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For other uses, see Wisdom (disambiguation).

Wisdom has, in the Western tradition, been listed as one of four cardinal virtues. As a virtue it is a habit or disposition to perform the action with the highest degree of adequacy under any given circumstance. This implies a possession or seeking of knowledge of the given circumstances. This involves an understanding of people, things, events and situations, and the willingness and the ability to apply perceptions, judgments and actions in keeping with an understanding of what is the right course of actions. It often requires control of one's emotional reactions (the "passions") so that universal principles, values, reason and knowledge prevail to determine one's actions. In short, wisdom is a disposition to find the truth coupled with an optimum judgement as to right actions. Synonyms include: prudence, sagacity, discernment, or insight.

Philosophical perspectives of wisdom

A basic definition of wisdom is the right use of knowledge.[1] The opposite of wisdom is folly.

The ancient Greeks considered wisdom to be an important virtue, personified as the goddesses Metis and Athena. Athena is said to have sprung from the head of Zeus. She was portrayed as strong, fair, merciful, and chaste.[2] To Socrates and Plato, philosophy was literally the love of Wisdom (philo-sophia). This permeates Plato's dialogues, especially The Republic, in which the leaders of his proposed utopia are to be philosopher kings: rulers who understand the Form of the Good and possess the courage to act accordingly. Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, defined wisdom as the understanding of causes, i.e. knowing why things are a certain way, which is deeper than merely knowing that things are a certain way.[3]

The ancient Romans also valued wisdom. It was personified in Minerva, or Pallas. She also represents skillful knowledge and the virtues, especially chastity. Her symbol was the owl which is still a popular representation of wisdom, because it can see in darkness. She was said to be born from Jupiter's brain.[4]

Wisdom is also important within Christianity. Jesus emphasized it.[5][6] Paul the Apostle, in his first epistle to the Corinthians, argued that there is both secular and divine wisdom, urging Christians to pursue the latter. Prudence, which is intimately related to wisdom, became one of the four cardinal virtues of Catholicism. The Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas considered wisdom to be the "father" (i.e. the cause, measure, and form) of all virtues.

In the Inuit tradition, developing wisdom was one of the aims of teaching. An Inuit Elder said that a person became wise when they could see what needed to be done and do it successfully without being told what to do.

The Native American's philosophy about being a part of the natural environment contrasted to the European's culture of conquering nature's gifts. The Native American's wisdom about maintaining balance ecologically and socially was a common-sense approach to protecting and conserving natural resources.[7]

Educational perspectives of wisdom

Public schools in the US have an approach to character education. Eighteenth century philosophers such as Benjamin Franklin, referred to this as training wisdom and virtue. Traditionally, schools share the responsibility to build character and wisdom along with parents and the community.[8]

Nicholas Maxwell, a contemporary philosopher in the United Kingdom, advocates that academia ought to alter its focus from the acquisition of knowledge to seeking and promoting wisdom, which he defines as the capacity to realize what is of value in life, for oneself and others.[9] He teaches that new knowledge and technological know-how increase our power to act which, without wisdom, may cause human suffering and death as well as human benefit. Wisdom is the application of knowledge to attain a positive goal by receiving instruction in governing oneself.

Psychological perspectives

Psychologists have gathered data on commonly held beliefs or folk theories about wisdom.[10] These analyses indicate that although "there is an overlap of the implicit theory of wisdom with intelligence, perceptiveness, spirituality and shrewdness, it is evident that wisdom is a distinct term and not a composite of other terms."[11] Many, but not all, studies find that adults' self-ratings of perspective/wisdom do not depend on age.[12][13] This stands in contrast to the popular notion that wisdom increases with age,[13] supported by a recent study showing that regardless of their education, IQ or gender, older adults possess superior reasoning about societal and interpersonal conflicts.[14] In many cultures the name for third molars, which are the last teeth to grow, is etymologically linked with wisdom, e.g., as in the English wisdom tooth. In 2009, a study reviewed which brain processes might be related to wisdom.[15]

Researchers in the field of positive psychology have defined wisdom as the coordination of "knowledge and experience" and "its deliberate use to improve well being."[16] With this definition, wisdom can supposedly be measured using the following criteria.[12]

  • A wise person has self-knowledge.
  • A wise person seems sincere and direct with others.
  • Others ask wise people for advice.
  • A wise person's actions are consistent with his/her ethical beliefs.

