With our archives now 3,500+ articles deep, we’ve decided to republish a classic piece each Friday to help our newer readers discover some of the best, evergreen gems from the past. This article was originally published in December 2011.
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 it was an alcoholic beverage. 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, because 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 procedure in his ruling. After two long weeks, father 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 a quality the ancients called the “master virtue” and considered vitally necessary for the health of both society and the lives of individual men. This master virtue, which they called phronesis, has played a crucial role in all flourishing cultures in history, and is arguably needed now more than ever.
What Is Phronesis?
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 called 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.”
Given that Aristotle believed that practical wisdom served as the modus operandi in making every right decision, he believed that it was the virtue that made all the other virtues possible — the master virtue. Without the correct application of practical wisdom, the other virtues would be lived too much or too little and turn into vices.
The need and repercussions of exercising practical wisdom aren’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 asked 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 in every given set of circumstances.
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 particular situation.
As our society has become more complex, specialized, and bureaucratic, the opportunity to consult one’s own conscience and exercise practical wisdom has increasingly been replaced with reliance on externally-dictated rules, regulations, and standardized punishments and incentives. But, as the example of Chris Ratte in the introduction shows, relying on one-size-fits-all guidelines to make decisions 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.
Stultifying rules, regulations, and incentives don’t just sap the exercise of practical wisdom in our organizations and professions either, but can have that effect in our personal lives as well. A lot of today’s young men grow up with parents 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 choice. They want someone to tell them what to do, because they haven’t gotten any experience cultivating their own practical wisdom.
Giving practical wisdom a prominent place within societal institutions and individual lives doesn’t mean doing away with all rules and regulations, which can act as checks and firewalls in places where phronesis hasn’t been sufficiently developed and can’t be consistently relied on to function. Rather it’s the idea that the enforcer of the rules and the actors that the rules affect, should always have a healthy, reasonable amount of discretion in how the rules are applied.
Why Seek Practical Wisdom?
Even within institutions and organizations that are heavy on choice-restraining rules and regulations, you often still are faced with making decisions where the right thing to do isn’t clear. And once you leave home, nobody is going to tell you what to do in your personal life, and plotting the best course between pragmatic and moral pitfalls rests entirely on your shoulders. Your ability to make decisions using practical wisdom will thus have an outsized influence on how your life ends up.
Aristotle believed that everything had a telos — its ultimate aim or purpose. Achieving this purpose led to arete or excellence. The telos of human being was eudaimonia which is happiness or flourishing — a life lived to its utmost potential.
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 distinction.
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 his roles in life. The telos of a teacher is to help students learn and enrich their minds — to his utmost ability. The telos of a 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. We weigh both sides of an issue. We examine the salient factors. We listen to our conscience. Deliberation is 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 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.
Nurturing Practical Wisdom in Your 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 letters 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.
Be sure to listen to my podcast with Barry Schwartz about practical wisdom:
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