Wisdom: Definition, Synonyms, and Meaning
Updated August 21, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC
Wisdom sometimes seems to be a rare commodity. It's easy to increase your knowledge or learning, after all: store up some knowledge, gather up book smarts through research, word games, and higher education, and learn how to effectively study and apply your knowledge. Wisdom, though, is different: you have to think more deeply to become wise. The first step in increasing wisdom—or gaining any at all—is to have a clear definition of what wisdom means to you, and what it means to you. In other words, you must have a clear definition of what wisdom actually means, and why it is important to you to develop it.
A Simple Wisdom Definition
Wisdom is a complex thing, but you can begin to get the idea of what it is with a simple definition of wisdom. You can define wisdom as the quality of being able to use experience, knowledge, and good judgment together to live well.
Synonyms for Wisdom
One way to approach the question of "what is wisdom" is to take a look at some wisdom synonyms. Here are several synonyms for wisdom to consider:
Acumen is a wisdom synonym that only describes one aspect of wisdom. Having acumen means having the quality of being able to quickly perceive and discern information in your environment. You may have business acumen, for example, if you see business opportunities or challenges quickly and have an immediate understanding of a given situation.
Caution can be a synonym for wisdom, but only in some cases. If you're cautious, you pay careful attention to the probable effects of what you're doing. Caution is important if your goal is to avoid danger, failure, or harm. However, sometimes the wisest thing you can do is take a risk. Even so, a wise person would identify the risk and prepare himself for the possibility of danger, failure, or catastrophe.
Some people use common sense as a substitute for wisdom. Others feel that it falls short of the higher understanding that's associated with wisdom. If you're using common sense, you have a sensible, practical understanding of a thing, person, or situation that can guide you in making ordinary decisions.
Experience is a strong component of wisdom. Perhaps that's why it's easier for someone who is old to be wise than it is for someone younger. Experience is all the things you've been through in your life. Experience can come from formal learning, hands-on training, or simply by living your life. It only becomes wisdom when you learn from what's happened and understand how to apply it to what's happening now.
Someone who is truly wise is able to see potential problems and outcomes and prepare for them before they happen. Foresight can keep you from making mistakes. However, it's important to understand that foresight isn't the same thing as worrying. If you have foresight, you simply identify and acknowledge what could happen and do what is needed to prepare for it. Worrying, conversely, is identifying a potential problem, and almost obsessively going over it and trying to control the outcome. Wisdom and worrying are not synonymous.
Intelligence is very similar to wisdom. If you're intelligent, you're able to understand principles, facts, meanings, and truths. You can also apply what you know in real life. You can comprehend subjects you study and learn them well. You need intelligence to have the highest wisdom, and in fact, if you're truly intelligent, you see the truth of situations as a wise person does.
Wisdom is also the ability to make sound judgments. When you're wise, you can judge things, people, and situations correctly, justly, and intelligently. Often, people think of judging as a bad thing. That might be true if you're judging someone for no helpful purpose; however, you need to have good judgment to make the right choices in your life. Judgment helps people make sound financial decisions, accurately evaluate relationships, and pursue their passions.
Prudence is a word that isn't used much anymore, but it's a good wisdom synonym. It means the quality of being wisely cautious. When you're prudent, you're careful. You show superior discretion. You may also be frugal, because you understand the need to be prepared to meet future needs. Most commonly used in the phrase “It would be prudent to...” prudence demonstrates the ability to anticipate different possibilities and pursue a course of action that will lead to the best possible outcome—even if that course of action is to abstain from something or remain silent.
There's a sense in which wisdom is equal to balance. Its components are problem-solving, understanding context, ethical behavior, tolerance, and empathy. To have real wisdom, you need all of these components, but you need to have all of them in abundance. You need to balance your ability to solve problems with your ability to tolerate what can't be changed, for instance.
