Finding Wisdom in the Age of Reason

By William Horden

If self-interest, short-sightedness, and revenge formed the pinnacle of human aspirations, then we could rejoice that civilization has fulfilled its destiny. But we all know that we cannot continue to wreak havoc on nature and our fellow humans like this without calling forth consequences of the direst sort. And we despair that we possess the collective wisdom to pull back from the brink in time.

The evolution of the brain not only overshot the needs of prehistoric man, it is the only example of evolution providing a species with an organ it does not know how to use.

–Arthur Koestler

Our knowledge has achieved technological miracles that defy our control. Our knowledge of the universe mocks our understanding. Our knowledge of how to extend life is exceeded only by our knowledge of how to shorten it. And our knowledge of how to make use of the resources of our planet threatens to pull the rug of life right out from under us.

But has our wisdom kept pace with the advance of knowledge? Has it even increased a little since our collective ancestors began inquiring into the wise life several millennia ago?

The human brain is too high powered to have many practical uses in this particular universe.
–Kurt Vonnegut

By knowledge we of course mean the intellect’s ability to think and reason out problems, create hypothetical questions, make plans, distinguish between things, and, most of all, talk to itself. It’s that reliance on self-conscious reasoning that marks much of modern thinking and has brought us both material blessings and curses.

I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.
–Emo Phillips

The state of the world around us is little different than our own lives, however. We face a whirlwind of opportunities and challenges that do not seem to produce the outcome we expect when we address them using our intellect. Just as governments cannot seem to make things work in the real world by trying to fix them with reason alone, our own attempts to succeed by thinking creates unforeseen backlashes more often than not.

The more the critical reason dominates, the more impoverished life becomes.
–Carl Jung

So how does wisdom differ from knowledge and why have so many creative and successful people warned us away from living a life too rational? If the world we live in isn’t simply a series of dominoes falling in nice neat predictable patterns of cause-and-effect, then how should we look at it and what does real-world wisdom look like?

Is it simply the ability to make the right decisions? Or is it something deeper, having to do with longings and purposes more difficult to define? How can we tell if we have made a truly wise move or one that was merely smart?

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