What Is Wisdom?

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis writes of “the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.” This concept, Lewis says, is common to all peoples, cultures, places, and times throughout history. By orienting our education toward the one truth, goodness, and beauty and including Philosophical Realism as one of our Six Loves, Great Hearts asserts our fundamental agreement with Lewis that there is such a thing as objective reality and that we can know that reality through inquiry.

In the Second Grade at Great Hearts, students learn about the birth of philosophy in Ancient Greece and the teaching of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle that the noblest undertaking of mankind is the pursuit of wisdom. In his work entitled the Metaphysics, Aristotle distinguishes a six-fold hierarchy of human knowledge. At the bottom is mere sensation, which can be called upon in the next highest form of knowledge, memory. Over time, memory compiles into experience. In humans, experience leads us to the knowledge that certain things will be a certain way all of the time—the first universal knowledge obtained through the uniquely-human faculty of reason and which Aristotle calls understanding. When we take our understanding and begin to reason deductively from what we already know to create further knowledge and inquire into the causes of things—why things are the way they are—then our knowledge has reached the level of science, or theoria in Greek from which we get our word theory. Lastly, when we inquire into the first, highest, and most universal principles of reality—into truth itself—we are pursuing wisdom.

But “knowing reality” or “knowing what is true” is an incomplete definition of wisdom. We might think of the image of the “absent-minded professor” who is very knowledge in his area of study but we would not call “wise” on account of his frequently forgetful and foolish actions. In fact, the virtue of wisdom includes within it the habit of ordering one’s life in accord with what one knows to be true. The truly wise person doesn’t simply know reality but acknowledges one’s duty to conform one’s actions to that reality—in fact, that conforming our actions to reality is the very definition of virtue.

Wisdom is the virtue of knowing what is true and doing what is right.

At Great Hearts, we help our students to see what is beautiful and true in the world and to order their choices in response to it. Whether it is the truth that 2 and 2 always makes 4, the truth that cells are the building blocks of life, or the truth of human experience contained within a great work of literature, the pursuit of wisdom permeates our school day.

Examples of Wisdom from the Great Hearts Curriculum

In First Grade, during their study of the Ancient Egyptians, our scholars learn about the Egyptian goddess Ma’at. In Ancient Egyptian religion, Ma’at was the personification of truth, justice, and the inherent order of the universe.

Later in First Grade, while learning about the Ancient Israelites, students hear of the Torah—the Law the Ancient Israelites believed was given by God and that all humanity is to follow.

In Fourth Grade, students learn about Alfred the Great, King of the Anglo-Saxons, who, in addition to successfully defending his kingdom from the fury of the Vikings, was also a renowned scholar who authored and enacted his own code of laws and ensured the survival of ancient wisdom in England by personally translating works like Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and the Psalms from Latin into Old English so his people could read them.

Core Virtues