When you reach enlightenment on a subject, you've achieved complete clarity in the way you perceive the subject. Your extensive knowledge combined with your sound reasoning makes wise understanding and decisions possible.
Your reason is your rationality. It includes your conceptions of things, people, and situations, as well as your judgments about them and your intuition about them. To be wise, you must have good reason, or rationality. Only then can you make the right decisions and live the good life that come with true wisdom.
Wisdom can also be seen as clear thinking. If you're wise, you don't get sidetracked by irrelevant things. You see the problem or situation as it is, apart from any emotional baggage you might have. You pay attention to what matters when you're trying to discern the truth of any situation.
What Is the Deeper Meaning of Wisdom?
So, what does wisdom mean beyond its simple definition and synonyms? The deeper meaning of wisdom is the ability to distinguish what is wise from what is unwise. When you're wise, you use knowledge with insight. Knowledge is utilized only after you truly understand what you have learned, and are better able to apply it to current situations and new situations you encounter down the road.
Wisdom isn't just an academic ability. You have to put it into practice for it to be worthwhile. If you're wise, you combine your knowledge, experience, and intuitive understanding to make the right decisions. You know what it takes to live well, and you're successful in living well. You practice ethical behavior, empathy, and tolerance of life's uncertainties and differences. When you're wise, you not only have a better life, but you also make the world a better place for others.
How to Develop Wisdom
It doesn't matter how you define wisdom if you don't seek to have it in your life. The true meaning of wisdom won't help you, unless you develop your own wisdom and learn to recognize it in others. The best way to become wise is to intentionally cultivate your wisdom. If you want to have wisdom, there are a few things you can do over the course of your lifetime to become wiser. The ways to effectively build wisdom include:
Knowledge forms the basis of wisdom. Fortunately, knowledge is relatively easy to gain. You can get it from reading extensively, taking courses on subjects that interest you, working at a job, or even by watching instructional YouTube videos. You can also learn from the people you know who have knowledge about various subjects or who possess a lot of life experience.
Practice Reflection, Not Rumination
Reflecting on what happens to you can increase your wisdom over time. When you reflect on something, you think of it in a nonjudgmental way, pondering it from different perspectives, and trying to see it as clearly as possible. This is a great start for wisdom; wisdom is not merely thought. It is also action. In wisdom, “action” is the word of the day.
Thinking seriously and carefully about your experiences is not the same as ruminating. When you're reflecting, you're considering what has happened to you. You go through many different ideas. Reflection is neutral or even positive.
Rumination, on the other hand, is going over the same ground over and over, not gaining any new insights or even considering different ways of understanding. Rumination doesn't increase your wisdom; instead, it's more likely to cause you depression, anxiety, or anger.
Fear can keep you from going out and gaining experience in life. Disinterest may also keep you from seeking new experiences. To gain wisdom, though, you need to have experiences to build it on. So, take a chance. Try something new. Go to a new place and meet new people. When you do, you'll gain perspective, insight, and experience that are so necessary for developing wisdom. Wisdom cannot develop without some degree of personal experience.
Choose the Right Guide
Nearly all of the great thinkers in history have had guides or mentors to learn from in their lives. A mentor can help you explore questions you didn't even realize you had. They can provide insight into life that you haven't had the opportunity to gain through your own experiences. Find someone who fits a sound wisdom definition. Then, seek to spend time with them and take in what they can teach you related to wisdom.
Some people are disheartened when they learn the meaning of wisdom. They feel that they can never be wise, because they're not smart enough or they feel they're too emotional to see clearly. However, everyone can reach their own highest level of wisdom. To do that, they may need help to overcome problems with cognitive and emotional problems.
If you need help with your thinking and emotions, you can benefit from talking to a mental health counselor. You can talk to a licensed counselor at BetterHelp.com for online therapy on your schedule. Your therapist can help you learn techniques for changing unhelpful thoughts. They can help you practice positive reflection rather than depressing rumination.
