The Wisest Quotes on Wisdom

Wisdom, like fine wine, takes time to age.

Posted Apr 03, 2012

Having reached a point in life where my years of adventure and romance seem well behind me, I often tell people that now I’m “in it” for the wisdom. This accounts for my interest in locating the best insights to be found on the subject of wisdom.

In my fairly comprehensive investigation, I probably reviewed something like one thousand sayings on just what constitutes its essence. And in the process, I eliminated the great bulk of them. Some frankly seemed more obscure, or mysterious, than wise. Some were just too simplistic or mundane. And some, to me at least, downright misguided. Others seemed self-contradictory, even though many of the best quotes on the subject are definitely paradoxical (such as wisdom’s having more to do with asking the right questions than providing the right answers).

Still, other quotes talked about how wisdom-related (positively or negatively) to other qualities, such as power, courage, cowardice, or greed. But because, ultimately, the point they made had much more to do with these qualities than with wisdom, I didn’t see including them as sufficiently justified. Additionally, many said wise things on various topics but not really about wisdom itself. And finally, some were humorous but not particularly insightful (and certainly not very profound). This category included one author's quip: “Some men are wise and some are otherwise.” Another (punning in the same vein) opined: “We can learn much from wise words, little from wisecracks, and less from wise guys.”

What was most interesting to discover was that many of the best things ever said on wisdom were voiced many times over. And doubtless, this is no coincidence. There’s a universal understanding of the concept that transcends time and place. And while I didn’t want to be excessively redundant—and did, in fact, eliminate many “repeating quotes” whose expression seemed less forceful or eloquent than others—I intentionally retained several of these intimately linked quotes in order to sufficiently represent each of wisdom’s major themes. Another purpose I hoped to achieve was emphasizing that wisdom, like truth, is singular. Its articulation may vary but it is nevertheless unchanging and immortal.

This is why what was said over two thousand years ago—by ancient philosophers, playwrights, and statesmen—might well be repeated by writers today, even though the modern thinkers might be totally unaware that their insights have countless historical precedents.

Although quite a few of the quotes in this collection express original and fresh perspectives, that’s probably more the exception than the rule. So, as much as is tenable, I’ve endeavored to group by motif many of the quotes that follow. Here are the most common wisdom themes I encountered:

  • Wisdom can’t be acquired simply through reading books; knowledge is one thing, wisdom quite another.
  • Wise people continue to doubt themselves (and that’s part of what makes them wise).
  • Wisdom is positively related to happiness.
  • Wisdom must be distinguished from mere cleverness (which frequently “poses” as wisdom).
  • Wise people talk less, are silent more, and listen more than those lacking wisdom.
  • Wisdom is a function of time and experience (which are prerequisites to it).
  • Wisdom derives more from mistakes and failures than from success.
  • Wisdom has as its antonyms foolishness or folly...but not always.
  • Wisdom is antithetical to fear. In fact, it’s what enables a person to overcome fear.
  • Wise people are also humble. There’s really no such thing as someone who is both proud or arrogant and wise.
  • Wisdom, and its quest, breed kindness, and compassion.

Though it’s a cliché, I hope you’ll enjoy reading (and assimilating) these quotes as much as I did assembling them:

"Never did nature say one thing and wisdom another." ~ Edmund Burke

"A wise man, recognizing that the world is but an illusion, does not act as if it were real, so he escapes suffering". ~ Buddha

"He that can compose himself is wiser than he that composes books." ~ Benjamin Franklin

"It’s the simple things in life that are the most extraordinary; only wise men are able to understand them." ~ Paulo Coelho

"The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing." ~ Socrates

"The wisest of the wise may err." ~ Aeschylus

"It is unwise to be too sure of one's own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err." ~ Mahatma Gandhi

"The wise know too well their weakness to assume infallibility: and he who knows most knows best how little he knows." ~ Thomas Jefferson

"Wisdom at times is found in folly." ~ Horace

"The older I grow the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom." ~ H. L. Mencken

"Wisdom is a good purchase, though we pay dearly for it." ~ Dutch Proverb

"Turn your wounds into wisdom." ~ Oprah Winfrey

"Let me embrace thee, sour adversity, for wise men say it is the wisest course." ~ William Shakespeare

"The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions." ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

"Knowledge in youth is wisdom in age." ~ Proverb

"We seem to gain wisdom more readily through our failures than through our successes. We always think of failure as the antithesis of success, but it isn't. Success often lies just the other side of failure." ~ Leo Buscaglia

"All this worldly wisdom was once the unamiable heresy of some wise man." ~ Henry David Thoreau

"Keep me away from the wisdom which does not cry, the philosophy which does not laugh." ~ Kahlil Gibran

"There is a wisdom of the head, and a wisdom of the heart." ~ Charles Dickens

"Common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls wisdom." ~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge

"Don't taunt the alligator until after you've crossed the creek." [couldn’t resist including this one: it’s wise and commonsensical, though not really about wisdom as such] ~ Dan Rather

"Speak less, say more." ~ Unknown

"Wise men are not always silent, but they know when to be." ~ Unknown

"Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it." ~ Hermann Hesse

Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Source: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

"Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it." ~ Albert Einstein

"Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad." ~ Unknown

"The wise are only once betrayed." ~ German Proverb

"Wisdom hears one thing and understands three things." ~ Chinese Proverb

"Arrogance diminishes wisdom." ~ Arabian Proverb

"A wise man makes his own decisions, an ignorant man follows public opinion." ~ Chinese Proverb

"Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom." ~ Thomas Jefferson

"Half a man’s wisdom goes with his courage." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

"To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom." ~ Bertrand Russell

"Who is wise? He that learns from everyone. Who is powerful? He that governs his passions. Who is rich? He that is content. Who is that? Nobody." ~ Benjamin Franklin

"The attempt to combine wisdom and power has only rarely been successful, and then only for a short while." ~ Albert Einstein

"History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives." ~ Abba Eban

[and, finally . . . ] "The wisdom of the wise and the experience of the ages are perpetuated by quotations" [ahem]." ~ Benjamin Disraeli

© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved