Practical Wisdom in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics*
Since virtue, for Aristotle, is the mean between an excess and a deficiency, in accordance with right reason (1138b:20), it would seem to be essential to have this right reason available to one, especially in matters concerning particulars, in order to properly exercise virtue. When applied to matters that admit being other than they are, Aristotle names this right reason “practical wisdom” (phron•sis). While being so necessary to the exercise of virtue in everyday affairs, Aristotle is not so clear on how it is gained or used as he is about the moral virtues. In this essay I wish to consider how a man might acquire and then exercise practical wisdom in his affairs.
At the beginning of book six Aristotle says that practical wisdom belongs, first, to the rational part of the soul, and also to the calculative or deliberative, which he contrasts with the scientific. Whereas the scientific element is concerned with those things that cannot be other than they are, the deliberative element is concerned with things that can be other than they are, and therefore may be changed by action. Furthermore, practical wisdom is the excellence of this deliberative element of the soul: “truth in harmony with correct desire” (1138a:20). Being deliberative, practical wisdom is then concerned with the process of deliberation, more than with the choice made at its conclusion, yet also implies right action, as when Aristotle explains that practical wisdom is not an art because “production has an end other than itself, but action does not: good action is itself an end” (1140b:5). In this it is distinguished from the arts, where the excellence lies in the product rather than the process taken to achieve it.
Furthermore, in order to operate properly, practical wisdom requires intuitive intelligence (nous) combined with experience in order to be able to perceive both what is good and bad for man, and what the case is in a particular situation. The necessity of intuitive intelligence might present a difficulty for someone who seeks to attain practical wisdom, because rather than being based in habit like moral virtue, and therefore something that can be acquired through consistent choice, intelligence is either present or not present by nature. “Although no one is provided with theoretical wisdom by nature, we do think that men have good sense, understanding, and intelligence by nature. An indication of this is that we think of these characteristics as depending on different stages of life, and that at a given stage of life a person acquires intelligence and good sense: the implication is that nature is the cause.” While it may be the case that some people acquire these things with time, not everybody does, nor to an equal degree; “therefore, we ought to pay as much attention to the sayings and opinions, undemonstrated though they are, of wise and experienced older men as we do to demonstrated truths. For experience has given such men an eye with which they can see correctly. (1143b:10)” It’s a little perplexing that after stating that it is nature which, after some experience has been acquired, gives men this mental “eye,” Aristotle then says that it is experience. At the very least he mentions in the Politics that women and natural slaves have only partial reason, so that they might be able to perceive the right reasoning of others and act upon that, they will never, no matter their experience, be able to so use reason themselves. So he must instead be emphasizing that in people to whom nature has given the capacity, its full use only comes with experience.
It was striking with what force Aristotle endorsed the “sayings and opinion” of those men who have this experience and intelligence that can perceive both the first principles and the particulars of a situation: we ought pay as much attention to them as to demonstrated truths. It must be the case that while practical wisdom is achieved by a different method than scientific wisdom, and cannot be taught as the other can, yet it is of equal importance, and perhaps equal certainty. Wise old men might not be able to demonstrate their opinions as true, but they can see it. How is that compatible with being a rational deliberative process? That must be where being able to know and understand the particulars of a situation becomes most important. For: “deliberation operates in matters that hold good as a general rule, but whose outcome is unpredictable, and in cases in which an indeterminate element is involved” (1112b:10), and the less comprehensive our understanding of an area of action is, the greater the need for deliberation. For instance, people might deliberate less about athletic training than about navigation, because of the greater number of variables which effect the latter.
Additionally, deliberation (and by extension practical wisdom) must be at least as much rational as intuitive, because in describing the process of how someone might deliberate, he says that, taking the end for granted, and deliberating on how it may be achieved, “if it becomes apparent that there is more than one means by which it can be attained, we look for the easiest and best; if it can be realized by one means only, we consider the best manner it can be realized by that means, and how that means can be achieved in its turn. We continue the process until we come to the first link in the chain of causation, which is the last step in the order of discovery” (1112b:18). Therefore the deliberative process, while relying on the intelligence to provide the proper end and the particulars of the case, then proceeds in an orderly fashion which seems to be describable and thus teachable, and not only by experience. In that case, when Aristotle says that “practical wisdom is a truthful rational characteristic of acting in matters involving what is good for man” (1140b:20), he is speaking of not only an excellence of the deliberative process, as mentioned at the beginning of book six, but that process where the proper ends and facts of the case are determined by a true intelligence. So if a man were trying to become practically wise he might learn the deliberative process, but then would need to wait on the formation of this perceptive intelligence, which can see what the truth of the case is, and is formed by experience.
Might that explain why we should listen so closely to those who are old and wise? Because while any rational person might use the proper process of deliberation, not every person, or a person at any stage of life, has an understanding of the proper ends and facts to use in that process, but may be able to borrow, as it were, that knowledge from those who do already have it. Is that something Aristotle is trying to do in the Ethics, as when he examines virtue by first looking at when virtuous men have done? At some point someone has perceived, with experienced intelligence, that a certain action like being courageous or doing magnanimous deeds is excellent, and has likewise seen that perhaps financing a tragic chorus is properly magnanimous, whereas clothing comedians in purple is merely in bad taste, and we can see that to be the case and emulate him. So even if a man’s own intelligence is incomplete – as it is bound to be – it may be good enough to see who has better or worse judgment than himself, and to emulate or seek the advice of the former, while avoiding the actions of the latter; for it may be easier to discern intelligent understanding in the pattern of a man’s whole life than in any given particular of the moment, and then to see how such a wise man dealt with a similar situation, or achieved a similar excellence. Even in asking about what practical wisdom is, he begins by looking at those we consider to be practically wise, and then asks what it is about them that makes them so, rather than starting from some first principle. It is thus less important to question how there came to be good men in the first place – for Aristotle’s conception of intelligence is rather mysterious; it is either formed by nature and experience, or not, or imperfectly, and there isn’t much a person seems to be able to do about the intelligence alloted to him – than to look at those who have it in a particularly high degree and treat their insights with the same respect due to scientific deduction.
For a man to exercise practical wisdom in his affairs, then, he would need to, first, either be able to perceive proper ends and facts himself, or rely partly on his own perception and partly on observing those wiser than himself, and then apply that understanding to the deliberative process. As mentioned, that process seems to be at least partially teachable, the way that processes like the scientific method are: if a man has no sense whatever he will never be able to practice it, but most will be able to do so, more or less well depending on his rational abilities. The method outlined by Aristotle being to begin with knowing the end one means to achieve, and then to work backwards and outline all the steps that must be taken to achieve that end, before beginning to act upon them. And while a man’s ability to use practical wisdom is in part determined by nature and formed through experience, it is also partly in his power to practice a rational method of deliberation, and rely on those wiser than himself in matters about which he is uncertain.
* As translated by Ostwald, Martin (1999). Library of Liberal Arts