WisdomOut of four cardinal virtues –wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance—the first two are most required in self-development. By having the courage to do the “right” things, an individual develops wisdom to practice justice and temperance. Oftentimes, in the study of psychology, both wisdom and courage are discussed together. One can hardly exist without the other. And to optimize human performance, we need to cultivate both courage and wisdom.

Courage is considered the foundation of all virtues, as lacking it would be difficult to perform a virtue, any virtue, or even any action either virtuous or not. Thus, it is safe to assume that an individual’s precursor to virtuosity is courage.

What courage is probably quite simple to watch, but not to define. We may have observed that “courage” constitutes the will that matches the capacity to do the initial act, to speak the truth, and to take leadership on an issue that matters. In short, it is the drive to do something, instead of staying silent. One’s level of courage may differ from others inherently, but it is something that can be learned through conditioning.

In 2004, Peterson and Seligman defined courage as: “a core human virtue comprised of valor, authenticity, enthusiasm/zest, and industry/perseverance.” In 2000, O’Byrne identified courage into: physical courage, moral courage, and vital courage. Thus, “courage” comprises of several layers and dimensions, each of which may differ in one person to another. And those with strong “moral courage,” for instance, may not be that strong in “physical courage,” which explains why strong thinkers may not make strong warriors who must fight in person instead of with their pens.

Now, what’s wisdom? According to Western classical dialogues, there are three concepts of “wisdom.” First, sophia or seeking contemplative life. Second, phronesis or expressed practically by leaders. Third, episteme or scientific understanding. Aristotle’s fourth category is theoretikes or knowledge devoted to truth.

Both theoretical and practical applications of virtue have been discussed considerably among philosophers and theologists. Psychologists, on the other hand, believe that good application of wisdom is key to the so-called “good life.” In 1975, Clayton did the first systematic study about wisdom. She found that “wise” individuals associate themselves with these keywords: emphatic, experienced, intelligent, introspective, intuitive, knowledgeable, and observant.

In 1985, Sternberg identified six qualities of wisdom: reasoning ability, sagacity, learning from ideas and environment, judgment, expeditious use of information, and perspicacity. In 1986, researchers Holliday and Chandler underlined five more qualities: exceptional understanding, judgment and communication skills, general competence, interpersonal skills, and social unobtrusiveness.

Now that we have understood what constitute courage and wisdom, we should be able to observe ourselves and others in a more valid way and learn from them. Happy learning. May we all become more courageous and wiser by the day.


Snyder, C.R. and Lopez, S.J. (2007) Positive Psychology: The Scientific and Practical Explorations of Human Strengths. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Creative Commons License photo credit: A. Omer Karamollaoglu