Practical Wisdom: The Master Virtue

by Brett & Kate McKay on December 19, 2011 · 81 comments

in A Man's Life, On Virtue

In 2008, Christopher Ratte and his seven-year-old son were attending a Detroit Tigers game together. When Ratte went to the concession stand, he grabbed a beer for himself and a Mike’s Hard Lemonade for his son, unaware that the drink contained 5% alcohol.  When a security guard saw Ratte’s son nursing the bottle of the spiked beverage, he immediately took it from him and then rushed the boy to the stadium’s medical clinic. The medical clinic called an ambulance, and the boy was sent to an emergency room. The doctors at the ER found no trace of alcohol in his system and were ready to release the boy to his father.

But the police had other plans. According to procedure, the police were required to turn the child over to the county’s child protective services. Many of the officers hated the fact they had to do it, but rules are rules. County officials put the boy into a foster home for three days even though the case agents didn’t feel it was the right thing to do, but they had to follow procedure.  A judge then ruled that the boy could be released from foster care and into his mother’s custody so long as Ratte moved out of the house. Again, the judge was just following the procedure in his ruling. After two long weeks, dad and son were finally reunited.

The police, county workers, and even the judge all agreed that what this family went through because of a dad’s honest mistake wasn’t an execution of justice. But their hands were tied.

When people hear stories like this one, they’re often outraged. It seems like something is wrong with society when these kinds of things happen–and there is. The cause can be traced to the disappearance of what the ancients called the “master virtue”–practical wisdom–a quality that is vitally necessary for the health of both our culture and the lives of individual men.

What Is Practical Wisdom?

The ancient Greek philosophers spent a lot of time walking around in their togas discussing the nature of things, especially the nature of virtue. Take Socrates, for example. Socrates believed that man’s purpose in life was to seek sophia, or wisdom. According to Socrates and his student, Plato, achieving sophia gave a man a general understanding of the nature of virtue. And once a man reached an understanding of each of the virtues, he would naturally live them. For example, if a man understood the true nature of justice, he would naturally be just. Thus for Socrates and Plato, becoming a man of virtue was an exercise in abstract thought.

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.

This isn’t as abstract as you might be thinking. What should you do if your kid gets home past curfew? How does your reaction change if the reason she was late was a party as opposed to losing track of time talking to a friend? What would you do if your spendthrift brother asks for money? What if he has three kids to feed? If you see a crime being committed should you get involved? How would your reaction differ if it’s a purse snatching as opposed to a rape? An employee sank a deal with his negligence…how angry should you be at him? Should you fire him or give him another chance?

Whether you’re a doctor trying to figure out a course of treatment for a patient based on their unique circumstances, a teacher trying to figure out how to reach your students, or a father trying do your best by your kids, all of our day-to-day deliberations require practical wisdom as we seek to choose the best possible course of action.

Why Seek Practical Wisdom?

Aristotle believed that everything had a telos–its aim, purpose, or maximum potential. Achieving this purpose led to arete or excellence. The telos of man was eudaimonia which is happiness or flourishing–a life lived to its utmost.

The path to eudaimonia is paved with decisions made with practical wisdom. The better your decisions, the more you will progress, the more of your potential you will use, and the more your life will flourish. In short, practical wisdom is the path to true happiness and satisfaction.

The Essential Ingredients of Practical Wisdom

In Book 6 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle lays out the skills and attributes a person needs to develop in order to become practically wise. According to Aristotle, practical wisdom requires the following:

Knowing the telos of a role or objective. While every person has the general telos of eudaimonia , each individual also has a telos that is unique to their roles in life. The telos of a teacher is to help students learn and enrich their minds–to his utmost. The telos of  janitor is to clean a building–the best he can. The telos of a dad is to raise his children–with excellence. If you don’t understand what your aim is, you’ll never achieve it.

Perception. Remember, practical wisdom for Aristotle is concerned with particular situations. To know how to act in a particular situation, we need to deftly perceive and understand the circumstances before us. What are the facts in this case? What’s the history here? How do others feel about it?

An informed intellect. Many people mistakenly conclude that Aristotle’s practical wisdom is some sort of subjective moral relativism in which there is no absolute good or bad. Nothing could be further from the truth. Aristotle believed that an understanding of absolute truth was necessary in order to be practically wise. Absolute truths act as boundaries for us while we exercise practical wisdom. Understanding absolutes requires an informed intellect.  We inform our intellect of these absolutes by contemplating the nature of every virtue and vice. To be practically wise, we need the sophia that Socrates and Plato spent their lives searching for.

Experience. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states that ”practical wisdom is also of particulars, which come to be known as a result of experience, but a young person is inexperienced: a long period of time creates experience.” Aristotle firmly believed that practical wisdom could only be gained through experience. He often likened practical wisdom to a skill like carpentry or masonry. You can’t just read a book about carpentry and expect to become a master carpenter. You actually have to get into a shop and start working with tools and wood to do that. So it is with practical wisdom. You become more and more practically wise the more decisions you make, the more you experience, and this is key–the more you learn from your experiences. Getting your degree in practical wisdom requires enrollment in the school of hard knocks.

Deliberative skills. According to Aristotle, ”the person skilled in deliberating would in general also be practically wise.” The heart of practical wisdom is deliberation. Practical wisdom requires that we deliberate with ourselves the best course of action to take in a given situation. It’s a skill that we become more adept at through experience.

Action. All the reasoning and careful deliberation in the world isn’t worth a lick to Aristotle if you don’t take action. Over and over again in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states that “practical wisdom is bound up with action.” It’s not a enough to know what the wise thing to do is, you must actually do it.

