Wisdom. A virtue which we all hold in high esteem – judging by our positive evaluations of those, actual or fictional, that merit the label “wise” – yet one which few of us make a discipline of aspiring towards. Many of us would say that this virtue is lacking in society at large, while also saying that we know some wise people. Trying to define it in more basic terms usually results in missing out some important feature with which it would be typically associated. Even though a precise definition may be elusive, we can consider what historical thinkers have thought about the concept in order to get some idea about its features as well as examining attributes common to those – actual or fictional – who are ascribed the label “wise”. What then characterises this virtue and what has been or what can be said about it?
Let’s begin with Aristotle.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle is concerned with the question of what personal qualities (“virtues”) are conducive towards a person being in a state of “eudaimonia”. This is often translated into our word “happiness”, although the meaning is more accurately conveyed in the expression “the good life”. We shall leave the meaning of “the good life” with its ambiguity, recognising that it’s far easier to recognise it’s opposite. In his work, Aristotle identifies several virtues that he claims tend to contribute towards eudaimonia. Before we consider any specific virtues that he identifies, let’s look at the position of virtue in political philosophy.
Virtue in political philosophy
Aristotle uses the Greek word “kalokagathia” to describe a person that possesses all the virtues in large degree and elevates such a person as the ideal to strive towards (we might call such a person “noble”). He deems this kind of person to be the most suited to the activity of Government. Aristotle then was a supporter of aristocracy. In modern parlance, “aristocracy” is associated with a system of hereditary power possessed by the wealthy or by owners of vast amounts of property – but this is not how Aristotle conceived of aristocracy. He would have used the terms “timocracy” to describe rule by landowners and “plutocracy” to describe rule by the wealthy. As the Greek word “aristokratia” means “rule by the best”, and “the best” was understood in the sense of “most virtuous”, Aristotle meant “rule by the most virtuous”, where “virtuous” is meant as “possessing the virtues in a large degree” rather than being synonymous with “benevolence”.
The astute reader will have noticed that many of these forms of Government are not mutually exclusive. In Aristotle’s conception of aristocracy, there is the matter of selection: how does society find “the best”? This system is thus compatible with representative-based forms of democracy provided the demos (the voters) select politicians based on virtue as opposed to, say, identity or charm or even – oddly – policy. Supposing voters do this, we might well find that the assembly is not composed of a representative (in the demographic sense) sample of society as the conditions under which virtue is acquired are not distributed equally among the populace or across subgroups. The “ideal” assembly then may not be one with “people just like us” nor will it necessarily match the demographic structure of society contra the aims of many equality focussed movements.
In all the books I have on political philosophy, there are very relatively few thinkers who elevate virtue to a high position in their thinking. I’d like to concentrate on three of them. We have Aristotle, as already discussed. There is then the 18th Century Old Whig, Edmund Burke, who is generally considered the founder of modern Conservative thought. Burke’s political philosophy is detailed and intricate (and easily misunderstood and misrepresented), but there is one quote of his which is particularly relevant to this post: “What is liberty without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint. Those who know what virtuous liberty is, cannot bear to see it disgraced by incapable heads, on account of their having high-sounding words in their mouths.”.
This stands in stark contrast to many other schools of thought in political philosophy which emphasise liberty, equality, power, community, individuality, economy, identity, etc.
The third thinker is Confucius – notably outside the canon of Western Philosophy – who wrote extensively on what character traits (virtues) make for good and effective civil servants. Like Aristotle, he elevates virtuous individuals into their own category of person which he called the “Junzi”. This translates to “ruler’s son” – notice the relation between virtue and Government again. These “Junzi” stand in contrast to the petty and egotistical “Xiaoren”.
There is, of course, the danger that this notion that the most virtuous should be the rulers becomes misconstrued. It is all too easy for those in power to believe that they must be the most virtuous because “well how would we have got here otherwise?”. Indeed, the word “kalokagathia” was used by Athenian aristocrats to refer to themselves. Several centuries later, the Anglo-Saxon “Witenagemot” was a meeting of the Witan, which meant “wise men”, that advised the Monarch as well as kept their power in check. Fans of the Harry Potter series will recognise the word “Wizengamot” – being the wizarding high court – as a portmanteau of “wizard” and “Witenagemot”. The modern incarnation of the Witenagemot institution is Parliament.
