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It has been almost two decades of war, with countless lives, money and resources irreparably lost. The nation is torn apart by bitter political factions, each wanting to destroy the other. Legislative policies favor the rich while exploiting the vulnerable and the voiceless. Law and morality are deteriorating at an alarming rate, leaving many to feel destitute, bitter and emotionally drained. 

Welcome to Athens in the 4th century BC. In the midst of devastating wars and political corruption, Plato sits down to write his masterpiece, The Republic, explaining why the pursuit of wisdom, justice and virtue were the only hope both for individuals and society. Rulers, he believed, must be lovers of wisdom–philosophers–knowing how first to rule themselves if they are to rule others. He mistrusted wealth as a social motive, believing instead that “justice is much more valuable than gold.”

He writes,

We want our young men to be self controlled”

“Good men need no orders”

“To love rightly is to love what is orderly and beautiful”

“There should be no difference between a just man and a just city”

“A just man is concerned not with external actions, but with his inward self” 

If Plato walked among us today, would he find that all of our progress has made us more wise, noble and just or less so? Would he praise us for our advances or mourn our apathy? Would he find that we have learned his lessons or not?

The School of Athens - fresco by Raffaello San...

The School of Athens – fresco by Raffaello Sanzio (w) Español: La escuela de Atenas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I believe wisdom, that ancient idea touted by philosophers, theologians, religious leaders, and sages throughout history, still has a place in the modern age. In fact, given our vast technological interconnectivity and global reach, wisdom is needed now more than ever. We are in critical need of wisdom in our schools, in our boardrooms, in politics, in our media outlets—in short, in every institution that influences the culture that shapes the human condition.

Therefore, I offer five reasons why wisdom still matters:

1.     Wisdom tames the human appetite. As far back as 370 BC, Plato understood that the human experience was a tug of war between two urges, which he personified as competing horses pulling the same chariot. The two horses, irascible passion and desirous appetite, were kept under control by the charioteer, reason, whose tight grip on the reins kept the chariot from falling into ruin. Today, with so many voices tempting us to heed our baser instincts, we are in dire need of wisdom to keep the chariot of our lives from falling into chaos and destruction. As Plato said, “Virtue is the health of the soul.” To be unwise is to be, at heart, sick, damaged, and limited. Wisdom gives us the freedom to flourish as healthy, whole, fully realized human beings.

Plato’s Chariot

2.     Being smart does not always mean one is wise. There is a wide gap between being smart and being wise. The “smart” human takes in much information, but does not live any more virtuously or nobly because of it. In Jean-Paul Sarte’s novel, Nausea, one of the main characters, the “Self-Taught Man,” spends his days in the library reading through the encyclopedia from A-to-Z, but, in the end, is a lecherous creep. Nazi Germany, full of highly intelligent men, was also capable of being inhumanely vicious.

3.     Techne (skill) without Sophia (wisdom) is always dangerous. For the ancient Greeks, techne was connected with technical craft and domestic occupations (horsemanship, carpentry, blacksmithing, etc.) and not, most notably, with the more thoughtful work of engaging in the shared pursuit of the common good. Sophia, on the other hand, was considered the highest pursuit, that which opened the very doors of heaven. For Aristotle, techne coupled with sophia equaled virtue; without it, techne was inferior at best, decidedly dangerous at worst. We see this displayed in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, when Dr. Victor Frankenstein uses technology to unwisely bring to life something that eventually brings him misery and ruin. He forgot that just because you can do something, does not mean that you should. The lesson  in today’s digitally saturated world is clear, technology without wisdom is not only inferior, it is dangerous.

4.     Wisdom is not innate. No human is born wise. It is not an innate drive or desire. As Aristotle reminds us, it comes only at the expense of great effort. And it won’t happen without intent. That is why education of a specific kind is so key. In today’s educational milieu, where test scores determine what it means to be well-educated, we would be better served to prepare students to act wisely if we wanted to see a more virtuous world. Given that we get that for which we educate, what excuse is there for not pursuing wisdom in our curricular aims and means? Is our current educational discourse about helping students become wiser, more virtuous human beings, capable of becoming the best possible versions of themselves? If not, why not? What would the world look like if we educated students on how to craft a meaningful life rather than merely how to make a living?

5.     Wisdom offers the perspective of the universe. Peter Singer, in his book, How are We to Live? says that, from the perspective of the universe, only humanity remains.

What he means by this is that wisdom takes us beyond ourselves and allows us to think of the other.  It allows us to transcend conflict motivated by differences and focus on our common humanity. In a world as interconnected as ours, where privacy is becoming an antiquated term and accountability happens at light speed, knowing how to live wisely is more important than ever. The ethics of globalization require wise choices and wise actions if we want to see our grandchildren inherit a more just, verdant, and humane world.

In short, there is now more need than ever before to think through what it means to live wisely as part of a cultural transformation for a more virtuous world.  We need leaders in every sphere who are lovers of wisdom. By pursuing wisdom, we chose intentionally to live more meaningful lives, to do more meaningful work, and to engage in the more meaningful activity of pursuing the common good.