Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Wisdom and the Search for Happiness

Wisdom is "better than gold".

In our search for happiness, we often forget a crucial element. This forgotten element is the virtue of wisdom. This is not a trait we discuss much, perhaps because we are skeptical that there is such a thing as true wisdom. However, I believe that wisdom is a genuine virtue worth pursuing. If we think of happiness not as merely getting what we want, but rather as being a certain sort of person, then we must pursue wisdom.

But what is wisdom?

First, the wise person has good understanding and possesses a good dose of common sense. She knows and understands some of the deeper truths about life. For example, she is able to apply an understanding of the connections between virtue and happiness to her everyday life of relationships, finances, and the use of her time.

Second, the wise person is able to discern right and wrong. Wisdom, that is, includes the ability to make sound moral judgments. In our world, people give up wisdom to get power, pleasure, fame, and wealth (if you doubt this, watch almost any reality television show!). The better course of action, however, is to give up these things to get wisdom, if need be.

Third, a wise person is curious. She has a sincere desire to understand. Young children display this as they incessantly ask "Why?" At some point, our thirst for understanding leaves us, perhaps because of how we are educated. At any rate, the wise person recaptures this thirst.

Fourth, a wise person is versatile. She has an active interest in many different subjects, rather than a narrow focus on one or two topics. Malcolm X was an example of this. When he was imprisoned, he decided to use his time to learn. His lack of education was a barrier, but rather than giving up he worked hard to overcome it by reading the dictionary from A to Z! He then read all of the books in the prison library on a wide variety of subjects, including history, science, literature, philosophy, psychology, and theology. He subsequently became a leader in the Civil Rights movement and lectured at Ivy League universities.

Finally, the wise person is a good critical thinker. She has and exercises the capacity to tell truth from falsehood by identifying flaws in reasoning, good arguments from bad ones, and by continually asking "Why believe that?" By identifying assumptions behind arguments and perspectives, she is able to evaluate her beliefs and the beliefs of others in her quest for truth. And in the search for true happiness, for deep inner fulfillment and harmony, the knowledge and application of truth to life is essential.

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Much of the above was drawn from this book by contemporary philosopher James Spiegel.

 

Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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