Adler on Wisdom

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


In our common speech we call a man wise either because he shows good judgment in the practical affairs of life, or because he has deep insight into the ultimate principles and causes of things. The term wisdom has both moral and intellectual significance for us today, as it has had throughout our tradition.

The ancient Greeks conceive of two kinds of wisdom -practical wisdom, or prudence, and speculative or philosophical wisdom. They consider a man practically wise if he judges situations correctly and chooses the means best suited to secure his objectives. Aristotle, however, insists that the objectives must be morally good. In his view, practical wisdom is linked with moral virtue.

The Greeks consider a man philosophically wise if he understands the first principles or causes of things. Wisdom in this sense is the highest form of knowledge. It is the culmination of man’s pursuit of truth. It gives him the peace that accompanies perfect fulfillment. Plotinus states that wisdom brings perfect repose, for it is the knowledge for which our mind has sought. And Samuel Johnson notes the “the philosophically wise man” has no needs, for he is complete.

Our religious tradition places a high value on wisdom. The Greeks consider it a divine attribute. Socrates says that God alone is wise and the man can love or seek wisdom but he cannot possess it. The Book of Proverbs extols wisdom as an eternal principle that sustains and guides the physical order and human life.

The Bible also praises as wisdom the prudent and righteous conduct of everyday affairs, and the astute and just decrees of rulers. Here again wisdom is both a kind of knowledge and an aspect of moral character. But here God is the teacher, and wisdom is attained by listening to his teaching–not by intellectual inquiry alone.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” says the Bible. In this context, fear means hearkening to God’s word. Aquinas explains that this is a filial, not a servile, fear–a true respect for the divine law, not dread of punishment. It rests on faith in God’s revelation of His will to man. And it ends in wisdom, the perfection of the intellect that accompanies perfect love. For Spinoza, wisdom is a form of love, “the intellectual love of God.”

How do we attain wisdom? Wisdom is the ultimate aim of learning. Such learning is a long process, which involves a lifetime of thoughtful inquiry and wide experience. Book learning and good schooling help, but they are not enough to form this supreme virtue of mind and character.

Yet experience and age alone are not the sole passports to wisdom. Some men remain foolish all their life long. Indeed, few men sustain the effort and have the devotion that are required to become wise. These few men teach the rest of us what wisdom is and what it means to be wise.

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