Aristotle’s Practical Wisdom Towards Living Virtuously

“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”

~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Goethe starts this post with an apt quote which states, perhaps wisely, how one should apply the knowledge and experiences, they have accumulated in life, towards making the best possible decisions.

Therefore, by making a reasoned decision when called for, will not only make us more virtuous but will also put us on the true path towards goodness and happiness.

According to ‘The Art of Manliness’ bloggers Brett and Kate McKay, Aristotle’s philosophy of phronesis – which usually translates to ‘practical wisdom’ – best describes a more pragmatic life (rather than just contemplative) towards right action and virtue which deals, adequately, with all possible circumstances that may arise.

As Brett and Kate write in their post ‘Practical Wisdom: The Master Virtue’:

This idea of thinking-your-way-to-a-virtuous-life didn’t jibe with Plato’s student, Aristotle. While he agreed with his mentor that working to understand the nature of virtue abstractly was necessary to achieve virtue, he didn’t believe it was sufficient. For Aristotle, virtuous living also required a different kind of wisdom, one that was more particular and practical than the abstract, ethereal, and general wisdom of sophia. Aristotle calls this different kind of wisdom phronesis.

Phronesis has been translated different ways, “prudence” being the most common one. But the translation that I like best is “practical wisdom.” What is practical wisdom? Let’s read what Aristotle had to say in his Nicomachean Ethics:

Practical wisdom is a true characteristic that is bound up with action, accompanied by reason, and concerned with things good and bad for a human being.

Practical wisdom is not concerned with the universals alone, but must also be acquainted with the particulars: it is bound up with action, and action concerns the particulars.

Practical wisdom is concerned with human things and with those that about which it is possible to deliberate.

He who [has practical wisdom] is skilled in aiming, in accord with calculation, at what is best for a human being in things attainable through action.

Particular situations and circumstances. Deliberation. Action. This is the stuff of practical wisdom. It’s nitty gritty. In a way, you can say that if sophia represents book smarts, phronesis represents street smarts. You have the information, but can you apply it correctly?
Practical Wisdom: The Master Virtue

For all the virtues will be present when the one virtue, practical wisdom, is present. -Aristotle

So, to recap: Aristotle believed that to become a virtuous man, in addition to sophia, or abstract wisdom, you needed phronesis, or practical wisdom.

But why did he think phronesis was needed? After all, virtue is good in and of itself, right? How could you go wrong in trying to be virtuous?

But in fact, every virtue can easily become a fault if not correctly applied. Frugality can veer into miserliness. Chastity can shrivel into prudishness. Self-reliance can harden into prideful stubbornness.

For Aristotle, being virtuous meant avoiding these extremes, by following the path between two vices: that of not applying a virtue enough, and that of applying it too much. He called this finding the “mean” of a virtue. For example, courage is the mean between cowardliness and recklessness. Loyalty is the mean between fickleness and blind obedience. Resolution is the mean between spinelessness and obstinacy. And so on and so forth.

Of course striking this balance is easier said than done! This is because the path between the virtues is not always in the same place–it can lie closer to one end of the spectrum or the other, depending on changing circumstances. Thus the challenge for the man seeking virtue is to calculate the proper path in a certain situation, and this requires–you guessed it–practical wisdom. Or, as author John Bradshaw puts it in his book, Reclaiming Virtue: Practical wisdom “is the ability to do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason.”

For this reason, Aristotle believed that practical wisdom was the virtue that made all the other virtues possible. Without the correct application of practical wisdom, the other virtues would be lived too much or two little and turn into vices.

As for my own view on the use of practical wisdom, I think it would benefit every individual and the world as a whole if we were to embrace this imperative virtue.

I also feel that we would be much better for it due to it encouraging us to be more objective, patient and prudent in making decisions – especially the more important decisions to do with the welfare of humanity and the environment which sustains us.

Unfortunately, we instead choose to complicate our existence with the dependency on impassive technology and debilitating bureaucratic systems to solve our problems.  At the same time, we continue to fail to learn from our past mistakes, which is more than demonstrated by recent history alone.

However, our lack of depending on ourselves to apply practical wisdom when required, inexplicably, only serves to keep us ignorant and mentally regressive in making just and wise decisions – all this towards the detriment of ourselves and the planet.

I’d say that practical wisdom is akin to common sense, but we all know (or maybe not) the minuscule part that the latter has played in human affairs.

Mr. Wright will explain what I mean by the aforementioned:

“There is nothing more uncommon than common sense.”

~ Frank Lloyd Wright

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