Philosophy—The Love of Wisdom?
Welcome to this short philosophy course. My name is Will Buckingham. I’m a philosopher and writer who has spent many years thinking about the practical implications of philosophy for everyday life. Over the next 10 days, we’ll be exploring how philosophers both East and West have thought about wisdom and how we might be able to cultivate it. Together, we will be looking at some of the most important and influential thinkers in all of human history, from Plato and Aristotle to Confucius and the Buddha.
Knowledge and Action
But what is wisdom? In an everyday sense, we often have a good idea of what wisdom means. Perhaps you have a friend whom you consider particularly wise, whom you regularly go to for advice. Or perhaps you have a friend who is spectacularly unwise and who, when you go together to the zoo, leaps over the barrier to give the lions a cuddle. We are quite happy to call our 1st friend wise and our 2nd friend unwise. But what do we actually mean by this?
To be wise, it seems that you need to satisfy at least 2 requirements. You need to have knowledge (you need to know that lions are dangerous animals). But you also need to act wisely in the light of this knowledge. In other words, knowing what you know about lions, you still need to resist the mad impulse to cuddle them when you are overwhelmed by their cuteness.
Whatever else wisdom might be, it involves both what we know and what we do.
Philosophy and Wisdom
The word “philosophy” literally means the “love” (philo in Greek) of “wisdom” (sophia). So, a philosopher is somebody who loves wisdom. This, of course, leaves us with 2 important questions: What is wisdom? And what does it mean to love wisdom?
The idea of philosophy goes all the way back to ancient Greece. It is said that the philosopher Pythagoras in the 6th century BCE was the 1st to call himself a philosopher—a philosophos, or “lover of wisdom.” In calling himself this, he was not claiming to be wise. Instead, he was merely saying that he was somebody who valued or cherished wisdom.
Later, the philosopher Plato, who lived in the 5th century BCE, explored these ideas in more depth. In a text called the Symposium, Plato claimed that a philosopher was somebody who was “between the wise and the ignorant.” In other words, a philosopher cared about wisdom but also knew that they were ignorant (we will see tomorrow how Plato was influenced in this by his teacher, Socrates).
Wise Thinking, Wise Living
The philosophers we will be exploring in the coming days have different approaches to the question of what wisdom is and how we might become wise. Some philosophers are more practical, focusing more on what we do. Others are more theoretical and grapple with questions about what we know. In this course, we will explore both kinds of questions. We will look at how we might think more wisely and how we might live more wisely.
A Word of Warning
By the end of this course, you should have a better idea of how some of history’s greatest philosophers have thought about wisdom and why it matters. I can’t, of course, guarantee that you will become wise in 10 days (and as we will see, the philosophers don’t all agree on what “wisdom” means, anyway). But what I can promise you is that through looking at these different philosophers, you will have new ways of asking the question, “what is wisdom?”, new ways of answering the question and perhaps new ways of thinking about what it might mean to live wisely.
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