Interested in wisdom quotes to enlighten, inspire, and educate? Consider this wisdom quote from psychologists Christopher Peterson & Martin E. Seligman: “What distinguishes wisdom? It is a type of intelligence but not one synonymous with IQ, general intelligence, or academic honors. It is knowledge, yes, but not reducible to the mere sum of books read, lectures attended, or facts acquired. Perhaps it has something to do with living through hardship, emerging a better person, able to share what has been learned with others.” In this blog I want to discuss the idea of how wisdom quotes and quotations that have to do with values such as wisdom can be useful and why they might be even better than extensive reading or seminars.
Not terribly unlike Harold Bloom’s dense book Where Shall Wisdom be Found, I wanted to write a bit about what quotations can do for one who is a self-starter, a lifelong learner, a critical consumer of knowledge. I think quotations are just the bee’s knees; if I were stranded on a desert island, one of the most valuable diversions for me would be a thick book of quotations. Like the I Ching, a horoscope, or a magic 8-ball, though, there is a quiet, amorphous, malleable quality to them. I’m not saying that right, but hopefully you get the picture. It’s basically analogous to the difference between reading a book on driving principles, and being an excellent driver. Elliot D. Cohen, in his interesting book entitled What Would Aristotle Do, noted that “A cliché is a timeworn, absolutistic claim about reality. Unfortunately, life is rife with exceptions, and even if some of these gems of wisdom work for you sometimes, they are not likely to work for you all the time.” I am all for using our critical thinking to analyze, appraise, and evaluate wisdom quotes rather than just swallowing and regurgitating. No less a man of letters than George Santyana agreed: “Almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance it.”
He is pointing out that wisdom quotes are not magical; they don’t confer upon the reader any special power to act rationally, determine what is true, or act wisely. However, like tools in the hands of a craftsperson, they allow raw materials to be fashioned into something worth having. Thus, the problems of life, the human condition, and the things we seek to achieve and enjoy can be improved by an observance that there is this thing called wisdom, and that wise persons do think, live, and behave in certain ways. What exactly they think, and how they live and behave, can be a bit nebulous. But there is gold buried here: “My approach to studying wisdom is basically: ‘What does it mean to be wise?’ And I think that wise persons would favor broad-mindedness over narrow-mindedness; believe that paying a share of our resources is necessary to help others who are unlucky or even foolish; and that they favor progress socially rather than attempting to ensure that certain people and certain ideas stay locked up and restricted” ~ John A. Marshall.
However, I have studied the topic for a while now, and I don’t think there is a better way to conceptualize wisdom than to look at which values the wise seek to cultivate within themselves. My reasoning on this topic is just a sliver of the total theorizing and conjecture on this wide and deep topic, but for the interested person, I would suggest looking up keywords such as “wise” and “wisdom” in the Wisdom Archive, and digesting the results.
One strength of my chosen approach is that there is an impressive diversity of persons representing myriad points of view. It’s the same reason why diversity in a company or a university is a positive thing. I think of Values of the Wise as being halfway between a philosopher obtusely maintaining that “Wisdom is the ideal we should strive for” – vague, right? – and what someone who could be considered a “guru” claims (the Anthony Robbins of the world) – too specific to hold true, right? That is, the diversity of the collection of wisdom quotes and profound proverbs present in the Wisdom Archive indicates that there is some kind of a pattern going on, but that the diversity and differences between the authors and their quotations is actually a strength. “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail” (Abraham Maslow). Consider also: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” (Albert Einstein).
