The transcendent intellectual virtue is wisdom. King Solomon’s court is said to have marveled at his wisdom when he ordered the baby cut in half, knowing that would identify the mother; even if he was wrong, the only woman, of the two, fit to care for the child was the one who would act to save him. Wisdom is intellect reaching deep into the emotional lives of others, often predicting how they will feel or what their behavior will be, and acting accordingly. It must be grounded in universal respect for human worth and dignity. All the building blocks we have taken so far must be in place, then wisdom can thrive.
In addition to reaching into the emotions, wisdom is in its essence active. Knowing what to do but not doing it, is not wisdom. As we get into the components of dignity, at the pinnacle of ethical Being, the domains of Being have become united.
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divides by Politics and Religion (Pantheon Books, 2012): Haidt, who is left-of-center politically, argues that the right succeeds because it is better attuned to visceral human needs such as community.
It was my teacher's genius, her quick sympathy, her loving tact which made the first years of my education so beautiful. It was because she seized the right moment to impart knowledge that made it so pleasant and acceptable to me. She realized that a child's mind is like a shallow brook which ripples and dances merrily over the stony course of its education and reflects here a flower, there a bush, yonder a fleecy cloud; and she attempted to guide my mind on its way, knowing that like a brook it should be fed by mountain streams and hidden springs, until it broadened out into a deep river, capable of reflecting in its placid surface, billowy hills, the luminous shadows of trees and the blue heavens, as well as the sweet face of a little flower. Any teacher can take a child to the classroom, but not every teacher can make him learn. He will not work joyously unless he feels that liberty is his, whether he is busy or at rest; he must feel the flush of victory and the heart-sinking of disappointment before he takes with a will the tasks distasteful to him and resolves to dance his way bravely through a dull routine of textbooks. [Helen Keller, The Story of My Life (1904), Chapter VII.]
Other true narratives:
- Stephen Greenblatt, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics (W.W. Norton & Company, 2018): “Shakespeare’s plays yield chilling insights into the 21st century’s turbulent political scene.” This book illustrates how all fiction arises from real minds.
- David Yaffe, Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017): “. . . I was surprised to discover how many of her songs I remember, more or less in their entirety. What a tribute, it seems, that her evocative character sketches and laments for doomed love — melodically unpredictable, literary, convoluted and mostly lacking catchy pop refrains — should have remained so familiar, and that they should still strike us as so beautiful, smart and inventive.”
- Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter (Random House, 2008): “A slim volume packed with nourishing nuggets of wisdom”.
- Richard K. Rein, American Urbanist: How William H. Whyte’s Unconventional Wisdom Reshaped Public Life (Island Press, 2022): “Whyte was like a choreographer of the great musical whose libretto he doubtless could have written . . .”
When wisdom was lacking:
- Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro, The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World (Simon & Schuster, 2017). “Henry Kissinger called the Kellogg-Briand Pact ‘as irresistible as it was meaningless,’ while George Kennan described it as ‘childish, just childish.’”
- Max Boot, The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the Tragedy of Vietnam (Liveright, 2018): “The more interesting and at first glance attractive argument is . . . that the answer in Vietnam was to deploy less military force, not more . . . They forgot that in a war of this kind it was not enough to be against Communism; one had to be for something.”
Karen Russell is an author with a remarkably distinctive literary voice. “Her work has a velocity and trajectory that is little less than dazzling, and a tough, enveloping, exhilataring voice that cannot be equaled . . .”
- Karen Russell, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves: Stories (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006).
- Karen Russell, Swamplandia! A Novel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011): highlighting the author’s wisdom in telling the story.
- Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013): a collection of stories highlighting the author’s imagination, individuality and insight.
- Deepa Anappara, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line: A Novel (Random House, 2020): “We marvel at those threads, so vibrantly woven by Anappara, as Jai tracks down the missing children’s families and friends, only to discover that even those closest to them have little understanding of their true selves. This is the power of this novel, how it keeps us grounded — not in the flats of the hi-fi dwellers but in something closer to India’s heart, which she locates in the minds of children with bony shoulders and dirty feet.”
- James McBride, Deacon King Kong: A Novel (Riverhead Books, 2020): “McBride’s ability to inhabit his characters’ foibled, all-too-human interiority helps transform a fine book into a great one.”
- Gina Sorrell, The Wise Women: A Novel (Harper/HarperCollins, 2022): a former advice columnist gets a first-hand view of her effectiveness in that role.
