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Wisdom: A Cross-Cultural Diagnosis

The Definition of Wisdom

What is wisdom? Well, it’s an English word. Are we talking about “wisdom” in Anglo-Saxon culture or Wisdom? Obviously, we don’t know how to define Wisdom, if it existed as Plato believed, but we can gain insights by looking at what wisdom is not, as well as the particular instances of wisdom-equivalents embedded in different cultures.

The Difference Between Intelligence and Wisdom

Off the top of my head I can contrast the two in the following ways:

  • Intelligence can be inborn, but wisdom must be acquired over time.

  • Intelligence is about how good you deal with things, but wisdom is about how good you deal with yourself, or how well you live.

  • Intelligence is somewhat shortsighted, focusing on solving problems or gaining benefits, considering each solution and each gain a success regardless of their nature, while wisdom involves discernment on the nature of what comes along before taking them on, with long term vision in mind. 

  • Intelligence has no ethical dimension to it, while wisdom is intertwined with virtue and morality. 

The last point concludes the previous three. It’s regretful that most people view virtue and morality as the outdated decree of tradition and religion and forgot how such teachings were developed and passed down, and why it remains timelessly important. After all, why should you live a moral and virtuous life? Those captured by immediate problems and benefits would have difficulty finding it relevant or useful, or even detrimental to their short-term pursuits. Highly intelligent people are especially prone to feeling contempt towards the idea of virtue and morality. On one hand, they think it is nothing but superstitious constraints on their free exercise of intelligence. On the other, receiving a great deal of social recognization for being good at solving problems and gaining benefits, they identify strongly with that ability. Often, it’s not until loneliness, divorce, or health issues creep in that they realize they are not merely their intelligence, but a multidimensional being. 

One significant oversight in the modern industrial worldview is our nature as social-emotional beings who need organic connections with each other to strive and feel happy. It is within this context that wisdom manifests in the form of virtue and morality, guiding our actions to align not only with those around us but also with the broader collective good. Generally speaking, however, wisdom is the ability to take balanced considerations in decision-making, based upon an inner attentiveness or groundedness that guards oneself against the bias of external conventions. 

Why is wisdom associated with old age? We all learn from suffering. If we don’t suffer, we’ll continue on the same path forever. It’s not unlike Newton’s first law: if an object experiences no friction or external force, it will continue to travel in the same direction forever. It is pain that tells us to change course. The more painful lessons we experience, the more wisdom we cultivate. A child naturally wants what tastes sweet, but parents know from experience that what tastes sweet is not necessarily good for your health. Yet, to the child, the parents’ directory feels like constraints. It is only when the child learns about the tragic stories of, say, sugar-induced diseases or suffers it personally, that he/she would submit their personal preferences to the mandate of nature through voluntary restraint. 

Therefore, the lack of restraint is a sign of infancy, if not stupidity. Taking pride in how much money one makes in a purely capitalistic sense is analogous to an obese person taking pride in how much food he consumes, meaning one is obsessed with a unidimensional gain at the expense of holistic health. You may be jealous of some of the pleasures they’ve enjoyed, but you definitely wouldn’t be jealous of the consequence. Taking the analogy to a higher level, if there’s no concern for the holistic health of a nation where all individuals form an organic whole, internal deterioration and disintegration would lead eventually lead to the collapse of society. (Whether or not this concerns those in power is another question.)

The Difference Between Love and Wisdom

We often hear the phrase “All you need is love.” It sounds really nice but sorry I disagree. Love is needed yes, but that’s not all. Love is a transcendental state that forgives all wrongs and overcomes all fears, but then what? At the end of the day, we still carry around this body, living among each other, facing concrete situations and needing to make decisions. Let’s face it - we live on Earth. We live face to face with the hard, cold, less-than-perfect facticity of life, which not only requires love to forego, but also discernment to work through and transform, so as for us to appropriate perfection.

To say “all you need is love” is either to be naive, or to dream of a Dionysian ecstasy that in reality is just escapism. I don’t have a problem with love. I have a problem with talking only about love in matters of human growth. Why do so many spiritual gurus talk about love all the time? Because it is pleasing to ear. Because it attracts customers. Everyone wants to hear about bliss, happiness, joy, but nobody wants to hear about the actual work that needs to be done to get there. Without the actual work, love does not take us anywhere, but only get us intoxicated. Without the actual work, one can only hope for our salvation. (That’s why I also dislike preaching hope.