When you take care of the problems that are holding you back from becoming wise, that in itself is a wise decision. From there, you can improve your thinking, increase your ability to make the right decisions for you, and live a happier, more fulfilling life!
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):
What is the definition of wisdom in the Bible?
In the bible, the wisdom of Solomon is often pointed to as the epitome of wisdom. King Solomon, wisdom, and proverbs are all frequently and inextricably tied to current (and even historic) notions of wisdom, much like other religious or philosophical traditions might rely upon the writings of Rumi or Aristotle. Although Solomon is typically the archetype of wisdom in the bible, the bible itself says, “The Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” in Proverbs 9:10. If this verse is to be believed, a robust respect for God’s law is the ultimate source of wisdom. While definitions for wisdom—wisdom in the bible, that is—may seem to focus entirely on a fear of God, there are actually a large number of verses relating to wisdom, many of them aligning wisdom and traits. These traits often include humility, compassion, justice, experience, and age.
What is the real meaning of wisdom?
The word “wisdom” has a great deal of attention tied to it. Wisdom is certainly present in secular thought, but seems to have a more significant or wieldy tie to religious and philosophical thought processes. Although wisdom and knowledge might be used interchangeably, the two are actually different: knowledge is achieved through amassing facts and information, while wisdom is achieved via the ability to effectively apply what you have learned. The meaning of wisdom relies far less on simple data or the compilation of facts and more on the ability to look ahead, have compassion for others, and demonstrate self-awareness. Knowledge often grows inflated or prompts a false sense of security, while wisdom recognizes that there is always more to learn, and there is always space for mistakes and improvement. In this respect, the word of the day for wisdom is actually “humility,” as humility allows you to acknowledge that you do not know everything, and are not impervious to mistakes or failures.
What is wisdom example?
Although the word “wisdom” is derived from an old or middle English word, it is far from antiquated, and there are many examples still going on today that accurately exemplify wisdom. One of the most common examples of wisdom is the ability to admit that you’re wrong. On the heels of a heated argument, stepping forward and saying “I was wrong,” is an example of wisdom; you have the humility, self-awareness, and understanding required to recognize that you are in the wrong, and it is your responsibility to make amends. Self-restraint is also often a sign of wisdom. If you desperately want an item, for instance, but know that your budget will not allow it, knowledge alone will not keep you from purchasing the item, anyway. Wisdom is the trait that allows you to say, “This does not benefit me right now, and is not feasible for my situation.” These two examples are important to view in conjunction with one another; in some cases, wisdom means stepping forward, while in others, wisdom means holding back.
What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?
While a word finder might consider “knowledge” and “wisdom” happy bedfellows (or at least similar enough to warrant a link), knowledge and wisdom are actually two different things—though it is true that they often intertwine. Wisdom, for instance, rarely exists without a decent amount of knowledge—though it is certainly possible, as young children are often found offering sage little snippets of information without an objectively substantial array of knowledge. Knowledge, conversely, can certainly exist without even an iota of wisdom. Knowledge is the term used to describe a wide array of facts and information. Wisdom, however, is the term used to describe the ability to apply knowledge in a way that is useful, considerate, and respectful of oneself and others.
Does God give us wisdom?
Perhaps the most significant verse on wisdom in the bible is the verse in James that tells readers precisely how to secure wisdom. While it may seem an ever-elusive thing to possess, the bible actually says that wisdom is a gift, and is given to those who ask for it. Solomon is typically associated with wisdom the most of all biblical figures, and Proverbs is an oft-quoted book of the bible with regard to wisdom and healthy, productive, intentional living. It is in James, however, that biblical authors identify that God will give wisdom freely, to those who come to God in search of it. A literal reading of this verse means that the answer to this question is yes: God does give wisdom to those who ask for it.
What is the best definition of wisdom?