Measurement instruments that use these criteria have acceptable to good internal consistency and low to moderate test-retest reliability (r in the range of 0.35 to 0.67).[12]

John Vervaeke has argued for a cognitive science of wisdom and argues that basic relevance realization processes that underlie cognition, when fed back onto themselves and made self-referential lead to the enhanced insight abilities we associated with wisdom.[17][18]

Dr. B. Legesse et al., a neuropsychiatrist at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School, offers "a theoretical definition that takes into account many cultural, religious, and philosophical themes is that wisdom represents a demonstrated superior ability to understand the nature and behavior of things, people, or events." He states "this results in an increased ability to predict behavior or events which then may be used to benefit self or others." He furthermore adds "there is more often a desire to share the accrued benefits with a larger group for the purpose of promoting survival, cohesion, or well-being of that group. The benefits do not result from malicious or antisocial intents or inequitable behavior. Environmental factors, such as family, education, socioeconomic status, culture, and religion, are involved in generating the milieu in which the personal value system develops. Many of these same factors also influence how a given community decides whether wisdom is present or not. This model of wisdom relies on the individual’s ability to generate a mental representation of the self (cognitive, emotional, and physical), the external world, and the dynamic relationship of the self with the external world." Dr. Legesse proposes that "the neural (brain) systems critical to enable these functions are distributed but heavily dependent on those that support memory, learning, understanding other people’s mental states (Theory of Mind), and assigning relative value to information." The neuroanatomy of wisdom he says depends on "the three frontosubcortical neural networks, the limbic system, and the mirror neuron system" which "are of particular importance for supporting these activities." He describes the function of this neural system as working "in concert to weigh and estimate the risks and benefits of various mentally modeled courses of action to generate wisdom." It was proposed that "the neural substrates of empathy may be conceptualized as biasing the information processing network in favor of valuing others, interpersonal communication, cooperation, and community." [19]

Religious perspectives

Further information: Sophia (wisdom)

Some religions have specific teachings relating to wisdom.

Ancient Egypt

Sia represents the personification of wisdom or the god of wisdom in Ancient Egyptian Mythology.

Bahai Faith

Wisdom and the acquiring of it is mentioned frequently in the Bahai Scriptures. According to the scriptures "The essence of wisdom is the fear of God, the dread of His scourge and punishment, and the apprehension of His justice and decree."[20] Wisdom is seen as a light, that casts away darkness, and "its dictates must be observed under all circumstances",[21] other concepts associated with wisdom and being wise are considering "the regard of place and the utterance of discourse according to measure and state" and not believing or accepting what other people say so easily.[22]

One may obtain knowledge and wisdom through God, his Word, and his Divine Manifestation and the source of all learning is the knowledge of God.[23]

Hebrew Bible & Judaism

In the Proverbs 8:22–31, this personified wisdom is described as being present with God before creation began and even taking part in creation itself, delighting especially in human beings.

The word wisdom (חכם) is mentioned 222 times in the Hebrew Bible. It was regarded as one of the highest virtues among the Israelites along with kindness (חסד) and justice (צדק). Both the books of Proverbs and Psalms urge readers to obtain and to increase in wisdom. Here are some of the roles that the Hebrew Bible ascribes to wisdom:

Building and establishing civilization (Proverbs 24:3–4).
Elevating life (Proverbs 3:21-23).
Safety and avoiding misery (Proverbs 3:21–23).
Exceeding the value of gold and silver (Proverbs 16:16).
Giver of patience and glory (Proverbs 19:11).
She (Wisdom) is the primal architect of creation who existed with God before the universe was formed (

Wisdom is also personified as a righteous woman in the Book of Proverbs.

The Talmud teaches that a wise person is a person who can foresee the future. Nolad is the Hebrew word for "future," but also the Hebrew word for birth, so one rabbinic interpretation of the teaching is that a wise person is one who can foresee the consequences of his/her choices (i.e. can "see the future" that he/she "gives birth" to).[25]

New Testament & Christianity

Further information: Sophia_(wisdom)

There is an oppositional element in Christian thought between 1Corinthians 12:8–10 gives an alternate list of nine virtues, among which wisdom is one.

