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INTELLIGENCE VS WISDOM

By Ruth Minshull

         I’ve often been curious about the disparity between one intelligent person and another.  Even people with the same IQ may differ greatly in their perceptions, abilities and, most certainly, in their social skills.  Furthermore, some smart people actually seem to be brighter, sharper, with more savvy than others.  Are they smarter?

How can there be such a vast inconsistency between one bright person and another?  Some of the dissimilarities may be due to individual personalities, backgrounds, interests, professions and general attitude about life.  Still, it seems as if some intelligent people are simply more intelligent than others.

After exploring definitions, comments, quotes and general thoughts on the subject, I learned that I had been confusing knowledge and wisdom.  It seems they are two different capabilities.

While most dictionaries are a little fuzzy on the subjects, casually using the words interchangeably at times, philosophers and various notable thinkers consider them to be vastly different.  Countless quotations begin with:  “The wise man….”

According to these authorities, intelligence is knowledge, while wisdom, it seems, is the appreciation of what one can do with one’s knowledge.

Wisdom includes the ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting.  It is insight.  Also, wisdom requires control of one’s emotional reactions (the “passions“) so that universal principles, reason and knowledge prevail in determining one’s actions.

Furthermore, wisdom is common sense and good judgment.

We acquire knowledge from others—from teachers, parents, books, coaches.  Wisdom, however, is self-created.  It comes from living, making mistakes, observing, arriving at our own understanding.  It is constantly evolving as we gain more experience.

Wisdom allows us to extrapolate, to predict the results of certain actions—thus avoiding impulsive, emotion-driven decisions.

You can also define wisdom as intelligence that is applied.  It is a data bank with depth and usefulness.  If intelligence is not properly put to use, then the person is not considered wise.  A computer, for example, is an immense resource for knowledge on almost any known subject.  It cannot, however, tell you whether or not you should get married, get a divorce, change jobs, ask for a raise, buy a new car, date your boss or take up spelunking as a hobby.

A young person may do well in school, scoring high on tests, getting good grades, but still make wrong choices and get into trouble.  He has not yet had enough experience to help him make wise decisions.  Whether or not he will become wise depends on his ability to learn from his mistakes and observations.

Mistakes, apparently, are a necessary part of becoming wise.  Will Rogers put it this way:  “Good judgment comes from experience and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.

There are no tests to measure wisdom.  It is important to note that while intelligence is gained when something is taught, wisdom cannot be taught.

“We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge but we cannot be wise with other men’s wisdom.”  –Michel de Montaigne

One strong deterrent to wisdom is irrational beliefs and convictions.  Even the most learned person can draw an emotionally charged conclusion that will cloud his judgment in the future, unless he is capable of continually re-examining and upgrading his convictions.

Let’s say a man is betrayed by the woman he loves and trusts.  He may be able to see the specific truth of the situation and move on with his life.  Another man, in the midst of his heartache, may draw the conclusion that “No woman can be trusted.” or “It doesn’t pay to fall in love; you only get hurt.” or possibly this granddaddy of a generality:  “You can’t trust anybody.”  These are all understandable reactions to deep disappointment.  But the question is, will he be able to re-examine those beliefs after his emotional wounds heal?  If he can, he will possibly develop judgment that will help him avoid a similar situation, but not shut out all experiences in the future.  This would be applying wisdom.  Most of us have known people who keep choosing the same kind of (wrong) mate, and experiencing the same heartbreak—never seeming to learn from repeated disappointments.

A woman’s pet cat dies.  In the midst of her inconsolable grief she vows:  “I’m never going to get another pet.  You grow to love them, and then they’re gone.”  If she sticks to this decision, she will be depriving herself of years of potential joy and heartwarming, furry, cuddly companionship.

“Irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors.”  — Thomas H. Huxley

The wise person gradually adopts certain rules and guidelines for living.  However, he is constantly re-evaluating them, willing to upgrade his thinking as he gains new experiences and fresh insights.

I once worked for a man who considered himself to be a profound thinker.  While I was on duty, we often sat and talked about some of the “large” issues of life.  I soon realized that we were not having discussions.  I was listening to monologues.

He had examined many major subjects, made up his mind about them and was not open to any new ideas or different opinions.  He was not actually a wise person because he had put a governor on his mental development.  He had spent a certain amount of time on each subject, reached a conclusion, then filed it away under “case closed.”  Although I have lost track of him, I’m guessing that he would still have all the same opinions some sixty years later.  I must have had a little wisdom at the time, despite my youth, because I never disagreed with him.

“Intelligence is when you spot a flaw in your boss’s reasoning. Wisdom is when you refrain from pointing it out.”  —James Dent

Among other abilities, wisdom includes the ability to estimate and predict.  How big of a box do I need?  How far is it from here to there?  How long will it take to do this?  To get there?  To make this?  These are all judgments based on experience.  The wise person is punctual, fairly accurate in estimates and consistently reliable.

Can we become wiser by wanting to—intending to?

I don’t know, but here’s my thinking at the moment:  First, we may have to do a little house cleaning.

We might want to re-examine most of our ideas.  We should ask ourselves:  do we make decisions, evaluations or choices emotionally or rationally?  (Equally important:  are we able to differentiate between the two?)  Have we already made up our minds on major issues or are we open to new concepts?

When we have an unpleasant experience are we able to look at it honestly and determine what responsibility we can take for the occurrence?  How often are we blaming others for our misfortunes?  Naturally, we all want to be right.  That’s a fundamental part of our nature.  This need can turn against us, however, if we can never admit to a mistake or a failing.

Wisdom requires observing events or behavior in a cool and honest manner, without pre-conceived opinions.

The more we can look at our own part in a given incident, the closer we can get to an impartial evaluation.

Do we hang on to old grievances or accept life as it comes and move along?

 “Wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with age.  Sometimes age just shows up all by itself.”  –Tom Wilson

So, if we wish to grow wiser as we grow older, we must be able to examine every experience, good or bad, and learn something from it.  The prerequisites to wisdom might be: honesty (most importantly self-honesty), humility, flexibility and an insatiable curiosity about the “why” of things.

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© 2012 by Ruth Minshull

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