Wisdom is a habit?
There’s been a lot of discussion in the Reading Odyssey
community lately about wisdom, community and habits.
When we read the Bible, we saw that King Solomon got his
wisdom as a gift from God. Wisdom was a divine attribute of
the individual, who was either wise or not, and wise decisions
followed from that. The early Christians then borrowed their
approach to wisdom from the ancient Hebrews.
The Aristotle reading group is working through Nicomachean
Ethics. Aristotle presents a very different perspective. He
argues that being virtuous, good and wise is a result of
habits and actions, not intentions – within a community. We
had our first phone discussion on Nicomachean Ethics last week
(link to mp3 below).
In that discussion, reader Bill Swislow made a good comment
about how the ancient Greeks did not have a conception of
“inner states.” Bill argued that idea was not widespread until
much later when Christianity became the dominant religion of
the Roman Empire. For Aristotle, said Bill, ethics and
virtues were much more about the actions of people –
especially repeated actions or habits – within their
communities. One becomes wise by a long process of
practicing habits and building relationships.
Peter Bevelin, author of “Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger”, also delivered a lecture last week (he asked it not be recorded so we have no MP3). He agrees with Aristotle about wisdom as a habit and applies it to Darwin. Bevelin argues that Darwin was not a genius – that’s not why he developed such a profound theory. Rather, he says Darwin had outstanding thinking habits – and that he practiced observing, thinking, reading, conversing with close confidants and challenging his own assumptions – and that’s why he became so wise and developed one of the most important ideas in human history.
The modern conception of wisdom owes much to the Biblical
tradition–it relates to it as an individual “state” or
“thing” that people have or don’t. For Aristotle, however, we
are wise because we create communities that read, reflect,
discuss and deliberate.
It certainly is true that each individual is endowed with
unique genes and a unique environment that helps express (or
not) those genes. And for those who are religious or spiritual,
there may be seen a divine endowment. Certainly, whatever
our beliefs, we can agree that we are not all equally endowed
– but that does *not* mean that we cannot all practice the habit of wisdom.
Here at the Reading Odyssey, we believe that we can involve
potentially millions of adults in reengaging their
intellectual curiosity – despite however wise or unwise they
believe themselves to be as individuals.
Participants don’t have to be smart to join a reading group or
lecture. Rather by developing the habit of regularly reading
and thinking and considering and questioning in a community,
folks can practice the habit of wisdom.
What do you think? Is wisdom a community habit rather than a
thing in an individual’s head? Is it an activity rather than
an inner state? Some combination?
– Aristotle reading group mp3
– Peter Bevelin’s talk – comments and links to interviews
and his book http://tinyurl.com/BevelinJune2009
– Register for Barry Schwartz’s talk