Many people mistake knowledge for wisdom because they are intimately related, and this is unfortunate because they are quite different in an important way. Knowledge is the accumulation of facts and information. Wisdom is the synthesis of knowledge and experiences into insights that deepen one’s understanding of relationships and the meaning of life. In other words, knowledge is a tool, and wisdom is the craft in which the tool is used.
If one understands this difference, he or she will also appreciate why it is vital to properly distinguish between the two. With the Internet, it is now relatively easy for a reasonably diligent person to quickly become knowledgeable in virtually any field of his or her choosing. We are literally awash in a sea of information! But having a hammer and knowing how to use it are two entirely different propositions. A hammer is amoral. Whether it is used for good or ill depends entirely on the wielder. Sadly, history is a lengthy record of the harms wrought by knowledgeable, well-meaning people who lacked wisdom.
In contrast to knowledge, wisdom is generally considered to be morally good. Why is this the case? Albert Einstein once said, ‘Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.’ Such a process is lengthy and arduous, which teaches the pursuer patience and humility. Seldom is a person unchanged by such a trial. When one finally uncovers a connection or insight that he or she believes to be universally applicable ‘truth,’ it often inspires awe akin to a spiritual experience.
‘Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers,’ wrote Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Truths stay with a person for the rest of his or her life, coloring all subsequent thoughts and actions. Wisdom requires no law or threat of punishment to ensure compliance. The practitioner typically feels a strong compulsion to obey his or her own beliefs. The wise can still fall prey to indiscretions and questionable moral behavior–being flesh and blood like us all–however, if one tracks such statistics, the odds of such failings are likely to be very small compared to the general populace.
Society esteems the wise for their virtuosity and for their rarity. Subject matter experts number in the thousands, but the wise may only number in the tens or hundreds. And history records their names and achievements for posterity’s sake.