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From Old to New: Wisdom in Ancient Greece and Modern Times

Since its origins, philosophical enquire has aimed for a deeper understanding of the world and human experience. Marked by the development of Western traditional thinking, the figure incarnating the search for such a profound understanding is one of the philosopher, at times equated to the figure of the sage, as the individual who possesses wisdom. In modern days, this figure could be seen as transformed as being incarnated by a special type of scientist possessing theoretical and practical knowledge. It is not easy, if not impossible, to find a unanimous and all-encompassing account of what wisdom should include. This essay will attempt to give a general understanding of what wisdom, and as a consequence, the wise individual, encompasses. The focus includes a broad interpretation of wisdom in ancient Greece and discussions of wisdom in modern times, paying special attention to the shared characteristics of both general accounts. The essay will begin by discussing Aristotle’s and Plato’s ideas on the characteristics of wisdom. After presenting these ancient ideas, more recent accounts of wisdom will be presented, given the systematization of knowledge that has resulted from the development of the philosophical tradition.

Personification of Wisdom
Figure 1: "Personification of Wisdom" (II Century).

The Vision of Wisdom in Antiquity

The concept of wisdom developed in antiquity involves a combination of elements, and it includes, as Michel Foucault (2012) has presented, the idea of constantly seeking the truth. This truth-seeking individual is characterized by Foucault as the figure of the sage, holding and keeping the truth for himself and sharing his or her knowledge just when necessary. This first section will broadly present how this figure was understood by the Greek philosophers and what type of traits were characteristics of this figure.

There is a broad categorization that is relevant for understanding ancient accounts of wisdom. It has to do with the separation of the soul, understood as the human trait distinguished from the body. The distinctiveness of the soul, in contrast to “mere” material elements of human nature, is the attribution of what, in contemporary terms, one would call “mental” or “psychological” functions (Lorenz, 2009). Thus, in the writings of the presocratic philosophers, as well as in Plato and Aristotle, a theory of the soul is to be found as the one that serves as the foundation for an account of wisdom.

One of the most famous accounts of wisdom in Western antiquity is the one Plato gave in the Republic. Ultimately aiming to present a reasoned account of what justice is, Plato argues that the best form of government for the city is the one in which the philosopher rules. Consequently, the characteristics that the philosopher ruler must have are those that lead the city to be just, and one of the prominent traits that a ruler must have is being wise. In Book IV of the Republic, in section 439 d-e, he introduces a tripartite division of the soul, comprising reason, spirit, and desire. Reason, associated with the intellect, seeks knowledge; spirit, represents emotion and courage; and desire, linked to bodily needs, seeks pleasure and satisfaction (Cooper, 1997, p. 1071). Plato, in his Phaedrus, in section 246 a, uses the allegory of the chariot to illustrate this division, portraying reason as the charioteer guiding two horses—spirit and desire (Cooper, 1997, p. 524). The well-ordered soul, analogous to a just state, occurs when reason harmonizes and governs the other elements. That who is wise, then, centers on the figure of the philosopher who possesses a love for wisdom and engages in the contemplation of eternal truths, seeking to understand them. This wisdom qualifies the philosopher as the ideal ruler in Plato's envisioned just state.

Roman Chariot, Manuel Padilla, 2000
Figure 2: "Roman Chariot" (Padilla, 2000).

