The wise person in both eastern and western philosophical traditions is supposed to be detached from the objects of sense – from what they see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. The idea is that, because the senses deliver us information about the external here and now, the person with true wisdom isn’t as bounced around by temporary fears and desires. They see the larger picture and realize that their current situation doesn't matter as much as it naturally seems to. But our senses don’t just present us with the here and now, they present the here and now in, as it were, BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS – they have a natural and immediate power over our actions. So training is required to put them into their proper perspective. Because of this, though wisdom can seem to denigrate sensory experience, it actually exalts the right kinds of experience.
According to many schools of thought, the path to wisdom requires meditative exercises explicitly designed to weaken the power of our senses. We tend to associate such training with eastern philosophies, like those found in yoga and Buddhism. But this is because our idea of western philosophy has become completely tied to college professors and courses and, hence, is wrongly associated with trivial activities like exams and essays (usually on topics so abstract or theoretical as to be devoid of any practical value). But, contrary to what you might believe, western philosophy has a rich tradition of meditative practice – in addition to the religious mystics of the west, the Stoics and ancient Skeptics are perhaps the most obvious examples. And, as in the case of eastern meditation, the goal is, in part, to train oneself to withstand and rise above the natural power of the senses. The idea that wisdom can be acquired only through training is also central to Plato’s Republic, a large part of which is concerned with laying out the very long course of training required to achieve wisdom -- training which, you may be surprised to find out, according to Plato, includes both martial arts and mathematics.
But in placing the larger picture over the smaller, wisdom not only requires that we learn to resist the natural pull of our senses, it also requires us to resist the natural pull of our emotions. Our senses focus us on the smaller picture not only because they present us with the here and now, but also because they always present them from our perspective. For example, the information that we get from vision is organized along the left-right, up-down, and near-far axes; but left, right, up, down, near and far aren’t objective properties of the world. Rather, these properties only exist from a certain perspective. Our own perspective is, likewise, essentially involved in our emotional reactions to the world. Your sudden anger at some perceived insult involves more than the objective fact that someone has said something to you that you take to be offensive; it also essentially involves your feelings about this fact. In placing the larger picture above the smaller, wisdom views our natural emotional reactions to the world as unreliable guides to action. And meditative techniques that are designed to instill wisdom by lessening our attachments to the objects of sensory experience are, at the same time, supposed to dampen the effects that our emotions have on us.
Now, up until the very recent past, we weren’t widely skeptical about the claims of the larger picture against the smaller. We can see this, for example, in the closing scene of the 1943 film Casablanca, when Humphrey Bogart tells Ingrid Bergman that, “The problems of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” The audience is meant to feel it’s something of a tragedy that the Bogart and Bergman characters’ love has to take a back seat to the larger picture, but we aren’t meant to have any doubt that the claims of the larger picture should be placed over their personal concerns. And wisdom is a vanishing concept in our culture, at least in part, because we’ve grown somewhat skeptical about whether the larger picture should indeed override the smaller.
On our contemporary way of thinking, the pleasure or pain of a sensory experience is what really matters and, thus, we rarely think of it as distracting us from what does. But, while we tend to think that happiness consists of having pleasant sensory experiences and avoiding painful ones, our ancestors tended to believe that happiness could be achieved only by learning to discount sensory pain and pleasure. To quote the Bhagavad Gita: “Pleasures conceived in the world of the senses have a beginning and an end and give birth to misery. The wise do not look for happiness in them.”
Our attitude towards emotions is similarly distinctive. Our ancestors, in both the east and the west, thought of emotions as things that are external to the self which, when allowed to determine our actions, undermine our freedom and autonomy. Whereas, we tend to think of the emotions as internal to the self and to consider emotional expression to be an expression of our true self. The word “passion” interestingly comes from the same root as the word “passive,” because, for our ancestors, it was part and parcel of being under the influence of a passion that our ability to determine our own actions – that is, our ability to act freely – was being undermined. To quote the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, “Any person capable of angering you becomes your master.” Contrary to our current way of thinking, it has traditionally been believed, as the 17th century philosopher Spinoza put it, that we are “in bondage to our emotions.”
We tend to divide conceptions of the world along cultural lines, east vs. west. But one thing we’ve seen is that there's a far more important division between contemporary western thought and past thinking across all cultures. Wisdom has similar characteristics and gets similar respect throughout variant cultures of the past, and it’s only in the contemporary west that we see pervasive doubt about wisdom and its advocacy of the larger picture.
Now that we’ve seen the change in conception that’s behind our skepticism about wisdom, we can see why it's emerged. If you’re reading this, you almost certainly have heat in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer – you can control the temperature in your home simply by setting a thermostat to whatever level you prefer. Within twenty minutes you can very likely get to a store that sells a variety of food unavailable to the most powerful kings of earlier times. For our ancestors, a life devoted to the small picture of current desire and fear was almost guaranteed to be an unhappy life, since the resources to satisfy sensory experience and emotion were almost completely lacking. Their current sensory experience at any time may have told them it’s too hot or too cold, or they might have had a hunger or thirst for some special food or drink, but if they had allowed these demands of the small picture to determine their happiness, the guaranteed result would be misery. But, in the contemporary west and parts of the rest of the world, this is no longer the case. We’ve constructed a new human world in which the demands of the moment can increasingly and more easily be met and, no doubt, this is a large part of why we’ve become skeptical concerning any claim that the natural pull of sensory experience and emotion should be resisted in favor of the larger picture.
The material facts of prior ages made it almost impossible to think that happiness could consist in fulfilling the demands of the smaller picture, and nearly inevitable that people would think that a happy life, instead, required training oneself to often ignore the smaller picture in favor of the larger. However, though our skepticism about wisdom becomes possible only when material progress makes it feasible to alleviate the temporary fears and satisfy the temporary desires of the moment, an attitude’s becoming possible doesn’t make it right. The Bhagavad Gita, Plato, and other ancient texts and thinker claim that satisfying all the demands of the smaller picture, in the end, simply leaves one more unsatisfied. And it’s a curious fact that, in a time of unprecedented material prosperity, we seem to be complaining and worrying more than ever.