Questions for Worldbuilding the Concept of Wisdom

Wisdom to my mind is a bit of a paradox. It is subjective and context-dependent, but inherently universal. I say this, because for something to be wise it ought to be applicable across time and space, yet whether the claims are appraised as being “wise” hinges on the perception of a past, present or future audience. It is beyond the self, yet dependent upon the self. So that then begs the fantasy writing question: What if the self is not human? If culture already morphs the form and substance of wisdom, what effect might a different state of being have on it?

That would be terribly dull to prescribe, but I can help get some readers’ creativity going. Below I have listed relevant questions with examples you might consider when building your setting, so you may merrily thread into your fantastic realms to shape oddities rich and strange.

I would advise readers of this article to try and let go of their own presumptions on what is wise for the sake of worldbuilding. There are few cultures in our modern, human world whose philosophers deem obtuse narcissists dressed in mink robes as being wise, but why wouldn’t a race of bobcat-folk? For the art of the hunt and the fun of the kill, a couple of minks’ lives surely are warranted! If fictional beings belonging to fictional cultures have fictional physical forms, than it stands to reason that they not only can have, but likely do have fictional mindsets. With those mindsets come different views on specific matters. That’s a lot of fun to play with, so let your mind run free and wild.

#1: What does it mean to be wise?

Is it akin to compassion. Is it akin to inner peace? Is wisdom an equivalent of something else, like honour, survival or etiquette? Is it enlightenment? Or perhaps a capacity to do something, weather something, experience something? Building from that, could wisdom be the ability to view existence from a macro-perspective? Or is wisdom the ability to place matters in their proper context?

Let’s go for an example. There exists a land full of dense forests where two sentient species roam. One species consists of giant, horned, hoofed, clawed and fanged beast-men, and the other species consists of fair and airy fae. The former are creatures of flesh and bone who require great caloric intakes and must fend off equally capable creatures roaming the wilds. The latter darts through the tree tops and thrives on sunlight, their bodies ethereal so that nothing of matter can harm them.

The beast-men live rough and brutal lives. To ponder what is righteous might inhibit their resolve to act decisively. Wisdom to them could be a synonym of survival, firstly for themselves and secondly for their species. Obtaining shelter, sustenance and sex could be the sum of wisdom to them. Up in the tallest branches, the fae meanwhile have no shortage of shelter or sustenance, and the third of the list you yourself may decide. They lack natural enemies, suffer no violence and have little to nothing to gain from the world besides the sunlight they bathe in. Perhaps to them, wisdom is more of an art. Something to cultivate and discuss ad nauseam, but without clear definition or need. A thousand schools of thought for each fae to ponder without consequence. What sheer nonsense or accidental brilliance could such fae privilege lead to?

#2: What does it mean to live a good/fulfilling life?

To test oneself in mind, body or spirit and prove worthy? To live in quiet balance with the world around oneself? To raise a family and sire the next generation? To make paperclips?

As an example: A gestalt consciousness lives in a matrioshka brain; A gargantuan, artificial structure which has been built around a star, fueling a robotic hive-mind. This mind has been programmed to seek omniscience aeons upon aeons ago. To best carry out its mission, it has decided to split its mind into millions and has directed each fraction to discover something which the gestalt consciousness does not already know. And so the fractions set out to achieve their purpose by running their code, building drones, exploring the galaxy and gathering whatever they can find, reason or imagine. Each time they discover something novel, a little reward signal is sent out to them that ups their wisdom stat. The greatest sage across the breadth of the star is the one with the current high-score.

#3: Where does wisdom come from according to these beings?

Is it a gift from the divine? A synonym of divinity? Something inherent? Perhaps it’s equivalent to the ebb and flow of the world? Nothing but a construction of the mind? And what happens if this knowledge is put into doubt?

Example: Merfolk drink water, swim in water, live in water, breathe in water. Water is all that is, and all that sustains them, and thus the wisest sages know for a fact that water is wisdom materialized. What else could compose wisdom but the thing that is all-nourishing and all-encompassing? And yet, there is doubt. For in each generation there are merfolk daring enough to swim to where the pressure is lowest, where discomfort grows great. Many swim back with their scaled tail trailing close behind, but some of these mavericks push through the queasy feeling to discover a realm that isn’t water. It is air, and it stretches further and higher. Thus within their minds emerges an inkling of doubt. If there is a thing greater than water, should it not house wisdom as well? And if it does, what else are the wisest merfolk mistaken about?