Catholic theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas agreed with Aristotle that practical wisdom was an essential virtue for human flourishing. In Question 49 of his Summa Theologica, he built on Aristotle’s list of the skills and attributes essential for practical wisdom and added ones of his own, like humility, shrewdness, and circumspection.

The Decline of Practical Wisdom

The exercise of practical wisdom comes from an individual’s freedom to deliberate the best course of action to take in a set of particular circumstances.

As our society has become more complex, specialized, and bureaucratic, the opportunity to exercise practical wisdom has increasingly been replaced with reliance on rules, regulations, and incentives to achieve our goals. But, as the example of Chris Ratte in the introduction shows, relying on rules and incentives to control behavior instead of encouraging people to exercise practical wisdom has led to acutely unfortunate and unintended consequences.

Adherence to unbending rules eliminates the importance of context in our decision making. Instead of taking into account all the circumstances of a particular case, you just do whatever the rule says, consequences be damned. Take for example the zero tolerance for weapons policies at some schools that have gotten kindergartners expelled for accidentally bringing a pocketknife in their backpack. Instead of principals having the leeway to determine the proper punishment, they are locked into a certain course of action.

Incentives can also sap practical wisdom because they can cause people to do the wrong thing at the wrong time and for the wrong reason. Take our healthcare system. Aristotle would say that the telos of a doctor is to make the patient healthy and that a doctor should use practical wisdom to determine the right amount of medicine or surgeries to achieve that goal. But instead of being paid a flat salary, some doctors get paid more for recommending more expensive procedures, whether or not the patient really needs them. And on the other hand, HMO’s reward some doctors for coming in under budget in their care. So the way our healthcare system is set up, doctors are incentivized to either provide too much or too little healthcare, instead of being rewarded for finding the mean and actually doing the best thing for the patient.

While all this talk of rules and regulations might make this seem like a political issue, it’s really not. It’s not that there should never be any rules and regulations, but that the enforcer of the rules should have discretion in how they are applied. A conservative might argue that citizens should have the discretion to determine which kinds of guns they can own, and liberals might argue that mandatory sentencing and three-strikes laws keep judges from giving out punishments that are humane and fair. Liberals and conservatives will of course argue about which rules and regulations are indeed necessary, but people on both sides of the aisle should be able to get behind the idea that the rules which do exist should be executed with wisdom.

And rules, regulations, and incentives don’t just sap the exercise of practical wisdom in our organizations and professions either, but in our personal lives as well. A lot of young men grow up with parents these days that schedule out their lives and make all their decisions for them. Then when they get out on their own and have to choose their own path, they feel paralyzed, so afraid they’ll make the wrong decision. They want someone to tell them what to do, because they haven’t gotten any experience cultivating their own practical wisdom.

Nurturing Practical Wisdom in Your Life

We won’t get into the nitty gritty about which business or government regulations are a good idea because that would get quite political. But we will offer some thoughts on cultivating practical wisdom in your own life.

There are many things you can do to develop your own practical wisdom, such as learning critical thinking skills, refining your goals and core values, expanding your intellect, and always being sure to understand the circumstances of a situation as much as possible before making a decision.

But the real key is experience.

I get a lot of emails from men asking questions like, “What should I major in in college?” “Should I go to medical school?” “Should I join the military?” They don’t know which path to take. I’d love to be able to tell them which way to go, but it’s not possible for me to know what would be best for these men. It’s good to seek advice and study out your options, but you eventually just have to jump in and see how it goes. It’s sort of a catch 22–you want to know what to do, but you can’t know what to do before you’ve ever done anything. You’ve got to fail and make mistakes in order to earn your practical wisdom.

For example–does it kind of suck that I had to go to three years of law school to become a blogger? Yes and no. I had to go through it in order to know what I really wanted to do, and it was not without its benefits. So what I try to tell men is this: don’t worry about whether or not it’s the right choice to join the military or major in X or whatever, because anything that gives you life experience will never be entirely bad, even if you decide it’s not something you want to do forever. Don’t be so afraid of making mistakes! Just get going and do something! Start heading down the path and give it your absolute all, and, if after doing that, you decide you need to change direction, that’s okay–as long as you learn from the experience, you’ve added to your store of practical wisdom. The next time you set course, your calculations with be more accurate in moving you towards your telos. The more decisions you make, the more practical wisdom you will gain, the better and better your choices will become and the closer and closer you’ll get to achieving true human flourishing.


Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do The Right Thing by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharp

Reclaiming Virtue by John Bradshaw

 Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle

{ 81 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Derek H. December 20, 2011 at 12:07 am

Brett and Kate,
What an awesome article. It’s so easy to get locked in to a certain reaction or rule in situations that each deserve thought before making a decision. It’s important to develop that practical wisdom. Thanks for sharing.

2 ced December 20, 2011 at 12:11 am

send this to D.C.

3 Cory December 20, 2011 at 12:21 am

Excellent article!

4 Geoff December 20, 2011 at 12:23 am

Outstanding article, Brett. I really enjoy this one. For your guys’ next book, you should write a complete social “philosophy of manliness”. I’d be real interested to read through your insight.

5 Harry R. Burger December 20, 2011 at 12:27 am

I must tip my hat to you, Brett. You’ve managed to find a way to make a living and support a family by being a philosopher. You have read widely and deeply of the classics and managed to translate them into a modern context – I eagerly await you putting out original work that you have synthesized from so much research.
One point I would add is the importance of accountability, of having the moral courage to make a decision and stand behind it, taking full responsibility for the consequences for good or for ill. That is how true experience is gained.

6 Aaron Brame December 20, 2011 at 1:42 am

The Greeks didn’t wear togas, they wore tunics. That error derailed my enjoyment of your essay, and I couldn’t read any more.

