If one asks the majority of people what the word wisdom means, most will answer vaguely that it is the knowledge gained during a lifetime. However, wisdom is much more than just knowledge gained; it signifies the accumulation of knowledge, the application of learning, and the personification of God’s will in the creation of the universe (according to the American Heritage Dictionary, 6th ed.).
The abstract nature of the word wisdom allows for broad interpretation of its context. To limit the vagueness of the definition, many interpret wisdom as the accumulation of knowledge. In Greek mythology, the goddess Athena was known for her wisdom. Additionally, the personification of animals as possessing wisdom also heavily influenced Greek lore. Owls, for example, are synonymous with wisdom; likewise, foxes, with their cunning nature and ability to outsmart their prey, are considered insightful animals. Age plays a prominent part in the accumulation of learning. In many societies the elderly receive top status as preservers of both culture and knowledge, making them wise and respected members of the community. On a different level, teeth are described as being “wise”; however, these teeth actually do not differ from the rest of the secondary molars except for their tardiness.
Just as the accumulation of knowledge is a part of wisdom, so is the application of learning. The ancient Greeks believed that logos, or reason and thought, led to sophia, or wisdom. These early lovers of wisdom, or philosophers, sought knowledge and attempted to apply it to solving the puzzles of the universe. Further, philosophers such as Aristotle believed that wisdom was necessary to make judgments which coincide with one's understanding of life. This view, also known as “Philosophical Wisdom,” is thought to be one of the highest attainable virtues. The Stoics, Greek and Roman philosophers, also had their own ideas about wisdom. To them, not only is wisdom a way of attaining human excellence, it also serves as a way to act according to one’s personal ideals. Because attaining wisdom places the philosopher in an enlightened Nirvana-like state, however, it occasionally creates conflict for the individual having to deal with a dog-eat-dog existence. In order to release the enlightened man’s tortured mind, therefore, Stoics believed suicide was permissible to relieve the pain of existence. The way to true happiness, Stoics believed, was to want what one gets rather than trying to get what one wants.
Finally, wisdom can also explain God’s will in the creation of the universe. The idea of a God who created the heavens and the earth invokes images of a wise and powerful being. The term “God-like” creates the idea of a wise person who has attained supreme knowledge. Also, in Roman Catholic and orthodox versions of the Old Testament, the Hebrew King Solomon urges his people to love righteousness and to seek wisdom. Christians may also remember the three wise men from the Orient who follow the North Star to Bethlehem in search of the baby Jesus. Wisdom, long regarded as one of the highest virtues, allows one to understand God as the ultimate holder of wisdom and the one who bestows wisdom upon the person who seeks Him.
The many meanings of the word wisdom should not be ignored. Whether the accumulation of knowledge, the intellectual application of that knowledge, or an explanation of God’s creation of the universe, wisdom indicates a person’s struggle to attain mankind's highest goal.