Celebrating Wisdom

The Fresh Perspective Podcast - Episode 31

How’s it going everyone? I’m Nick and you are listening to the Fresh Perspective Podcast.

When this episode was first recorded, we were just a couple of days away from the September Autumnal Equinox at my latitude. For members of a Free Thought Forum and others, this means that the time has come for the Wisdom Festival! Today, I’d like to take this special occasion to talk about this new tradition as well as the virtue of wisdom itself, one of the four cardinal virtues of classical philosophy, and, according to Plato, the most important characteristic of a philosopher-king.

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What does it mean to be wise? How can one develop wisdom? After we wrestle with those questions, I’d like to introduce you to the ideas and traditions behind the Wisdom Festivals hosted by this organization on the days before each September Equinox. This episode is divided into four parts. In order to get the most out of this podcast, please stick around for each one!

Part 1 – What is Wisdom?

Finding the best definition of wisdom, to me, is a captivating exercise. In a group of friends, it can spark a conversation that lasts hours. I will share some of my thoughts on it, but I’d also like to ask you for yours. To better conceptualize the virtue of wisdom, I’ve broken it down into four main ideas:

1. A Multi-Layered and Organized Perspective.

One may see wisdom as the ability to recognize the harmony or conflict between many different perspectives at once and reliably prioritize and organize them in the most useful way. For example, a wise person is able to consider both the learned facts and moral sensibilities applicable in a given situation. This comes from a deep understanding not only of what is real but also what is right. Their actions and thoughts are not ruled by just one objective or presupposition. Rather, they carefully weigh multiple considerations with respect to things like complicating nuance, cultural norms, logical fallacies, long-term consequences, and so forth. Wisdom isn’t the stubborn reliance on one idea that cancels-out all others. Instead, wisdom is a developed skill that takes one’s experience into account with other factors and allows one to properly consider what one should do, what one shouldn’t do, and how to act as a result.

2. Properly Applied Knowledge

When we are presented with neutral facts, what are we supposed to do with them? A wise person can give a good answer. Much like how engineering can be considered the application of science to innovate, invent, or solve real-world problems, wisdom can be considered the best possible application of knowledge, or knowledge put to good use. From this perspective, knowledge represents raw data, the facts, and plain information that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to any practical usage. A long list of memorized facts does not constitute wisdom. Yet when we take this raw data and consider how to best use it, we are exercising a modicum of wisdom. This is the process you go through when you solve a story problem in your math class. You may be told that a car has a 15-gallon tank, gets 30 miles per gallon, has only half a tank left, and is stopped at a gas station 10 miles away from the next gas station. Those are all just facts, words on a piece of paper. But then when you go to answer the question, “Can the driver reach the next gas station if they don’t fill their tank now?” that requires a little bit of wisdom. How wise a person is can be shown by how they use information. A wise person knows when to use specific tools of logic, when to estimate, when to through-out certain ideas, and when to highly value others. For example, if a child asked their parent, “Why do some berries taste bad,” a foolish parent may answer the question at face value, doing very little with the situation. A wise parent, on the other hand, may proceed to find out if the child has been endangering themselves by eating wild berries.

3. Exercised caution when it comes to Action and Belief

A wise person is also careful about what they believe. They are not easily fooled, nor are they overconfident. They recognize the value of learning and are quick to replace previously held concepts when they are shown to be false. The wise have discovered a healthy balance between skepticism and open-mindedness. They value what is taught by experts, but they do not blindly believe in any authority. Rather than accept the conventional wisdom of their time, a wise person is slow to make conclusions and quick to investigate, ask questions, and improve their understanding. This also carries over to their actions. They strive to always consider the short-term and long-term effects of their choices, and only do something if they have good reason to do it.