We need both love and discernment, much like the inhalation and exhalation of breath. We need Apollonian sobriety as much as Dionysian ecstasy. Love without discernment is just chaos, while discernment without love is authoritarianism. We may be quite aware of the toxicity of one-sidedness of the latter kind, the solution is not to flip it entirely to the other side. Advocacy of any one-sidedness, regardless of which side, is essentially brainwashing and propaganda that runs the risk of precipitating into a cult. Religious cults and political cults are both cults. 

The state in which you combine and balance love and discernment can be called Wisdom. With wisdom, you neither look down on mundane life nor look so high up to divinity, so that you voluntarily take up the responsibility over your concrete existence, and willingly carry out practicalities with grace and justice. The mundane practicalities of life is by no means trivial, vain, or a baggage to the pursuit of spirituality, but is precisely where divinity finds room for expression. It is therefore the homework the school of life gives us. The sooner you stop looking elsewhere and do the homework, the sooner you learn and grow. True spirituality does not consist in rejecting mundane life, but in fully accepting it and embracing it, in embodying the transformation of it, by living transcendence through immanence… because the only way out is through. In fact, true spirituality is no spirituality at all, but just humanity, a deepening, maturing humanity, where both the spiritual side and material side of our being are equally lived out. That is why this website is called The Art of Humaning, not “spiritual” anything. 

Culture-Specific Wisdom

A people aggregates and self-organizes to form a certain way of life. So long as it survives and remains self-identifiable over time, it develops into a culture and substantiates a kind of wisdom that is unique to it as conditioned by geography and history. Insights and strategies that has helped the people survive and thrive are distilled and passed down from generation to generation as traditional teachings and guidelines. On the personal level, wisdom is the character that radiates a similar kind of guidance. 

As demonstrated above, wisdom is not wisdom if it is detached from the practical concrete dimension of life. Since what helps a people survive and thrive in one region may be different from that in another region, wisdom takes different forms in different cultures. 

Around the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea and the Black Sea, for instance, geography is such that it isolates populations from each other so that they develop distinct cultures and hence identities, facing each other in a us-versus-them scenario. As a result, they often find themselves at conflict with each other. Survival is very much a matter of competition against other peoples, breeding an externally-focused, confrontational and combative mentality. Sophistication in technique and instrumental rationality is essential to winning. On top of that, those with strategic rationality have an advantage of collaboration in order to the defeat of a common enemy. In the environment of constant warfare, thriving very much derives from looting and conquest, and the lack of ability to do so almost equates death. In the event that there is a relatively peaceful era, people thrive by trades based upon craftsmanship and contract, thanks to the same mentality. Wisdom in this context is linked to knowledge and decision-making.

By the sharpest contrast, in the Far East where a vast land is isolated by the Himalayas, by the northern desserts and the Pacific Ocean, geography provides the condition for a large population to develop in a more homogenous way. Due to the lack of geographical separation, distinct identities are often developed only to merge into one again, failing to form any substantial rivalry. Survival, in turn, is primarily a matter of taming natural disasters, which requires solidarity, patience and submission to the laws of nature. Thriving, by the same token, depends on working on the land in accordance with nature. Moreover, because it is one big “us”, thriving also consists in getting along well with each other. As a result, a nature-oriented lifestyle with highly sophisticated emotional rationality and docile temperament becomes the major character of this people. Wisdom in this context is linked to resilience and social harmony.

European Culture and its American Child

As one can imagine, constant strife does not favor thrive and expansion. If it wasn’t for Christianity, which brings in some peaceful energy and a trans-national identity by connecting everyone to a transcendental source, Europeans might not have been able to develop a large powerful empire like Rome. Facilitating the survival of a larger group of people and improving social life, the Christian wisdom of submission of personal will, or surrender, to a higher presence was recognized and passed down.

Even then, Europeans still found difficulty thriving because of their disadvantageous geographical location where all the main trade routes were blocked by more powerful empires in the Middle East. Europe did not begin to thrive until their early explorers took the crazy risk to sail across the Atlantic. Their reckless risk-taking behavior was rewarded by the enormous treasure of the Americas, their weaponry advancement proven victorious over the indigenous people, and their penchant for looting and conquest once again found encouraged expression. Bringing home undreamed-of amount of wealth, Europeans enjoyed unprecedented leisure for scientific research and discovery, which further drove social and economic transformation.

The rise of Europe was therefore the result of courageous exploration, brutal conquest, strategic colonization and ambitious innovation, not so much Christian teachings. The explosive success driven by these traits was so undeniably powerful that the taming and cohesive force of Christianity could no longer hold. The once unifying identity broke down but there was not yet the concept of one Europe. Different European nations began to compete fiercely against each other, so fiercely that it was followed by two world wars. Not until suffering became so unbearable that their atrocities found limitation and came to a stop. Recognizing the need to unify, they established the UN to validate the concept of one Europe, Christian or not Christian. 

