The Enemies of Wisdom are Not People

Now, before anyone stops reading in disgust, or becomes rabid with agreement, the title does not mean that some people are not people because they oppose certain ideas. The title means that the origins of the forces that oppose wisdom are not people, but states of being. People are merely victims, thralls of those conditions. If you are reading this looking for an excuse to do violence against other members of society, you are part of the problem, and will find nothing here to vindicate you. If you dare to continue reading, however, you may learn how to fight for a better world in a constructive way.

In the course of your life, you have probably at some point read, heard, derived, or otherwise discovered some grand idea which could better the whole world if it were widely practiced and implemented in our culture and institutions. Perhaps a new form of government, an economic system, or even a simple cultural custom. You then most likely wondered why it hasn’t already been implemented, if it has been around for so long, or if it was so obvious that you or I could figure it out with a token effort. Having studied many such ideas and observed society for some years with this question in mind, I have a few decent answers and a proposal to offer for your consideration.


Brilliant ideas do not languish merely because they are obscure. On the contrary, many of the most edifying ideas on self-improvement and building healthy cultures were written down by famous people, and are read and studied by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of other people. For simpler fare, if you’ve seen motivational posters, uplifting Facebook posts, or most any children’s television show, you will see some excellent basic principles (mixed in with useless platitudes). Following the principles well will better your life, yet it is obvious that many people have never learned them or simply ignore them. If the entire world were to successfully adopt these ways, though, the majority of our problems would vanish, leaving only the problems to be solved with science and technology. Imagine if the people of this world stopped interfering with each other through war and exploitation and started supporting each other against common enemies like natural disasters and disease. Why isn’t everyone living like that?

The first enemy of wisdom is a lack of nuance. Any given idea or principle generally doesn’t do any good if it is followed in all circumstances. The more specific it is, the fewer situations it is fit to address. Inversely, the more general and widely applicable it is, the harder it is to know when a different approach is better. Most useful ideas need to be balanced against opposite or complementary ideas, and none alone are good or bad. It’s the balance that makes it possible for us to succeed and construct a better world.


Consciousness is a tightrope: in order to move forward, you cannot fall to either side. You have to be a walking contradiction. Be determined to succeed, but make peace with the possibility of failure. Maintain focus but don’t get tunnel vision. Avoid having to apologize, but don’t hesitate to apologize when you have to. Use specifics and generalities. Fit in with others but but assert yourself. Be generous, but make people take responsibility for themselves. Don’t get distracted by doubt, but prepare for the worst. Hold people accountable, but forgive them. Be like silk hiding steel. Trust but verify. Speak softly and carry a big stick. Say “nice doggy” while looking for a rock. Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet. Be obedient and freethinking, circumspect and forthright, humorous and serious, strict and kind, confident and humble. It’s enough to dizzy the mind.

There is no magic ratio for these contradictory traits. You need to have both ideals actively running in your head, watching the world and pushing for one path or another. Experiment with each of them in turn, without being reckless (yet another balancing act). Find a mentor, but take their words with a grain of salt (and another one). Get feedback from your environment, though it may be delayed, on how an ideal will work and how it won’t. Calibrate yourself. Learn to observe a situation and determine what combination is most likely to be most harmonious. Finally, develop the skill to make these opposites work together to create something greater than either alone. A full explanation of how to calibrate ideas will take at least a short book and still be incomplete. The point is that nuance is difficult. Many people fall off the tightrope. Most of the rest have no idea how they’re staying on, and can’t explain it even though they may try. Sometimes they accidentally talk other people into falling off their own tightropes, because the other person’s rope is pointed in a different direction; many popular works claim to contain wisdom, but are actually sloppy, and serve to distract people from learning true nuance. 

The second reason society interferes with itself is a lack of available willpower. Knowing good and doing good are not the same thing, no matter what Socrates says. Instant and certain gratification is much more alluring than delayed and uncertain gratification, as Bill Watterson’s Calvin realizes. We frequently choose immediate pleasure in spite of negative long-term consequences, rather than choosing positive long-term consequences in spite of immediate discomfort. We are well aware of these consequences. Knowledge is not the problem. We made the choice despite knowledge, not because of ignorance. Why did we do that? 


There are two aspects of our minds that come into play here. One aspect is made of emotion and motivation, and assigns a relative value to every situation. (In the book of wisdom called Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath refer to this aspect as the Elephant.) This aspect doesn’t have any concept of future consequences; it only knows what you want and what you don’t. The emotional side is very important, because without it you would have no reason to do anything. No action would be better or worse than any other. You would act on autopilot, without initiative. On its own, this emotional aspect of you goes for instant gratification, on the rational basis that experiencing pleasure is better than not. For cost-benefit analysis we need to play the long game, and for that, we need another aspect of ourselves. 

