Book 06
Chapter 05
Practical wisdom is wisdom that begets action.

In this chapter we are going to explain what practical wisdom is. We are going to do it by going over how the people who have it are set apart from those who do not. The answer is this: people who have practical wisdom are able to make a good life for themselves. That means that they are able to want for themselves the things that they ought to want (i.e. what is good for them), and they are able to take action to get that which they ought to get. The working out of what one ought to want and how one is to get it -- this is a kind of deliberation, and we say that people who have practical wisdom are good at deliberation.

Now, when one has practical wisdom, they are not only good at deliberating about one kind of thing (i.e. how best to make themselves healthy or strong); they are good at deliberating about the good life, in general, whatever that might involve. We know that this is so because we call people "practically wise" when they get some thing for themselves which is good, and they got it not because they can always get things of that kind (as a baker can always bake bread for themselves), but rather because they chose to get it for themselves, because to get it was to their own benefit.

No one makes choices about something if it can only ever go one way. Now, it is true that we may wonder why things are as they are instead of something else (e.g. how it is that fish can live under water, but die in the air), but once we know the reason why, we know that that is how it always will be, because such things are based on scientific laws, and scientific laws do not change. But the situations that come up in life are not like that; sometimes they turn out one way, sometimes another, and it can be really hard to tell beforehand.

Consider the following scenario: A certain person works hard many a day. But he now somehow finds himself sick. He wishes both to finish his work and to get his health back. Someone without practical wisdom may be driven on by their passion, continue to work, become even more sick, and not finish the job. Someone with practical wisdom may call to mind the proverb, or principle: "Good things come to those who wait." What is the good thing desired here? It is health. Can it be got by waiting? Yes, the sick person may rest up. But suppose that it were the case that they could not afford to both rest up enough to get healthy and to finish their work. What then? A person with practical wisdom may call to mind yet another principle: "A change is as good as a rest." What may be changed here? Perhaps it is a change in diet or perhaps it means taking a short vacation. In any case, consider how different things in life will be for the person who applies practical wisdom versus the person carried along through life by passion alone.

And note that anyone can quote some proverb and tell the moral of the story after it is over. But to be the person in the story, and to be able to stop and figure out how to get to a good end -- people who can do that are wise. And because they actually make use of the things they think up (instead of being all theory and talk), we say they are practically wise. [Praxis means action, and practical wisdom is the wisdom of action.]

So, as we said, practical wisdom is not a science, and it is not an art either. Art is about making things, bringing things into existence. Practical wisdom is not about that. Practical wisdom is about taking action. Take, for instance, the art of Husbandry. The husbandman may know how to tend to his flocks and make them grow. But whether or not he should, whether or not that is good for him and his situation, the art of Husbandry will not tell him. He must consider his own situation for himself, and then apply practical wisdom to see to his own good. From there, he may well apply his art, but that comes after the decision is made as to what to do.

Again, practical wisdom is specifically about taking action. This may be a hard point to grasp, because when we think about wisdom or prudence, we may imagine someone (like a wise old man) thinking things over, but not acting. But a person with practical wisdom always acts, because they are always looking to their own good, trying to make a good life for themselves: figuring out what ought to be done, and then doing it. It is the same as the courageous person knowing when to stand and fight and doing it. There is no separation between knowing what to do and doing it. A courageous person would not know that they should stand up and then not do it (else, they would not be courageous in the first place). So likewise, the practically wise person would never see what would be good for themselves, and then fail to take action.

Now, take again the example of the husbandman and his flocks. By the art of Husbandry, he can grow his flocks (increase the number of animals he has). And that is an end of the art of Husbandry. But that is not good in and of itself (e.g. perhaps he could not take care of so many animals). It is only good for something, if there is a reason for it. What that something is is outside the art of Husbandry. It is same with all the other arts. The end of making something is always outside the art that makes. With action, it is the opposite. The end of action is always to have acted. We do not "do right" for the sake of something else. We do right for the sake of having done that.

If practical wisdom is about making a good life for yourself, then we should see it most in those who are said to have the greatest of lives, especially in those who advanced themselves by actions. Pericles is a prime example. Pericles was the most famous leader Athens ever had: famous for building the Parthenon and convincing the Athenians to use their navy against the Spartans. He did these things (and other things as well) because he saw and did what was right for the Athenians, just as he saw and did what was right for himself. And generally speaking, people in high positions in business and politics may be said to have practical wisdom. This is because they see to the good of whatever it is that they are responsible for (e.g. that a certain law should be made), and then they take action to make that good thing happen (e.g. convince others to vote for that law).

Practical wisdom does have its principles, like science does. But by the principles of practical wisdom, people get action, and they get it by applying principles to their situation. Consider the proverb: "You reap what you sow." This may be applied in different ways in different situations. For instance, someone who has come into an inheritance may reason that they got their inheritance because they were loyal to the person that bequeathed to them. In this way, the reaped what they sowed (the fruit of loyalty). Their situation has now changed. They may again apply that same principle ("You reap what you sow.") and use it as a reason why they invest in the education of their children. And here, they will not reap an inheritance, but rather what comes from their children having an education and thence doing well in life (which is, perhaps, the parent receiving care from their children in their old age).

In each case, there is no science or art by which one does the thing. There is no art of Loyalty or science of Raising Children. These are things where life itself pushes for something to be done, and practical wisdom is the thing that we rely on to tell us what is for the best.

But when a person is overcome by pleasure or pain, they are not able to keep in mind the good principles; they have their mind on other things instead. This is why it is said that being temperate helps to keep up practical wisdom. After all, pleasure and pain do not cause people to think wrong about everything. For instance, people do not start thinking that down is up or black is white. However, it does cause them to think wrong about what they ought and ought not to do. Pleasure and pain make it so that people no longer see the thing they ought to do as something they want to do. They are motivated to do something other than what is right.

With art, it is better that you do something wrong on purpose, because you had thought that it would be better. An artist that does things wrong accidentally is worse, they are clumsy, and it is harder for them to make it right. For instance, imagine a tailor cuts a suit in an odd way, such that one has no desire to wear it. But one would rather they cut it wrong on purpose, as if trying to start a new fashion than if they simply were a bad tailor and did not know how to cut a suit properly.

With practical wisdom, it is just the opposite. One would rather it be that the reason why they got a bad outcome was because of some accident, and not because they thought that bad was good and wrong was right. Suppose, for instance, two brothers each have an inheritance to spend. One of them invests the money, and, while everyone had agreed that it was a good and safe investment, it did happen to go bad through some bit of misfortune. The other brother squandered the money. They both ended up at the same place (viz. with all their money gone), but one would rather that the reason why they lost their money was because some bad thing happened outside of their control, rather than it being because they consciously chose to waste it.

So clearly, practical wisdom is not just about action, it is about choosing the action for the right reasons. This means that practical wisdom is a virtue, and not an art. With an art, the choice is made outside of the art (i.e. the nation chooses to go to war, the general figures out how to win).

There are two parts of the soul that can follow a course of reasoning (the calculative, like math, and the deliberative). Well, practical wisdom is about reasoning, so it must go with one of the two. It does not go with the calculative: sums can only ever come out one way. We say rather that it goes with the same part of the soul as that which forms opinions: opinions are variable, and practical wisdom also is variable.

And practical wisdom is not only a reasoned state. Someone may work out a sum and later forget the answer they had got, but they will not deliberate on what is the best move to make in their life and then forget that. Practical wisdom is not forgotten, but rather it is retained and it accumulates over time. And clearly, it is something to be prized.


« index »

« subscribe »

« home »