I would also use a metaphor to bolster the particular approach to wisdom I favor and have used. In research, the greater the number of research participants in a study, the stronger the effect will be – all things being equal. So, if you have a Deepak Chopra who is making significant pronouncements and claims, that is basically like having an “n” (the symbol for the number of participants in a study) of 1. He is educated, but then again, so was Goebbels, the Nazi mastermind. Education is a necessary but insufficient reason to believe an authority possesses authentic, true knowledge. Dr. Chopra would probably note that he has studied the masters of his particular predilection for wisdom, so if he studied ten venerable Eastern mystical individuals, let’s call it an n of 11. Not terribly impressive for a piece of social science research, at least. It also has his fingerprints all over it; his angle is probably considered proprietary! Remember, “When I transfer my knowledge, I teach. When I transfer my beliefs, I indoctrinate” ~ Arthur Danto. Though a bit “on the nose,” here is what the iconoclast Christopher Hitchens had to say that seems relevant to this point: “Semi-educated people join cults whose whole purpose is to dull the pain of thought, or take medications that claim to abolish anxiety. Oriental religions, with their emphasis on Nirvana and fatalism, are prepackaged for Westerners as therapy and platitudes or tautologies masquerade as wisdom.” Here is a free bit of advice from my old, now-deceased friend John A. Marshall that I’m sure he would have directed at Chopra when he was alive: “The wisest thing the wisest person has ever said is, I do not fucking know.”
My point: VOW marshals hundreds or thousands of voices when it comes to understanding a particular value such as truth, justice, honor, creativity, or dedication. It would be like the wisdom of the crowd present on the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire, when a participant asks for an audience vote. There is something often wise about polling an average group of concerned and earnest individuals for their opinion on matters of fact – they are right a surprising amount of the time. In such audiences, it is like having an n of 200 for a study. In the case of VOW, as of this writing, there are almost 2,000 quotations in which the word “wise” or “wisdom” appear. How’s that for an n?!
That’s what I do. It’s why I call myself and independent scholar and a philosophical thinker. In the last 15 years I have amassed a carefully-gathered, fully digitized, very searchable, extremely diverse database of 26,000 quotations. I am proud to make it available to you as The Wisdom Archive, free of charge. If you want to find out what wisdom is – or any of 26 other values – and you’re willing to put in 1/10th the work I have, you will at least be on the right track. Find quotations that speak to you, and ask yourself why. Think about it. Feel about it. Reason it out. Challenge it. Find similar or contradictory data and analyze the similarities and differences. It’s not as hard as it sounds. It’s not really much more difficult than seeing a movie and discussing it seriously with a friend. Okay, it’s a bit more like discussing God with a friend, but you get the picture. “It is never too late to give up your prejudices” ~ Henry David Thoreau.
Don’t try to find a guru, listen to what the wise are telling us. They wrote these ideas down, and we are lucky to have access to them. The fact that wisdom from Ancient Greece survives as writings and wisdom quotes to this day is amazing; the fact that monks preserved what they did over the years is fortuitous; the fact that psychologists and philosophers and theologians have been going over and over this stuff for more than a century is to our benefit. I somewhat disagree with the philosopher Edmund Burke when he wrote that “The circumstances are in a great measure new. We have hardly any landmarks from the wisdom of our ancestors to guide us.” He lived at a time, perhaps like now, when things were changing so fast and everything was gaining in complexity such that he questioned whether what “our ancestors” thought was wise and the mental tools they used (passed down by quotations and proverbs, to a great degree) just wasn’t going to “cut the mustard,” as it were. I feel like a chisel has always been a chisel and they work great for one purpose: to break rock. You can’t generalize far beyond that with a chisel. However, the problems we face bear great resemblances to “rocks,” metaphorically speaking.
I mean, Aristotle and Socrates were discussing, theorizing and communicating about many of the same problems we are to this day. In fact, many problems we face are perpetual; the big questions are big because it is difficult to find one answer and be done with it (unlike, say, mathematics). It takes study and persistence, but surely there is merit in a play by Sophocles, or by Shakespeare. They spoke different languages (or vernacular) but jealousy is jealousy; love is love; justice is justice; pain is pain; freedom is freedom. We are lucky that wisdom quotes have been passed down through the ages because many societies have courted ignorance and burned books and libraries, attempted to commit cultural genocide by ruining the intellectual achievements of cultures they conquered, and the like. The fact that we know of Aesop’s Fables, The Code of Hammurabi, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and ancient Hebrew writings such as the Talmud is almost a miracle. Much has been lost. Values don’t change; virtues have ever been virtues. The conversation continues. “What the first philosopher taught, the last philosopher will have to repeat” ~ Thoreau.