7 Brian December 20, 2011 at 2:00 am

Our court/judicial/police systems are designed to remove us from our freedoms we formerly enjoyed as US citizens. Practical wisdom has nothing to do with it, and hasn’t for a long time. Sorry, but this made me unable to read your article, since our governing system actually achieves its aim. Not that we shouldn’t acquire practical wisdom, but please do not try to pair our government with any of the manly virtues you discuss on this blog. That is all.

8 RJ December 20, 2011 at 2:30 am

Oye with some of the Bitter in here. Though I agree with the point of view that ‘Out government’ has manipulated thinking and using wisdom out of the picture to manage folks more easily.. what is left of this country is still one of the sanest systems there is. Pointing us to the History of Wisdom and it’s use in the Practical could not be more timely. EXCELLENT !
Being one that has been feebly studying the Wisdom of Solomon.. it is refreshing to see such things On the Blog.. more of it please ! I think many of the shows folks still watch and feel good about.. Bonanza , Big Valley even Little House on the Prairie..( some examples which have been on forever ) are because of these Great men and women using Practical wisdom.. and Aiming that at what is Best and GOOD and RIGHT.

9 locutus83 December 20, 2011 at 2:31 am

This was an amazing article! Timely and important. Practical wisdom indeed is one of the most important qualities one should strive to imbibe and follow. This goes along with the concept of right time, right place and correct intent.

In the forest, crooked, gnarled trees would be spared by the woodcutter, who would easily cut down the straight trees (Why it is good to be a bit crooked and not to straight/gullible all the time).
As I was reading this article, I was constantly reminded of Taoism and Taoist Philosophy. Practical wisdom and a sense of balance lies at the heart of Taoist philosophy. Well, it seems many of the ancient philosophies and cultures were overlapping in many of their aspects (Greek, Hindu (Vedic), Chinese(Taoist)). These ancient philosophies indeed contain a lot of timeless wisdom which we can apply in our daily lives to be happier and healthier.

Thanks for coming up with such wonderful articles from time to time.

10 Titus Techera December 20, 2011 at 2:58 am

Aristotle said the virtue is the mean. The lack and the excess of a quality are vices; the mean is the virtue. And if you believe that, he’ll tell you another.
And he said prudence is a political virtue, the political virtue par excellence. The requirements for it are so high that to expect this to become everyman’s virtue is absurd. If you go with Aristotle, knowing his political science is the same as being prudent, especially if you don’t have to learn it from him.

11 BenG December 20, 2011 at 3:28 am

What a terrific article. We live in a culture that perpetuates an intense fear of failure, with an ever narrowing definition of success. I think it is timely to consider the real goals of our lives and the practical ways in which we can be fulfilled. Thank you.

12 Jan December 20, 2011 at 5:40 am

Dear Brett and Kate,

Thank you for this article. I’d like point you to the TED talk Barry Schwartz gave on this practical wisdom:

One if not the best TED talk that I have seen. In any case, I would like to mention that these TED talks are a very inspiring source of wisdom for any man to enjoy, and I would warmly recommend watching one at least once a week. If you guys are interested, I would be willing to make a top 5 or top 10 as an article on your website.

Furthermore, I would like to thank you for the website entirely; It has helped me a lot in the last half year; I followed the 30days program and frequently visit the site for an inspiring read. This has lead to different major changes in my life, including overcoming my fear for the dentist by having my wisdom teeth removed, being more assertive at work and not being pushed into tasks I do not like, and most and foremost, this Saturday I proposed to my loving girlfriend. I thank you dearly for helping me to make this all possible.

Keep doing your inspiring work.

All the best,

The Netherlands

13 Heitor December 20, 2011 at 6:48 am

Great article. Searching for pratical virtue and pratical wisdom is the only thing we can do to change the world. Keep doing your best =)

By the way, Socrates and Plato searched for pratical wisdom too, but their paths were different than the one Aristotle walked.

Plato searched for the essence of things, before applying in the objective world. Aristotle believed that we should pratice first, so we could get the essence of things.

14 Joe December 20, 2011 at 7:31 am

Not to subtract from the inspiration of this article, but is resolution perhaps actually the mean between INdetermination and obstinacy? (See paragraph 4 in the section, “Practical Wisdom: The Master Virtue”.)

I only ask because I’ve often heard determination used as a virtue, itself.

Also, I apologize if someone has already suggested this.

15 Ryan Riehl December 20, 2011 at 8:52 am

You all should check the the work of Phillip K. Howard. He is a former attorney who has committed his life to putting wisdom back into government. He’s written several books and started a nonprofit.

16 Ike December 20, 2011 at 9:25 am

Brett, I like your articles because they are invariably insightful. On the other hand I find your obsessive reverence with the “old school” a odd, the present generation also has a lot to offer and could do with a little more recognition.

17 Tim December 20, 2011 at 9:46 am

Great article! Growing up my family experienced a similar case as the one you began the article with. Because of an honest mistake, my father (who is a great and honest man) was removed from our family for 3 months thanks to a judge who repeated used the phrase “make an example of” during the case hearing. After that, it took over 5 years for my father and family to return to the stability we enjoyed before this situation arose. We trust that God had a reason for the trials we endured, and came out on the other side stronger as a family. Although, I have to wonder how many people are not as fortunate as us and suffer daily because of the loss of practical wisdom. Thanks for the insights Brett!

18 Ian Zeringue December 20, 2011 at 9:49 am

Reminds me of how some police, before the civil war, wouldn’t enforce runaway slave laws.

