I was once asked what I thought the difference between knowledge and wisdom is. At the time, I declined to answer. I know what knowledge is, but "wisdom" means so many different things to so many I was not sure the word could be adequately defined. I'm still of the opinion the word, as generally used, is mostly ambiguous.
What Is Wisdom?
Nevertheless, I think there is a kind of knowledge that might properly be called wisdom. Wisdom is knowing what is truly important and what is not, what to take seriously and what to ignore, what should occupy one's real concerns and efforts, and what should be recognized but generally dismissed as a waste of one's time, effort, interest, and emotion.
There are two things that determined what is to be taken seriously and what ought to be disregarded. The first is the nature of reality itself, the second is one's whole view of life.
Reality—Mutable and Immutable
In all of life and reality there are things that can be changed and things that cannot. The nature of reality itself and the principles that describe it, both scientifically and philosophically, cannot be changed, because they are absolute and immutable.
For any individual, most of the world they find themselves in cannot be changed either. No individual is going to change the world economy, prevent the next war, or change society. In fact, the only things an individual can realistically change are his own immediate circumstances, and the only individual one may morally change is himself.
This does not mean what an individual does has no influence beyond his private sphere. Everything an individual actually achieves and produces will affect those who buy his products or use his services. If he is an inventor or innovator, his efforts may have very wide influence in such possible fields as medicine, electronics, or other industry. Of course writers and other creators also have wide influence. Even for the most creative of individuals, however, no individual is going to change the economy of Africa, the immigrant problems of Europe (or the United States), the possibility of war (involving China, Russia, the US, India, Syria, Iran, etc.), society's declining morals, race riots, rising crime, the threats of terrorism (or lightening strikes, which are more likely).
Wisdom is knowing what one can truly change and if it is truly worth changing, and what one cannot change and learning how to accept and deal with that which cannot be changed while reserving one's time, efforts, and resources for those things that truly matter to the individual and are within one's ability to change.
One reason for this article is a response I received to my article, Bright Future. The article is about Chidera Ota, a young girl in England who has already made something of herself through her own effort. I wrote: "The future belongs to those who will make it ... like Chidera Ota." The comment implied that my positive estimation was perhaps unrealistically optimistic, that the future would be determined by politics and economics. It is not a response that surprised me. Nevertheless, it is not correct.
All that really matters in the future does not depend on states, or governments, or societies, or economies, or movements, or ideologies. All that really matters about the future will be determined by the same thing that determined the past—competent, self-directed, independent individuals in independent action.
"In the entire the history of the world every advance in civilization, every gain in knowledge, and every improvement in the human condition has come solely through the efforts of independent individualists. They and they alone are the creators, innovators, and discoverers of the world. These men are all there is of positive importance in all of history; all the rest, the tyrants, the dictators, the famines and plagues, earthquakes, floods, and wars were important only in the negative."
It is as true today as ever in the past, that all that is positive in the future will come through the efforts of self-motivated, competent individuals pursuing their own rationally chosen goals like Chidera Ota, and all hope for the future depends on such independent individualists and their discoveries, achievements, and accomplishments.
While conservatives and libertarians are good at identifying all that is wrong with the world: the police are bad, the government is bad, politics is bad, the MSM is bad, terrorism is bad, racism is bad, the courts are bad, the economy is bad, public schools are bad, businesses are bad, everything is bad; they all miss what is good in the world, because their entire view of the world and reality are wrong, which is why all they take seriously is wrong as well.
One's View of Life
One's view of the world, whether present or future, is determined by one's view of life itself.
In a 1960 letter to a fan, Ayn Rand wrote to explain a passage in Atlas Shrugged: "We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?"
That conversation was between Dagney Taggert and John Galt; Dagney is speaking. Here's how Ayn Rand explained it:
"Let me begin by saying that this is perhaps the most important point in the whole book, because it is the condensed emotional summation, the keynote or leitmotif, of the view of life presented in Atlas Shrugged.
"What Dagny expresses here is the conviction that joy, exaltation, beauty, greatness, heroism, all the supreme, uplifting values of man's existence on earth, are the meaning of life—not the pain or ugliness he may encounter—that one must live for the sake of such exalted moments as one may be able to achieve or experience, not for the sake of suffering—that happiness matters, but suffering does not—that no matter how much pain one may have to endure, it is never to be taken seriously, that is: never to be taken as the essence and meaning of life—that the essence of life is the achievement of joy, not the escape from pain. ....
"It is the difference between those who think that man's life is important and that happiness is possible—and those who think that man's life, by its very nature, is a hopeless, senseless tragedy and that man is a depraved creature doomed to despair and defeat. It is the difference between those whose basic motive is the desire to achieve values, to experience joy—and those whose basic motive is the desire to escape from pain, to experience a momentary relief from their chronic anxiety ....
"It is a matter of one's fundamental, overall attitude toward life ...."
[The Letters of Ayn Rand, The Later Years (1960-1981) August 29, 1960.]
What To Take Seriously
There is nothing wrong with identifying evil in the world, or one's society, or the actual difficulties one is going to face in life. It is part of a realistic view of life. It is when problems, difficulties, dangers (real and imagined), and evil become one's focus and dominant view, especially when most of those things are simply facts of today's real world about which one cannot actually do anything to change that such views are both irrational and contrary to the point of life.
The purpose of life is not to fight evil, but to achieve good. The ultimate purpose of every individual's life is to enjoy it, but a human being can only fully enjoy life by being the best human being it is possible to be. It is being a moral individual, which I once described at the heading of my site's home page:
"Only the moral individual is fully human. Only those who choose to take responsibility for their own lives, neither desiring or seeking anything in life but what they have achieved or acquired by their own effort, fully confident in their own ability and competence to live happily and successfully in this world, gladly bearing the consequences of their wrong choices, and proudly enjoying the rewards of their right ones, neither needing nor wanting the agreement or approval of others, always seeking to be the best they can be in all things, mentally, morally, and physically, are fully human and worthy of the name and worthy of the life. Anything less is immoral and subhuman."
At all times and in every place there is always evil, danger, and difficulty one must learn to identify and deal with. The nature of evil may change its face and character, but is ever present. What is true about all evil, in all its guises, is that it is always only a negative. Evil has no positive power and only exists as a negation of or threat to the good. The presence of evil means there is good, something of positive value the evil threatens.
It is not evil that one must take seriously, but the good that evil threatens. The moment evil is able to distract one from pursuing the purpose of their own life, evil has won. It is one's own life, what one can make of it, what one can accomplish and achieve of real value that must be taken seriously—one's own life is all that is worth taking seriously, because it is the only thing one has complete control of, and the only thing that ultimately matters.
If you let platitudes like, "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing," make you believe, "doing something," means attempting to fight every evil that comes along, evil will definitely win. What good men must do is to not take evil seriously, not let it determine the course of life, but to take the achievement of what is truly good and worth pursuing seriously. That is how evil is defeated.