What is Wisdom?

St. Thomas Aquinas

“Wisdom from above is first of all innocent. It is also peaceable, lenient, docile, rich in sympathy and the kindly deeds that are its fruits, impartial and sincere. The harvest of justice is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.”
-James 3:17-18

What is wisdom? It seems to be one of those elusive concepts that cannot be defined in just a few words.

There also seem to be different types of wisdom. In this passage from the Letter of James, we hear about a “wisdom from above.” James describes this kind of wisdom as innocent, peaceable, docile, etc. But what exactly is this kind of wisdom, and how do we attain it?

A good man to turn to with such questions is always St. Thomas Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor.” In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas distinguishes between wisdom as an acquired intellectual virtue and “wisdom from above,” which is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Wisdom as an intellectual virtue is right judgment about things attained by human effort through experience and reason. This type of acquired knowledge or virtue usually applies to particular areas. For example, someone can be a wise fisherman, a wise farmer, or a wise architect. Each of these would have many years of experience and acquired knowledge in their respective field.

The gift of wisdom, however, which “descends from above,” is right judgment about all things which is an effect of a person’s loving familiarity with God and His ways. A person who has the spiritual gift of wisdom is inclined toward right judgment in all matters because of his knowledge of and love for God. St. Thomas says that these judgments are based not “on the perfect use of reason,” but rather on an inclination or an affinity of myself to God.[1] An analogy for this kind of wisdom could be the inclination toward right judgment that a husband has in all things concerning his wife of many years. Because of his deep and profound relationship of love that the man has with his wife, he knows what decisions to make and what actions to take in their life together.

Wisdom from above is a mode of knowing which involves desire as well as intellect.

St. Thomas states that wisdom as a gift of the Holy Spirit is “more excellent than wisdom as an intellectual virtue, since it attains to God more intimately by a kind of union of the soul with Him,” and “it is able to direct us not only in contemplation but also in action.”[2] One’s knowledge of God and one’s love for Him lead to judgments and to actions which rightly order all things both within oneself and around oneself. Someone who knows and loves God as the highest cause is said to be wise “because he is able to judge and set in order all things according to Divine rules.”[3] This is why St. Thomas says that the ultimate effect of wisdom is being peaceable. “Wisdom is connected with peace since wisdom is the ability to put things in [right] order, and order results in peace.”[4]

Put very simply, wisdom from above is what St. Augustine had in mind when he wrote: “Love, and do what you will.” Growing in this kind of wisdom requires not mere academic study, but rather leaning against Jesus’ chest in intimate communion, like St. John the Beloved, getting to know His heart, His priorities, His vision. The Holy Spirit imparts “wisdom from above” that can direct both our thoughts and our actions as our love of God grows.

In the words of Thomas A. Kempis in The Imitation of Christ, “I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it. For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God? Vanity of vanities and all is vanity, except to love God and serve Him alone. This is the greatest wisdom.”[5]

[1] Cf. ST 1a, 1.6 ad 3; 1a2ae, 68.1 ad 4; 2a2ae, 45.2–3. See also the entry for “knowledge, connatural” in the New Catholic Encyclopedia.

[2] ST II, II, 45.3

[3] ST II, II, 45.1

[4] Edmond Eh, “Wisdom in Aristotle and Aquinas: From Metaphysics to Mysticism,” in Existenz, vol. 12, no. 2. Fall 2017.

[5] Thomas A. Kempis. The Imitation of Christ, book 1, chapter 1.

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