It is important to get clear on what matters most, and what will lead to a flourishing life. But it is not enough to have insights; we need to apply them in our own circumstances, so that we can move beyond new ideas to new realities. We need to know how to apply them, to get specific and practical. 2500 years ago the great philosopher Aristotle reflected on the how a wise person deliberates and then acts, and he codified it. His insights are as true today as they were thousands of years ago. This is the art of practical wisdom, of using reason to create a good life. Based on Aristotle I will outline the basic components of practical wisdom.
Problem: Most people have insights into what is good in life. At the very least we can develop these where they are lacking. These insights are based on a combination of our values and what we see and have learned about life. This leads to reasons for acting one way or another. But usually there are various good reasons for acting in conflicting ways. So we become conflicted. We need to be able to sift through these to find the best ones to guide us in any particular situation. We need to be able to decide on a course of action and to follow through. This can be hard because our judgement is often be clouded and our desires strong.
Problem: We often speak of “paralysis by analysis.” Sometimes a client of mine is worried when I encourage them to reflect on themselves, that they are over-analysing things and that this will lead nowhere. Sometimes people express this fear because it is what they have already been doing. They don’t know how to move from reflection to action, from insight to change. In Aristotle’s language such people are lacking practical wisdom. Perhaps we know in our head and heart what it is we need, what is good in life, and what others need. And perhaps we are insightful about this. But if we cannot translate it successfully into action, into how we live, then we are like souls without bodies. Insight and deliberation has this rational aspect, but it needs also to be emotional and active.
In Aristotle there are two types of wisdom, theoretical wisdom, which is general insight and knowledge, and practical wisdom which is the application of that knowledge in my life and situation. Practical wisdom - practical reasoning - is the ability to judge clearly and to act on that judgement. It is the ability to answer the question, All things considered, what is the best course of action for me in this situation? I will unpack this question to show how practical wisdom happens.
All things considered
Human beings are conflicted creatures. We want many things, many of which vie with one another or even contradict. People often distinguish wants from needs as a guide to action, and that is definitely important. For people become blind and selfish when they take mistake their wants for needs and then demand to have them filled, or get depressed when they don’t. They become infantile and narcissistic. And yet the distinction between needs and wants does not solve the bigger problem of how to choose between them, for a good life is composed of many important wants which may conflict. Do I become an academic or raise a family? Some people can do both, some have to choose. All are faced with stark choices of one sort or another which reflect conflicts between important wants.
One reason philosophy matters so much, is because we can find our way forward if we think carefully about our ideas. And this reflection is an example. There are two meanings of the word “want” which we can separate out: want as desire or feeling, and want as a judgment that something is good for us, is in our interest, is the right thing to do. Both can be important. Life is a combination of desire and value, and we can only make life happen, and make life good, by combining both. You need ideals and you need to satisfy certain desires. As Aristotle put it, we are rational animals. When we reflect on “all things considered” we are taking account of both things and weighing and judging them. How much do I want this good, versus that one? Does either conflict with a third desire or good, and if so what then? What best combines my desires with my values and commitments?
To value things is to encounter hierarchies. Some things are better than others. This is why people who lack values live without direction (or at most they follow the direction of base or egotistical desires). We have to sort through our reasons – our different values – to discern which ones matter more in general, and which matter more in this situation. Which reasons are good? Which values are bad? In general, and in this situation? Which reasons are really just excuses? Which options are better than the others even if they are all good?
Philosophy began with in ancient Greece with the motto: Know yourself. Self-knowledge is vital for good decision-making. As above, how do you know that the reason you have given is genuine and not just an excuse masking some other desire? For example you say you want more time alone, but in reality what you want is a relationship but you are too afraid to admit that? What truly matters to you, and why does it matter to you? Good luck sticking to any difficult resolution if it does not reflect your deeper desires and values.
We need to get clear on the situation, on what can and cannot be changed, on what others are really doing and saying, on what the likely consequences of our choices are. We need to shape our decisions according to these realities. For example in counselling I sometimes say something that is not quite what I believe, because it is the most that my client can understand at that time. As they grow I will become more accurate with my words, but only to the degree that they can understand the point and not misconstrue it.
So we need to know - as best we can - what is good; we need to know ourselves; and we need to know the reality about us; in order to make good decisions. This is practical wisdom. It is about steering ourselves well in the real, concrete world, so that the values and desires which we discern through reflection may become realities in our life. It is by practical wisdom that we make the ideal real, and make life good.