When I think of that word, I think of truthfulness--an awareness of how the world actually functions and how we as humans might live in it. When we hear something smart, we must also think, "Can we live it?" The understanding that results from that answer often leads to wisdom.
I've decided to list five of my favorite books for seeking wisdom. And I put constraints on myself--no ancient texts or religious texts. I wanted to consider works that were a bit more modern, more accessible. Here they are, in no particular order:
1. Conflict of Visions, by Thomas Sowell--There is no better book for understanding the differences in the worldviews that create political conflict. Sowell's amazingly clear writing style will help any reader more easily understand that political arguments are not rooted in shifting topics, but rather in historical movements and truly different ways of seeing the world.
2. The Law, by Frederic Bastiat--Written in 1850, this slender book (around 60 pages) is perhaps the most explicit example of the relationship of individuals in a society to how laws and government can be used for destruction. It is so relevant, it could be written today. This book is rooted in rock solid logic and is easy to understand for all levels of readers.
3. Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl--The famous account of Frankl's time in a Nazi prison camp gives readers a reason to live. He explains that meaning can be found anywhere, even in the most desperate of circumstances, and how we choose our behavior will determine how will live in the world. His idea for a Statue of Responsibility to balance our Statue of Liberty is an inspired concept.
4. The Conduct of Life, by Ralph Waldo Emerson--Emerson's influence on Americanism is undeniable, and his thoughts here on nature and humanity are wide-reaching. The book is both practical and philosophical, and is as much a reflection of the 19th century as it is a guidebook for understanding the 21st. Its eternal truthfulness is hard to beat.
5. Envy, by Helmut Schoeck--Perhaps no human quality is as powerful for both individuals and for society as a whole as our capacity for envy. It can, when used carefully, drive society forward and improve lives; however, it is most commonly the root of destruction in the lives of all who do not fight against it. This book is the most thorough examination of that singular idea that affects everything from how one interacts with his neighbor to how we organize laws for the country. A truly remarkable book.
A few others to consider: Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery, GK Chesterton's Common Man, David Hume's Four Dissertations, Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy, Henry Hazlitt's Thinking as a Science, Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment, Deirdre McCloskey's The Bourgeois Virtues, Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind.
What books should I add to this list to make readers a bit wiser this new year?