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Knowledge vs. wisdom, and the wisdom to know the difference

thinking boy

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Fr. Taylor Colwell - published on 08/16/23

We have practically all the knowledge in the world at our fingertips, yet distinguishing truth from falsehood has not gotten easier.

When I was around 10 years old, I went away to a weeklong summer sports camp with a group from church. It was my first time away from home for this long, and I was a little nervous. Thankfully, my assigned roommate was a couple of years older than me, and he took me under his wing. 

The first evening, I noticed a group of older boys up to no good: carrying on in a rambunctious manner, going where they weren’t supposed to, and generally trying to break as many rules as possible. Naïve and bookish young boy that I was, I asked my roommate, “Those boys are all pretty smart … they make good grades, do well in school: Why are they acting so foolishly?” Mature beyond his years, he replied, “There’s a difference between knowledge and wisdom. They’re smart alright, but they’re not wise.”

The search for wisdom has animated the human being from the beginning, from Socrates to King Solomon. As my summer-camp roommate intuited, wisdom involves far more than just the knowledge of raw information, for it includes the ability to put the knowledge one has acquired into practice, especially when it comes to the moral and relational life. It includes the ability to distinguish between what is and isn’t important, to weigh various options and make deliberate choices leading to the formation of a solid character. It involves prudence, discernment, moderation, and discretion. 

Wisdom entails freedom, since it liberates one from ignorance, destructive impulses, and knee-jerk reactions. Thus is wisdom, rather than mere knowledge, the object of a liberal education in the classic sense: “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). 

Today we see the difference between wisdom and knowledge on full display. We have practically all the knowledge in the world at our fingertips, yet distinguishing truth from falsehood has not gotten easier. Trust in institutions meant to impart knowledge, like universities and media outlets, has never been lower. Conspiratorial thinking — which offers a kind of pseudo-wisdom by reducing complex realities to a single, all-embracing explanation — is on the rise.  

In our time, we do well to recall the simple difference between knowledge and wisdom. Real wisdom requires humility, admitting we don’t and can’t know it all. It requires self-awareness, realizing when our thinking stems more from emotional impulses, what we want to be true, than the well-reasoned search for what is true. It requires trusting the wisdom of others, past and present, who have themselves engaged in this search.

These are just a few initial steps we can each take to commit ourselves anew to seeking not just knowledge, but wisdom.


This is part of the series called “The Human Being Fully Alive” found here.

The Human Being Fully Alive
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