To answer this we first must ask, what is Wisdom? Wisdom is different than knowledge much in the same way that that knowing (the right thing to do) isn't necessarily the same as doing (the right thing). Psychologists call this the knowing-doing gap, and philosophers talk about one's conviction vs. one's conduct. Or, quite simply, it's the difference between knowing a lot about chocolate - it's origin, manufacturing process, chemical compounds, etc. - and actually eating some chocolate. All the information and knowledge about chocolate does not compare to the experience of chocolate consumption. Same could be said about other things like sex, alcohol, or even (and especially) values or principles, such as the difference between knowing (thinking or believing) that "honesty is the best policy" and actually having the courage to practice honesty as a code of conduct - even if others don't. So, we could say that Wisdom is the experience of knowledge, or as philosopher Manly P. Hall suggests, that Wisdom is Ensouled knowledge.
This brings us to the Ancient part. Antiquity is generally considered to be the time before the Current Era (BCE) or roughly 2,000 years ago. But Ancient Wisdom (if it has survived) is actually Timeless Wisdom - if it worked then and ever since, it will work today. Even drawing from a contemporary example such as the New Age, or the New Thought Movement of the early 1900's, we find that these actually have roots that go back to the Enlightenment, the Renaissance before that, the Neoplatonists, back to Plato, and going all the way back to the Egyptian and other Mystery Schools. Even something as cutting edge as Quantum Physics also shares much in common with the mystics and sages of antiquity. (For more on this, read "The Tao of Physics," which highlights some of the uncanny similarities between subatomic physics and Eastern mysticism).
Characteristics of Ancient Wisdom
Multidisciplinary and Holistic approach:
Up until the last couple hundred years or so, disciplines of knowledge and inquiry weren't as specialized and compartmentalized as they are in today's era of specialization. Scientists were also Alchemists, Astronomers were also Astrologers, Priests and Sages were philosophers, artists, poets, inventors, etc. In the history of the U.S., Benjamin Franklin stands out as an example of such a person, as he was a Statesman, Author, Publisher, Inventor, Musician, and, according to most accounts, somewhat of a Ladies' Man. Today we call these people "Renaissance Men (or women)" which even suggests that they are out of touch with modern times.
Actually it is the modern worldview which is out of touch with the Universe. Most things do not exist in a vacuum, separate and independent from everything else. This is particularly true when it comes to matters of health (both physical and mental), as there can be any number of factors that can work together or against each other to produce dis-ease, or to promote health. Our predecessors knew full well that the various areas of inquiry - Science, Religion, the Arts, Philosophy, etc., each have their own strengths, their own limitation, and when approaching a situation or problem, it is better to draw from ALL avenues of knowledge to gain a more complete understanding and arrive at a solution. So, why wouldn't we do the same? Today, our debates are chiseled down to their most opposing elements, and then pitted against another in a duel with no chance of agreement, such as the Science vs. Religion debate or the Evolution vs. Creation conundrum. In an earlier time, these would not be opposing or even in conflict - they would all be considered as possible ways to explain something. In the words of Elbert Hubbard, "A specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less until he knows all about nothing."
An acceptance of the Mysterious or Supernatural:
The Great Thinkers of the Ages knew the limitations of the human senses and mind, as well as the shortcomings of Science and other ways of understanding. Therefore, a certain respect or regard for the Mystical or Unknowable was always accepted as part of the issue being investigated. Even our modern scientists did this - Newton, while able to predict the orbits of planets quite accurately, was never able to figure out the small anomalies or eccentricities in their orbital paths, which he attributed to God playing a hand in the matter. (It was later discovered that these inconsistencies were caused by the mutual gravitational attraction of the planets upon one another). Einstein also stated that "God does not play dice," when debating Heisenberg's "Uncertainty Principle" of Quantum Physics. The point is, even the most scientific minds know the limits of inquiry and we must remain open to possible explanations that defy or transcend our current abilities.
Using the Language of Symbols and Metaphor:
The scientists of antiquity were limited by their scientific instruments, but were able to hone their own instruments - the instruments of consciousness and intuition - as a tool to work with and a lens through which they viewed the mysteries of the world. Today we are so literal and factual with our understanding of things, that we miss the symbolic nature of things, which cuts us off from deeper meaning and insight. True, that the ancients were more superstitious and used quaint sounding terms to explain phenomena, but now we gone so far the other way that the wonders of the world are reduced to cold hard facts that have lost much of their original meaning.
This is very apparent in the realm of religions interpretation. Much of the debate now centers around whether the figures and events of the Bible actually happened as stated in an historical account. Maybe things happened as written, maybe not. But the essential point that gets thrown by the wayside is whether or not these passages still have meaning today in our lives, that they are living principles that can guide us toward living a better life. Myths, too, are wisdom stories that, whether or not they actually happened in real life, can be applied again and again, providing us with the insight and means to solve our difficulties and make it through the passages of life without too much despair. Here, the point is clear, don't let the "facts" get in the way of their usefulness. Taken literally, all the great parables, allegories and symbols lose their power and effectiveness; taken as symbolic metaphors that actually point to something much larger and deeper, these "myths" bring us to a Truth that is eternal and universal.
In summary, Ancient Wisdom is as timeless and modern as it is old; it has stood the test of time as we know it. Wisdom has to be experienced directly as a living fact and not just an intellectual concept. Wisdom is a multidisciplinary approach to things, taking in all factors such as mind/body or mind/body/spirit; looking at things as being both Nature and Nurture and not pitting the two against each other. The limitations on what is known have to be broken down so we can accept what is unknown, and be OK with that. Each new discovery only leads toward greater mystery. And, with wisdom, we must train our faculties to see beyond appearances and get realize deeper truths than we are able to immediately see with our senses. But, don't take my word for any of this...for I cannot (nor can anyone) impart wisdom upon another. I can only suggest ways to look at yourself and the world, so that you try them out for yourself in your own experience, and then the theoretical knowledge becomes ensouled wisdom.
© Chris Sheridan