Aristotle used the Greek word “telos” when discussing the purpose or aim of a particular activity. The telos of being at school is to be educated, the telos of being in business is making a profit. So a wise person would aim at the telos of her living and working. This takes phronēsis – practical wisdom – to achieve. People who have learnt practical wisdom know the telos, the point, of being a friend or parent, or saxophonist.

However, aiming at the right thing is only part of the process. Expertise is essential. We all know the expression “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Practical wisdom is a bit like the skill needed to lay bricks or perform a heart transplant. The difference is that phronēsis is a moral skill which enables us to treat people and indeed the whole environment, as we were always intended to. If we try to live without phronēsis we usually end up leaving situations worse than we found them; because we tried, we meant well, but it would have been better if we had done nothing at all. 

How does a good jazz pianist learn his or her skill? By practice, combined with natural talent, over many hours of dedication. But wisdom requires experience, that’s why we often describe older people as wise. Will any experience do? No. Some experiences can be extremely counter-productive. Aristotle wrote about phronēsis to encourage both citizens and the politicians of his time in the Athenian city-state to change the way their institutions operated; to change the underlying motivation for people’s lives. 

In our world, institutions are often run with target setting, sanctions and incentives as the motivating factors. But surely we want our bankers to do the right thing because it is the right thing? Surely we want our politicians to have, as their primary motivation, doing what is right (according to their lights)before they think of strategies to stay in power?  

Perhaps it is time to promote the learning and practice of practical wisdom in our schools as a matter of urgency; not just in Religious Studies, PSHE and Philosophy lessons but across the whole curriculum. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if students in a Maths lesson were asking, “how will this lesson help me to live life more fully and with more understanding of the universe and everything in it? And what is my place in the whole wonderful scheme of things?” 

Father Mark Smith