The Platonic Virtues: Wisdom

Plato Statue

I have slowly been reading through Plato’s The Republic and came across the parts where he was discussing the four main virtues. He talked about how the four virtues of Wisdom, Courage, Temperance, and Justice are what is needed in order to create a perfect society. Of course, we can debate this all day if we wanted to, but one thing we can’t debate is that these are all qualities that people should seek out in order to become the best person they can be. Each virtue is very important by itself, but they really work best when all applied at once.

After reading about Plato and the virtues, I decided it would be very beneficial to everyone to have a little more of a deep dive into each individual one. In the same way I listed them early is the way I will be exploring them. That means, this week will get an article on wisdom. I plan to explore what wisdom is in popular culture, a few popular theories on wisdom, and then my own personal theory. Then I will wrap up with how to exercise wisdom and a few tricks to help cultivate wisdom into your own life as well.

What is Wisdom in Pop Culture

Karate Kid Pt. III
THE KARATE KID, PART III, Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, 1989, (c)Columbia Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

I’m pretty sure everyone alive has seen the Karate Kid in some iteration, whether that is the original or the atrocious remake or even the new YouTube original series. No matter how you saw the movie, there is always one constant: An older guy that is teaching the way of martial arts to the young pupil.

The idea associated with this is that wisdom can only come from someone who experienced something before and is then able to teach it to his pupil.

Wisdom comes from experience. Experience can only be had if you go out and do something. This implies you can gain as much knowledge as you want from studying, but until it is actually put into action, it is not wisdom. This is the message that pop culture is sending out. It’s in all of pop culture too.

Think about it, children’s shows always have the main character, usually a child, turn to an adult when they need help. Teenage dramas always have people learning wisdom by screwing up and learning the lesson. Adult dramas will always have the adult getting wisdom from some older person that has gone through something similar and learned the right answer.

Pop culture tells us that wisdom can only be gained by having a mentor teach the error of our ways, and it must be done in a face to face interaction. I won’t get into where I see fault in this yet, it will come up when I put my personal theory on wisdom at the end of the article. I want you to keep in mind what pop culture says is the only way to gain wisdom as we explore more theories.

Wisdom Theories

Epistemic Humility


The first major theory is called wisdom in terms of epistemic humility. There are two variations on this theory as well. Naturally, we’ll start this in the order they were thought up, but first a little back story on where the theories originate.

The main definition of wisdom comes from Plato’s book The Apology. The scene depicted is that of Socrates and Chaepheron consulting the oracle at Delphi to find out who has the greatest wisdom. The oracle says that Socrates does. Socrates doesn’t believe this, so he goes on a quest to find out who the person with the greatest wisdom is, and his venture shows that he is, in fact, the man with the most wisdom in the world at the time. That is the story that is drawn on for all the prevailing theories on wisdom.

The first major wisdom theory is based on humility. There are two variation on this theory. The first says “a person has wisdom if they think they are not wise.” If you’re like me, your initial thought is how contradictory this seems. This theory is based on humility though. If we think of humility as being that of a person being modest. That changes the context of this theory then. It now means that a person that feels they are not wise will not claim to be wise and will then seek help when needed because they aren’t too proud. That is the main problem with this as well though. If Socrates truly didn’t think he was wise, then he would have disagreed and gone about his business.

The second humility theory states that “a wise person is wise if they don’t know anything.” I’m not going to lie, I think this theory is even worse than the first. It could be altered to make more sense, but as it stands it’s kind of dumb. If a person doesn’t know anything, that is completely contradictory to what wisdom is. This theory shouldn’t exist in my opinion, but it does. It would make more sense if it was stated as “a wise person is wise if they THINK they don’t know EVERYTHING.”

Epistemic Accuracy


I like this theory a bit more because it seems to fit the bill of wisdom a bit more. Again, there are two versions of this theory as well. It seems that is how theories work though: There is a good theory that someone finds a fallacy in, so they create a new one to amend the original and make it better in their eyes.

The first version of the epistemic accuracy theory of wisdom states “a person is wise if they think that they know something, and they prove to actually know that thing.” To make this a little simpler I will use an example. A carpenter knows about woodworking; therefore, the carpenter is wise in the ways of woodworking. If this carpenter claims to also know about the nature of waves, but cannot back up his claim with evidence, he is actually not wise. The reason is that he loses his credibility. In order for this carpenter to be wise he would have to claim he knows the ways of woodworking, and because he is a carpenter that claim is substantiated. Then if someone asked if he knew the nature of waves, the carpenter should reply “no” to be considered wise because there is no way for him to actually know the nature of waves through his chosen field of carpentry.

The issue with this claim is that it is possible to be wise and wrong about something. For example, Homer and Hesiod both were great poets and philosophers, but they believed the earth was flat. Does that make them unwise? No. It makes them a product of their time. When they were alive there wasn’t a real way to prove that the earth wasn’t flat, and gravity had yet to be theorized, so they just didn’t have all the pieces of knowledge to prove the earth was round. That does not make them unwise.

This is where the second version of the theory exists: “A person is wise if they claim to know only what they truly know as long as their knowledge is highly justified.” Adding this little bit is what gets around the major fallacy that I pointed out about the flat earth with Homer and Hesiod.