Film and Stage
- The Silence of the Lambs: wisdom’s evil counterpart in Hannibal Lechter, whose understanding of people is genius, misdirected by sociopathic intent
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Paul Simon writes of life. Just when you think we’re “gliding down the highway”, he lands a decisive verbal blow to the solar plexus. You may not feel it at the time but sooner or later, if you’re paying attention, it will catch up with you. Simon earned an honored place in popular music history with his beautiful duets with Art Garfunkel but his was not the pretty voice. His performances are professional but his high-baritone voice is thin and unremarkable. His incorporation of world music into his own is forward-looking and excellent but not extraordinary. Simon’s place in music history, and as the first recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for popular song, comes from his unique combination of easy popular melodies with brilliant lyrics that jar the soul not with crass or vulgar language but with images in the key of life. Links to his full solo albums, more or less, and other live appearances, are below.
- “Paul Simon”
- “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon”
- “Live Rhymin’”
- “Still Crazy After All These Years”
- “One-Trick Pony”
- “Hearts and Bones”
- Graceland, the African concert
- “Concert in the Park”
- “The Rhythm of the Saints”v
- “You’re the One”
- “So Beautiful or So What”
- “Stranger to Stranger”
- “In the Blue Light”
- “The Concert in Hyde Park”
- Live in Montevideo, 1992
- BBC sessions, 2006
- Live in Nottingham, U.K., 2016
- Live in Charlotte, N.C., 2017
Carl Nielsen, Violin Concerto, Op. 33, FS 61 (1911) (approx. 35-40 minutes): wisdom incorporates high intellectual and emotional functioning. So it is with Nielsen’s Violin Concerto. Nielsen expressed his intent: “It has to be good music and yet always show regard for the development of the solo instrument, putting it in the best possible light. The piece must have substance and be popular and showy without being superficial. These conflicting elements must and shall meet and form a higher unity.” Violinist Vilde Frang says: “It's very hard to get Nielsen right; I think it's because his music isn't very obvious. Structurally, it's so free -- it swims, in a way. There is a structure, but it's a very exotic, very special, very personal kind of structure.” Violinist Johan Dalene says: “The music is full of surprises, unexpected harmonic twists and sudden changes of mood. Here we find pride, joy and an exquisitely beautiful and melancholy slow movement which ends with a question mark. There is an enormous wealth of detail and every time I return to Nielsen’s music, I find something new.” Top recorded performances are by Lin & Salonen in 1988, Tellefsen & Menuhin in 1989, Vengerov & Barenboim in 1996, Anthony & Matson in 1998, Znaider & Foster in 1999, Matsuyama & Wagner in 1999, Frang & Jensen in 2011 ***, Zilliacus & Blendulf in 2014.
Other artists and albums:
- Kat Gang, “Come Closer” (2018)
- David Boswell, “The Story Behind the Story” (2020): “These are the works of a very sensitive mind. Every composer sufficiently skilled and educated in music could conceivably exhibit a modicum of creativity when it comes to putting notes together in order to create pleasant melodies, interesting harmonies and danceable rhythms. But it takes a truly gifted one to make narratives come alive, to make you feel the emotions that he is feeling . . .”
- Murray, Allen & Carrington Power Trio, “Perfection” (2015): these three superb musicians, playing with and off each other, "share a chemistry that gives their music remarkable strength."
- Pasquale Grasso, “Solo Ballads” (2021): a virtuoso jazz guitarist plumbs the depths of classic popular ballads.
- Ches Smith, “Interpret It Well” (2022) (70’), “takes its title from the pop artist Raymond Pettibon who often mixed his images with creative writing in a chimerical setting. All of which fits nicely with Smith's compositions but even in the album's most impulsive improvisations, the music is remarkably articulate. Smith's leader work makes one further question the logic of placing arbitrary definitions and categories on creative music.”
- Gillis: The Alamo; Saga of a Prairie School; Portrait of a Frontier Town: these works tell stories of others with understanding and empathy.
- Aronis, William Blake Cycle
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Carlos Nakai and Nawang Khechog, Wisdom
- Nawang Khechog, Wisdom Heart
- Nawang Khechog, Ocean of Wisdom
- Nawang Khechog, The Five-Peak Wisdom Mountain
- Nawang Khechog, Wisdom and Compassion
- Nawang Khechog, The Perfection of Wisdom
Books of poems:
- Linda Gregerson, Canopy: Poems (Ecco, 2022): “She is a poet of wisdom, of maturity, of memorable advice, looking to history and sometimes finding help there . . .”