How wisdom is “timeless”

Twenty-three hundred years ago Aristotle concluded that, more than anything else, men and women seek happiness. 

That is the first sentence from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s  seminal book, Flow. Csikszentmihalyi (the author with my favourite surname) goes on to point out how despite progressing by leaps and bounds in several ways since Aristotle’s time, our understanding of happiness is no better than his.

This principle applies more broadly to all matters pertaining wisdom. Most of our “progress” has happened in the realm of knowledge. Knowledge is cumulative: each one of us knows more about the world than our ancestors did. While they thought that diseases were caused by evil spirits entering bodies, we know about pathology. While Aristotle assumed that the sun and the planets revolve around the earth, we know better today. When Newton mentioned standing on the shoulders of giants to see further, he was talking about knowledge.

Despite people trying to pass on wisdom, it does not accumulate. Wisdom is analogous to growing up. We are not able to “pass-on” having grown up to our children. Regardless of its parents’ age, every baby has to start from scratch as a zygote in a womb and work its way up to grow into an adult. Of course, some children grow better than others because they receive the right nutrition and care. The wisdom we are handed down are merely that – favourable conditions for us to acquire this wisdom ourselves rather than theorems and formulas to be employed readily. Self-help comes with a bad rep because it promises short-cuts to wisdom, which only experience can truly internalize.

Knowledge is like an infinite ladder, perpetually extending in one direction. Each generation starts off at the rung that the previous one has climbed to. Wisdom is said to be timeless. That is probably a kinder way of saying that each generation’s wisdom dies and withers away along with its passing.

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