Similarly, Aristotle’s account of wisdom is based on his separation of two aspects of the human soul in charge of grasping rational principles: the part that contemplates things whose origins are invariable and the part that contemplates variable things; these parts are called scientific and calculative parts of the human soul respectively (Ross & Brown, 2009, p. 102). The combination of these two aspects is what, according to Aristotle, gives origin to what he calls “philosophic wisdom,” a union between being able to know the principle and origin of things and scientific knowledge, i.e., the knowledge of “things that are universal and necessary” (Ross & Brown, 2009, p. 106), like the knowledge of mathematical propositions. This characterization of philosophic wisdom is understood as theoretical wisdom, a type of knowledge about the functioning of the world and general principles associated with scientific knowledge in modernity. But to find wisdom, just this type of theoretical knowledge is not enough. Let us think, for a moment, whether we could properly call “wise” somebody who only possesses theoretical knowledge. Even though an individual could be very knowledgeable, this does not necessarily mean that such a person is wise. What is missing is that such an individual not only knows theoretically about many things but also knows how to live. The remaining aspect of the wise is that one has to do not with theory but with practical matters. It is a knowledge of how to behave, when to behave in certain ways, and understanding “how to secure the ends of human life” (Ibid, p. 105). This type of deep knowledge of human affairs, which differs from the theoretical one, is known as “practical wisdom.” Practical wisdom could be understood as the one concerned with deciding how to live a virtuous and flourishing life. It involves practical reasoning and the ability to apply general principles to specific situations to get the best possible outcome. Practical wisdom is closely linked to morality (a connection that we will not develop in this essay) as it involves making choices that lead to the development of good character.

Modern Idea of Wisdom

As per the development of Western thought, there are many shared elements between an ancient understanding of wisdom and a modern one. This is, of course, due to the strong influence of ancient philosophy in the foundation of modern thought. A contemporary understanding of wisdom can be found in Robert Nozick’s views. In The Examined Life, Nozick engages with this concept, offering a multifaceted understanding of what it entails. In Nozick’s own words,

Wisdom is what you need to understand in order to live well and cope with the central problems and avoid the dangers in the predicaments human beings find themselves in (Nozick, 1989, p. 267).

Holding on to the ancient idea of love of wisdom, wisdom is portrayed as an understanding of life's importance that permeates a person's thoughts and actions. The nuanced nature of wisdom lies in its practicality, serving as a valuable tool for living well, navigating challenges, and avoiding potential dangers. (Nozick, 1989, p. 267) A crucial aspect of wisdom is its ability to keep things of lesser importance in proper perspective, underscoring its role in prioritizing essential aspects of life. 

Four Allegories Falsehood (Wisdom), Giovanni Bellini, 1490
Figure 3: "Four Allegories Falsehood (Wisdom)" (Bellini, ca. 1490).

Nozick underscores that wisdom is not confined to abstract knowledge but requires practical application in daily life, suggesting that a wise person not only possesses knowledge but actively lives according to the insights gained. Furthermore, he explores the relationship between wisdom and success, acknowledging that while wisdom is a valuable asset, it does not guarantee absolute success, as external factors play a significant role in life's trajectory. Thus, an important aspect of wisdom is to be found in the acknowledgment of one’s own limitations. A wise individual recognizes and appreciates constraints, an integral part of making informed decisions. This acknowledgment of constraints adds a layer of realism to the idea of wisdom, aligning it with practical living (Ibid, p. 269). Therefore, it is not enough to be wise to possess a certain type of knowledge and apply it properly. It is essential, additionally, that the possessor of such knowledge understands his or her own limitations in the development of life in order to make the proper decisions.

Nozick’s account of wisdom thus far resembles greatly the account given by the ancient philosophers, highlighting the practical aspects of a good life and the knowledge needed for it. But his account does not remain there. Nozick broadens the scope of the concept of wisdom, proposing a comprehensive form that extends beyond individual concerns to encompass common human issues. He introduces the idea that wisdom involves understanding the well-being of all things and their interconnections, emphasizing a holistic perspective that transcends personal boundaries (Ibid, p. 278). Wisdom goes beyond the mere accumulation of knowledge as it involves an ability to see and appreciate the profound significance of events, recognizing ultimate goals and values. This expanded view of wisdom highlights its role in providing a deeper understanding of life's complexities. Under Nozick’s perspective, wisdom operates at a level where explicit rules might be insufficient, which requires certain intuitive judgment and an overarching criterion, thus demonstrating the procession of wisdom.

