For all the writing I do about wisdom, you’d think I’d define it one of these days. Well, the day—or week—has come. Here goes.
Wisdom, the English word, comes from two simple words: wise and dumb. Seriously. Think about it. Living in ways that will help assure the continuance of life on earth—WISE. Diving into an empty swimming pool—DUMB. Okay. So I was just being a wise guy with you. Actually, our word of the hour comes from the Latin visio, from which we get such words as vision, visionary, even television (Now there’s a source of wisdom if ever there was one!) and the Old English verb deman (Mod. English, to deem, i.e., judge). In short, the derived meaning of wisdom is to make judge-like decisions based on a 360-degree understanding of the likely impacts. Think how many fewer divorces or bankruptcies there would be if we took better looks before we leapt into bad marriages or unpromising business deals. The opposite of wisdom, alas, is foolishness.
The posterchild for wisdom in the Western Judeo-Christian tradition is King Solomon. As you may recall from the Bible, two women were fighting over which one was the actual mother of a baby. They of course knew, but the childless woman wanted the other woman’s child. Since kings back then doubled as judges, they took their case to Solomon. His solution was simple. He asked one of his courtiers to hack the baby in half and give an equal half to each woman. At this point, one of the women cried out, “The baby is really hers! Please don’t kill it! Give it to her.” “Wrong!” Said the King. “The baby is really yours! After all, no true mother would want to receive half a dead child in the name of fairness. She would rather give the living one away first.” So it figures that Solomon was called the Wise. Of course, with 700 wives and 300 concubines, you have to wonder.
So, wisdom means making good, solid decisions that, as the late Dr. Jonas Salk said, over time prove positive to self, others, and the largest possible context. Given that definition, may we all be wise and not otherwise!