Knowledge is cumulative, wisdom is cyclical.
With knowledge, we are able to build upon the work of past generations to see further. With wisdom, we only rediscover what people have already found out for thousands of years. If Archimedes gave us the principle of buoyancy and Aryabhatta told us the value of pi, we have used them to build ships and satellites. We don’t read books written by ancient Greek or Indian scientists, but we continue to read the Bhagavad Gita or Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.
Once knowledge is discovered, it can be taken for granted and applied without truly understanding it. Every time I switch on a tube light, I don’t need to stop and think as to how it works. I can whip out my smartphone, shop for gadgets and have them appear at my doorstep. Right now, I am pushing buttons to have my thoughts magically appear on a screen to be dispersed to the rest of the world. I can do all this without the slightest knowledge of the complex systems that make this possible.
The same, however, isn’t true of wisdom. Wisdom ought to be thoroughly understood before it is applied. In line with the Gita’s advice, I cannot pretend to do my duty without attachment for a reward without understanding what ‘duty’, ‘attachment’ and ‘reward’ mean in a specific context. Marcus Aurelius wrote, ‘Soon you’ll be ashes or bones. A mere name at most—and even that is just a sound, an echo. The things we want in life are empty, stale, trivial.‘ What do those words mean? And in which context are they true? Wisdom applied without understanding decays into ritual, dogma or superstition.
Isaac Newton, perhaps the greatest purveyor of knowledge yet, once said ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.‘ And so it goes with knowledge. With wisdom, however, despite our having become bipedal more than 4 million years ago, every single toddler has to learn anew to amble on its feet.