19 Steve C December 20, 2011 at 11:03 am

I can’t help but disagree with you on at least one point:

“But in fact, every virtue can easily become a fault if not correctly applied.”

This statement is a misnomer, and can really lead to some wrong thinking. Every virtue ceases to be a virtue when it is not in right order with other virtues. The virtues only make sense when they are practiced together.

“Frugality can veer into miserliness. Chastity can shrivel into prudishness. Self-reliance can harden into prideful stubbornness.”

Frugality veers into miserliness when it lacks love of fellow man or even justice to one’s self. Miserliness is when one worships money and sacrifices himself and others to that false idol.

Prudishness is a corruption of chastity. It ceases being chastity when it is removed from the truth that chastity is ultimately a YES to a greater good, being the faithful bonds of matrimony vs a NO to an evil.

I think GK Chesterton made an excellent point on this subject (though I disagree with his exact wording) in his Orthodoxy:

‎”The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”

20 RhodeHog December 20, 2011 at 11:17 am

I think it is a great article but the sword of practical wisdom cuts both ways. I don’t even drink alcohol and I know Mike’s Hard Lemonade is alcoholic. I remember saving a guy from getting kicked out of school because he was going to buy a cooler on a school trip until I pointed out to him that it was a WINE cooler. I think practical wisdom would have saved Ratte some problems if he would have read the label or asked what is “hard” about the lemonade.

But I agree that the government overreaction was despicable. The dumb labels on some products reflects the demise of practical wisdom.

21 Mike December 20, 2011 at 11:23 am

Awesome post! Keep up the great work.

22 Joe December 20, 2011 at 11:28 am

“Adherence to unbending rules eliminates the importance of context in our decision making. Instead of taking into account all the circumstances of a particular case, you just do whatever the rule says, consequences be damned.”

When McQuery came to JoPa about Sandusky, JoPa followed the rules and forwarded the issue on. He did what the rules said and no more. There is probably much more to the story that story than the public will ever know. But simply following the rules with out consdiering the context or consequences will never be enough.

23 William December 20, 2011 at 11:31 am

First off, good piece, i cant tell you how often friends and i have sat and talked circles around this subject, and most of the time we find ourselves concluding that it would be a better conversation if we had more people who took this into consideration in the first place.
secondly, for all those nitpicking or making a stink about some inconsequential portion.. seriously, shove it. speaking of extremes, there are the individuals who couldn’t even fathom this subject, and then those who pretentiously banter about because they took a year of philosophy in college or had some meaningless “life revelation” which in reality amounted to little but infuses these tools with the idea they are now somehow wise. these are subjects to discuss constructively, not try and make yourself look/feel special about because you think you have something to criticize the material about. that being said, to those of you who added and bounced an idea or 2, kudos for moving humanity forward.. even just an inch.

24 Steve December 20, 2011 at 11:50 am

The short version of this: if the reason for the rule dfoesn’t apply to this situation, then don’t apply the rule.

25 Topher Fangio December 20, 2011 at 12:21 pm

Thanks for such a great post! Very well written, and very engaging while also leaving the reader with a lot to think about!

I really appreciate articles like this, that open my mind a bit :-)

26 MC December 20, 2011 at 12:37 pm

I have only one quibble with a great article:

“So what I try to tell men is this: don’t worry about whether or not it’s the right choice to join the military or major in X or whatever, because anything that gives you life experience will never be entirely bad, even if you decide it’s not something you want to do forever. Don’t be so afraid of making mistakes! Just get going and do something!”

While there are many people who are too afraid of making mistakes, I think too FEW people are afraid of making the particular mistake of taking out tens of thousands in debt to study without closely examining that decision. If you’ve done your due diligence, then sure, onward with faith. But in my field, law, probably only 25% of people who enter the field are glad they did it (including me, thankfully), and most would do anything to undo law school. Part of practical wisdom is not just plunging into things without studying it out soberly.

27 Eric December 20, 2011 at 12:44 pm

Thank you for providing this blog! Great insights into our rule-bound society. This country could use a good dose of practical wisdom.

You have also encouraged me to shave properly with a DE razor, act like a gentleman, and dress more like a man.

My sincerest thanks!

28 David December 20, 2011 at 1:27 pm

Love it.thanks. Anthony Robbins has this as one of his core teachings.
Good judgment is the result of experience. Experience is the result of bad judgment..erego, good judgment is the refinement of experience.

29 Matt B December 20, 2011 at 2:01 pm

Great article! I’m finishing up a masters degree in philosophy and have been drawn to Aristotle’s ethics since I first read about it in my sophomore year. I have to admit that I wasn’t sure what the article would have to say when I clicked the link, but I was very surprised to see such a good and complete treatment of Aristotle’s ethics. Phronesis is one of the biggest elements that’s missing from modern life – Thank you for writing this excellent post.

30 Steve M December 20, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Great article Brett. I blame a lot of the loss of this virtue on modern education and modern western law. A sense has been created that if one is not certified in a certain field or have certain initials behind one’s name that he (not being an “expert”) should not delve into something that in prior times would be considered his manly duty. So if a purse were snatched – leave that for the police. If a person were missing – leave that for search and rescue. Litter on the ground — leave that for maintenance. A child acting obnoxiously – leave that to the parents. Specialization and lawsuits are much behind this. I am thrilled that AOM combats this by teaching many (un)”common” skills and encouraging duty.

31 Baradoch December 20, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Romans 8:28 comes to mind. Also, the book of James, where he talks of Faith without works is dead. This article was well written! Thank you.
I think it is possible to put Practical Wisdom into the law. It may take a bit of work, but it needs to be done.

