A wise – or wiser? – democracy? – Part 2

In January 2016 I wrote a blog post wondering if calling my democratic vision “a wise democracy” reifies something that is actually unrealistic. I concluded that “wise” was better than “wiser”.  Five months later I have come to the opposite conclusion from what I thought in January – but oddly without invalidating most of what I said in my post back then. Here’s how my thinking goes now.

Frances Moore Lappe has said that democracy is not something we have, it is something we do – and I really like that way of thinking about it. On the other hand, wisdom is something we have (or want to have), so how does that fit in?

It isn’t as strange as it looks. Like the profound democratic ideal “equality”, wisdom is something we strive for. It isn’t actually something we have. I call ideals like that horizon ideas, because we can move towards them forever, learning more about what’s going on and what we want as we go.

Absolute equality is, of course, impossible. Human beings and their social relations are far too complex and unique for that. But the IDEAL of equality alerts us to those aspects of society that are profoundly, painfully, or dysfunctionally unequal. It evokes energies in and among us to address extreme inequality, thus helping us make progress towards the ideal.

Likewise, wisdom is not something that we have or don’t have, in any absolute sense. Life is too complex, situations are too unique, and reality is too changeable for us to always understand what’s going on fully enough to always be totally wise. So people, decisions, actions, statements, etc., can be said to be wise or foolish, but in fact this is only true in certain ways and to a certain extent… and, significantly, only in retrospect, because the wisdom of what we’ve said or done is only proven out over time.

However, as with equality, if we seek wisdom in our political, governance, and economic systems as an IDEAL – as something to strive for – that ideal will make us sensitive (at the very least) to the most egregious forms and sources of folly which we can then try to correct or avoid. If we maintain that ideal, attending well to the effects of our collective actions, being alert to collective folly, and adjusting our collective decision-making systems as we go, our democracy can and will become wiser and wiser over time.

So I’m thinking that rather than imagining a wise democracy, I’ll talk about striving for a wiser democracy. And I think such efforts to co-create a wiser democracy would entail developing fuller, more wholesome forms and applications of power, fuller, more wholesome forms of participation, and fuller, more wholesome forms of understanding – individually and collectively.

As we broaden and deepen our understanding of ourselves, of other people, and of life and reality – as we become more aware of what’s really going on in and around us – and as we take that to heart and act upon it – we will become more effectively wise – and more wisely effective – individually and collectively.

And perhaps in that way we can together create fuller, more wholesome lives for ourselves, for our world, and for our great grandchildren, and theirs….


Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
Calling forth the wisdom of the whole for the wellbeing of the whole


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