Many people speak of wisdom as being related to age, that, as one gets older, one has had more time to assimilate the experiences of one’s life and that with the assimilation one gains what is referred to as wisdom. This argument came up on NPR this morning during a discussion concerning genetically enhanced longevity, but I had issue with their reasoning.
Wisdom is, by nature, a philosophical pursuit, and, is cultivated through the seeking of philosophical truths. When people refer to age bringing wisdom, they are, for the most part, using the term wisdom properly, but their motivator of “experience” is not at the heart of the phenomenon. Much more central to the matter is death.
As we get older we become more aware of our own mortality. It happens in youth when a child first discovers that he or she is not the only living being, and then when that child first realizes that every living thing is finite, and later one with the death or a parent or sibling. Each of these events can bring about a level of wisdom, a new perspective on life, if you prefer, in the person.
One such event, one which is perhaps the most important in terms of wisdom, is the realizationa and acceptance of your own death. It is this realization on a philosophical level that can allow a person to grow wiser with age, without it that person is doomed to morbidly cling to strands of youth and false immortality. Extension of the human lifespan through genetics will, for many, only prolong the process of realization.
As humans we are all forced to someday come to terms with the fact that we will end and that there is absolutely nobody who can take that end away or experience it for us. Your death is, above all else, that which is most yours.
One of the best short essays I have read on the subject was “How to Grow Old” by Bertand Russell in Portraits from Memory and Other Essays