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In search of wisdom

By Scott MacInnes - posted Thursday, 4 September 2014

The getting and begetting of wisdom - so revered in the past as a practical and spiritual necessity for both individuals and societies - seems to be sadly out of fashion in our present age. The very idea that we should seek, love and promote wisdom is likely to be met with incredulity or derision, to be dismissed as yet another form of stuffy intellectual or moral pretentiousness. Perhaps it is a case of: Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise!

So it is refreshing to discover Alain de Botton's wonderful new and very user-friendly alternative news service: www.thephilosophersmail.comIt is unashamedly dedicated to re-invigorating the concept of wisdom as an unending adventure in the better understanding of ourselves, our world, what we most need to know, what we should value and how we could live more decently and happily in the face of all of life's many difficulties.

This complements his new School of Life project which operates in cities around the world, including Melbourne, where the National Gallery of Victoria is currently also hosting his and philosopher John Armstrong's Art as Therapy program.


Among the many treasures held by the gallery is one of my favourite paintings - a wonderful early masterpiece by Rembrandt: Two Old Men Disputing. It is about the getting of wisdom, not material possessions. The enlightened elders are passionately engaged in the collaborative endeavour of getting to the true meaning of the work at hand. Reflection and good conversation are essential ingredients. The luminous text - representing the crucial role of culture in helping discern their highest aspirations to Truth, Goodness, Beauty and Justice - is the source of their inspiration. Rembrandt's engagement is equally passionate and in the same tradition. His treatment is reverential. Clearly, for him, wisdom is golden. But can such an image still speak to us?

While there are as many paths to wisdom as people looking for it, I wonder what these wise elders would say were the most important lessons they have learned from all their reading, thinking and arguing.  I imagine these might include the following:

1.      Know thyself

This inscription above the entrance to the Greek Oracle of Delphi is the starting point. Each of us possesses a unique consciousness and perspective on the world. It is a precious gift that carries with it a call to self-reflection and awareness. This is the ethical imperative, essential if we are to avoid individual and collective madness, as Shakespeare's King Lear tragically reveals. It challenges us to look at ourselves with unflinching honesty, as in Rembrandt’s many astonishing self- portraits.

Philosophers remind us of the need to constantly re-examine what we really think and the soundness of our reasoning. We must challenge our intellectual prejudices and the taken-for-granted ideologies that pervade our opinions. Thinking about how one thinks can be hard work, as philosophers like Raimond Gaita and Ronald Dworkin demonstrate. Alain de Botton's and John Armstrong’s initiatives are to be welcomed as more accessible points of entry. (The ABC and Youtube have many of these thinkers’ best talks, as well as the wonderful JusticeHarvard  lectures of inspirational Harvard Professor, Michael Sandel.)

Therapists remind us of the need to become more aware of what we feel and its relationship to what we think. We need to recognise what unconscious processes run our habitual responses to life and what emotional barriers must be overcome to lead healthier, saner lives. This is also hard work. It requires even more courage to address painful feelings than prejudicial thoughts - something therapist F. Scott Peck acknowledges in his book The Road Less Travelled.


Of course, to know yourself involves much more than the intellectual and the emotional. We are more than our thoughts and our feelings. The depths of our inner lives - our 'souls' if you like - know no limits. There is a great undiscovered world within and to not explore it is to fail to rise to our essential humanity. As Socrates concluded: The unexamined life is not worthy of a human being.

2.      Get to know the best that has been thought and said in the world

Of course, we cannot know ourselves fully on our own. We need more than our own personal resources. We need guidance from outside.

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Scott wrote this advice for his daughter, "...just turned 30. In the spirit of Plato: 'We should leave our children a legacy rich not in gold but in reverence.'" As it is my daughter Elizabeth's 21st birthday today, I could think of no better present than publishing it this morning. (Graham Young, editor)

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About the Author

Scott MacInnes has a background in teaching, law and conflict resolution. He is now retired and lives in Tasmania.

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