Etymology of Wisdom

Re-reading T. E. Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” for the umpteenth time, I was struck by something that I’m sure occurred to me before, but I’ve never followed-up.

In Chapter XXI (page 135 of my Cape 1940 edition) he is recounting arguments concerning different possible attacks and advances to progress their objectives.

“[He] took me up sharply, saying that it was in no wise proper for [the allies] to take [the town].”

Reading that I mentally summarised the opinion that the course of action was not “wise” in the adjectival “wisdom” sense, whereas in fact Lawrence had used “wise” in the “way of proceeding” noun manner. The relationship between the two forms seem obvious.

-wise / -weise must be closely related to wisdom / wise via the way

Wisdom is the way, in the Taoist sense of the way. Wisdom is about the way of knowing, not the known. Obvious. In fact this etymology of “wise” reinforces this with a Lao Tsu quote from the “Tao Te Ching” – “A wise man has no extensive knowledge; He who has extensive knowledge is not a wise man.” Also wisdom as seeing (in the knowing, wissen sense), as in “vision” – Latin “vid” Greek “eid”, and without even reference to the Taoist concept of “way”. Interestingly, not only the Old-English and Germanic derivations, but the Proto-Indo-European origins too. Only a small step back to common Sanskrit origins of the Buddhist Vedas as well as PIE surely ? Why can you never find an archaeologist when you need one Indie ?

Talking of seeing. He also makes endless generalisations of various national and cultural traits, which sound arrogant, chauvinistic and politically incorrect, but of course part of my interest here is in the east-west cultural differences in viewing reality. TEL provides plenty of Middle-East vs Western Europe examples, with a great deal of additional detail of the cultural history of the different specific peoples.

On page 136, after an iterview with Colonel Bremond he makes a reference to a trait

“Even in situations of poetry, the [French] remained incorrigible prose writers, seeing by the directly-thrown light of reason and understanding, not through the half-closed eye, mistily, by things essential radiance, in the manner of the imaginative [British]”

Whether that is a typical French vs British difference or not, it certainly, epitomises the dualistic, objective view distinct from the qualitative. I’ve used the metaphors of sneaking up on truth or squinting sideways to see the truth, and was certainly reminded of Rory Remer’s “Blinded by the Light” analogy of the pitfalls of purely objective thinking.

[Post Note May 2008 – from the “online etymology dictionary” entry
(The Whewell reference struck a chord ….
Whewell coined “consilience” if I recall correctly
…. what a tangled web.)

Usage: Wisdom, Prudence, Knowledge. Wisdom has been defined to be “the use of the best means for attaining the best ends.” “We conceive,” says Whewell, ” prudence as the virtue by which we select right means for given ends, while wisdom implies the selection of right ends as well as of right means.” Hence, wisdom implies the union of high mental and moral excellence. Prudence (that is, providence, or forecast) is of a more negative character; it rather consists in avoiding danger than in taking decisive measures for the accomplishment of an object. Sir Robert Walpole was in many respects a prudent statesman, but he was far from being a wise one. Burke has said that prudence, when carried too far, degenerates into a “reptile virtue,” which is the more dangerous for its plausible appearance. Knowledge, a more comprehensive term, signifies the simple apprehension of facts or relations. “In strictness of language,” says Paley, ” there is a difference between knowledge and wisdom; wisdom always supposing action, and action directed by it.”

Knowledge and wisdom, far from being one, have ofttimes no connection. Knowledge dwells In heads replete with thoughts of other men; Wisdom, in minds attentive to their own. Knowledge, a rude, unprofitable mass, The mere materials with which wisdom builds, Till smoothed, and squared, and fitted to its place, does but encumber whom it seems to enrich. Knowledge is proud that he has learned so much; Wisdom is humble that he knows no more. – Cowper.

(Very close to the Lao Tsu sense above) ]

6 thoughts on “Etymology of Wisdom”

  1. It’s not just Taoism, it’s also the way that Christianity was understood, as precisely the ‘way’ of Christ – Christ being the incarnation of Sophia, wisdom, the Logos of God. Much of Christian history is a tale of the loss of that understanding, and the perpetual pursuit of reclaiming it.

  2. Hi Sam,

    No doubt, in the “I am the way” sense embodied in Christ by explicit reference. I guess I was really looking at the etymology of the concept inherited in words pre-dating the Greeks and Christianity linking way and wise directly. (I could imagine “sophos / sophis” being connected with vis / fis at root, but not logos ?) Be interesting to follow PIE into aramaic & hebrew too. Thanks for the reminder.


  3. Hi Georganna,

    Thinking as in lateral thinking, is no doubt related, but I suspect the metaphorical origins are different. Possibly from switching sides in the brain, possibly from tactical manoevres in battle (a la Clauswicz etc) ? But I’m guessing.

    I guess I was more following the “vis” seeing / knowing root connection than the idea of “thinking”. Be interesting to check the origins.


  4. WISDOM is a composition binding the light that makes clear, white: wise, and the word DOMINI, related to The Lord. The same contraction makes the word WORD, contracting the WISDOM of the LORD: W+ORD.

  5. I doubt that Jose, since “-dom” is an ending indicating a state of “-ness” in many contexts, but I do like the word-play – Ord, Word in German preceeded by W for Wise making “the Word” and “the Way” very close.

    Do you have any reference to the root of the “-dom” ending (in both English and German) being related to Domini ?

    Dom-ini / Eigen-dom …. now you got me thinking. One-ness / Unity from memory ? A state-of-one.

    As I said to Sam, I didn’t mean to underplay the Christian connection of Word / Way – but I was deliberately looking for origins before Christianity. So much Christian mythology is borrowed from existing lore.

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