What is wisdom? But first, what are the conditions that render it desirable, if not necessary, and what is its essential purpose?
Life is a desire to live, and better still a desire to live happily. As we strive to satisfy this desire, we encounter obstacles that complicate or frustrate our efforts. This complication or frustration amounts to suffering because it stands in the way of satisfaction.
Wisdom is designed to help us cope with this suffering. It is an adaptive product of reason in the face of tough circumstances. Thanks to it, happiness is conceivable and achievable in spite of everything. It is therefore the supreme good.
Actually, religion is a good that many rank equally high, since it serves the same purpose as wisdom, if differently. The difference lies in the way religion and wisdom portray suffering and define the meaning of life.
From the perspective of religion, suffering betrays a state of worldly imperfection that is in contradiction with the human desire for perfect happiness. Consequently, life here below – where humans are doomed to suffer – is absurd in itself. Or rather, life is meaningful strictly in terms of means to a heavenly end in the great beyond: A life of virtue prepares the way for an afterlife of bliss. The religious believe this in accordance with the teachings of an inspired spiritual leader, who claims to know the transcendental nature of the hereafter.
While personally I cast a skeptical eye on these teachings, I keep my mind open. They are highly suspicious, but the transcendental nature of their object puts them beyond the reach of any discredit based on conclusive evidence.
Anyway, as I see it, wisdom is independent of religion, though it can complement the latter. According to it, life in itself has meaning, despite its imperfection that people can learn to accept. Better still, they can learn to value this imperfection as they realize that perfection, contrary to popular belief, is not infinitely desirable.
Indeed, perfect happiness leaves something to be desired. By definition, it excludes suffering and hence all forms of complication or frustration. It supposes that circumstances are absolutely favorable – that is, not tough in any way. Therefore, no effort is necessary while every dream is possible. At first glance, this sounds like the most wonderful situation imaginable, and yet taking another look at it will dispel this illusion.
What strange whim, in the history of humankind, has compelled people from every walk of life to leave their cozy home and embark on risky ventures? Perhaps this whim is not so strange after all. A multitude of conquests have been made for the sheer joy of conquering against great odds. The operative word is pride, accompanied by excitement. To conquest-minded people the infinite ease of heaven entails infinite boredom. To them life – together with the struggle that is integral to it – is the very thing that perfect happiness leaves to be desired. It is an opportunity to prove courageous and victorious, though it is also a risk of failing painfully.
Happiness is about grasping this opportunity with courage and gaining a victory over the obstacles that stand between us and success in all the activities that most matter to us. This victory is often strenuous and always limited, precarious, and transitory, and we are bound to lose the battle in the end; but that makes the victory all the more precious and worthy of savoring.
When trying to define the activities in which we most care to succeed, we are forced to study our nature to know our purpose. Our growing wise depends on this study and this knowledge, leading to this definition. It begins with an awareness of our animal will to survive, as survival is the foundation on which life, in the truly human sense, is built. The awareness of life in this sense follows. It takes into account both our humanity and our individuality, as members of society with particular tastes and abilities to which a wide range of activities are suited.
The clearer we are about our purpose, the more we can live our lives with determination and passion, and so with a greater chance of succeeding and achieving happiness. The reverse is equally true. It therefore stands to reason that in striving after wisdom we lay the groundwork for success and happiness.