32 Grant December 20, 2011 at 4:30 pm

The introductory story reminds me a lot of ‘The Wire’. That entire series was about how institutions with good intents are often led astray by red tape / procedure, negative external influences and ignoring their stated purpose.

33 Scott S. December 20, 2011 at 7:42 pm

Thank you Brett, for yet another post which, regardless of our individual reactions, causes us each to reflect on the state of things. I feel blessed to have found this sight. Your postsings often bring me inspiration.

34 zeus December 20, 2011 at 8:12 pm

Amazing story Brett. I feel sorry for the family that went through this and hope them the best of luck.

35 PJ951 December 21, 2011 at 9:06 am

I agree with your statement that practical wisdom should guide doctors, judges, and politicians, however it’s never that easy. Many rules and laws that determine the course of action were written in order to prevent mistakes and corruption.
A judge that allows one person to go with a smack of the hand because the victim made an honest mistake vs. the same judge who throws the book at another person for the same crime will be viewed as showing favortism to particular “groups” of people. Perhaps the judge is using “practical wisdom” to guide him, but perhaps he is corrupt.

“Practical Wisdom” for Judge A is going to be different for Judge B. Take for example a Judge that practiced leniency at one time in their career and later found that these people were repeat offenders and that their crimes were getting worse? What would have happened had the Judge punished harshly the first time?

36 Michael H December 21, 2011 at 10:48 am

You hilarious, Aaron Brame.

Another excellent article. Thanks again, Brett and Kate.

37 Rob S December 21, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Hello Brett and Kay,

Thank you for not only clarifying the relations between sophia and practical wisdom, but also showing us all how we can be better because of it. Steve C’s quote by G.K. Chesterton is a great example of how rules bsed upon virtues, but devoid of practical wisdom have lead to a Kafka-ish nightmare. Thank you for bringing the true definition of education (according to the classics) to the table: namely, seeking wisdom in all circumstances and acting accordingly.

38 richard40 December 21, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Good article. Allowing rule enforcers discresion helps, but excessive discression can also be a vice, if it allows favoritism or lax anforcement. I think one key is to give the anforcers more disgression, but also make them personally liable for their mistakes, with incentives for consistently making good decisions. And you must also make sure that the risk to the burocrat extends in both directions. There should be a risk to them if they excercise too much discression, or wrong headed disgression, like not removing a child that is clearly in danger. But there should also be a risk to them if, like in this case, they dont exercise enough disgression, and remove a child where it was not necessary. The risks on each end should be balanced so burocrats are encouraged to carefully seek the common sense middle way this article discusses, instead of just making rote decisions one way or another.

39 fr8jock December 21, 2011 at 7:56 pm

This article brings up my favorite expression, that “Common sense…isn’t….and neither is common courtesy, but that’s another whole discussion”

40 Alan December 21, 2011 at 8:38 pm


Greeks didn’t wear tunics either. They wore the chiton and the himation.

41 bobby b December 22, 2011 at 12:19 am

Keep in mind that our society intentionally removed discretion – “wisdom” – from the role of decision-makers because, as it turns out, there are as many versions of what is wise as there are people in the world.

Judicial discretion gave us huge disparities in criminal sentencing based upon the race of the defendant. Lending discretion led to redlined neighborhoods. Police discretion led to “driving while black” pullovers.

It was the fight against racism that ended the idea of hiring excellent decision-makers and letting them decide issues based on immediate context. Too often, those decision-makers were subject to their own cultural overlay that most of the rest of us couldn’t accept.

As a consequence, we gave up the benefits of asking the wise among us to make context-informed decisions based on their own reasoning. We handed our judges the newly printed Sentencing Guidelines (“Guidelines.” Right. Just like Moses brought down the Ten Guidelines on stone tablets) and told them to simply find the crime in Column A, and the penalty in Column B, and announce it in court.

So, it’s all fine and well to lament the loss of our reliance on “wisdom” to help us make decisions, but it needs to be stated that, not that long ago, after having been guided by this “wisdom” for many years, the injustice it sometimes created caused us to walk away from it intentionally, and for good and just and rational reasons.

42 Mike December 22, 2011 at 2:29 am

OK article. Not to discount prudence, it is a virtue,but it’s not the master virtue. That would be courage, as the virtue that makes all the others possible.

43 Francis W. Porretto December 22, 2011 at 4:24 am

In his landmark book on welfare policy Losing Ground, Charles Murray states a fundamental fact most succinctly: Any rule used to separate persons into two groups will arbitrarily and irrationally misclassify some persons.

Inasmuch as law is the “ultimate” rule-based system, it should be obvious — yes, I know it isn’t — that every law will have that effect. Worse, as law enforcers are themselves subject to penalty if they choose not to enforce the law as officially interpreted, that puts those enforcers, however wise they may be, in a position of competing interests with those who unfairly fall afoul of the law. Someone has to lose!

How much better a case for minimum law and minimum government could you make?

44 Kevin Hansston December 22, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Hard to believe that the article and the comments didn’t mention the two bible verses that include the phrase: “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord”. I think the problems of our society have many mechanical explanations as to “Why?” but I think our lack of respect for God underlie all of those problems and preclude the mechanical fix.

45 Sarah December 22, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Finally men are waking up:

46 Daniel December 22, 2011 at 6:51 pm

Socrates and Plato were all over practical wisdom. Socrates sought a unity of /sophia/ and /praxis/. Plato casts the Sophists in a negative way, who have a seeming /sophia/ without right practice. In “Republic”, Polemarchus is in a negative light, who has practical arts (mending harness) but no interest in /sophia/. Plato’s dialogue “Theaetetus” begins with the sight of the man Theaetetus being carried back to Athens, having been wounded in battle as a citizen-soldier. The dialogue is from one point of view an abstract discussion of the nature of knowledge; yet from Plato’s point of view, set in the character of Socrates, the whole dialogue is about what constitutes the very virtue you are discussing in this post, for a man and for a citizen of a republic. Just sayin’.
Thank you for your wonder-filled and thoughtful post!

