Philosophy against Misosophy



Essays by Me

Essays by Others


From The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Paul Edwards, Editor in Chief. New York: Macmillan, 1967, Vol. 8, 322-24.



Brand Blanshard


Wisdom in its broadest and commonest sense denotes sound and serene judgment regarding the conduct of life.  It may be accompanied by a broad range of knowledge, by intellectual acuteness, and by speculative depth, but it is not to be identified with any of these and may appear in their absence.  It involves intellectual grasp or insight, but it is concerned not so much with the ascertainment of fact or the elaboration of theories as with the means and ends of practical life.


Wisdom literature.  Concern with the art of living long preceded formal science or philosophy in human history.  All ancient civilizations seem to have accumulated wisdom literatures, consisting largely of proverbs handed down from father to son as the crystallized results of experience.  Perhaps the most ancient known collection of these sayings is the Egyptian “Wisdom of Ptah-hotep,” which comes down from 2500 B.C.   The writings Confucius (sixth century B.C.) and Mencius (fourth century B.C.), though more sophisticated, are still concerned with the Tao, the good or normal human life.  The early writes of India held views at once more speculative and more disillusioned than those of China; both Buddhists and Hindus found the greatest happiness of man in deliverance from the grinding round of suffering and death and in absorption into Atman or nirvana, where personality and struggle alike disappear.  But large parts of the Bhagavad-Gita and the Dhammapada, two classics among the scriptures of India, are devoted to maxims and counsels for the conduct of life.

Of far greater influence in the West has been the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew people, which consists of the more philosophical parts of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha.  Perhaps the most important of these are the books of Job, Proverbs, and Psalms and the apocryphal book called The Wisdom of Solomon.  There is no certain knowledge of who wrote any of them; they are probably the work of many men, extending over centuries.  They differ strikingly from the writings of Greek and Chinese moralists in the closeness with which morality is identified with religion.  The Hebrew sages were all monotheists who held that God fashioned the world but remained outside it; he had made his will known in the law delivered to Moses.  This law set the standard and pattern of goodness for all time; the good man will make it his study and seek to conform his life to it.  At the same time these sages reduced the miraculous element in Jewish history; they made no claim to being inspired themselves, and inclining, indeed, to assume that the sole motive of conduct was self-advantage, they offered their prudential maxims as not only conforming to the divine law but also as the product of good sense and sound reason.  There is very little evidence that they were affected by Greek thought, though Greek influence must have flowed around them after the conquests of Alexander.  It is possible that in their cool and reasonable note, contrasting so sharply with the visionary fervor of the prophets, there is an echo of the reflective thought of Greece.

The Greeks had a wisdom literature of their own which long preceded the appearance of their great philosophers. Hesiod (eighth century B.C.) and Theognis (sixth century B.C.) summed up in poetic form the maxims of traditional morality.  Pythagoras (sixth century B.C.), a curious combination of mathematician and religious seer, seems to have found in philosophy the guide of practical life.  This view was further developed by the Sophists, who, at a time when libraries and universities were unknown, undertook to instruct young men in the arts, theoretical and practical, that were most likely to lead to success.  In their emphasis on success, however, there was something skeptical and cynical; the art of life tended in their teaching to become the sort of craft that enable one by clever strategy to achieve place and power.


The Greek conception.  The first full statement and embodiment of the classic Greek conception of wisdom came with Socrates (c. 470-399 B.C.), who insisted that virtue and knowledge were one, that if men failed to live well, it was through ignorance of what virtue really was.  He had no doubt that if men know what virtue was, they would embody it in their conduct.  Thus, he set himself to define the major virtues with precision.  His method was to consider particular instances of them and bring to light the features they had in common; this would give the essence and true pattern of the virtue in question.  He did not profess to be satisfied with the results of his inquiries, but his acuteness and thoroughness made him the first of the great theoretical moralists, and the courage with which he carried his principles into both life and death gave him a unique place in Western history.

The stress on wisdom was maintained by his disciple Plato.  For Plato there are three departments of human nature, which may be described as the appetites, directed to such ends as food and drink; the distinctively human emotions, such as courage and honor; and reason.  Of these reason is the most important, for only as impulse and feeling are governed by it will conduct be saved from chaos and excess; indeed, in such government practical wisdom consists.  In one respect Aristotle carried the exaltation of reason farther than Plato; in addition to this practical wisdom, he recognized another and purely intellectual virtue, the wisdom that pursues truth for its own sake and without reference to practice.  In this pursuit, which can be followed effectively only by the philosopher, lay the highest and happiest life.

It was among the Stoics, however, that guidance by reason was most seriously and widely attempted.  In the thought of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121-180), both nature and human nature are determined by causal law, and the wrongs and insults that other men inflict on us are therefore as inevitable as the tides.  The wise man will understand this inevitability and not waste his substance in futile indignation or fear.  He will conform himself to nature’s laws, recognize that passion is a symptom of ignorance, free himself from emotional attachments and resentments, and live as far as he can the life of a “passionless sage.”  The account given by Marcus Aurelius in his famous journal of his struggle to order his practice and temper by this ideal of austere rationality has made his little book a classic of pagan wisdom.


Modern philosophers.  The opinions of modern philosophers on the meaning of wisdom are too various for review here.  But it can be noted of these thinkers, as it was of Marcus Aurelius, that their standing as purveyors or exemplars of wisdom bears no fixed relation to their eminence as philosophers.  If their chief work lies, as Kant’s does, in the theory of knowledge, or as McTaggart’s does, in technical metaphysics, it may have no obvious bearing on practical life.  Furthermore, by reason of an unhappy temperament, some philosophers of name and influence, such as Rousseau, have been far from notable exemplars of wisdom in either controversy or conduct.  On the other hand, there are thinkers who have shown in their writing, and sometimes also in their lives, so large a humanity and good sense that they have been held in especial esteem for their wisdom whether or not they have been of high philosophical rank.  Montaigne and Emerson are examples on one level; John Locke, Bishop Butler, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick are examples from a more professional level.  Among technical thinkers of the first rank, a figure who has left a deep impression for a wisdom serene and disinterested, though a little above the battle, is the famous philosopher of Amsterdam, Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677).


