Knowledge versus wisdom

The Tao Te Ching presents the basic principles of Taoism in just a few dozen short versions. The Chinese word “tao” means way, and Taoism provides guidance for living in a way that corresponds with the way of the universe. The text was written thousands of years ago and is attributed to Lao Tzu, a name that can be translated as “Old Master.”

In the time since it was written, the world has changed dramatically, with an explosion of new technology that has greatly improved standards of living. Given the benefits of technology, we may be surprised to find technology viewed skeptically in the Tao Te Ching, where we read,

Let every state be simple
like a small village with few people
There may be tools to speed things up
ten or a hundred times
yet no one will care to use them
There may be boats and carriages
yet they will remain without riders…1

Technology enables us to obtain more of what we desire. However, obtaining more of what we desire may not be sufficient to live well. The Tao Te Ching warns,

There is no greater loss than losing Tao
No greater curse than desire
No greater tragedy than discontentment
No greater fault than selfishness2

To live well, we must desire well. We must be wise. In the Tao Te Ching, to be wise is to relinquish desire. We find a skeptical view of technology in the Tao Te Ching because we may use technology in the service of desires we have failed to relinquish.

Other religious and philosophical traditions offer different perspectives on wisdom. The Handbook of Epictetus provides an introduction to the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. The Handbook, like the Tao Te Ching, warns us about desire.

Remember…that he who falls into desire is unfortunate…. For the present…, suppress your desires entirely….3

However, for the mature Stoic, desire is not always an error. We suffer if we desire what we cannot achieve, but we can always achieve some things. We cannot control our circumstances, but we can control how we react to them. In the Handbook, to be wise is to focus on who we are rather than what we have.

Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and…whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and…whatever is not of our own doing. The things that are within our power are by nature free, and immune to hindrance and obstruction….4

Desire is also discussed extensively in the Bible, where wisdom is the primary theme of the book of Proverbs. In the Bible, as in the Handbook and the Tao Te Ching, the wise are not ruled by their instinctual desires. The Bible warns against instinctual reactions to the world like pride, anger, lust, envy, and greed. Rather than defer to instinct, we are instructed to trust God.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Be not wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. (Proverbs 3:5 – 7 ESV)

In the Bible, as in the Handbook and the Tao Te Ching, wisdom is described as better than wealth. Through wealth, we can buy things that we want. However, because our desires are unbounded, nothing we can buy will satisfy them. In the pursuit of contentment, obtaining something we desire accomplishes less than obtaining better desires.

Blessed is the one who finds wisdom,
and the one who gets understanding,
for the gain from her is better than gain from silver
and her profit better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her. (Proverbs 3: 13 – 15 ESV)

Failing to achieve our instinctual desires causes frustration. The Handbook contrasts the distress from pursuing our instinctual desires with the peace from choosing better desires.

Remember…that if you regard that which is not your own as being your own, you’ll have cause to lament, you’ll have a troubled mind, and you’ll find fault with both gods and human beings; but if you regard only that which is your own as being your own…, no one will ever be able to coerce you…, you’ll find fault with no one…, and no one will ever harm you because no harm can affect you….5

The Tao Te Ching also describes the contentment that wisdom can bring. In the same verse that warns about technology, we read,

Let them enjoy their food…
Let them be content in their homes
and joyful in the way they live…
Should a man grow old and die
without ever leaving his village
let him feel as though there was nothing he missed6

The Tao Te Ching, Handbook, and Bible each teach that we should transcend our instinctual desires. However, knowing what we should desire is not enough to be wise. Wisdom is a kind of knowledge only in the sense that the skill to ride a bicycle is a kind of knowledge. Wisdom is a way of interacting with the world rather than a collection of facts.

To become wise, we must internalize better ways of relating to the world. We gain many kinds of knowledge by moving forward, from book to book, subject to subject, or school to school. In contrast, we gain wisdom not by exploring broadly, but by immersing deeply. Instead of moving from book to book, we may return to the same books throughout our lives. We find an example of this kind of immersion described in the Bible, where we read,

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night. (Psalms 1:1 – 2 ESV)

Technological advances in the centuries since the Tao Te Ching, Handbook, and Bible were written have made most of the world much wealthier. Through knowledge, including modern technology, we can get more of what we desire. However, if we are not wise, we will waste our lives getting more of what we desire.

  1. Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, trans. Jonathan Star (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2001), 93.
  2. Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 59.
  3. Epictetus, Handbook, trans. Robin Hard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 287 – 288.
  4. Epictetus, Handbook, 287.
  5. Epictetus, Handbook, 287.
  6. Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 93.