47 Stan December 23, 2011 at 6:16 am

This blog post is quite a masterpiece, Brett & Kate. I printed it out to re-read. Practical Wisdom may also be more plainly termed “common sense.”

I especially appreciate that you emphasized the need for experience through making decisions and facing mistakes and failure. Observation, action, and reflection are inextricably linked in personal growth.

48 Meg December 23, 2011 at 6:57 am

Actually, looking at the ACLU lawsuit and the information available about the case, it’s very clear that the officers and caseworkers involved at all times had a choice in the matter and decided not to release the boy. The law is still stupid because it permits children to be removed from their families without any proof of (or in this case suggestion of) imminent danger, but let’s not pretend this would have happened if the police officers involved hadn’t been so appallingly offensive about the whole thing. To quote from the lawsuit here: (as it’s 15 pages long), the head police officer involved, Officer Reed refused to release the boy to his mother despite the fact that she could do this.
‘Defendant Reed’s only explanation was that her supervisor, Defendant
Knox, was “pushing this case to impress her new boss.”
49. Defendant Reed then filed a fraudulent complaint (the “Complaint”) with
the Intake Unit of the Wayne County Juvenile Detention Center, falsely alleging she [Defendant
Reed] “observed [Leo Ratté] to be intoxicated.” She also told Christopher Ratte that an Order had been served, which was a lie, and if it had been served, would have been illegal.

Also, the child protection caseworkers told the parents that the boy could be released into the custody of his aunts then refused to do this, and continued to lie throughout the case.

The lawsuit does attack the law for being unconstitutional, but makes it very clear that the blame for this case lies on the individual police officers and caseworkers, as well as the general policies of the police department involved. They absolutely had discretion, they just didn’t bother to use it.

49 Mark December 23, 2011 at 7:03 pm

I’m going to call BS on the notion that everyone involved in this case had their hands tied by the uptight, no-bending-of-the-rules system.

While I am certainly not going to stick up 100% for the rules that apply in these kinds of cases, nor for the judicial system itself, the evidence is crystal clear that things did not have to go down the way they went down and that the officials had a good deal of discretion and could have handled the matter much differently.

Meg immediately above highlights the relevant facts in this case, which to my mind rise to the level of serious misconduct on the part of the police officers and caseworkers involved. I hope they get their asses handed to them.

50 Chris December 23, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Great post Brett,

I have been a long time follower of the site and the podcasts.

This is truly a dying skill for people. As we become more dependent on technology and has we leverage technology to automate decision making, this skill will only become more rare. The first example you note reminds me a lot about how technology will be programmed to make decisions based on finite decision making. Without getting too SCI-FI here, we are definately heading to a place where “black and white” rules are being enforced because technology is automating decision making and does not include the ability to reason – and soon the users of the technology will lose that as well.

51 gambit293 December 23, 2011 at 11:47 pm

I am normally someone who DEFENDS bureaucracy, rules, and regulations against those who no nothing about why they exist or those with an ulterior motive. But i completely agree with the thrust of this article: no tolerance rules are a cowardly way for administrators to shirk their duties and dodge tough questions.

As for the handful of commentators who couldn’t be bothered to finish reading the article, i appreciate the irony.

52 gambit293 December 23, 2011 at 11:50 pm

Ugh, i “no” nothing about spelling.

53 Mohamid Amed December 24, 2011 at 1:34 am

Ok- so there’s a guy at a ball park who feeds his kid some booze, then the we get a 1500 word treatise on Greek sophistry and then what?
How the fuck are they related? Is the writer on drugs?

54 Nancy Goldberg December 24, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Oh I wish I were still in the classroom! This wonderful explanation of Aristotle’s perspective on Virtue reawakened my search for logical explanations of Greek thought for my students. I will pass it on to my replacements who must struggle with the transference of Rhetoric to high school juniors. Without this broader Aristotelean explanation, the philosopher’s later insights on Rhetoric are less accessible. Bravo to a supportive article that recognizes the essentiality of early decision making for early maturity. I’ve joined your blog…Thanks!

55 N. A. A. December 24, 2011 at 10:01 pm

This is an excellent set of observations. For some insight into why prudence has been excised from our systems (why blame “government” exclusively? Why do people act as if there are no bureaucracies in corporations?), see this article on Daniel Kahneman.

56 Brucifer December 25, 2011 at 6:45 pm

Prudence and decision-making have been excised not only in child protection, but in school “zero-tolerance” policies and in the blatantly unconstitutional “implied consent” laws governing DWIs in many states. That said, it isn’t always about the government. These laws are also a convenient way in which various authorities can abdicate, shirk and be shielded from, responsibility for making decisions … prudent or otherwise.

And chaps, methinks our dear fellow, Mohamid here, should go back to watching cartoons on TV with the rest of the kiddies. The poor fellow seems quite low-bandwith, what?

57 Core December 26, 2011 at 12:09 am

“As our society has become more complex, specialized, and bureaucratic,”

You know, the truth is simple and a lie is complex, eh when dealing with society.
(I’m of course not referring to computers or engineering..)

Society really hasn’t become anymore complex. Everyone still needs food, shelter, clothing, the basic necessities of life to do their thing.

The only thing that has made life so complex is political correctness, and bureaucrat busy bodies, who seem to relish in creating more rules and regulations to complicate simple matters..and politicians playing class warfare.