4. Meaningful Dialogue

Calling something wise can be like calling something beautiful. Through a subjective lens, stated wisdom seems meaningful to its listener. It strikes us as profound, insightful, intelligent, and surprisingly useful. In contrast, foolish speech seems vacuous, hollow, and barren. This relates to what Plato said, that wise people speak only when they have something important to say, but fools speak because they always have to say something. When you add your two cents, I suppose that it is helpful to contemplate your motives behind it. A wise person genuinely believes they have something to add to the conversation supported by a deep comprehension of the subject matter and careful consideration of the situation. A fool simply wants to meet a deadline or fill an awkward silence with noise.

Part 2 – Developing Wisdom

If you would like to be a wiser person, here are some things to try-out:

1. The WHY Game

Think about one of your most important beliefs. Ask yourself why you believe it. Once you think of an answer, ask yourself why you believe that answer. Continue until you’ve reached a belief or an idea that you can’t explain and write it down. Now you’ve found something important to study and/or discuss with other freethinkers!

2. Detecting Your Blind Spots

Think of the last time you were not able to explain something to a child, were fooled, became angry during a debate, or when you dramatically changed your mind about something important. Consider how you felt and what you thought about that thing before and after your mind was changed. This may help you identify your personal “blind spots” or subjects that you would do well to think about more carefully in the future.

3. Read about Something Someone like You Wouldn’t Read

We can be picky about the kind of ideas we let into our minds. Without meaning to do so, we may find ourselves trapped in an echo-chamber of our own making, recycling the same ideas. A wise person actively tries to broaden their mind and deepen their well of knowledge. You can do this by choosing to read something you otherwise would never have read. Dive into it as far as you can! Even superficial knowledge of a topic previously foreign to you can one day prove useful in an unexpected way.

4. The Best Counterarguments

It can be extremely helpful to dispassionately contemplate strong arguments coming from the “other side” of a debate. Think of a position you hold on a given issue. Then try to find the best possible arguments coming from those who hold the opposite position. Even if you don’t end up changing your mind, this exercise may powerfully enrich your perspective.

Part 3 – Forging New Festivals

Now that we’ve given the concept of wisdom some time to swim in our thoughts, I want to better explain this weekend’s celebrations, and why this organization is hosting them in the first place.

In the early days of the Free Thought Initiative, one discussion among board members drifted into the importance of traditions and seasonal celebrations within a community. We wanted to come up with four of them, four special events that could interrupt our regularly scheduled discussions on science, health, and philosophy. More importantly, holidays and annual events can bring fun, distinction, and a sense of unity to a group of people. This kind of cultural unity is something our local groups can really use, especially when we consider how diverse our members are and tend to be.

Any Free Thought Forum may be comprised of members who are Atheists, Christians, Sikhs, Pantheists, Mystics, Hindus, Buddhists, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Anarchists, and so forth, in various ratios. If we are to come together to celebrate something, it has to be something that we all can value, no matter our backgrounds or beliefs. In the wider picture, it wouldn’t be prudent to base these traditions on local cultural norms. If a Free Thought Forum was created in Taiwan, for example, it would be silly for them to throw annual parties about a culturally-specific idea like American Football.

This line of thinking brought us to celebrations themed around moral virtues and common life goals related to those virtues. While many holidays and festivals call back to a person, historical event, region, product, or story, we set our sights to something more universal. The key was to select specific virtues that would apply to all people, from all regions, and across time.

Another thing to consider was the timing. When would these four celebrations take place? After all, many countries around the world don’t even use the same calendar as we do in the United States. To answer that question, we turned to another concept that breaks through the barriers between cultures: Science. Scientific fact beautifully and equally applies to all peoples of the world. To find special times throughout the year, why not look at the actual seasons and orbit of the earth itself? If we are to have four annual secular celebrations, then it is perfectly reasonable to space them equidistantly, and according to natural phenomena, such as the solstices and equinoxes of our planet. For convenience, we can then make the official celebration times fall on the weekends just before each solstice and equinox. Since all of our groups meet on Saturday or Sunday, then all they would need to do is replace their regular meetings with these themed parties when the time comes.

