The Virtue of Wisdom

Fitz M., “Our Southern Friend”

Wisdom is an “aiming” virtue, one that is directed to the good. It is the ability to discern the good end to be attained in a given situation and utilize the right means to achieve it.

As such, wisdom disposes us to see and to act rightly, directing all the moral virtues (e.g., generosity, forgiveness, compassion) to their particular tasks.

In AA, wisdom follows in the wake of working the Steps, as through our spiritual awakening we gradually grow in the qualities characteristic of wisdom: experience, knowledge, understanding, discernment, insight, foresight, circumspection, discretion, and prudence, among others.

Through wisdom we discern how to make amends in Step 9 so as to avoid further harm, foster healing, and achieve reconciliation. We grow in our receptiveness to wisdom in Step 11, where we seek conscious contact with God as the source of all wisdom, seeking his will for how we are to live our lives one day at a time. Through wisdom also we discern how best to work with others and carry the message of recovery in Step 12, whether at meetings, one-on-one as sponsors, or in some other setting or capacity.

Wisdom permeates the Traditions, informing the discernment of our common welfare in 1, our group conscience in 2, the relationship between the local group and AA as a whole in 4, our primary purpose in 5 and 6, self-support in 7, no professionalism in 8 and 9, no controversy in 10, attraction rather than promotion in 11, and principles before personalities in 12. In the latter two, wisdom is at the heart of anonymity, the spiritual foundation of all the Traditions.

[Image: Fitz M., AA #3 in NYC and author of “Our Southern Friend” in the Big Book, where he's first introduced as "the man who thought he was an atheist" (pp. 55-56). For audio of his story and Q&A about it, please click on links.]

Big Book
"It is seldom wise to approach an individual, who still smarts from our injustice to him, and announce that we have gone religious." – Big Book

12&12"For the wise have always known that no one can make much of his life until self-searching has become a regular habit, until he is able to admit and accept what he finds, and until he patiently and persistently tries to correct what is wrong." –12&12 

Life Recovery Bible"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding." – Proverbs 9:10
“When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom." – Proverbs 11:2 

Reinhold Niebuhr"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." – Reinhold Niebuhr, Serenity Prayer 

"True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us." – Socrates

"To be even-minded is the greatest virtue. Wisdom is to speak the truth and act in keeping with its nature." – Heraclitus 

"Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom." – Aristotle  

Confucius"By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest." – Confucius  

"To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day." – Lao Tzu  

"Patience is the companion of wisdom."– St. Augustine 

William Shakespeare
"Wisely and slow, they stumble who run fast." – William Shakespeare

John Churton Collins
To profit from good advice requires more wisdom than to give it." – John Churton Collins 

Abraham Lincoln"I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go, my own wisdom and that of all about me insufficient for that day." – Abraham Lincoln  

William James
"The art of being wise is knowing what to overlook." – William James  

H. L. Mencken
"The older I grow, the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom." – H. L. Mencken 

John Milton"Not to know at large of things remote from use, obscure and subtle, but to know that which before us lies in daily life, is the prime wisdom." – John Milton

Mahatma Gandhi
"It is unwise to be too sure of one's own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err." – Mahatma Gandhi  

Eleanor Roosevelt
"Never mistake knowledge for wisdom. One helps you make a living; the other helps you make a life." – Eleanor Roosevelt 

Marcel Proust "We don't receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world." – Marcel Proust

Hugh Allen
"There’s a bit of ancient wisdom that appeals to us: it’s a saying that a fight starts only with the second blow." – Hugh Allen

Carl Jung
"Where wisdom reigns, there is no conflict between thinking and feeling." – Carl Jung

Ralph Waldo Emerson
"The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common." – Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Thomas Jefferson
"I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be." – Thomas Jefferson  

Benjamin Franklin
"A wise man will desire no more than what he may get justly, use soberly, distribute cheerfully, and leave contentedly." – Benjamin Franklin   

Victor Hugo
Love is the foolishness of men, and the wisdom of God." – Victor Hugo   

William Wordsworth
"Wisdom is oft-times nearer when we stoop than when we soar." – William Wordsworth   

Mark Twain"The perfection of wisdom and the end of true philosophy is to proportion our wants to our possessions, our ambitions to our capacities; we will then be a happy and a virtuous people." – Mark Twain 

James Boswell
"Men are wise in proportion, not to their experience, but to their capacity for experience."  – James Boswell  

Edith Wharton
"Life is the only real counselor; wisdom unfiltered through personal experience does not become a part of the moral tissue." – Edith Wharton   

Henry Arnold
"The wise person questions himself, the fool others." – Henry Arnold

Winston Churchill
"All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from theirs." – Winston Churchill   

Philippa Foot "Wisdom has two parts. In the first place, the wise man knows the means to certain good ends; secondly, he knows how much particular ends are worth."
– Philippa Foot    

C. S. Lewis"For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality and the solution was knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. [Today] the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men, [and] the solution is a technique." – C. S. Lewis  

Bob Dylan
"Sometimes it’s not enough to know what things mean; sometimes you have to know what things don't mean." – Bob Dylan

Huston Smith
"If we take the world’s enduring religions at their best, we discover the distilled wisdom of the human race." – Huston Smith  

Robert Nozick
"Wisdom is an understanding of what is important, where this understanding informs a (wise) person’s thought or action." – Robert Nozick   

Tim Keller"Wisdom is a path; it’s a long, patient quest—over and over and over again doing simple things, day in and day out, right left, right left over a long period of time—and wisdom therefore can never happen quickly." – Tim Keller  

William C. Mattison"Prudence is the virtue that disposes us to see rightly, the way things are in the world around us, and to employ that truthful vision to act rightly. It enables us to size up a situation accurately, to determine the best course of action, and to embark upon it. It is practical wisdom, or 'right reason' in action." – William C. Mattison III   

Barbara Brown Taylor"Wisdom is not gained [just] by knowing what is right. Wisdom is gained by practicing what is right, and noticing what happens when that practice succeeds and when it fails." – Barbara Brown Taylor   

"A smart person knows what to say. A wise person knows whether or not to say it." – Anonymous  

PTP123"Wisdom involves more than just knowledge. What characterizes this virtue is the ability to make distinctions between things, to perceive or apprehend differences, to discern the true from the false, right from wrong, and to take practical action based on an accurate grasp of reality and of the consequences of such action." – PTP123   

Practical wisdom disposes us to see rightly, the way things really are in the world, and to act out of that truthful vision in the interest of the good." – PTP4   

Practice These: Wisdom - Euripides
Practice These: Wisdom - Albert Einstein

For more PTP123 passages on wisdom, see pp. 195–201. For PTP4 passages, see among other pages: as prudence, 102, 196, 264, 378, 379; and right concern/construal, 118, 144; as right reason in action, 225, 267, 272, 296–297; chief and guide of the virtues, 118, 288, 378; in Serenity Prayer, 379; relation to knowledge and understanding, 294–295, 379; sub-virtues of, 264. For more Big Book and 12&12 passages, click on and search wisdom and its cognates. For related posts, see in Reflections, Second Thoughts: Decisions, Reason, and Emotions, and How Important Is It

Additional Resources

  1. “The Virtue of Prudence: Knowing the Truth and Living It,” chapter in Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues, by William C. Mattison III
  2. Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience, by Stephen S. Hall
  3. "Knowing What Is Best: The Virtue of Wisdom," chapter in How to Be Good in a World Gone Bad: Living a Life of Christian Virtue, by James S. Spiegel
  4. "Wisdom," chapter in Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, Michael W. Austin and R. Douglas Geivett, Editors

To return to Practice These, please click on link.