Well that’s my perspective/observation since starting to study economics and the success of man, and business.

Still learning of course.

Also really liked the article.

58 Gary Merrill December 28, 2011 at 8:38 pm

Great article! It really matches with my management philosophy. I’m the director of an ambulance service and I have found that this industry has a tendency to issue “policies” that dictate the one and only way for ambulance personnel to do their jobs. When I took over the service a little over a year ago, I threw out the policy book and started developing our service’s “guidelines”. I’ve made it clear to the staff that these guidelines should be considered to be a “safety net” for them, when they are uncertain of how to proceed. But generally, I have given them the liberty of using their own judgment, as long as they always act in the best interest of 1) their patient, and 2) the service. What I have found is that my staff is extremely good at making decisions, but they had existed for so long in an environment where they were not allowed to use their own judgment that it took time for them to develop confidence in their own decisions. But, after a year of letting them do the job they’re trained to do without my interference, they have become an amazing group of critical thinkers.

59 Toke Hanghoj December 30, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Great article. I have just had a discussion about this very subject with my friend who is a policeman. I Denmark the fines for bicycle offences in traffic have just been doubled, and we discussed the fine line between when a police man should give a fine and when not. Whe both agreed that the punishement should follow the offence, and driving on the side walk can actually help traffic in some situations e.g. and should not be punished. The end goal is to achived safe and smooth traffic. Now I know the theoretics behind our discussion.



60 James December 31, 2011 at 8:09 am

A fantastic return to form Brett, I’ve missed these articles which really cut to the core of manliness not just focussing on the skills (which are I agree very important) but looking beyond the surface to the well of strength below. Keep up the fine work,

61 CJ December 31, 2011 at 11:54 am

One of my favorite articles so far. The passion and logic in your essay came through wonderfully. The language used to convey your thoughts was skillfully written, neither insulting the learned nor alienating the naive.

62 Mr Fnortner January 2, 2012 at 8:20 pm

In this society, an official or professional who routinely uses practical wisdom, or just plain good judgment, will soon find himself sued, fired, or imprisoned. Knowing how, why, or when to employ practical wisdom is only a small part of the solving the conundrum. Fixing the punitive system that makes this virtue punishable is the greatest challenge, which I am afraid we will not be able to meet in our lifetimes.

63 Ornacle January 4, 2012 at 5:11 pm

This article is just what I needed. I am a 22 year old guy, still trying to find my way into life, not really sure of most of the things that I’m doing (most especially my career). Hopefully, all these experiences (good or bad, right or wrong) will “sharpen” my practical wisdom, and hone me into someone who can make the world a better place.

64 George Husted January 5, 2012 at 9:51 am

I agree with an earlier post stating that the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord. A great treasure trove of practical wisdom may be found in the book of Proverbs. Wisdom requires thought, however. Reading some tome of wise teachings without pondering them leads to ideas bouncing off the forehead.

On a related note, I believe our culture is insane. The quotes of Chesterton were spot on. We enshrine activity that leads to the demise of our culture (support of homosexuality, support of out of wedlock birth, support of non-working, etc) while mocking the foundations of our culture (marriage and child rearing, personal responsibility, ethical business dealings, the rule of law, morality, etc.).

Anyway, this is a well written article and informative. We few, we the remaining gentlemen, carry the burden of trying to spread the idea of practical wisdom and virtue to a broadly base, vulgar, and foolish society.

65 jeff January 5, 2012 at 1:35 pm

This is so true. Dads could be a huge inspiration for upcoming young men. Practical Wisdom would definately give our society real leaders instead of insecure followers (read…sheeple)

66 skeptic January 5, 2012 at 10:12 pm

I’m surprised you would use this as an example, a dad who didn’t know that “hard lemonade” wasn’t a kid’s drink. Maybe a momentary lapse of attention but the smell or the change in the child’s behavior weren’t clues?

And I have to agree that any cop with a lick of sense would have realized what happened and just let the boy and his father go, especially as the boy had no alcohol in his system. But I still look to the child’s protector and wonder how he didn’t read the label, pay attention to the packaging (no cartoon characters or kid-friendly art), or just generally pay attention. None of us are perfect but manliness comes with certain responsibility, an awareness of the surroundings and attitudes that is more important than grooming or dress sense.

67 Aaron Metzger January 6, 2012 at 10:22 pm

I’ve been reading Art of Manliness for a very long time, through many articles. I think this is probably one of the best I’ve read. I am a writer/thinker. I have a hard time with the social/political direction for some time. I think this is something everyone should “experience.” Learning and growing is the path to understanding. Whether or not we will ever get there is something else that I constantly concern myself with, but try not to make it a constant front-runner in my day-to-day life.

Well done. I will be sharing this one with friends for sure.

68 Aaron Metzger January 6, 2012 at 10:35 pm

Sorry, I have been reading some of the comments after posting my last comment. This entry has nothing to do with Christianity, or The Bible.

The purpose, the sources, and the content all pre-date Christ–albeit, not the new testament. This article’s intent is not to change or manipulate someone on their life decisions, their morals, or their ambitions. It is merely to speak of a few very intelligent men–men who have obviously changed the world with their insights and intellect.

Let’s leave personal convictions out of this and appreciate the content for what it is: Informative, challenging, and intriguing.

I may be wrong, but I try to stay objective.

69 Aaron Metzger January 6, 2012 at 10:36 pm

now I am embarrassed. I meant the old testament. Perhaps an article on proof-reading and editing.