Qur'an & Islam

In Islam, Wisdom is deemed as one of the greatest gifts humankind can enjoy. The Quran states  :
"He gives wisdom to whom He wills, and whoever has been given wisdom has certainly been given much good. And none will remember except those of understanding."
—Qur'an, sura 2 (Al-Baqara), ayat 269[26]
There are a number of verses where the Q'uran specifically talks about the nature of wisdom. In Surah 22 Al-Hajj (The Pilgrimage) it is said, "Have they not travelled in the land, and have they hearts wherewith to feel and ears wherewith to hear? For indeed it is not the eyes that grow blind, but it is the hearts, which are within the bosoms, that grow blind." (verse 46). In another Surah Al-'An`ām (The Cattle) it's said,
"Say: "Come, I will rehearse what Allah (God) hath (really) prohibited you from": Join not anything as equal with Him; be good to your parents; kill not your children on a plea of want;― We provide sustenance for you and for them;― come not nigh to shameful deeds, whether open or secret; take not life, which Allah hath made sacred, except by way of justice and law: thus doth He command you, that ye may learn wisdom"
—Qur'an, sura 6 (Al-An'am), ayat 151[27]


According to Confucius, wisdom can be learned by three methods: reflection (the noblest), imitation (the easiest) and experience (the bitterest). Wisdom is not told by self but unless asked for by another. This means a wise man never tells his wisdom unless asked person to person.

According to "Doctrine of the Mean," Confucius also said, "Love of learning is akin to wisdom. To practice with vigor is akin to humanity. To know to be shameful is akin to courage (zhi, ren, yi.. three of Mengzi's sprouts of virtue)." Compare this with the beginning of the Confucian classic "Great Learning" which begins with "The Way of learning to be great consists in manifesting the clear character, loving the people, and abiding in the highest good" one can clearly see the correlation with the Roman virtue prudence especially if one transliterates clear character as clear conscience. (from Chan's Sources of Chinese Philosophy).


Buddhist scriptures teach that a wise person is endowed with good bodily conduct, good verbal conduct, and good mental conduct.(AN 3:2) A wise person does actions that are unpleasant to do but give good results, and doesn’t do actions that are pleasant to do but give bad results (AN 4:115). Wisdom is the antidote to the self-chosen poison of ignorance. The Buddha has much to say on the subject of wisdom including:

  • He who arbitrates a case by force does not thereby become just (established in Dhamma). But the wise man is he who carefully discriminates between right and wrong.[28]
  • He who leads others by nonviolence, righteously and equitably, is indeed a guardian of justice, wise and righteous.[29]
  • One is not wise merely because he talks much. But he who is calm, free from hatred and fear, is verily called a wise man.[30]
  • By quietude alone one does not become a sage (muni) if he is foolish and ignorant. But he who, as if holding a pair of scales, takes the good and shuns the evil, is a wise man; he is indeed a muni by that very reason. He who understands both good and evil as they really are, is called a true sage.[31]

To recover the original supreme wisdom of self-nature covered by the self-imposed three dusty poisons (greed, anger, ignorance) Buddha taught to his students the threefold training by turning greed into generosity and discipline, anger into kindness and meditation, ignorance into wisdom. As the Sixth Patriarch of Chán Buddhism, Huineng, said in his Platform Sutra,"Mind without dispute is self-nature discipline, mind without disturbance is self-nature meditation, mind without ignorance is self-nature wisdom."


In Taoism, wisdom is construed as adherence to the Three Treasures (Taoism): charity, simplicity, and humility.

Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.

(Tao Te Ching, 33, tr. S. Mitchell)


The major knowledge source in Hinduism is the vast knowledge achieved by the sages over thousands of years and stored in form of 4 vedas, 8 siddhis, 9 Niddhis and Major religious books, for example Ramayana and Mahabharata. Wisdom in Hinduism is considered a state of mind and soul where a person achieves liberation or salvation.

