Book 06
Chapter 07
What philosophic wisdom is.

The term 'wisdom' gets used to refer to masters of this or that kind of art. For instance, Phidias is wise in sculpture and Polyclitus is wise in portrait-statues. And what does it mean to be wise in these contexts? To know how to attain the ultimate good in the particular field in question.

But then there are some people who we consider to be wise, and able to see what is good, not in this or that particular field, but generally speaking.

Such wisdom in the general sense, whatever it is, should be considered the ultimate, or the master science.

Whoever would be wise in this way must know not only the principles on which everything is based, but that person must also grasp the ultimate truth behind those principles. This means a combination of scientific knowledge (i.e. knowing the principles to be used) and intuitive reason (i.e. grasping truth). It would be silly to think that political thought or practical wisdom is the most noble kind of thing to think about, unless, that is, humans are the best thing in the Universe, and there can be nothing better for humans to think about than themselves.

Each and every animal has to look after its health and its own good. Humans do this for themselves. Fishes also do this. They both do this, but what they each do is different, because what is healthy and good is different for each. On the other hand, what is white the same for every animal. There is not a different color white for humans and different color white for fishes.

Well, so likewise it is with practical wisdom and philosophic wisdom. Philosophic wisdom goes the same for everything (viz. it is like the ground which everything else must stand on), just as what is white is the same for humans, fishes, and everything that can see. But practical wisdom is different for different beings, because what is good is different for different beings, and practical wisdom is about seeing what is good for oneself. Two different beings could both have practical wisdom and each see something different as being its own good, the same as humans and fishes will see different things as being healthy. And, further, a being that has practical wisdom can look after itself. This is why we say even of the lower animals that they may have practical wisdom, when the animal can see danger ahead and can figure out avoid it.

Along these same lines, we can see that philosophic wisdom is separate from the art of politics. If you were to take the frame of mind a person uses to look after their own personal interests, and then call that philosophic wisdom, then there would be many different philosophic wisdoms (different ones for different people). After all, when it comes to looking after health, there is not one art of medicine for middle-aged men only, but different arts for different beings (i.e. an art for the special health of women, the old, children, and even horses and cattle). Nor is there one art of politics for all the things produced by politics for the different purposes they are made. But the way it is supposed to be for philosophic wisdom is that there it but one thing. So philosophic wisdom cannot be the same as the art of politics.

But suppose that someone were to argue like this: (1) Philosophic wisdom is about the best of things. (2) The best of the animals is Man. (3) Wisdom about the good of Man is wisdom about the best of the animals. (4) Animals are better than plants, rocks, and other non-animals. (5) So wisdom about Man is wisdom about the best of things, and must therefore be the same as philosophic wisdom. Is this argument convincing?

No, it is not convincing. The best things are those which are most divine in their nature. There are things more divine than humans. Take the heavenly bodies, the Sun, the Moon, the Planets and Stars, for instance. Philosophic wisdom is concerned with things such as these. Also, it is commonly said that Anaxagoras (who explained that the Moon shines because it reflects light from the Sun), Thales (the first to predict a solar eclipse, perhaps), and others like them are said to have philosophic wisdom, but not practical wisdom. Why? Because we see that they are clueless as to their own best interest, and yet they know things that are wonderful and ingenious, but these things are not good for doing anything with them. Well, Thales and Anaxagoras never were looking after human goods anyways, but rather to things more divine.

But practical wisdom is about looking after human goods, and it is about things which it is possible to think through and make a decision on. More than anything else, the work of a person known for their practical wisdom is to think well and make good decisions. But no one decides about things that can only ever come out in one way. No one decides to do something that will go on forever or that humans could never actually do. Rather the person with practical wisdom decides for what is best, and decides in such a way that the thing can actually get done. Philosophic wisdom is more about thinking, thinking about what things are and about how to understand the world.

Practical wisdom is not just about general theory, it must also get into the particular facts of specific cases. Practical wisdom is about practice, and practice is about particulars. This is why some people who know only the whats, but not the whys are more practical than those who know the whys only (though practical wisdom, of course, means having both). For instance, if someone knew that light meats are more digestible and wholesome, but did not know which sorts of meats are light, then such a person would not know what to eat so as to make for health. But someone who knows that chicken is wholesome, though this person has no idea why, could produce health. (They could know that they should eat wholesome things, and then also happen to know the fact that chicken is wholesome. So they would not have to also know the general truth about light meats and then look to find what sorts of meats are light.)

Again, practical wisdom is about practice. And while it needs both general truths and particular facts, still it needs the particular facts more. But it is the general truths which tell us what particular facts are relevant. And so also, with philosophic wisdom, there must be a part of which directs us as to what to enquire into.


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