Is It Worth Being Wise?

Thursday, February 15th, 2007

Paul Graham asks, Is it worth being wise?:

Another sign we may have to choose between intelligence and wisdom is how different their recipes are. Wisdom seems to come largely from curing childish qualities, and intelligence largely from cultivating them.

Recipes for wisdom, particularly ancient ones, tend to have a remedial character. To achieve wisdom one must cut away all the debris that fills one’s head on emergence from childhood, leaving only the important stuff. Both self-control and experience have this effect: to eliminate the random biases that come from your own nature and from the circumstances of your upbringing respectively. That’s not all wisdom is, but it’s a large part of it. Much of what’s in the sage’s head is also in the head of every twelve year old. The difference is that in the head of the twelve year old it’s mixed together with a lot of random junk.

The path to intelligence seems to be through working on hard problems. You develop intelligence as you might develop muscles, through exercise. But there can’t be too much compulsion here. No amount of discipline can replace genuine curiosity. So cultivating intelligence seems to be a matter of identifying some bias in one’s character—some tendency to be interested in certain types of things—and nurturing it. Instead of obliterating your idiosyncrasies in an effort to make yourself a neutral vessel for the truth, you select one and try to grow it from a seedling into a tree.

The wise are all much alike in their wisdom, but very smart people tend to be smart in distinctive ways.

Most of our educational traditions aim at wisdom. So perhaps one reason schools work badly is that they’re trying to make intelligence using recipes for wisdom. Most recipes for wisdom have an element of subjection. At the very least, you’re supposed to do what the teacher says. The more extreme recipes aim to break down your individuality the way basic training does. But that’s not the route to intelligence. Whereas wisdom comes through humility, it may actually help, in cultivating intelligence, to have a mistakenly high opinion of your abilities, because that encourages you to keep working. Ideally till you realize how mistaken you were.

(The reason it’s hard to learn new skills late in life is not just that one’s brain is less malleable. Another probably even worse obstacle is that one has higher standards.)

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