The Adornment of Knowledge

“The adornment of knowledge is wisdom. The adornment of wisdom is humility.”

Someone shared this quote with me many years ago. They attributed it to Jewish tradition but I’ve never been able to find the source. It’s been a guiding concept in my life. Here’s what it means to me.

Knowledge is morally neutral. There are a lot of minds full of lots of knowledge that aren’t exactly making the world a better place. Some of these knowledge-full minds are actually making the world worse. We all know this. It’s a shame.

Wisdom is inherently good. It’s the application of knowledge toward the betterment of our world.

The relationship between knowledge and wisdom is fairly straightforward. It’s reasonable to suppose that knowledge is the precursor to wisdom. It’s also reasonable to suppose that wisdom not based on knowledge risks being called out as fraudulent. Of course there are many types of knowledge– intellectual, emotional, spiritual, physical, and so on. Wisdom can adorn any of these types of knowledge.

Humility is the outlier. What does humility have to do with wisdom or knowledge? I’ve wondered about this over the years even as my answer hasn’t changed much.

Humility is the recognition that each of us is simultaneously vast and infinitesimal. Each of us is simultaneously powerful and frail. Humility adorns wisdom by reminding us that we exist in relation to something far greater and more expansive than our own mind. Humility adorns wisdom by reminding us that our theories and hypotheses are theories and hypotheses, not Absolute Truths.

If we had a bit more humility in our interactions with one another (and in our public squares) we’d likely see those interactions and squares adorned with greater wisdom. But that’s just a theory. Who really knows?

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