Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
With casual tones but deep inquiry, Wisdom proves to be a generous, heart-to-heart chat about our lives as thinkers
Wisdom: A Very Valuable Virtue That Cannot Be Bought presents a special blend of Aristotelian ethics, insights from neuroscience, and personal reflection, as the author leads the reader along a winding woodland trail inviting new discovery. The author, Jason A. Merchey, is a former psychotherapist who created the Values of the Wise website in 2004 and has published several books on values.
In Merchey’s definition, virtues are good traits we already have, values are aspirational, and wisdom is a kind of knowledge or intelligence we gain through life experience and intentional reflection.He punctuates his book with little personal anecdotes such as the day on which he planned to take a new kite to the beach but the kite was sucked into the blades of his riding mower. The takeaway: Wisdom involves the ability “To predict outcomes accurately.”
An especially inviting feature of Wisdom is that it is written in an open-ended way. Merchey isn’t walking us rigidly through the steps of an argument. Readers might feel inspired to skip around and read the chapters out of order. Just as wisdom grows in us over time, this book might have different effects on a reader on different days.
One quarter of the book consists of brief quotations. These appear at the end of each chapter, and each quote, though attributed to a person, is unaccompanied by a book title or other source. This is an informal delivery. It might inspire a reader to pursue a topic further on our own, but it does not give us many tools to do so. For example, Confucius may indeed have said “by three methods we may learn wisdom,” but we aren’t told who claimed that Confucius said this, who translated his words to English, or where we might find the text for ourselves.
The sources are diverse, and again, this has benefits and drawbacks. It creates an image of accumulated human wisdom that is cross-cultural, so we are treated to various perspectives, and we might imagine we are uncovering some universal human lessons. However, based on the authors whose names I recognize, it seems that these quotes are not always curated with consideration of a broader view of the authors’ lives and work. So, for example, I was personally delighted to see references to the philosophers Jennifer M. Hecht and Harry G. Frankfurt but was less enthused about Ayn Rand and Andrew Sullivan. People who read a lot of philosophy may recognize dozens of names and may have preexisting opinions about them.
Among the most relevant questions the book poses are those about passing moral judgment and making choices. For example: Should the government restrict speech? Should we be obligated to take certain medical treatments? This is part of knowing how to live, and so it is part of Wisdom. Such tough, unanswerable questions deepen the seriousness of the philosophical inquiry.
Germany’s laws today prohibit “Hate speech and far-right extremism,” and Merchey seems to approve of that approach, especially given that Germany’s intention is to prevent the resurgence of Nazism. On the other hand, Merchey says it is an “Odious practice” whensmall local libraries in the United States remove specific books, because such “Closedmindedness, hatred, superstition, dogmatism, persecution, and intolerance” often leads to or relates to the persecution of freethinkers. What’s the dividing line? How do we know when to interfere with someone else’s speech and when to tolerate it? The question is not solved here. We’re left to seek our own wisdom.
Similarly, the book raises the question, but does not answer, whether people should have the freedom (on religious grounds or otherwise) to refuse to take a vaccine that would reduce community transmission of a virus. Merchey’s general position is that, if we have wisdom, we can figure these things out for ourselves.
And we have to try, right? We can not give up the search for truth. Can we, though, to some extent, hold onto those reins less tightly? That is yet another proposal here.
One night in early 2022, Merchey had a mild illness, and he lay awake with self-doubt. There was a storm outside. He prayed for the first time in many years, and he was surprised to see lightning; he felt the lightning was connected to his prayer. “I experienced something I interpret to be a clarion call to wisdom,” he says. The vocation was about his personal hero’s journey to face a figurative monster: “Difficulty in feeling that I belong, that I’m good enough, that I deserve love, that I’m okay, that I’m successful, that I’ve got it figured out.”
As part of this revelation, he decided to “Aim for love and suspension of judgment” and “To take on less responsibility for the way the world is heading, to tone down my anxiety for all that is imperfect and dispiriting around me.” Here, he gave an example that some may find perplexing. He might happen to see a television segment about the January 6 rioters, he suggested, but “Instead of judging and becoming angry, I would endeavor to let them be,” since “I am not in control of anyone or anything but myself.”
There is indeed something to be said for reducing our anxiety about things we see on TV which we cannot immediately change. Sometimes we need to keep our focus on one set of values, and it does no good to allow ourselves to be distracted by other far-off issues with which we do not have expertise and can not really assist. But there is also something to be said for perceiving the needs of a particular moment, adjusting our journey, judging right from wrong in new situations, taking it seriously, and actively responding. Otherwise, our values can not help us navigate sudden crises.
Wisdom is a conversation in earnest about intellectual curiosity and in interpersonal tolerance, offering the reader space to arrive at deeper knowledge.
Genre: Nonfiction / Philosophy
Print Length: 399 pages
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