The issue with this one is based on belief. Yes, it makes sense as a theory of wisdom, but it gets challenged by questioning a belief. What determines whether a belief is highly justified or not? There in lies the issue. For one, racism is not highly justified, but at the same time if a black man has nothing but negative interactions with a white people wouldn’t his racism toward whites be highly justified? In his view yes. Now, what if I said that the black man has only had three interactions with white people. Does that still make his racism toward whites highly justified, or does it cause the argument of him having too small of a test pool to accurately know if his belief is highly justified?

Another example would be on the basis of religion. Maybe a person was raised Christian and held those beliefs throughout life, but they never questioned it because they were also raised to not question things. Then when someone challenges their beliefs and questions them, they can’t defend their beliefs. Does that make this person unwise? In a sense yes, because wisdom must come from experience and if there is no experience of questioning then they lose their wisdom. But they may be wise in other aspects of life. A Christian carpenter, to draw on the earlier example, may be wise in the ways of carpentry, but due to the way he was raised, is lacking in the Christian department. So, when the carpenter is questioned about his religious beliefs, then he wouldn’t be able to defend himself. That does not mean he is unwise in the ways of carpentry though. At the same time, if you are questioned highly, as with what Socrates does, then maybe there is point where you get to the nitty gritty and there is no true answer. Another example in the religion field would be Socrates questioning where the high justification for the religious belief comes from and asking the question “Who created God?” He may feel he has stumped you, but it can be highly justified to say, “I don’t know.” In fact, that may be the wisest answer. The questioner might then argue that God is a creation of man instead of the inverse. To which an appropriate response would be to ask where then man came from. It ends in a circular argument that can’t be answered through questioning. This would allow either side of the argument to be highly justified as required of the theory to be wise, yet it wouldn’t end the debate at all. That leaves to question, what does it mean to be highly justified? It may vary person to person, which would, in turn, render this theory negated because it is too fluid.

Wisdom as Knowledge


Again, there are three version of this theory, so enjoy the switch up. All three seem justified to me, yet they don’t truly encapsulate what wisdom is at its core. I am finding more and more that a definite theory for wisdom is extremely hard to come by. Nonetheless, to truly understand wisdom, we need the theories behind it.

The first knowledge-based wisdom theory is wisdom as extensive factual knowledge. This theory states: “a person is wise if they hold extensive knowledge about the arts, science, math, etc.” Basically, it is saying that a person can only be wise through a lot of study. I highly disagree. Wisdom and knowledge are two totally different fields. The fallacy here is that a person can be wise in the ways of hunting without knowing the molecular makeup of water. In the same way, a person can know a lot about science while not being able to properly apply it to everyday life. This theory is just really weak in my opinion.

The amended version is a bit better. It states: “a person is wise if they know how to live well.” To explain a bit more, a person is to be considered wise if they know what it takes to have a good life. If a person has more knowledge about how to live, then they are wiser. This is another theory that is easy to destroy. It ignores the application of the knowledge. Some might argue that the application of the knowledge is the reason behind gaining it. This fall prey to the same argument as the theory before.

The third version accounts for this argument finally. It states: “a person is wise if the person knows how to live well and succeeds at living well.” This theory is what starts to sound right to me. The only real issue is that doesn’t show any underlying beliefs. By that I mean, it assumes that all wisdom is in how you live your life. This is called a “success fallacy.” By that I mean, one can be successful without being wise. It takes a special person to not only be successful, but also have wisdom in their success. To put a modern spin on this, a person can be a successful Instagram model, but there is no core belief behind it. They have success, but where is the substance to it? It doesn’t take wisdom to use other people’s quotes and put them with a sexualized picture. At the same time, this Instagram model may have achieved more success than most people in the world. Does that really equate to wisdom though? It can be argued it’s just being in the right place at the right time in history. There are some issues with this theory as well then as I have pointed out. To put it simply, who defines what it means to “live well.” It can be a moral or monetary argument made, but I think the correct answer must lie somewhere in between.

Hybrid Wisdom Theory

The hybrid theory is what I most subscribe to in my personal belief of what wisdom truly means. This theory states: “a person is wise if they meet these four conditions. First, they have extensive factual and theoretical knowledge. Second, they know how to live well. Third, they are successful at living well. Last, they have very few unjustified beliefs.” The way this theory sets up is basically wisdom is a conglomeration of all of the previous theories. It takes all of the best parts and applies them to this one theory. I think it is the most fulfilling and best choice for what wisdom means. Of course, there are a few arguments against it, but I will debate those here too.