Triumph of Wisdom, Andrea Sacchi, 1629
Figure 4: "Triumph of Wisdom" (Sacchi, 1629-1633).

Nozick’s account of wisdom is able to capture some essential features already put forward by the Greeks in their characterization of the concept. However, this line of thought is not exclusive to him. Richard Garret (1996), in his attempt to give a satisfactory definition of wisdom, highlights that an element to bear in mind to get to a satisfactory definition of wisdom is that it involves and includes the concept of the best life or an equivalent (Garret, 1996, p. 223). The reason for this, similar to the one proposed in antiquity, is that there is hardly a satisfactory definition of wisdom in which her possessor lives a bad, unfruitful life or does not know how to do it. It is, in other words, the practical aspect of the concept that is primordial in its definition and further interpretation. This highlights the idea that a strong rationale must exist for us to prioritize certain preferences and actions over others. Garret presents that our preferences and the actions we take must be somehow justified, and acting in detrimental ways towards a good, or better, life cannot be properly justified (Ibid, p. 223). Of course, in this characterization, decisions that may seem detrimental to one’s life are also considered. There is a recognition that, for different reasons, some actions might be beneficial in the long term or in a non-material way. Thus, Garret presents that when we give a definition of the concept of wisdom, we are, either explicitly or implicitly, presenting an idea of what a good life looks like, as it serves as a parameter for justifying our decision-making.

Wisdom, Titian, 1560
Figure 5: "Wisdom" (Titian, 1560).

The ancient views on wisdom, as exemplified by Plato and Aristotle, share similarities with modern perspectives. Both ancient and modern understandings emphasize the practical nature of wisdom, linking it closely to the ability to navigate life effectively. The ancients, Plato and Aristotle, identified wisdom as the key trait of an ideal ruler or philosopher, grounded in a deep understanding of the soul and its faculties. Similarly, Nozick underscores the importance of wisdom in living well, coping with challenges, and avoiding dangers, highlighting its practical application in daily life. Both ancient and modern thinkers recognize the interplay between theoretical and practical wisdom. While theoretical wisdom involves knowledge of universal principles and understanding the world, practical wisdom goes beyond theoretical knowledge to encompass the ability to make wise decisions in specific situations partly based on such theoretical knowledge. In order to understand the concept of wisdom, one must parallelly understand the connection between wisdom and practical reasoning, as well as its link to morality and virtuous living.

Nozick's expansive view of wisdom, considering its role in understanding the well-being of all things and their interconnectedness, aligns with the holistic perspective evident in ancient philosophy. The notion that wisdom involves a deeper understanding of life's complexities and recognizing ultimate goals and values is reminiscent of the ancient philosophers' emphasis on wisdom as a comprehensive guide to a flourishing life. The similarities between ancient and modern views on wisdom demonstrate the lasting impact of ancient philosophy on the foundation of contemporary thought. Both traditions recognize the multifaceted nature of wisdom, its practical application in life, and its integral connection to the pursuit of a good and meaningful existence.

Bibliographical References

Brown, L. (Ed.). (2009). Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford World’s classics) (W. D. Ross, Trans.). Oxford University Press.

Cooper, J. M. (ed.) (1997). Plato: Complete Works. Hackett.

Foucault, M. (2012). The government of self and others II: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1983-1984 (F. Gros, F. Ewald, A. Fontana, & G. Burchell, Eds.). Picador.

Garrett, R. (1996). Three Definitions of Wisdom. In: Lehrer, K., Lum, B.J., Slichta, B.A., Smith, N.D. (eds) Knowledge, Teaching and Wisdom. Philosophical Studies Series, vol 67. Springer, Dordrecht.

Lorenz, H. (2009). Ancient Theories of Soul, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Nozick, R. (1989) What is Wisdom and Why Do Philosophers Love it So? in The Examined Life, New York: Touchstone Press, pp. 267–278.

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