tragedy, loss and pain in life.  Sometimes this leads us to be close-minded and self-centered.  At other times we are inspired to be open-minded and compassionate.  Across human cultures, we generally think those who are close-minded and self-centered to be foolish, and those who are open-minded and compassionate to be wise.  The foolish take the short term view of what they themselves desire at that moment, while the wise take the long term view of what is best for themselves and others overall.

Over four thousand years ago in ancient Egypt, Phah-hotep, vizier to the Pharaoh, wrote, “Do not be proud of what you know, nor boast that you are wise.  Talk to the foolish as well as the wise, for there is no limit to where wisdom can be found.  Good speech is rare like a precious jewel, yet wisdom is found amongst the maidens at the grindstone”.

The Buddhists of ancient India considered wisdom as the highest of the five virtues, symbolizing it with the lion, considered the king and most courageous of the animals.

In ancient China, Confucius said that the wise consider the whole rather than the parts, while fools consider the parts rather than the whole.

In ancient Greece, Socrates argued that his awareness of his own ignorance was the greatest wisdom in all of Athens.   Because he showed others that they were unaware of their ignorance, and only partly know what they claim to know, he was executed.

In the Americas, the Aztecs said that the wise sage is a torch without smoke, the one who puts a mirror in front of others, who looks outside and within.  The greedy and foolish were compared to turkeys, small and weak in heart.

While all cultures value wisdom, as individuals we are insecure and have trouble questioning ourselves and our beliefs.  If we open up and learn from each other, living life as an adventure rather than anxiety, each of us can grow in wisdom, reason and compassion for the rest of our lives, if we are courageous enough to try.

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