The first argument comes from Dennis Whitcomb who argues against the success fallacy and anything that incorporates it. His argument stems from the debate of “can a person be wise if they are depressed then?” This argument stems from the belief that a depressed person isn’t living as well as possible even if they know what is required to live well. Depression though is a mental disorder and can’t necessarily be taken into the argument as well. It’s like arguing that a person with one leg knows that a back squat is a very good exercise but they’re not doing because they have one leg. That doesn’t mean they aren’t living as well as they can, it means they have a limitation. They are still living as well as possible. The same can be said for the person with depression. They may know that exercise is good for them physically and mentally, but the depression just makes it to where they can’t make themselves go exercise. Instead, the person can do what is best for them that they are allowed to do. For instance, instead of literally working out, they could be researching proper methods for working out; they could be working on finding a workout plan; they could be looking for a gym to go to; or they could simply do something else to combat their depression. Whitcomb’s argument against the success aspect points out a possible fallacy, but it just reinforces the argument that if a person isn’t living as well as possible, then they aren’t truly wise.

I see it as, by combining all the elements of the previous theories on wisdom, it is implied that living well is not simply based on success, but an attempt to live well. What is well for one person may not be the same for another. The word ‘well’ much like ‘success’ can’t be universally defined because of the individual variances. This causes a person that living well by one person’s standards to not live up to the expectations of another. One such case could be evident in the world of bodybuilding. One person may only see they are living well if they are successful at winning a competition. Another person though, may see it differently. They may recognize they have less promising genetics and see it as they are living well simply by making it onto the stage. There is too much individual variance to have the success factor necessarily be the weak spot in the theory. It is more of justifying the credibility. When accompanied with the other theories of wisdom, it makes for a much more well-rounded model. If the success argument was run by itself, it becomes a fallacy because there is a matter of situation and luck that can easily play into the debate of success.

Wisdom as Rationality Theory

Don’t worry, this is the final theory, and there is only one part to this theory. I feel it has an issue in it though. The theory states: “a person is wise if they meet the following conditions: they have a wide variety of epistemically justified beliefs, has a wide variety of justified beliefs on how to live rationally, is committed to living rationally, and have only a few unjustified beliefs and is sensitive to their limitations.” My only real complaint about this theory is the rationality. I feel it kind of takes out the emotional component of life. One such example could be in putting down a beloved pet. Possibly, it makes more sense rationally to put down the dog that fell and broke its leg because it could result in a lot of money lost in trying to heal it, but at the same time there is an emotional aspect to the loss of a pet. Especially in this day and age when veterinarian treatment is so easy to come by. It may cost a lot more money, but the bond between pet and owner is something special. It can possibly be equated to that of a parent child bond. Of course, that isn’t rational though. I think rationality has its place, but there must be a human emotional element that is taken into account. I think the hybrid theory does a better job of allowing there to be an emotional element that the rational theory ignores. This means that if we were to only run on rationality, that there would be no reason to try and preserve the life of an elderly person because they don’t have much time left regardless, instead the time and focus should be put onto the children in need. But rationality can’t trump emotion or else society as a whole can fall to this thinking. It just doesn’t feel like it’s a good method for that reason. Also, anyone can disagree with me. In fact, I encourage it! There may be something I’m overlooking here. Healthy debate is always encouraged actually.

Ways to Increase Personal Wisdom

This might be the part that you were hoping to get to: How to actually cultivate more wisdom in your life. This is also where pop culture actually makes a good point.

  1. Have a mentor: So, we learned from pop culture that wisdom is a matter of gaining experience. It also suggests that wisdom is passed from a mentor to a pupil, such as with Karate Kid or Harry Potter. That means that a great way to gain more wisdom in your own life is so have a mentor help you along the way. It’s important to note that a mentor doesn’t have to be older than you though. As long as the person mentoring you has more experience, that’s all that matters.
  2. Have an accountability partner: This is an idea that I took from my dad. He is a pastor and preaches all the time about having an accountability partner to talk about things in your faith. It’s also the idea behind having a regular workout partner. By having someone that you can turn to and discuss serious topics with, both of you will gain wisdom. It allows you to bounce ideas around and exercise person growth within a group. My best accountability partner is my wife. She keeps me in check on so many aspects, so naturally I have to return the favor and let her know when she does something that was probably not the wisest move.
  3. Keep a journal: Much like having an accountability partner, having a journal gives you a place to work through things. You don’t have to write about your everyday life, and you don’t have to write in it every day. It’s always nice to have a private place to organize your thoughts and sometimes just word vomit to get ideas out. Plus, it has been scientifically proven to improve memory when you write thing downs.
  4. Challenge your beliefs: We often like to get caught in our little bubble to reaffirm what we already believe. A great way to improve wisdom is to try and see the other side. This will have one of two effects. It will either, help you understand your own belief better and better be able to justify it, or it will challenge you to think in a new way and possibly change the belief you have ingrained in your mind. It is especially important with new algorithms on social media and various websites pounding the ideas we already have into our brain on a daily basis.
  5. Read: This one may seem almost too obvious, but simply by reading we can get a whole new perspective on life. For instance, I am a huge fan of allegories. Not because they reaffirm my belief in my Christian faith, but because they offer a different way to explore the idea of faith in a new realm that may reach other people. This is why my favorite books are the Harry Potter series, Lord of the Rings, and the Chronicles of Narnia. But there are so many books in the world that if you can learn to properly read and dissect new information, then you have the world of knowledge available to you in many different and unique voices and stories. All the greatest philosophers have their books published, and many can be gotten from in the public commons or Project Gutenberg.


Growing in Prudence

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