70 tricia January 18, 2012 at 5:34 pm

1st: i take offense @ your title: tho i study & practice martial arts, i am definitely female {granted, i am the only female regularly in my Judo class, tho, in all fairness, there are many who come in to try it. my Aikido Sensei is female & there are females there.} 2nd: in my Dojo respect {“re”} is listed as part of the Bushido code. error? yours, theirs? please comment. thank you.

71 Kyle December 18, 2012 at 8:12 am

That’ll preach.

72 Robert Dean III December 18, 2012 at 8:54 am

I reason Socrates understood knowledge as beyond coneptualization and demanded application. For example he argued the ignorant seek temporary pleasures while the wise seek pleasures more fulfilling, through pains such as health through the rigors of exercise (see Protagoras). I am hard pressed to believe that many have misread his wisdom, which is very practical, and deemed it mere mysticism.

73 Richard A. December 18, 2012 at 12:50 pm

Thank you for the great article. I would love to see a follow up to discuss in further detail why we’ve moved away from allowing PW in decision making. As Bobby B. and others have noted, The freedom for PW also allows for discrimination and bias based on individual beliefs, and it relies on understanding that may or may not be complete or correct. How do we balance PW with these considerations?

74 Bobby G. December 19, 2012 at 7:30 am

It is amazing to me that many of the comments on this article are so short-sighted. They wore “tunics not togas” and “the government is taking our freedoms” made certain individuals unable to read the article? Really? The “TELOS” of these articles is to begin to challange our mindsets. Those politicians that are taking away our freedoms are elected by us. They are us! Want to change the people we send to Washington? Then, we have to change. The politicians are a result of our culture and mindset. Therefore, if we change our mindset and culture, then the politicians we elect will reflect that change. We need to quit blaming the politicians and place the blame where it belongs by taking a long hard look in the mirror! And “tongas” are a lot funnier that “tunics”! Lighten up, Francis!

75 Nick December 28, 2012 at 12:41 am

This is a great article. I did enjoy reading it. I just wanted to say something that I just thought of. The article clearly stated that rules and laws be less stingy and more lenient in the case of the Rattes. But because of the procedure that was followed, I am sure Chris Ratte never made that mistake ever again. Because of the rules, Ratte was able to gain more practical wisdom by learning the hard way. Perhaps rules should remain the way they are so that people may learn from mistakes and not be likely to make them again. Just a thought

76 RaC February 15, 2013 at 10:54 am

Thanks, I love this site, really.

77 Andrie Rizky June 18, 2013 at 2:39 am

Excellent article!

I like how you apply some theories to real life situation.

all d best for Brett and Kate.

78 Reasonable Approximation September 8, 2013 at 3:55 am


Not knowing that Mikes Hard Lemonade contains alcohol is not a “mistake”, it’s simple naivete. Ratte is not required to have perfect knowledge of all possible dangers to his child. And do you seriously think that he would make the same “mistake” if the police checked out his son and wisely dropped the issue after it was clear no harm was done? Having the police called would be eye-opening enough.

79 Reasonable Approximation September 8, 2013 at 4:16 am

Fantastic article. The only thing I take issue with is the section at the end, regarding not worrying about making wrong choices in life. There are clearly better and worse choices, and the “life experience” you get from bad choices is in no way guaranteed to outweigh the harm they can do. I’m not even necessarily talking about bad choices in the sense of becoming a drug addict; even mundane things like majoring in an arcane subject in college with no job prospects, or joining the military if it’s not the best environment for you, are decisions that can result not only in personal setbacks but in massive opportunity costs (the lost opportunities that would have come with making a better choice). There is also timing to worry about: sure, you may be able to change course later, but you’ll never be able to do it at that age again, and you might end up well behind the curve compared to your peers. Worrying about such things can be good. It ensures you take them seriously. These are the types of problems I wish I had taken more seriously when I was a younger man.

80 Gary January 16, 2014 at 10:36 am

Very well written article, another way understand practical wisdom is to compare it to physical wisdom. for example the right amount of force and accuracy to drive a nail with a hammer. There is no book or video lessons that can teach your body the experience. Until you feel the weight of a hammer and the sting of smashed fingers a few times you don’t have the experience. I know its hard to imagine for most people, but none of use are born with this kind of knowledge, its earned. I met quite a few men and women who are missing, practical, physical, and social wisdom.

81 Julie March 24, 2014 at 4:59 am

Very good article, thank you. I read Aristotle in class a few years ago so I was familiar with several of the concepts mentioned here, but I hadn’t thought of making these connections.

The case in the article (about complexity in society and the way in which individuals rely on procedures instead of relying on their good judgement) is something I’m thinking a lot currently (possibly because I work within an administration and see what works and what doesn’t).

I thought of this small paragraph by James March, quoted by Bob Sutton about what really makes bureaucracies efficient :
“The importance of simple competence in the routines of organizational life is often overlooked when we sing the grand arias of management, but effective bureaucracies are rarely dramatic…. Much of what distinguishes a good bureaucracy from a bad one is how it accomplishes the the trivia of day to day relations with clients and day-to-day problems in maintaining and operating its technology. Accomplishing these trivia may involve considerable planning, complex coordination, and central direction, but is more commonly linked to the effectiveness of large numbers of people doing minor things competently. As a result, it is probably true that the conspicuous differences around the world in the quality of bureaucratic performance are due primarily to variance in the competence of the ordinary clerk, bureaucrat, and lower manager, and to the effectiveness of routine procedures for dealing with problems at a local level. This appears to be true of armies, factories, postal services, hotels, and universities.”

One could say, simple competence is practical wisdom applied to one’s job and day-to-day tasks.
And oftentimes you see administrations building castles in the sky because they don’t trust enough their employees to be simply competent, or because they don’t do what is necessary to build this competence.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

Site Meter