Wisdom and Understanding

Our lives are currently dominated by what might be described as lower case knowledge. We live in the information age. Data and information and quantity are the things we believe are important. T.S. Eliot famously asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” There are levels of knowledge that can roughly be divided into data, information, understanding, knowledge, wisdom.

What is often overlooked and undervalued in the information age is what might be described as “higher case” knowledge, such as understanding and wisdom and those qualitative assessments of the condition of human life that would frequently tell us that things are not as they might seem. Are we happier, more fulfilled, more cohesive as a society? Do we value people’s contribution, cherish craftsmanship and take delight in culture? The answer to these questions is frequently, no. Whilst we have more things and more data and information at our finger tips than ever before, things like wisdom, happiness and understanding appear to be more remote and less cherished than once they were.

Limits to Growth

The political economist John Stuart Mill understood that there were limits to growth. He recognised in the 19th Century that capitalism and the pursuit of wealth had to be restrained and regulated, lest the desire for more should lead to a kind of “suicide economy” in which the relentless march of excess undermines the capacity of a system to renew and sustain itself. He felt that that unregulated striving for profit and gain that is not tempered by moral and spiritual reflection can lead to harsh and uninvited consequences. In the Principles of Political Economy, he wrote, “if the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, I sincerely hope for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary long before necessity compels them”.

A mysterious reverence and awe is captured in many of these works in which the power and form of animals that are hunted are shown with great grace and form whilst the hunter looks like a mere stick. This celebration of the life of a hunted animal is hard to understand but perhaps Hugh Brody comes close to an explanation when he writes, “The difference between Hunter-Gatherers and agriculturalists is that rather than seeking to control the world, hunter gatherers know it. That is why transformation is more important than control. Transformation means knowing something so well that you become one with it. Transformation is a metaphor for complete knowledge. The hunter and his prey move so close to each other that they cross over and the one becomes the other”. Quote from Hugh Brody