Don Quixote and The Difference Between Wisdom and Intelligence

Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote excellently portrays wisdom’s distinction from intelligence through the character growth (or at least revelation) of Don Quixote and his trusted squire Sancho Panza. While both play the part of the fool in many respects, both exhibit moments of intelligence or wisdom throughout their adventures.

The Intelligent Don Quixote

Don Quixote is an educated gentleman in the quiet town of La Mancha who loses his bearings on reality through the excessive reading of “chivalrous books”, akin to the modern day fantasy novel. His recruitment of Sancho Panza and subsequent journey in search of fame and glory stem from his desire to rekindle the noble life of the knight, complete with saving damsels in distress, dueling other knights, and protecting the reputation of his beloved Dulcinea del Toboso. Throughout the novel, Don Quixote shows his great intelligence in matters of literature, history, and philosophy through his conversations with Sancho and others. Often, I found these speeches from Don Quixote to be the best parts of the book, as they show a Cervantes’ philosophical mind through masterful discourse. However, while Quixote is very intelligent, I argue he lacks the wisdom that Sancho later grows into (especially in Part II). Quixote shows that intelligence only goes so far as eloquence in speech and the possession of knowledge.

The Wise Sancho Panza

Sancho, on the other hand, is a simple peasant with a wife and kids. He is neither educated nor literate, but he experiences reality as it is, unlike Quixote who lives in fantasy and dreams. This experience of reality gives Sancho the greater part of his wisdom, which he expresses (to the annoyance of Quixote) through short quips and proverbs. A few of my favorites:

  • There’s a remedy for everything except death.
  • The foolish remarks of the rich man pass for wisdom in the world.
  • If the pitcher hits the stone or the stone hits the pitcher, it’s bad for the pitcher.
  • The fool knows more in his own house than the wise man in someone else’s.
  • When they’re asleep, everyone is the same—the grandees and the little folk, the rich and the poor.
  • Make yourself into honey and the flies will eat you up.

Sancho is first portrayed as very foolish. After all, it takes a fool to follow a fool. But later in Don Quixote, Sancho grows steadily in wisdom, largely through the realization that his master is mad. He further demonstrates wisdom, to the awe of those around him who thought him merely a fool, through his brief governorship, in which he skillfully applied practical sense to the city’s problems.

A big theme in Don Quixote is the contrast between idealism and pragmatism embodied by Don Quixote and Sancho, respectively. In the end, however, we observe Cervantes’ view that idealism is second to pragmatism, since Sancho ends his journeys happily, having found both moderate wealth and contentedness with his simple life. Quixote, on the other hand, falls sick and only breaks free of his idealism through the clarity offered just before his death. Such pragmatism, I argue, is a necessary component of wisdom.

The 3 Ingredients for Wisdom

This discussion begs a much larger, question, however. What is wisdom? Wisdom requires three traits that distinguish it from mere intelligence: universality, pragmatism, and humility.

Universality

Wisdom is universal, in that it applies widely for diverse peoples among many situations. Wisdom transcends specific occupations, situations, and even time itself as wisdom is passed down in part from one generation to the next. Mere intelligence is more a quickness of thought coupled with a depth of knowledge. An intelligent man may be either wise or foolish just as well as a stupid man may be wise or foolish. It is merely another trait of the human mind far too often praised instead of wisdom. Sancho’s many proverbs, though used wantonly, capture those bits of wisdom ready for application to his many situations.

Pragmatism

Wisdom is inherently a “practical intelligence”, as opposed to the academic intelligence possessed by Quixote. Wisdom is a trait largely acquired through experience, whereas academic intelligence is obtained through study and perhaps good genes. The former has the advantage of being grounded in reality by its very experiential nature, whereas the latter is artificial and often learned in a vacuum. (Consider, for example, how college is often referred to as a “bubble”.) I personally have some trouble wrestling with whether books can impart wisdom, as I feel some must. Perhaps this is a distinguishing factor between good books and bad books.

Humility

Humility is a key trait for the wise man, as Plato noted through the words of Socrates in Apology, “I am better off than he is, for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know.” Socrates later goes on to say after speaking with many of the experts of his day, “I found that the men most in repute were all but the most foolish; and that others less esteemed were really wiser and better.”

Sancho was often painfully humble to the point of humiliating himself throughout much of the book. Nonetheless, his humility and unassuming nature cultivated his mind to develop wisdom. Mere intelligence often clouds the mind by inflating the ego. Quixote, if ever ridiculed or insulted, often responded with violence to protect his façade of honor and dignity.

As a member of the “scientific community” (community is a terrible word for a relationship based solely on similar professions), intelligence coupled with pride is pervasive. Every researcher’s “solution” is the “best” solution. Every doctor knows better than the patient. Every software entrepreneur is touting the next big thing. More generally, “Science” is always correct. The very word Science has become a sledge hammer with which politicians, activists, and online hecklers use (without knowing any of the science themselves) to close the door on real discussion of policies or beliefs.

This misuse stems from the innate goal of Science to ascertain objective truths in the natural world, but any historical review of the development of science and its methods reveals that Science seems rarely to find any objective truth, particularly in the realm of human government. Instead, Science is ever in pursuit of measurable truths, at times seemingly closer, at others retrospectively further. (For the latter, take as an example the now disregarded belief in a physical “ether” permeating all space.)

This is not to say real truth does not exist or is unachievable. Science is simply a tricky, complicated business, and we are relatively new at it. Our pursuit of wisdom, on the other hand is arguably much further along, since wisdom is the fruit of learning to cope with our human condition, which has existed from the very beginning.

Wisdom is only achievable to a mind humble enough to learn it.

The Wise Man Down the Street

A common stereotype is a portrayal of rural people as stupid and unworthy of attention. Peasants like Sancho Panza fit that stereotype in the eyes of “gentlemen” like Don Quixote. While I have nearly finished my Ph.D., my uneducated neighbor may have far greater wisdom than myself. There’s no reason to suppose that my 8+ years in college studies has fostered wisdom more than the 8+ years my neighbor has spent working, growing a family, and engaging with the real world.

The owner of your local feed & seed shop may very well possess a wisdom approaching that of Solomon veiled by humility.

Published by Christian Bottenfield

Catholic | Father of two | Husband | Engineer | Founder of ThinkingWest blog

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