Wisdom and Enlightenment I take to both be qualitative measures of a person or their actions. In my view, neither are ultimate states of being. When I speak of “enlightenment,” I do not refer to the ultimate state of nirvana or Godliness that may be defined by some Eastern religious philosophies. Instead, I am simply talking about a category of virtue, such as intelligence, bravery, wisdom, loyalty, etc. Wisdom and enlightenment are ultimately the same thing, two sides to the same coin, but in human experience they have subtleties that distinguish them. Males and females are in essence the same—human—but in practice it is meaningful to differentiate between them because they each have idiosyncratic characteristics. In the same way, wisdom and enlightenment stem from the same thing—the holistic evolution of an individual over their life’s journey—but manifest differently in day to day life. I believe it is useful to make a distinction between them.
It has been said that wisdom is understanding others while enlightenment is understanding oneself. While I think there’s an enormous amount of truth in that, I honestly think that most will only find that description confusing and misleading. I don’t intend to try to fully define either term here because 1) they are too complicated and integral of concepts to pretend to explain satisfactorily, and 2) what they mean to each person may be unique and hard to relate. Also, the purpose of this post is not to search for their meaning so much as to delineate them as two separate entities and show how they are different.
Wisdom can be thought of as knowledge of the workings of society and nature. The ability to make logical decisions and accurate predictions, understanding the intentions of others, recognizing patterns, and knowing the consequences of actions all are part of being wise. On the other hand, enlightenment can be seen as recognition of the forces in life that matter most, both in oneself and in everyone. The ability to find happiness and inner peace, cultivate joy in others, and mitigate suffering are all tenets of the enlightened philosophy. One who can forgive unconditionally, love unconditionally, see the impermanence of all things, and value spiritual wealth over material wealth is enlightened. Again, to clarify, enlightenment as used here is not some sort of supreme divine state, but is simply a character trait. Everyone is enlightened to some degree, just as everyone is wise in some way.
Generally the two go somewhat hand in hand—a more enlightened person is usually wiser as well—but that is not necessarily the case. For example, think of a mob boss like Al Capone or the Godfather. The Godfather is experienced and street-smart, and is keen in the art of leadership and survival, not to mention extortion and manipulation. Like a chess player, he thinks business moves through to their consequence, plans ahead, and develops strategies; I think most would agree that this makes the Godfather wise. But such a person’s life choices are ultimately shortsighted because they do nothing to truly help the human race, themselves, or their ilk. They only contribute to suffering, whether it be short-term or long-term, and in their selfishness they believe that their marginal gain necessitates the loss of others and thereby justify themselves in heinous egocentric behavior. They are firmly rooted in zero-sum mentality (see “Fight Zero-Sum Bias” by towardabetterworld). Another great example would be Chancellor Palpatine (the emperor) from Star Wars. Only someone who understands human nature and the dynamics of society on a genius level could have risen to power and taken over the universe like he did; surely he is very wise. But inarguably he is the paragon of the unenlightened person because he chooses the “dark side.”
Conversely, take some 25-year-old flower-child hippie for example. This hippie believes in brotherhood, goodwill toward humanity, equality, pacifism, connection with Mother Earth, and all of the “good vibrations” that are typical of the hippie community. This hippie might suffer any number of faults also associated with her peer group, such as excessive drug use, financial irresponsibility, poor judgment, unsafe sexual promiscuity, inability to plan ahead, being foolishly trusting and thus easily taken advantage of, and so on. Certainly she lacks wisdom. But she is very enlightened because she understands clearly the importance of such fundamental principles as unconditional love, magnanimity, and compassion, and she makes an effort to incorporate these into her life. Many new-age thinkers these days are wonderful people but notorious for being unwise or immature in their life decisions, and so they can serve as an example for enlightened but not yet wise.
Ideally a person develops both enlightenment and wisdom equally. Such a winning combination can be found in such people as Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, many of the Founding Fathers of America, and other beloved leaders—like Yoda. Life teaches us both qualities with time and experience, and so the elderly usually make the best examples—although it’s obviously no guarantee, as many people seem to never quite learn some of life’s lessons.
>>Yoda’s teachings (for fun!)