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Wisdom, wealth or both?

17 January 2013, 07:04

While in China, Annette Jahnel1 noted the accumulation of wealth by a few in a society which was not accustomed to it until fairly recently but the lack of wisdom in how it was used shocked her. It seemed as if their desire for all to see their wealth was extraordinary. When in a restaurant, for example, exorbitant amounts of food were ordered even if this resulted in massive waste. Other ways of ensuring that others knew about their newly acquired wealth was the abundance of fancy shoes and clothes, jewellery, furs and large cars. In a country where millions live in dire poverty this display of wealth was quite shocking to the system. It struck me that here in South Africa we have a similar issue with the newly acquired wealth of those who previously were unable to accumulate such material wealth and the millions of poor.

Anette writes about their attitude – “What is the point of being rich if nobody knows about it? … Pity, really, that the acquisition of wealth is not linked to the acquisition of wisdom. Wouldn’t be wonderful if the wealthy were wise in equal measure, with a dash of humble modesty thrown in?”

In 497BC Plato wrote2 of the wealthy: “They fill themselves with that which is not substantial and the part of themselves which they fill is also unsubstantial and incontinent.”

This got me thinking about these 2 words – wealth and wisdom. A quick look and we see that each word has six letters, none of which is repeated in either word. The only letter they share is ‘w’. So from the outset they have virtually nothing in common.

If they share little with regard to their spelling let us look at their definitions3. Wealth is defined as ‘a large amount of money and valuable material possessions’ whereas the definition of Wisdom is ‘the ability to think and act utilising knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense and insight.’ These two definitions show us clearly that the 2 words are in no way related unless we consciously decide to use them in a correlating manner.

This is not to say that all wealthy people do not have wisdom. Today there seems to be a strong desire to accumulate wealth, as quickly as possible. The queues at the Lotto counter and the people who spend day in and day out in the casino tell a story. How many of those who have won the Lotto have been wise in spending and saving their windfall? There are many stories of those who bought houses, cars and fancy goods; family, friends and even strangers come knocking on the door for handouts and quickly the money dwindles.

Having looked a bit at wealth let us now think about wisdom. It is said that the problem with ‘common sense’ is that it is not very common. Part of the definition of wisdom includes utilising common sense. Now if common sense is not very common then it seems to follow that wisdom is not very common either. Wisdom does not necessarily mean intelligent or well-educated. Rather it means using experience and thinking before taking action.

Who is known for their wisdom? Probably the best known are the magi who ‘came from the east’ following a star they had learned would signal the birth of a King. They are often referred to as The Wise Men. They had learned of the star in their studies of the heavens and their reading and then utilised this knowledge, and their understanding from this knowledge, to find what they sought. Yes, they quite probably were wealthy too but that did not create their wisdom. A second example is Solomon who, when God asked him what he wanted most, his reply was not wealth but wisdom to assist him as he ruled the nation. God granted him this and, because of his humility, he also became very wealthy.

So what legacy do we want to leave – wealth, wisdom or even possibly both? When an obituary is written it seldom mentions the deceased’s wealth but, should he have shown wisdom in his actions, that will certainly be remembered.

1My Year of Beds by Annette Jahnel

2The Republic

3Collins English Dictionary and Thesaurus

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