But what should we do at each of our annual festivals? That is completely up to you and our community! Feel free to be creative and inventive. Sharing your suggestions can help us all create a rich and meaningful experience each year. We have looked around the world for inspiration and have been pleased with what we have found thus far. Likewise, if you look near and far for great traditions and practices that match each theme, we would love to hear what you find.

To see our official updated traditions for each of our festivals as well as a list of all such upcoming celebrations, please visit freethoughtforum.org/festivals.

Part 4 – Wisdom Based Traditions

In addition to your other local, national, and cultural festivities, we hope that you will join us for this year’s Wisdom Festival, a celebration of prudence, intellectualism, logic, learning, knowledge, education, intelligence, expertise, reason, rationality, brilliance, sagacity, and other related virtues. Participants are encouraged to value learning and understanding for its own sake, and not just as a means to an end. We set personal goals for the coming year regarding our individual education and each guest may select new free book to read. Past academic achievement is celebrated and the senior members of our families are honored. Starting in September of 2019, the following traditions connected to this festival were set in place and modified according to the feedback of our members:

  1. Looking Smart –Many participants will use the occasion to look smart, don dapper digs, and dress to the nines. Feel free to wear your best dress, your fanciest tie, or simply just come as you like.

  2. Intelligent Treats and Mystery Sacks – Dig into an assortment of (surprisingly healthy) erudite edibles. This year, we will have fresh vegetables, banana-oat cookies, and rice-crackers. Be sure to also pick up a grab-bag of intellectual goodies such as top-of-the-line pens, bookmarks, and owl-shaped erasers before you leave!

  3. Used Book Exchange – Bring one or more used books that you would like to donate or swap for one or more new reads from other freethinkers!

  4. Honoring Academic Achievement – We’d like to shine the spotlight on the sacrifice and personal improvement of our scholars, no matter their age! Did you learn a language, sign-up for your first college classes, graduate with honors, win 2nd place in a spelling-bee, learn how to play an instrument, earn 100% on an exam, or something similar? Let’s share that with the audience followed by some much-deserved applause.

  5. Party Games and Treasure Hunts – Be ready to test your knowledge and wit playing strategy and trivia games. Young guests can even go on a puzzle-based hunt for the chance to win some toy treasure!

  6. Suggested Family Tradition: Senior Interviews – Guests are encouraged to take some time in the week following this event to visit an elderly family member or friend and invite them to share their stories, memories, and life-lessons-learned for an enriching and educational experience for all involved.

  7. Additional Theming -- To ground the abstract concepts featured in this celebration, the following symbolism is utilized:

  • The Colors Orange, Yellow, and Gold - In Europe and in North America, orange is strongly associated with the autumn season and with warnings calls to be careful. In the historical European arts of heraldry and vexillology, these colors were associated with prosperity (like fields of wheat), wealth, sunlight (enlightenment), and excitement. In Sikhism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, yellow represents knowledge, learning, mental development, and a grounded lifestyle. Orange (saffron) is also a sacred color of spiritual purity.

  • The Owl - This was the symbol of Athens in the ancient world, a hub of the arts and scholarship. In classical mythology, the owl is a representation of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. In Hinduism, an owl is the vahana of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, fortune, and prosperity.

  • An Open Book - From the ancient halls of the Library of Alexandria to the ebook collection you have on your smart device, few of humanity’s tools over the years match the teaching power of books. Reading is one of the fastest and most efficient ways you may increase your knowledge, and knowledge is power!

Which traditions would you like us to attach to these events? What do you think of our plans so far? Your FEEDBACK is welcome.

If you have enjoyed this conversation or have learned something from it, please leave a like, subscribe, and share it with other open-minded people. All of those small things really do make a big difference and help others find our group and our podcast. Thank you!

That is all I have for you today, but the conversation continues across social media and in the comment sections below. Do you agree with today’s message? Am I mistaken about some detail? What feedback or ideas do you have for this program or our organization? Feel free to share your perspective.

A Special Shout-Out goes to Shayne Wissler, Lance Freeman, and Brooke!

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Written By Nicholas Burk, Executive Board Member © 2019 Free Thought Initiative

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