Across the Atlantic, however, the US emerged as a strange species. It inherited the European traits but did not quite learn the same lesson. Given the new world order, the US has not actively engaged in traditional geographical exploration, conquest and colonization. However, the same mindset can be seen in the business world with the same, if not greater, zealot and proficiency. Hence we now have a name for this spirit: it’s the enterprising spirit. What sets US apart from its European predecessors is, if we consider the geography, that the US is one vast piece of land isolated from the rest of world, not unlike China. Although, one can argue, the case for today is different with industrial aviation sophistication. While I don’t doubt aviation offers greater mobility, but ultimately, freedom from land dependence is not dictated by the level of technology but by psychological needs and the strength of habits.

Anyways, the US is now facing a crisis owing to a mismatch of spirit and geographical conditionality. Geographically the US is conditioned with a “one big us” scenario, and politically it is also a single entity. Yet, spiritually the US has inherited the us-versus-them spirit indigenous to the Mediterranean. With no geographical expansion taking place, the result is increasingly bitter internal competition, accompanied with extraordinary attempts of expansion on many fronts, including physical expansion in outer space, biological expansion through genetic engineering and digital expansion through AI and brain-computer interface. Elon Musk, one may say, is the new Columbus, but we are not if this time the voyage is going to be successful again this time. 

Unlike China, there is neither domestic sensitivity nor conscious advocacy for social harmony in the US. With Mars still on its way as a viable destination for conquest and colonization, local competition is going to grow so intense that untamed instincts would finally burst out and fuel a civil war. The America politicians’ move of blaming their own downfall on other nations is very understandable, for reason given above, and that if they successfully provokes World War III, that provides an outlet for that same problematic energy.

The Wisdom US Needs Right Now

As I have demonstrated above, wisdom is what helps a people survive and thrive.

The US may have been thriving for a while, but it is now facing a survival problem. As the world’s most powerful military, the US’s survival is under threat not because of foreign attack or invasion, but rather due to internal disintegration. If the rest of the world does not react to US provocation, we are likely to watch US collapse from the inside, on its own, ourselves untouched. But if we do get into WW3, then the world turns into chaos, and only those who last until the end will decide what wisdom is. 

The business of finding wisdom for the US is, however, not their own business, but is everyone’s business. Either US collapses or WW3 break out, there’ll be widespread unrest and catastrophes. The best scenario for all of us would be for the US to remain a stable entity through transformation. Whether WW3 breaks out depends on many players, but the US can do something to prevent itself from collapsing instead of provoking WW3. Yet, since what the US does is not their own choice, what mistakes they make is also not their own blame. Therefore, the wisdom the US needs right now is also the wisdom (all of) us need right now.

The point of this lengthy article is to argue that, there is something the US can learn from Chinese culture. When I say that, it’s not because the Chinese is superior. Like everyone else, they’ve developed such a culture out of necessity. The US should learn from Chinese culture because they have a similar geographical conditionality. To the contrary, I’m making this suggestion because I have a higher expectation of the US to have the ability to rationally assess the situation, to recognize the repeating patterns and develop the awareness of the need to change oneself before the necessity of unbearable suffering calls upon it. 


P.S. I am in no way an expert of history and politics. I'm just writing based on the impression I have on the state of affairs. If you find any wrong or misleading information, kindly point it out. Thank you!

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Apr 29

Dear Leanna,

some points from John, a friend of mine in Alberta - he is about my age ...


Why should you live a moral and virtuous life? To me this is obvious ... it's the right thing to do. Being a good person is not negotiable.

I agree with "wisdom is the ability to take balanced considerations in decision-making". But again, to me, this is obvious.

Why is wisdom associated with old age? Well, generally yes. But I have met many young who are wise and many, many old people who don't even come close to knowing the meaning of the word "wise". So, for me, wisdom can be acquired through the aging process but there is an…


Apr 28

Thanks for posting your latest contribution touching on a number of interesting issues. I found many points quite inspiring, enough to take another look at the conventional idea of wisdom of the ages from a philosophical perspective. While there is an enormous amount of value to be gained trying to integrate much of what we have gasped and manged to understand to apply in our daily lives individually, we still have to inspire each other a lot more to extend our thinking into the present to bring the demands for mental development for the future into a more clearly defined context where each one of us has sufficient insight into our own capacity to act as a Mind Spark, providing…

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