Practical Wisdom

Aug 28, 2019

Practical Wisdom 

In our schools, we tend to use two main tools to make the process of education run smoothly. The first is a set of rules that tells people what to do and what not to do, with people in place to monitor performance and ensure compliance. The second is a set of incentives which delivers rewards when people are compliant. There are two assumptions here; the assumption behind the rules is that people need to be told what the right thing is even if they really want to do what is right. The assumption behind the incentives is that people will not be motivated to do what is right unless they are rewarded for doing so. In other words, the carrot and stick approach. 

Both these methods are perfectly sensible, except that something is missing. It is what Aristotle called Phronēsis or practical wisdom. Without this essential factor, both carrot and stick are empty and hollow. Without Phronēsis people lose a vital dimension of being human. 

It is quite common to think that wisdom is about abstract matters; that wisdom is for gurus and holy people; for the few, not the many. We think of wise people as the thinkers rather than the doers. Plato, Aristotle’s teacher, shared this view that wisdom was a theoretical construct. But Aristotle saw that, to make right choices in life, people need wisdom. When should I be loyal to a friend? How do I treat others fairly? How long should I stay angry when I have been hurt? The wisdom to find answers to questions like these is distinctly practical, not theoretical. 

Many schools are very good at turning out young adults with plenty of this kind of practical wisdom oiling the wheels of their academic and social lives. But it is usually picked up by osmosis along the way. Perhaps we should be deliberately creating situations where young people explore this kind of ethics together. Where they learn to digest a piece of dense philosophical text, not only for the joy and stimulation of the academic exercise but also with a view to changing and enhancing the way they live. The Philosothon phenomenon is a wonderful mechanism for delivering this in the context of academic rigour lubricated by friendship and fun. 

Father Mark Smith