Madison Cawthorn’s time as a member of the United States House of Representatives is coming to an end. He’ll be remembered for a number of things, especially alleging that other politicians invited him to a cocaine-fueled orgy.
What I’ll remember most, however, is the time he compared himself to the wizard Gandalf, which is strange for many reasons, chief among them that Cawthorn has also said that he doesn’t have “a whole lot of wisdom.” This would seem to be a problem for an aspiring Gandalf, and is pretty evident in how Cawthorn talks about him.
“You think of a Harry Potter or a Gandalf in one of these great works of fiction,” he said during an interview. “They’re handed a wand. And you as the viewer, you don’t exactly know what they can do with that wand, but you know it holds incredible power. That’s a lot what it’s like coming into Congress, because there’s really no limitations onto what you can and cannot do in Congress. Aside from what the Supreme Court will allow you to do.”
It’s a truly special passage in which Cawthorn is somehow wrong in multiple ways. Gandalf doesn’t have a wand, he has a staff. There are also most definitely limits on what Gandalf (and Harry Potter) can do with their staff (or wand). And there are definitely limits to what you can and cannot do in Congress, as Cawthorn himself learned. This wasn’t a one time deal for Cawthorn — he made a similar comparison between himself and Gandalf earlier this month.
As is perhaps evident from my critique, I’ve dedicated this year to reading more fantasy and science fiction. Earlier this year, I read the first novel in The Wheel of Time series. Then, I finished the Witcher series that inspired the video games and Netflix series. Currently, I’m reading The Lord of the Rings, which somehow fell through the cracks all these years. After that, I’m going to read N.K. Jemison’s Broken Earth trilogy.
Fantasy authors love writing about wisdom, which is distinct from intelligence and knowledge, and is decidedly not omnipotence. Gandalf in LOTR, for example, is a member of the White Council, also called the Council of the Wise. In The Wheel of Time, there’s a job title, for lack of a better term, called The Wisdom. Elves are usually portrayed as quite wise, in part because of their long lives — experience often correlates with wisdom. It’s a common trope that elves either view humans with scorn or pity because of their short lives, which lead to an aggressive, brutish existence. Elves rarely fight each other, whereas humans always fight each other. Armed with insufficient experience and a lack of compassion, humans commit the same mistakes over and over again, often due to selfishness and short-term thinking.
I’d like to be wise. I think everyone would like to be wise. Perhaps Cawthorn would too. But what is wisdom? Sometimes it’s almost like porn—hard to define, but you know it when you see it. When I was younger, my cousin and I settled upon the idea that wisdom was the right application of knowledge. We then discovered many, many others had settled on this same definition. But it’s insufficient. People can use knowledge well but not necessarily be wise, just lucky. Shorting the stock market may be lucrative and the right application of knowledge, but that doesn’t necessarily strike me as wisdom. It’s just being clever and using practical knowledge to one’s advantage. If you asked 100 people who the wisest person they can think of is, I bet you’d hear “my grandma” a lot more than “John Paulson.”
People have been trying to pin down wisdom for at least many thousands of years. Most, if not all, religious traditions address the idea. The word “philosophy” itself comes from the Greek “philo,” meaning love, and “sophia,” meaning knowledge or wisdom. The Bible mentions wisdom more than 100 times, often equating it to divine revelation and other times providing more practical advice, such as, “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.” Aristotle’s conception of wisdom lies in the Golden Mean, or moderation between extremes.
Although people have been wondering about wisdom and searching for wisdom, the study of wisdom from a psychological perspective is quite new. It was only in the 1980s that psychologists began formulating methods to measure and identify wisdom in a laboratory setting. So what I want to do in this essay is examine a few different theories of wisdom. Then I have a question: Do you think the United States is a place designed to promote wisdom? Are our laws, policies, regulations, and cultural values such that it produces wisdom?
