On the Universality of Wisdom

This post is about the sharing of wisdom. Wisdom is one of those curious things in life whose effect and impact is unpredictable. The same piece of advice given twice may have different effects on someone, depending on their current motivations.

In Herman Hesse’s seminal work, Siddhartha, the titular character tells his dear friend Govinda that:

Wisdom is not communicable. The wisdom which a wise man tries to communicate always sounds foolish. SIDDHARTHA / HERMAN HESSE

So why, then, am I writing this right now?

I’ll begin with an illustration: John is 19 years old and fresh out of school. His good friend tells him the old adage:

A penny saved is a penny earned.

John considers the saying for a moment and comes to the conclusion that it’s simple, common sense. If he saves his money now, he’ll have that money available in the future. It’s so obvious that it’s almost nonsensical.

The years go by and John is now in his late 40s with a nice little family. He hears the saying again. This time he agrees with zeal, thinking about his upcoming retirement. The less money he spends now, the less money he has to make to support his retirement.

As you can see, the personal context changes the meaning of the wisdom. Young, 19 year old John has an entire life of earning ahead of him. He’s not apt to be as sensitive to savings and time constraints as his older self. His motivations are quite different than family man John. Family man John values the time he spends with his family above all else. In his view, spending money decreases the amount of time he has available for them.

The idea of many latent interpretations is something also found in books. How many times have you heard someone say they picked up an old favorite and read it as if it were new?

Marcus Aurelius suggested that one should not simply read a book, but rather study it intently. Only moving onto the next after you’ve thoroughly mastered the material. I think he would have been in agreement with the idea of multiple pass-throughs, each time wringing out a few new droplets of wisdom for your particular time and place and mind state. That’s the wonderful thing about great art; a new lesson every time you observe. Paintings are often said to be a ‘picture captured through the lens of the artist’. Almost, as if for a moment, you were able to view the world through the artists eyes, ears or mouth.

So that’s what this thing is. Or what I hope it to be. Lessons picked up over a lifetime of living that may make sense, some of the time, to some of the people.