The God of intellect (wisdom) is Lord Ganesha and of knowledge is goddess Saraswati. The Sanskrit verse to attain knowledge is

"Om Asato maa sad-gamaya;
tamaso maa jyotir-ga-maya;
mrtyor-maa amrutam gamaya.
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih".

"O Lord Lead me from the unreal to the real.
Lead me from darkness to light.
Lead me from death to immortality.
May there be peace, peace, and perfect peace". a Sanskrit invocation from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishads 1.3.28.

The Hindu religion talks about ayurveda, the wisdom of traditional Hindu medicine. Ayurveda means "knowledge of life". It teaches that the mind and body are one (an ancient wisdom). In ancient times, it was used to try to cure disease. However, today it is used to help people relax and feel healthy.[32]

But this explanation is only a partial explanation for the word "Wisdom". Wisdom as per Hindu religion is knowing oneself as the truth, basis for the entire Creation, i.e., of "Shristi". In other words "wisdom" simply means a person with Self Awareness as the one who witnesses the entire creation in all its facets and forms. Further it means realization that an individual, i.e., "Jeeva" Atma, through 'right conduct and living' over an unspecified period (it varies from individual to individual) comes to realize his/her true relationship with the creation and the "Param" Atma i.e.,'God' who rules it.

Mesopotamian and Norse Mythology

In Mesopotamian religion and mythology, Enki, also known as Ea, was the God of wisdom and intelligence. Wisdom was achieved by restoring balance.

In Norse mythology, the god Odin is especially known for his wisdom, often acquired through various hardships and ordeals involving pain and self-sacrifice. In one instance he plucked out an eye and offered it to Mímir, guardian of the well of knowledge and wisdom, in return for a drink from the well.[33] In another famous account, Odin hanged himself for nine nights from Yggdrasil, the World Tree that unites all the realms of existence, suffering from hunger and thirst and finally wounding himself with a spear until he gained the knowledge of runes for use in casting powerful magic.[34] He was also able to acquire the mead of poetry from the giants, a drink of which could grant the power of a scholar or poet, for the benefit of gods and mortals alike.[33]


"Sapience" redirects here. It is not to be confused with Sentience.

Sapience is often defined as wisdom, or the ability of an organism or entity to act with appropriate judgement, a mental faculty which is a component of intelligence or alternatively may be considered an additional faculty, apart from intelligence, with its own properties. Robert Sternberg[35] has segregated the capacity for judgement from the general qualifiers for intelligence, which is closer to cognizant aptitude than to wisdom. Displaying sound judgement in a complex, dynamic environment is a hallmark of wisdom.

The word sapience is derived from the Latin sapientia, meaning "wisdom".[36] Related to this word is the Latin verb sapere, meaning "to taste, to be wise, to know"; the present participle of sapere forms part of Homo sapiens, the Latin binomial nomenclature created by Carolus Linnaeus to describe the human species. Linnaeus had originally given humans the species name of diurnus, meaning man of the day. But he later decided that the dominating feature of humans was wisdom, hence application of the name sapiens. His chosen biological name was intended to emphasize man's uniqueness and separation from the rest of the animal kingdom.

In fantasy fiction and science fiction, sapience often describes an essential human property that bestows "personhood" onto a non-human. It indicates that a computer, alien, mythical creature or other object will be treated as a completely human character, with similar rights, capabilities and desires as any human character. The words "sentience", "self-awareness" and "consciousness" are used in similar ways in science fiction.

See also

Thinking portal


Further reading

External links

  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Atlas of Wisdom: Wisdom in Psychology and Spirituality
  • From Knowledge to Wisdom
  • Where is the Wisdom We have Lost in Knowledge?
  • Wisdom in Perspective
  • Ancient texts
  • Hermetic scriptures
  • Tiny Buddha wisdom quotes
  • Occult/world scriptures
  • Wisdom: The Interval Between the Notes
  •, Wisdom Lexicon Project
  • Who is Wisdom in Proverbs 8?


  • Book on Wisdom from psychologist Paul Baltes
  • The Wisdom Page
  • Share Your Wisdom Here
  • The Defining Wisdom Project of the University of Chicago

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