And before I dive in further, a disclaimer: there’s something unsettling, for me, in even writing about wisdom because it risks signaling that I think I am wise and I’m just trying to help all of you plebs. That is not the case. I’m just trying to learn, and then pass on what I learn. With that said, let’s explore some theory. 1
There are two major branches of psychological research regarding wisdom. The first branch consists of implicit theories of wisdom. These theories address what people mean when they talk about wisdom. It looks at how people have used the term “wisdom” in everyday language, throughout history, across the globe. Interestingly, there’s a word for wisdom in just about every culture. Psychologists Paul B. Baltes and Ursula M. Staudinger — both a part of the Berlin Wisdom Project, one of the most developed approaches to understanding wisdom — write that in examining this research, there are five conclusions that can be drawn:
- Wisdom is a concept that carries specific meaning that is widely shared and understood in its language-based representation. For example, wisdom is clearly distinct from other wisdom-related psychological concepts such as social intelligence, maturity, or creativity.
- Wisdom is judged to be an exceptional level of human functioning. It is related to excellence and ideals of human development.
- Wisdom identifies a state of mind and behavior that includes the coordinated and balanced interplay of intellectual, affective, and motivational aspects of human functioning.
- Wisdom is viewed as associated with a high degree of personal and interpersonal competence, including the ability to listen, evaluate, and to give advice.
- Wisdom involves good intentions. It is used for the well-being of oneself and others.
The second branch of psychological research includes explicit theories. These aim to quantify and qualify what wisdom is and offer methods for evaluating wisdom through laboratory testing. The Berlin Project approached this by creating hypothetical situations and then asking participants questions. The participants were asked to think out loud and explain their thought process. They then examined the participants’ responses and determined wisdom had five key aspects:
- Factual knowledge: Practical knowledge about the world
- Procedural knowledge: Practical knowledge about how things in the world work
- Lifespan contextualism: Knowledge about the many human contexts and how these different contexts relate to each other
- Value relativism: Acknowledgment of and tolerance for value differences and the relativity of the values held by individuals and society
- Awareness and management of uncertainty: Knowledge of the limits of human understanding
As the first large-scale project aimed at understanding wisdom, the Berlin Project was a landmark achievement. However, it’s not perfect and has been criticized in a few different ways. First, it’s very individualistic in orientation. When their explicit theory is put up against the implicit theories, there’s no mention of prosocial behavior or interpersonal skill. This first criticism dovetails into the second, which is that these conclusions point to pragmatic or professional expertise rather than wisdom.
Monika Ardelt, a professor of sociology at the University of Florida, makes this point, writing that wisdom should be less about professional knowledge and expertise. Wisdom, she writes, should be thought of as “an integration of cognitive, reflective, and affective personality characteristics.” Building on earlier research, she proposes these three “dimensions” of wisdom, which together have come to be known as the three-dimensional wisdom scale:
Cognitive: An understanding of life and a desire to know the truth, i.e., to comprehend the significance and deeper meaning of phenomena and events, particularly with regard to intrapersonal and interpersonal matters. This includes knowledge and acceptance of the positive and negative aspects of human nature, of the inherent limits of knowledge, and of life’s unpredictability and uncertainties.
Reflective: A perception of phenomena and events from multiple perspectives. Requires self-examination, self-awareness and self-insight.
Affective: Sympathetic and compassionate love for others.
There are still other approaches to understanding wisdom, and one of the most interesting comes from neuroscientists Thomas Meeks and Dilip Jiste. In 2009, while both were working at the University of California San Diego, they published a paper suggesting that the wisdom-producing areas of the brain could be mapped. The two doctors examined existing research and settled on their own six factors of wisdom:
- Prosocial behavior and attitudes
- Social decision-making and pragmatic life knowledge
- Emotional homeostasis
- Reflection and self-understanding
- Value relativism and tolerance
- Acknowledgement and dealing efficiently with uncertainty and ambiguity
It’s important to stress — as the authors do time and time again — that this research is in its infancy and much more is required. However, it’s also the case that using neuroimaging techniques, they found evidence suggesting that those six factors of wisdom could be mapped to specific regions of the brain in an observable and testable way.