An unabridged dictionary definition of wisdom is this: “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment”; “the soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge, and good judgment”; and “the body of knowledge and principles that develops within a specified society or period.” These three definitions of wisdom are useful altogether, as each one signifies something different about what it means to be wise. These English dictionary definitions all point to one thing about wisdom: it is both knowledge and action. The best definition of wisdom, then, is being able to both comprehend information, and know what to do with the knowledge that has been attained.
Is wisdom a gift?
If the bible and other religious texts are to be believed, wisdom is a gift bestowed upon people who are willing to seek it or worthy to behold it. Apart from religious texts, however, wisdom is not considered a gift, but something that can be hard won and that often naturally comes with age or experience. Secularly, wisdom typically includes sound decision-making, the ability to keep a steady hand and clear head, and a continual dedication to understanding and justice. In these respects, wisdom is not a gift at all, but is instead a slow and steady series of accomplishments that must be undertaken and again and again throughout a person’s life. Rather than a gift, wisdom is a prize, as a quick round of “browse the dictionary” can attest; wisdom is the prize won for a continual investment in furthering knowledge and understanding, rather than a gift simply given to someone without any interest or effort on their part.
How do we get wisdom from God?
According to the author of James—more specifically, James 1:5—getting wisdom from God is as simple as asking for it. Although this may seem far too simplistic—after all, the proverbial word of the day in Judeo-Christian theology (and perhaps all theology) is “wisdom”—the author of James goes on to explain his reasoning. James 1:5-8 reads “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to him. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.” In these verses, the author suggests that wisdom comes from faith. Wisdom, then, is given to those who have faith in God.
How do you get wisdom?
You do not merely “get” wisdom; instead, wisdom is gained through a continued devotion to learning and improving. Wisdom involves gaining knowledge, experience, and self-awareness, all of which require effort and intention. Getting wisdom, then, is accomplished by intentionally seeking knowledge, actively applying that knowledge to whatever transpires in your life, and making amends and changes where necessary. Getting wisdom is so frequently associated with age and experience because it is difficult to adequately secure the knowledge and understanding necessary to find wisdom without plenty of time under your belt.
What comes first wisdom or knowledge?
Knowledge is typically considered the precursor to wisdom. Wise “words of the day” on calendars, from company newsletters, and self-help tomes written by CEOs and other self-made individuals often come from learned scholars, researchers, and philosophers, all of whom extensively evaluate the human condition in order to determine how best to behave, how best to interact with others, and how best to live their lives. These people are most commonly relied upon as sources of wisdom because they have a significant base of knowledge. Whether it is in the realm of physics, theology, or the study of human behavior as a whole, knowledge is an essential step in developing wisdom.
Can you have wisdom without knowledge?
Although wisdom and knowledge are often considered synonymous—and antonyms for wisdom certainly do not include knowledge, wisdom may exist without knowledge, if it is rare. Children are most often the sources of wisdom without a wide breadth of knowledge; children often get to the heart of a situation and offer advice without realizing the power or profundity of their words. Even though this does happen on occasion, children are not reliable sources of wisdom. Apart from the occasional gems of children, wisdom without knowledge is rare. Knowledge more often forms the basis for wisdom. Knowledge of numerous world wars, for instance, could help someone develop the wisdom necessary to avoid the classic pitfalls that lead to war. Knowledge of common relationship struggles can lead an individual to work on traits that most often precede relational ire. Knowledge, then, is typically the bedrock upon which wisdom sits.
What is the beginning of wisdom?
Wisdom is often the word of the day—even the word of the year—when it comes to making rational, useful, adult decisions. Learning where to start on the path toward wisdom, though, is often difficult; where do you start? Is there a “word of the day” quiz that can let you know how much wisdom you already have, and how to find more? The beginning of wisdom has been called many things: knowledge is one of them, the fear of the Lord is another. Ultimately, though, the beginning of wisdom is self-awareness. If you are not self-aware enough to recognize your own pitfalls and failings, you will not be able to seek the knowledge and experiences necessary to develop wisdom.
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