Modern educational philosophy speaks about skills, knowledge and attitudes. Even religious education has fallen into this pattern. Now there is nothing wrong with these criteria. We need skills, knowledge and the right attitudes. But we are overlooking one ancient concept that was at the heart of education for millenia, the concept of wisdom.
All ancent cultures knew wisdom. The Confucians of China offered a path to wisdom. The Bible speaks of Hokhmah, wisdom personified as the feminine side of God, emanating from the deity to enlighten the minds of those who receive her. There is a substantial corpus of wisdom literature in the Old Testament, in Proverbs, Wisdom and Ecclasiasticus. The term Philosophy means the love of wisdom, showing that for the ancient Greeks who coined the term, the path of Philsophy led to a higher kind of knowledge. In some societies wise people were known as sages, whereas in Greece they were known as philosophers. The Anglo-Saxonsand mediaveal English spoke of a wise woman or cunning woman. Cunning does not have its modern meaning of craft, but denotes knowing. The wise woman was one who knew herbal cures and could apply them for human benefit.
So what is wisdom? To answer this we must examine what its practitioners do. The Confucian thought of a wise person as one who understood the cosmic order and could harmonise with it. It was an internalisation of the manner of things. The key idea is that wisdom implied knowing the good and living by it. This idea is implicit in the Hebrew Hokhmah. The Hebrew sage studied the law of God and the Jewish faith, and attempted to live his life by it. So we have the idea that wisdom is knowing the good and living by it. The Greek idea has much in common with these other views. For Plato the philosopher's mind ascended beyond the illusory reality of the everyday world and reached the forms, the ideas of justice, truth, mercy and so on, culminating in the ultimate, Form of the Good. But none would be called wise if he knew the forms and ignored them, so we would expect the philosopher to have internalised his principles and live by them.
Wisdom, I suggest, is the knowledge and love of what is true, good, and beautiful. The wise person has sought the truth, loves the good, and appreciates the other element in that trilogy, the beautiful. This trilogy is found in the ideals of Indian sages of the Hindu faith. Thus wisdom can be distinguished from practical knowledge, phronesis in Aristotle's terminology, as the latter is not knowledge of the good, but of the practical means to attain it in life. This is not to downplay practical knowledge, without which we cannot live, but to assert that in contrast to the claims of many in the mdoern educational world it is not the whole of knowledge. Jesus, as we know, was a wise person, in that he knew the good and lived by it, but he was by trade a carpenter, so he allied wisdom with phronesis.
Yet if we saw a scholar or religious minister, who presumably knows the good according to the lights of their own belief system, getting drunk or committing various acts in opposition to what they purport to believe, would we think of them as wise? I suggest not. So merely knowing what is good is not enough, it is vital to conduct one's life by it. It is vital to make elarning part of oneself rather than a mere possession. It is possible to be a trained barbarian. When we see greedy bankers, who often are selected from well-trained university graduates, ruining the economy with their greed, we are not looking at wise people. We are seeing people with unwise minds armed with some skill and training, skill grafted onto an unwise heart and mind. So a wise person must have internalised the good that he/she knows to the degree that it governs behaviour.The wise person then is one whose life is governed by the true, the good and the beautiful. He/she loves them, seeks them and internalises them. A wise person is one whose life is permeated and governed by their wisdom
Would we think a person wise if that person did not use their wisdom to benefit others? I think not. The good is not merely a private possession. It is to be shared among humans. A wise person may teach or give advice when asked. But it is also possible for their wisdom to shine through in all their relationships and to enrich the lives of people around them. A hermit may be wise, but would we think of an antisocial recluse as a wise person. I think not, as rejecting others is not good.
Science alone is not wisdom. If pursuded out of love it enables us to come to one aspect of the truth, but other aspects, such as religious, philosophical, aesthetic and moral truths are not part of science. The person who thinks that science is the sum of wisdom is intellectually impoverished, though what he has is beneficial as far as it goes. A wise person needs a balanced coverage of all aspects of the truth. Such is the span of modern knowledge, no one can drink fully of its depths, but it is important to have a balanced view of all areas of it.
The ideal of wisdom needs to be reintroduced to education. Too often in my teaching career I have encountered the victoms of a narrow view of education who say that they only want to learn what gets them a job. We need to promote the view that education is for the wise life, the life governed by the love of the true, the good and the beautiful. Religious education has a vital role in this process, for wisdom and religion are close compnaions, historically and philosophically.
Wisdom is not an either/or affair. We must grow in it. Maybe it is like seed that grows in our hearts and minds. As we internalise the good more and more we become more wise. It is probably a lifelong process. Am I there yet? Am I wise? Not yet, though I am trying.
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