Finally, I’d like to mention Robert Sternberg’s Balance Theory of Wisdom. Sterberg is a professor of psychology at Cornell University and possibly the leading thinker on wisdom. Sternberg receives high marks from me if for no other reason than his website is clean, easy to read and gets to the point, which seems wise. He defines wisdom like this:
The balance theory defines wisdom as the use of one’s intelligence, creativity, common sense, and knowledge and as mediated by positive ethical values toward the achievement of a common good through a balance among (a) intrapersonal, (b) interpersonal, and (c) extrapersonal interests, over the (a) short and (b) long terms to achieve a balance among (a) adaptation to existing environments, (b) shaping of existing environments, and (c) selection of new environments.
Going back to where I began this essay, when I look at these various definitions of wisdom, I am reminded of Gandalf. We’re going to get a little spoilery here so if you have never read or watched Lord of the Rings, yet plan to, this essay has reached its conclusion for you. I am sorry my friend.
Back to Gandalf. Gandalf’s wisdom, in my opinion, consists of the following: Gandalf simply knows a ton. He may be the most knowledgeable person in the entirety of Middle-Earth. He is also extremely good at his job as a wizard. By all accounts, he has no rival outside of Saruman, but by the end of the saga, he has surpassed even him. Yet, Gandalf is also aware of his own limitations. Through reflection — which he speaks of often — he comes to an understanding of where his knowledge and his ability end. He says several times that there are powers in Middle-Earth even greater and older than his own. He also eschews ownership of the One Ring because he doesn’t feel strong enough to overcome its evil influence. Gandalf is compassionate. He cares about everyone from the Hobbits of the Shire to the Ents of Fangorn and even to those who have fallen under the Dark Lord Sauron’s sway.
Gandalf is deeply empathetic and he is slow to judge. Whereas most see individuals and events as static points in time and space, he sees them as the result of infinite influences, a complex web of causes and effects. When Frodo tells Gandalf that he wishes Bilbo had killed Gollum when he had the chance, Gandalf famously responds:
“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many — yours not least.”
We see in this one paragraph nearly the entirety of each theory of wisdom I laid out. There’s compassion, self awareness, acknowledgement of uncertainty and ambiguity, a concern for the near and far, the short and near term, and knowledge about the ring.
Wisdom, I think, is most noticeable in leaders — both its presence and its absence. When we think of leaders in the United States, presidents come to mind as people who should be wise, even if they are not. People might cite George Washington as a good president, and specifically, the well-known parable about how he was reluctant to be the president in the first place and was, when the time came, willing to leave the presidency, establishing a peaceful transfer of power. Washington is not Gandalf, in part because Gandalf is a fictional wizard who creates a near impossible standard BUT! his fabled reluctance to hold the highest office along with his willingness to leave it are not so different from the reluctance to accept the ring. This kind of selfless behavior, putting the good of others over your own power, is almost universally thought of as wise.
I find the way most politicians talk about working in the public sector as disingenuous. It’s almost universally described as “public service” yet anyone half paying attention knows that getting elected to office is also a way to derive immense power. This is troubling for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is that research shows that there’s a correlation between narcissism and interest in learning about leadership theory. It’s a kind of cliche that the best leaders are the ones who don’t want to lead in the first place. But the American system of elections is highly favorable to narcissists who are at home raising money with donors, misleading constituents and generally bending the entire apparatus to their whims via gerrymandering, byzantine campaign-finance workarounds, and uncapped wealth.
When people talk about the American Dream, the self-made man or woman, it’s devoid of many of the aspects most associate with wisdom. What generally passes for wisdom here is an intelligent narcissism that enables individuals to skillfully navigate our legal and financial system to accumulate extraordinary wealth and fame. We praise this behavior.