The skilled aspect of you makes no value judgments. It simply uses your mental abilities to explore the world, make observations, and carry out your will better than you could without it. (In Switch, it is referred to as the Rider, which steers the Elephant.) To use a popular example, if you express a wish to be very physically fit, the skilled part of you will hand you a plan for becoming so, probably involving exercise. If you express a wish to sit and watch television instead of exercising, it will allow you to do so, but if it is working properly, it will inform you that you are compromising the desire you already gave it. You may be admonished that you that you can’t eat your cake and have it, too. Your skilled side doesn’t, however, care what you choose. It will do whatever is asked of it. The problem comes when it is asked to resolve too many conflicts between competing desires, declaring a winner and telling the loser to be silent. The skilled aspect can only handle so much decisiveness in one day before it tires and stops being able to give voice to long-term desires. The short-term desires win by default. 


In order for the desire for physical fitness to win, one of two things needs to happen. One possibility is that the fitness desire would need to have a much stronger voice in your decision process (despite the lack of short-term reward) than the desire for television, so that even a very fatigued skilled aspect can hear its voice and rule in its favor. That strong voice takes time to develop. When you figure out what is most important to you, practice and discipline will allow you consistently choose that goal over any conflicting desires. When your skilled aspect works with your emotional aspect to figure out what you want most, you can more easily forgo desires that interfere with your highest priority. You can also gradually shape your motivated side to be less impressed with instant gratification in general, and to take satisfaction from long-term efforts. 


The above is a good long-term approach, but it takes a while to settle into. To make the transition easier, there is an alternative approach based on conserving willpower: you can set up your environment and personal schedule so that your skilled aspect does not have to make so many tough decisions and tire itself out so quickly, so it will be fresh and able to perceive the merits of long-term desires when it is most important. By doing all the preparation for working out ahead of time, such as arranging your clothes and shoes the day before, there is less mental effort required to begin exercising, so it will seem less intimidating. By putting a screen or time restriction on the television, television becomes a less competitive option because it has lost a major advantage: easy availability. Alternatively, you can put a television in your workout area so you don’t have to choose, preserving more of your willpower. This approach will work in the short term and the long term. Be forewarned, though: even when you restructure your environment, you can expect there to remain temptations of instant gratification which can distract you from the long-term goals of living in accordance with the concepts of wisdom that you learn or develop.

(As an aside, for more information on helping your highest priority win, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work is both an excellent resource and another of Chip and Dan Heath’s books, not coincidentally. Wait But Why, an inspiring blog by Tim Urban, has some fun articles illustrating what happens in your head when you procrastinate, using characters like the Instant Gratification Monkey and the Panic Monster that personify familiar concepts. Intentional Insights, a nonprofit organization founded by Gleb Tsipursky and Agnes Vishnevkin for the purpose of spreading knowledge to empower people to build the lives they truly want, has an article about how to boost willpower. These are only a few examples of the wisdom that is already available, but implementing it is up to you.)



The final reason for the current state of the world is fear. It is the fear that any attempts to master nuance are futile, that there are no answers to be found, that running on pure instinct and unmodulated passion is the best you can do. It is the fear that developing willpower is a wasted effort, or worse, that it is not: either that your long-term goals will not be worth leaving the surety of immediate gratification, or that they are well worth it, but you are too weak. Perhaps the most tragic, it is the fear that there are too many forces opposing those who would use nuance and willpower to change their own lives, let alone the world. People are afraid that they will not get what they want because they will waste their effort doing something that cannot be done, and if they do not fear it at the outset, a prolonged absence of positive feedback from our pursuit of nuance and willpower will usually send us retreating back into the land of easy labels, easy pleasure, and (in the words of Thoreau) “quiet desperation”, often leading into depression. Fear is no distraction, but a deterrent.

The enemies of wisdom are not people. They are in people, in us. They are ideas, sometimes ones we aren’t aware of. We can’t beat them simply through anger, passion, hope, love, or even knowledge. Those may be necessary, but they are not sufficient. To kill an idea, you cannot fight those who hold it, because that empowers the story of the idea. You have to listen to people, figure out what they want, and replace the idea with a better one, one that gives people what they want better than the original idea did, or introduces something they realize they want more. A constructive solution does the hard work of making peace with opponents instead of sloppily and callously attempting to subjugate them with cheap force.


I didn’t write this article to drive people to despair, but to offer a practical solution. What I offer (in the article to follow) is a formula for developing constructive solutions, a starting point for counteracting these enemies of wisdom and allowing this world to catch up to the most advanced of its residents. It is a framework for understanding desires and the skills necessary to fulfill them by making sense of and working to change ourselves and the world around us. Where it goes from that beginning is up to you. It may be difficult, requiring nuance, willpower, and courage. I will do my best, however, to make it easy. My question to you, then, is this: How much do you want to truly change your world?

No, seriously. I want to know. Comment below.