#4: How is wisdom accumulated and shared according to this culture?

Through suffering? Through release from suffering? Through silent meditation? Through discussion and the exchange of experiences? Through lived, personal experience? Through internal discovery? Through external discovery?

Example: A species of orc exists where their members are incapable of entertaining the theoretical. Try as they might, none of them can imagine a situation that has not happened. While insight is thus by and large locked off to them, on the flip-side they possess expertise pertaining to practical experience. With a memory like a never-ending film reel, the moment they make a mistake, that wrong is ingrained within them, and they will never make it again. So too it is with righteous, honourable deeds. Due to their inherent limitations and boons, these orcs have developed a lengthy series of coming of age rituals built on millennia of knowledge, which includes every major lesson an orc ought to learn. Physical trials, emotional trials, spiritual trials and mental trials. Through generations the rituals have been fine-tuned to prepare the orcs for the world they live in and the society they have built, ensuring that each and every orc has a robust cultural base for a shared view on wisdom.

#5: Which values are considered wise?

When it comes to a culture’s values, there’s a whole lot of options to choose from, with worldbuilding opportunity for each. One species’ sin can be another’s virtue, be it bravery, slyness, strength, vigour, cunning, humility, pride, diligence, lust, ruthlessness, you name it. Which ones do your beings chiefly instill in their children? What values are considered paramount for their bildung?

Example: The high elves know that beauty is the highest mark of wisdom, for it indicates that the individual has their affairs in order. One cannot become fairest of them all if they lack the diligence to follow a skin- and haircare routine that suits them, nor to exercise, eat and sleep in accordance with their body’s needs. One must possess knowledge of style theory in order to choose clothing that best befit them, as well as the stress-free lifestyle that keeps wrinkles at bay. And though it is uncouth to say, the elves know well that natural beauty signifies belonging to a fine lineage. Truly, beauty is the height of all virtues, for it incorporates all of its lessers.

So they thought until the centaurs came by the hordes. They valued impulse over diligence, beheld stress as a boon that sliced through weakness, cared principally for practicality and thought nothing of stock, for meritocracy was the crucible upon which the strongest and wisest were forged. The rigours of high elven beauty proved a prison when it clashed with ruthless centaur ambition. Then the horsemen laughed at elven folly for centuries thereafter, using their dead cultures as cautionary tales on the cost of foolishness.

#6: How is wisdom displayed?

Is it to be flaunted, or instead exemplified through humility? Is laconic speech a sign of wisdom? Or is a more poetic, mystical eloquence? Do the wisest seclude themselves or strive to teach others? Should the wise be above or equal to others? Is it considered unwise to care for such appearances at all? Or is it perhaps a societal duty expected of those considered wise?

Example: Among the peacock people exists a stubborn folk belief that those with the most extravagant plumage are wisest of them all. The truly wise know this to be false, for feathers do not make the bird. Alas, it is wiser to bend than to break, so the peacock philosophers acquiesce to superstition by covering their tails and wings in ample jewelry and paint. This way even the dullest and most gullible of birdkind can still find wisdom within the flock, without having their tiny minds be stunned.

#7: How is wisdom honoured?

An elevated societal status? An advisory role in local courts? A role in public ceremony? Not at all? Are the wise venerated after their deaths, or are the bearers of wisdom considered mere vessels for wisdom? To be forgotten once their breath has left them, as one does with a wilted houseplant.

Example: Having been dissatisfied with the lack of verifiable, certified wisemen in the modern world, the government of Ruritania decided to implement a revolutionary new policy. Anyone who obtained a degree in theology or philosophy was given a lifetime discount on döner kebabs anywhere across the country, courtesy of the state.

I hope these questions have given you some new angles to approach this aspect of worldbuilding from. Go on your merry way now, and should your minds have concocted anything already, be sure to share it with us in the comment section or on the forum itself. Happy philosophizing about philosophizing!

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