I will leave to you to find online sources besides this website about this fascinating topic. May I suggest starting with http://www.wisdompage.com? It’s also very broad, and legitimate. I might also point out that I have over 80 podcasts on topics that are very diverse and which feature guests (interviewees, interlocutors) who are experts in their field. Those are called “Values and Ethics Dialogues,” and are from an approach to looking at topics of interest I called Values and Ethics: from Living Room to Boardroom. That can be found at https://valuesofthewise.com/category/dialogues/ Dozens and dozens of interesting wisdom quotes will surely be found for one who takes the time to listen. I also recently turned 20 of those interviews into a compelling book, of the same name. That can be found here.
Your first resource, I would say, if you want to find succinct and trenchant wisdom quotes, is The Wisdom Archive. It will provide a wonderful vista for the diversity, beauty, and truth I believe are present in “the wisdom tradition.” Think of the quotes about wisdom like fine brandy in a snifter glass; don’t be in a hurry; think about what the author was trying to say; write it down and read it at some point in the future; compare it to what you know and what you’ve heard; let it enrich your mind as brandy warms the tongue. You are experiencing what more than one philosopher has termed the good life – engaging in contemplative activity for the sake of learning, not for some other, more intrinsic goal. Contemplation and consideration are two of humanity’s highest aspirations. It’s about as rich as life gets (child-bearing and mountaineering aside!). “Books are preserved minds” ~ Japanese proverb. And, it’s free.
Here is a smattering of the 2,000 wisdom quotes and proverbs in the Wisdom Archive of Values of the Wise.
Better be wise by the misfortunes of others than by your own. ~ Aesop
Even when we fancy that we have grown wiser, it may be only that new prejudices have displaced old ones. ~ Christian Bovee
Wisdom is the result of learning, and learning is the result of trying something new. Doing something new everyday changes our attitude towards life. ~ Elliott Ettenberg
Knowledge is proud that he has learned so much; Wisdom is humble that he knows no more. ~ William Cowper
Death, time, and chance are unalterable facts of life, the backdrop against which we all labor and live under the sun. Wisdom knows this, and wisdom instructs us to enjoy the days we have. ~ Jack Hernandez
Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it. ~ Albert Einstein
The Greeks said, “All things are to be examined and called into question. There are no limits set on thought.” ~ Eric Hamilton
It is widely recognized that the fast track to self-knowledge and other important aspects of wisdom is meditation — particularly the kind devoted to exploring the mind/body process, variously called mindfulness, vipassana, or insight meditation. ~ Copthorne MacDonald
There are more wisdom quotes for free in the awesome Wisdom Archive!
Patience is the companion of wisdom. ~ Augustine
There is a penalty for ignorance. We are paying through the nose. ~ W. Edward Deming
The brighter you are, the more you have to learn. ~ Don Herold
No man’s knowledge here can go beyond his experience. ~ John Locke
Knowledge is power, but only wisdom is liberty. ~ Will Durant
Humanity attempts to solve its myriad problems with factual knowledge alone, when what is needed is the integration of facts and wisdom. Wisdom is not about facts per se; it is about the meaning of facts. It is about the significance of facts and their implications. ~ Copthorne MacDonald
He who knows others is learned; He who knows himself is wise. ~ Lao Tzu
Preconceived notions are the locks on the door to wisdom. ~ Merry Browne
Everything considered, our existence pivots on a single fact: To gain wisdom, happiness, and nobility—which constitute a trinity of values that amount to one good as our fundamental purpose—we have to struggle for them. Life is a battle, and a tough one at that, against the numerous evils of the world; I vouch for the truth of this popular image. Yet, this image overstresses the outside evils, portrayed as enemies we combat, while the worst evil is a seducer inside us by the name of laziness, which loves easiness. The right way is a hard way. But then, a battle without struggle is a victory without glory. Pride is our prize. ~ Laurent Grenier
The art of becoming wise is the art of knowing what to overlook. ~ William James
I hope you enjoyed this blog about wisdom quotes. There are others in the Wisdom Archive!