What Is a Wisdom Text?
Defining “Wisdom Texts” and Why They Still Matter
At Uplift, we gather wisdom texts to help families build a foundation of wonder, resilience, and compassion.
That sounds nice, but what does it mean? After all, many passages in ancient wisdom texts carry terrible qualities of the cultures they emerged from, including misogyny, violence, and terror. So how do we discern what is wise from what is damaging, especially in a digital world that often feels removed from wisdom?
One answer is to get clear-eyed about what wisdom means.
In this post, we outline seven essential qualities of wisdom. These qualities, together with your intuition, help you better see what is wise and what isn’t, empowering you to discover wisdom wherever it’s found — including in forms beyond what we cover here, from art to film to music.
Wisdom re-centers our lives on what matters most, helps us find our inner compass, and serves as a guide to our true self. It’s an essential (and too often neglected) component of wellbeing. And it’s found around the world.
We consider texts that embody these seven qualities to contain wisdom — even if it means that certain passages in those same texts aren’t wise.
1. Wisdom is compassionate. “When other people attack you,” says one translation of the Tao Te Ching, “defend yourself with compassion.” Hebrew scripture complements this same idea, urging people to “show mercy and compassion to one another” and to “not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor.”
In a similar vein, Marcus Aurelius writes that whenever you’re about to criticize someone, you should ask, “What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?” And the Gospels say to “judge not, that you be not judged.”
The wise understand that life is difficult for us all. As such, if a passage encourages smugness, brutality, violence, or any sense of superiority to others, it is not wise. Wisdom delights in compassion.
2. Wisdom is full of paradox and therefore timeless. A kingdom within. The last being first. Chosen people who break their vows. A good neighbor who is a foreigner, not a priest. Darkness as a way to enlightenment. At every step, wisdom subverts our expectations. “When a fool hears about the Way, he just laughs and laughs,” says the Tao Te Ching. “If he didn’t laugh, it wouldn’t be the Way.”
Because wisdom is full of paradox, it can never be completely mined. As the philosopher George Santayana says, “Almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance it.” In this way wisdom is the opposite of one-sided, dogmatic, didactic sermons, which are limited to a specific context. Instead, wisdom is timeless. You can read it again and again, and it doesn’t lose its savor.
3. Wisdom is mysterious. It doesn’t provide pat answers to life, like a self-help book generally does. In contrast, wisdom expands life’s mysteries — providing just enough light so you can take a step ahead while also giving you a sense of just how much darkness the universe contains. It shows us the stars and the void that surrounds them, exploring what the German mystic Hildegard of Bingen calls “the darkness and mystery of creation.”
“Darkness within darkness,” the Tao Te Ching reads. “The gate to all mystery.”
4. Wisdom is easy — and demanding. “Nothing is required of us than to accomplish well the task at hand,” writes Marcus Aurelius. That’s it. “Do your work, then step back,” says the Tao Te Ching. “The only path to serenity.”
Of course, the wise know that it’s often best to be present to difficult tasks — meditating, giving to the least fortunate, exercising, etc. “I spit upon luxurious pleasures not for their own sake, but because of the inconveniences that follow them,” writes Epicurus. And Seneca notes that “it is not the man who has too little but the man who craves more that is poor.”
In this way, wisdom stems from delayed or limited gratification. “It is a characteristic of wisdom,” writes Henry David Thoreau, “not to do desperate things.” In other words, wisdom requires not giving in to each impulse we have and instead listening to our truest desires (which may or may not match our short-term impulses). This is why wisdom lacks mass appeal and why the Gospels say that “the road is narrow that leads to true life.”
5. Wisdom is full of metaphor. Jesus taught in parables. Plato wrote dialogues. The Bhagavad Gita tells of a battle in a field and in the heart. Metaphors abound in wisdom passages.
The Buddhist Verses of the Dharma (known as the Dhammapada) compares the wise to a solid rock that remains unshaken by a storm. The Bhagavad Gita says that an unfocused mind is like a boat that drifts off course. And the Gospels compare the Kingdom of God (a metaphor in itself) to a farmer planting seeds, a woman baking with yeast, a man finding a hidden treasure, and more. Again and again, the way to wisdom comes in metaphors.
Metaphors make wisdom palatable. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” writes Emily Dickinson. Why? Because, as T.S. Eliot writes, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”
6. Wisdom is spiritual. It isn’t a guide to amassing material riches or power. Instead, the wise know that you can have all the possessions in the world and still feel empty — that wealth, for all its upsides, doesn’t give ultimate meaning and may in fact stall the pursuit of ultimate meaning. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,” says the Gospels, “than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Wisdom is about the pursuit of ultimate meaning and connecting to your true self, other people, nature, and the divine, however it’s defined. In a word: it’s about spirituality. As the researcher Brené Brown writes, “Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.”
In this way, wisdom encourages people to experience the vastness and mystery of life. “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite,” writes the poet William Blake. “The wind blows where it chooses,” says the Gospels, “and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
“We cannot give the wind orders, but we must leave the window open,” the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti writes.
7. Wisdom is hopeful. The universe may be full of darkness, but there is reason to hope. We can find “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well,” writes Julian of Norwich. Rumi writes, “Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, idolator, worshipper of fire, come even though you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, and come yet again.”
Regardless of where we’ve been or what we’ve done, wisdom gives us reason to hold out hope for a better future.
So, in the end, why do wisdom texts matter? At a time when it’s easy to be glued to digital devices, navigating apps that are algorithmically designed to keep us distracted, we can at times feel disconnected from the truest part of ourselves.
In three words: Wisdom texts re-center us.
For more, see our growing wisdom library.
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