Views on Elon Musk are all over the place. But he embodies, in many ways, this kind of American Wisdom that grades individuals by their business success and the words they say rather than how they act in aggregate, including toward others. He sometimes gestures toward an effort to give the impression he cares about other people without actually demonstrating it. For example, he said at one point he wanted to turn Twitter HQ into a homeless shelter (ironically, Jeff Bezos supported the idea). Musk, and Bezos obviously, are a couple of the richest people to ever walk the Earth. They could do a lot for the homeless right now, they just don’t.
The wisdom of capitalism, or specifically of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, is that it harnesses individuals’ self interest. By being selfish, we are actually helping others. As Gordon Gekko infamously said, Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Milton Friedman agreed with him, suggesting that the objective of a financial system is not to eradicate greed but to harness it for good. Friedman also blessed us with his Shareholder Theory of Value, which argued a firm’s ultimate responsibility was to its investors, rather than, well, anyone else including the employees, customers, or the general public who was affected by the firm.
But greed isn’t good. It’s associated with all kinds of psychological ills and bad behavior. Adam Smith was writing in a pre-industrial setting in which a “large” company might have had 10 people in it. This version of free-market capitalism was an alternative to rapacious mercantilism, designed to give more power to individual proprietors. He couldn’t have imagined modern society, and the way in which his work would be applied. Taken to its deregulated extreme, this kind of capitalism was most visible in the Physiocrats and Flour Wars of late 18th century France, which precipitated the French Revolution and the American Gilded Age in the late 19th century.
The shareholder theory of value is one of many factors that has encouraged short-termism. The behavior encouraged is decidedly unwise if we are operating under and of the theories of wisdom espoused above.
“In 2005, according to a survey of more than 400 financial executives, 80% of the respondents indicated that they would decrease discretionary spending on such areas as research and development, advertising, maintenance, and hiring to meet short-term earnings targets and more than 50% said they would delay new projects, even if it meant making sacrifices in value creation. This admission that managers were willing to sacrifice long-term investment in favor of short-term gain was alarming.”
So, I’ve done my share of critiquing. What would a society that promotes wisdom look like? Well the one thing lacking in the theories of wisdom is a theory of what happiness looks like. On some level, wisdom is the skill of living well, so what is living well? Like wisdom itself, it takes a level of presumptuousness to express confidence in an answer. I don’t have a fully fleshed out idea, but the beginning one I’d like to explore.
Most would acknowledge that an economic system is intended to create an equitable, fair distribution of goods and services. Then we argue about what that system actually looks like. I would contend that our social system, our system of governance, should also aim to promote psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness. In other words, as a society, we should strive to create opportunities for people to do things they love, in the manner they prefer, with the people whom they want to be with. In the United States, we profess to be a land of opportunity and a meritocracy but because society is oriented around the pursuit of profit, opportunities are inherently limited, and that’s before we get into socioeconomic barriers.
We’d invest more in education, more in physical & mental health, and more infrastructure. We’d view extreme inequality and outsized influence in political campaigns as long-term threats to the country. We’d encourage our wisest people to work in public service, not the most famous or the most wealthy or the most narcissistic.
I don’t know how to do these things. But it seems to me, most people aren’t even talking about them. We’re trying to work around the edges on a system that is profoundly broken and getting worse.
Increasingly, it’s not just everyday Americans but also the politicians who work within the system and the titans of industry who sit on top of it who acknowledge that things are not working, that something else is needed — though it’s unclear exactly what that is.
In the wake of his defeat, Cawthorn referenced something he called “Dark MAGA.” He says the time of “gentile politics is over.” He sounds vengeful, vowing to expose insufficiently America First Republicans. When I saw Dark MAGA, I immediately thought of Mordor. I’m not sure that Cawthorn has what it takes to lead the armies of darkness like Sauron, but he may be right that a darkness is descending over the United States, and it may have begun long ago.
1 I would like to thank Dr. Ronald Siegel and his lecture “Towards A Science of Wisdom,” which helped me greatly in formulating this essay.