During the run-up to Valentine’s Day, I saw a quote on Twitter from one of my intellectual heroes, Umberto Eco. Until his death a few years ago, Eco was an influential Italian scholar who helped pioneer the field of interpretive semiotics—a way to study language and other sign systems—even as he wrote best-selling novels. (Basically, he wrote heady intellectual stuff with the skill of a novelist even as he wrote novels filled with heady intellectual stuff.)
The quote was a simple one, drawn from Eco’s novel, The Name of the Rose. It goes like this: “Love is wiser than wisdom.”
As soon as I saw it, I wanted to recast it as part of a larger sequence, a mashup from Eco and me that would go like this: “Love is wiser than wisdom. Wisdom knows more than knowledge. Knowledge counts more than data.”
The point of this sequence, of course, is that each higher-order item transcends and makes sense of the lower-order one. Data without knowledge is just a pile of numbers. Knowledge without wisdom is just a list of facts. And wisdom without love is … well, pointless.
I suppose most people who think about such things would nod along readily enough with the first two claims: You need knowledge to structure data and wisdom to make sense of knowledge. But the point about wisdom and love—Eco’s original point—may feel a bit less straightforward. “What’s love got to do with it?” you might ask (catching the Tina Turner reference because your parents raised you well).
The answer is probably better left to the novelists among us than to the heady intellectuals. After all, as a wise old wizard once told a noble hobbit, “even the very wise cannot see all ends.” But love—and here I mean the big sort of love, the deep-magic stuff that animates the better angels of our natures and forever fascinates novelists, poets, and preachers alike—love like that is what enables wisdom.
Such love provides the higher purpose—the direction, the telos—without which would-be wisdom amounts to little more than cleverness or savvy. And wisdom needs that higher purpose in roughly the same way that knowledge needs to be embedded in a broader understanding (wisdom) in order to be more than a rather trivial list of facts. Wisdom is a powerful tool, but it isn’t a destination or even a direction. It’s still a means as opposed to an end.
That’s why, when it comes to finding the answers to life’s hardest questions, wisdom can’t always help but love always can. On the journey that is life, wisdom is a tool you need to steer your ship successfully. But love is both the course you want to take and the source of the wind you want to have filling your sails.
Love is wiser than wisdom. Going any other way, or getting carried away by any other force, will get you nowhere fast. That would obviously be unwise.