Seek Knowledge and Wisdom
Wisdom is one of the four basic Stoic virtues. Wisdom requires knowledge. Wise people have knowledge and know how to apply it to living. But what is knowledge? What types of knowledge should we seek? Where should we seek knowledge and wisdom?
Knowledge is information that true. Information comes from many sources – reading, the internet, classes, conversations with others, etc. Information becomes knowledge when we determine it to be true. Information is useful only if it is true.
Determining truth is a key step. It is easy to get information. But what information is true? Truth in this context means information that can be used with a reasonable confidence it will lead to a desired outcome. It is consistently useful in achieving what we want. There are practical ways to teasing out the truth.
Knowledge for living well is knowledge useful for that purpose. Aristotle referred to it as practical knowledge as opposed to theoretical knowledge. It is what we consider and use when deciding to act. Knowledge should improve life’s important decisions. It isn’t knowledge for its own sake or just because it’s interesting. It isn’t theoretical knowledge about fundamental truths such as quantum mechanics. It’s knowledge useful for living, making decisions, and leading a fulfilling life. Regardless of subject matter (science, politics, logic, history), the filter is always what might be useful to know in the journey to be a good person.
I divide knowledge for living in two categories to help plan acquiring knowledge. One is the knowledge that already exists. Something is known and understood by others. It exists and doesn’t have to be created. This knowledge is accepted at some level as true. It may be unknown to us, but we can learn it. This knowledge can be had by study. We can read, talk with people, listen, and take classes. We are fortunate to have vast storehouses of this type of knowledge at out fingertips.
The second category is knowledge that doesn’t exist or doesn’t exist in a form that is practical or relevant to us. This type of knowledge is gained through experience or through the process of creating new knowledge. Sometimes this is simply deeper knowledge of a general principle we have learned. Often experience is necessary to gain a full and nuanced understanding of of a concept. Sometimes we create knowledge by bringing together what we have learned by study and gained by experience. Experience is the key to this category of knowledge. Interaction with the world is necessary.
The distinction between the two is important because it affects how to go about learning. We are like scientists. We need to master the known scientific knowledge to be proficient in our field. But then we must experiment and discover or create new knowledge. We must pursue both and different strategies are needed.
Gaining knowledge is work. We must gather information that may be relevant and potentially useful. Only certain information is important for our purposes. We need to know where to look for the knowledge we want. We must filter out what is likely to be useful from what is not as well as what is true and what is not.
There are many failure points and opportunities for mistakes. Much time can be spent gathering useless information. Also, we can believe certain information to be true only to learn later it is wrong. It is easy to be inefficient. How often have we had to learn the hard way – through experience – when we simply could have paid attention in class. We can miss learning from experience only to repeat mistakes. I have made all these mistakes and more. Some mistakes I were part of the unavoidable messy nature of life and learning. But, we can gain more knowledge faster using a reasoned, planned approach. It doesn’t have to be a haphazard process.
The key is maintaining the drive and effort to acquire knowledge and wisdom throughout life. Little knowledge will be gained by waiting for it to come to you. Seek it out instead. Approach learning about life with a plan.
The other essays in this section present some of thoughts and experiences on how to gain the knowledge about living.