Components of wisdom.  Are there any traits uniformly exhibited by the very diverse minds that by general agreement are wise?  Two traits appear to stand out—reflectiveness and judgment.

Reflectiveness.  By reflectiveness is meant the habit of considering events and beliefs in the light of their grounds and consequences.  Conduct prompted merely by impulse or desire is notoriously likely to be misguided, and this holds true of both intellectual and practical conduct.  Whether a belief is warranted must be decided by the evidence it rests on and the implications to which it leads, and one can become aware of these only by reflection.  Similarly, whether an action is right or wrong depends, at least in part, on the results that it produces in the way of good and evil, and these results can be taken into account only by one who looks before he leaps.  Common sense, with its rules and proverbs, no doubt helps, but it is too rough and general a guide to be relied on safely; and the reflective man will have at his command a broader view of grounds and consequences, causes and effects.  He will more readily recognize the beliefs of superstition, charlatanism, and bigotry for what they are because he will question the evidence for them and note that when reflectively developed, they conflict with beliefs known to be true.  In the same way he will be able to recognize some proposals for action as rash, partisan, or shortsighted because certain consequences have been ascribed to them falsely and others have been ignored.  In some activities wisdom consists almost wholly of such foresight.  A general, for example is accounted wise if he can foresee in detail how each of the courses open to him will affect the prospects of victory.

Judgment.  There is a wisdom of ends as well as of means, which is here denoted by “judgment.”  The goal of the general—namely, victory—is laid down for him, but the ordinary man needs the sort of wisdom that can appraise and choose his own ends.  The highest wisdom of all, Plato contended, is that required by the statesman, who is called upon to fix both the goals toward which society strives and the complex methods by which it may most effectively move toward them.  Unfortunately, at this crucial point where the ends of life are at issue, the sages have differed profoundly.  Some, like Epicurus and Mill, have argued for happiness; others, like the Christian saints, for self-sacrificing love; others, like Nietzsche, for power.  Many philosophers of the present [20th] century have come to hold that this conflict is beyond settlement by reason, on the ground that judgments of good and bad are not expressions of knowledge at all but only of desire and emotion.  For these thinkers there is properly no such thing as wisdom regarding intrinsic goods; knowledge is confined to means.

Whatever the future of this view, common opinion is still at one with the main tradition of philosophy; it regards the judgment of values as a field in which wisdom may be pre-eminently displayed.  It must admit, however, that this judgment is of a peculiar kind; it seems to be intuitive in the sense that it is not arrived at by argument nor easily defended by it. One may be certain that pleasure is better than pain and yet be at a loss to prove it; the insight seems to be immediate. And where immediate insights differ, as they sometimes do, the difference appears to be ultimate and beyond remedy.  Must such wisdom end in dogmatic contradiction and skepticism?

That it need not do so will perhaps be evident from a few further considerations.  First, differences about intrinsic goods may be due to mere lack of knowledge on one side or the other. The Puritans who condemned music and drama as worthless could hardly have excluded them if they had known what they were excluding; in these matters wider experience brings an amended judgment.  Second, what appears to be intuitive insight may express nothing more than a confirmed habit or prejudice.  Where deep-seated feelings are involved, as in matters of sex, race, or religion, the certainty that belongs to clear insight may be confused with the wholly different certainty of mere confidence or emotional conviction.  Fortunately, Freud and others have shown that these irrational factors can be tracked down and largely neutralized.  Third, man’s major goods are rooted in his major needs, and since the basic needs of human nature are everywhere the same, the basic goods are also the same.  No philosophy of life that denied value to the satisfactions of food or drink or sex or friendship or knowledge could hope to commend itself in the long run.

It should be pointed out, finally, that the judgment of the wise man may carry a weight out of all proportion to that of anything explicit in his thought or argument.  The decisions of a wise judge may be implicitly freighted with experience and reflection, even though neither may be consciously employed in the case before him.  Experience, even when forgotten beyond recall, leaves its deposit, and where this is the deposit of long trial and error, of much reflection, and of wide exposure in fact or imagination to the human lot, the judgment based on it may be more significant than any or all of the reasons that the judge could adduce for it.  This is why age is credited with wisdom; years supply a means to it whether or not the means is consciously used.  Again, the individual may similarly profit from the increasing age of the race; since knowledge is cumulative, he can stand on the shoulders of his predecessors. Whether individual wisdom is on the average increasing is debatable, but clearly the opportunity for it is.  As Francis Bacon, a philosopher whose wisdom was of the highest repute, remarked, “We are the true ancients.”




For proverbial wisdom see Archer Taylor, The Proverb (Cambridge, Mass., 1931), and—old but suggestive—R. C. Trench, Proverbs and Their Lessons (London and New York, 1858).

For the problems of determining right and wrong, see any first-rate work on ethics, such as Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed. (Chicago, 1962).

For an analysis of reflection, see, for example, John Dewey, How We Think (New York, 1910).

For the place of reason in valuation, see L. T. Hobhouse, The Rational Good (New York, 1921), or Brand Blanshard, Reason and Goodness (London and New York, 1962).

For some useful popular works see T. E. Jessop, Reasonable Living (London, 948); H. C. King, Rational Living (New York, 1912); and A. E. Murphy, The Uses of Reason (New York, 1943).

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