On the Spectrum of Ignorance and Wisdom


“Spectrum” initially referred to the range of colors displayed as a continuum when white light disperses through a prism. Today we use the word to describe any continuum on which a condition, person, or group might fall. Political spectrum is a good example. The phrase “on the spectrum” applies to people with a variety of social disorders, usually lumped together as some form of autism.

Just about anything displaying subtle gradations can be placed on a spectrum line. Some, like your intelligence quotient, is quantified by IQ points based on testing. Others are not so easy to pin down. What I have in mind is the spectrum of ignorance to wisdom.

This is tricky territory for the same reason we don’t, in polite company anyway, make judgements about a person’s IQ—which we aren’t likely to know—and how smart they are. Another reason it’s tricky is that words like ignorance and wisdom will mean different things to different people and under different circumstances.

Merriam-Webster defines wisdom as: “knowledge that is gained by having many experiences in life; the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand; knowledge of what is proper or reasonable; good sense or judgment.”

The same source defines ignorance as: “a lack of knowledge, understanding, or education; the state of being ignorant.”

In other words, ignorance is the lack of wisdom.

People with low IQs or an overall lack of wisdom don’t generally brag about such things (which they may not even be aware of). Some people, though, do like to brag about their high IQs and how smart—and wise—they are.

Braggarts aside, the qualities of stupid and smart, and ignorance and wisdom are more often attributed to us by others—sometimes correctly, sometimes not. Such judgements, right or wrong, depend on those judges’ own placement on the ignorance-wisdom spectrum.

The dictionary definition of wisdom is useful only on a superficial level, because it gives no insights into vague ideas of what’s “proper or reasonable,” or of “good sense or judgment.” Each day, people gain another day’s worth of experience. That incremental gain doesn’t necessarily add to one’s wisdom. As for “the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand,” well, it may sound mystical and shamanistic, but the relatively few people who understand quantum mechanics or string theory aren’t necessarily wise.

So how to know wisdom? To get a better gasp of what wisdom means let’s take a look into some qualities showing in wise people.

  • Wise people carry intentions of harmlessness. They consider their future actions in terms of the benefit they will have for others, avoiding harmful actions. They reflect on past actions, also in terms of benefit and harm to others, then adjust accordingly.
  • Wise people carry intentions of good will. They speak well of others, avoiding gossip and derogatory speech. They are truthful. Their tone is pleasant and harmonious instead of harsh and divisive. They say things that are meaningful instead of chattering on without purpose.
  •  Wise people have an understanding of the connectedness of things and instinctively see how changes in one area or circumstance may have profound effects on seemingly unrelated areas or circumstances. They understand the nature of cause and effect on levels deeper than the mundane.
  • Wise people are generous, because they understand the grip of need. They are virtuous, because they understand the heavy boot of dishonest and dishonorable people. They don’t take what doesn’t belong to them, because they understand the pain of loss.

I doubt this covers everything, but it’s a start at painting a picture of wisdom. Wisdom has more to do with understanding the nature of the human condition and responding in a positive way. Those who understand the nature of the human condition and respond in a negative way—taking unfair advantage of others, for example—are, at best, sociopaths. At worst, they are psychopaths.

Wisdom has little or nothing to do with general knowledge and IQ. Knowledgeable and intelligent people can be short on wisdom. Uneducated and low-IQ people can be wise.

Giving attention to your inner world as well as the outer world, with the intentions of harmlessness and good will, is the means for cultivating wisdom. Like a well-tended garden, wisdom can grow. The more wisdom grows, the further away from ignorance you travel along the spectrum. And that’s good for you and good for the world. The world is sorely in need of wise people. All people are sorely in need of wise leaders.