If only Parliament were fitting of this description today. We still have an aristocratic element (perhaps you might object that there is a theocratic and plutocratic element) in the form of the House of Lords. Listening to the quality of their debates and reading their reports for the Government, one finds it hard not to have great respect for this part of the UK’s Constitution despite – arguably due to – its members not being subject to election. This is not saying that I think election is a bad thing; quite the contrary, it is the most effective peaceful way for regime changes to occur. I am more that it is not an unconditionally good thing.
Some feminist readers here will be shouting “what about women”? To that I say that I, for one, would rather an assembly composed entirely of wise men than a balanced assembly of mediocre men and women; in principle though, there is no a priori reason to suppose that wisdom is not distributed equally among the sexes. A posteriori, however, we do know that a substantially greater proportion of young women undertake university education than young men (37% compared with 27% at the time of writing). To the degree that university education is associated with wisdom, we might find that the “ideal” assembly ought (by this wisdom-standard) to be composed of more women than men. Is university education probabilistically associated with wisdom, in this sense of practical decision-making, though? A debate for another time.
For all this talk of virtue and its elevation, we nowadays seem to be uncomfortable with the notion. I suspect there are two reasons for this: (1) it has a discriminatory elitist odour to it, and (2) it makes heavy demands of us which we would rather not have to fulfill. The first has already been discussed a lot above when thinking about systems of Government: adopting the notion of virtue entails a hierarchy of better and worse, which is discomforting to those who describe themselves as liberal and egalitarian. The second is similar at root: the notion of virtue conflicts heavily with our desire to live “however we want” as it elevates some forms of being over others. It also tends to be accompanied by notions of duty, responsibility, and honour, which stand in contrast – although not necessarily in contradiction – with the notion of rights that forms the core of much Liberal thought. It furthermore demands that each of us – and not some abstract society – takes the responsibility for our lack of virtue, which can be harder for some than for others given different circumstances; it’s worth commenting that it has often been remarked that times of hardship are the real test of a person’s virtue.
Aristotelian virtue ethics
Returning now to the specific virtues that Aristotle identifies, we find many: courage, justice, temperance, fidelity, humility, friendliness, etc. The two virtues which he ranks most highly – and which are most relevant to this blog post – are “phronesis” and “sophia”. Let’s examine these both in some detail.
“Phronesis” refers to what we would consider to be good decision-making (judgement) both generally and in specific circumstances. In the general case, think of actions such as maintaining one’s health, managing one’s finances, engaging in personal development, evaluating people’s trustworthiness, navigating social relationships, etc. It also includes the negative of knowing what should be avoided. In specific cases, Aristotle means the setting of appropriate ends and their achieving by appropriate means.
“Sophia” is ranked by Aristotle as the highest virtue of them all. It was defined by Aristotle to be a synthesis of “nous” (intellect) and “episteme” (knowledge), which we now think of as rational thought and inquiry. Is it really any surprise to us that a philosopher (the word itself meaning a “love of sophia”) would rank “sophia” as the highest of the virtues? A soldier might rank courage as the highest, while a judge might rank justice as the highest. Aristotle though, remember, is ranking the virtues according to his view on their conduciveness towards eudaimonia. It is worth pointing out here that “sophia” is not, quite unusually, directly represented as a goddess in Greek mythology.
When ranking “phronesis” and “sophia “as the highest virtues, he does not mean that the others are lesser – rather he contends that the possession of these two will automatically lead to the others. In other writings of Greek Philosophy, “phronesis” and “sophia” are even more connected in meaning and collectively manage to constitute a definition that encapsulates what we nowadays mean by “wisdom”.
It can be objected that the possession of “sophia” is not guaranteed to lead to eudaimonia; many of us will know some very bright and well-educated people who are prone to anxiety or depression. Think also about the sorrow that conscious contemplation of some facts can cause. Reflecting on the darkest points in human history or on the inevitability of death can sure take a toll (unless you take Seneca’s views). It’s worth doing on occasion, but probably not a good idea – if one is keen on eudaimonia – to dwell on such facts.
Aristotle though is only making a probabilistic claim about the contribution of these virtues towards eudaimonia and is not saying that they amount to sufficient – or even necessary – conditions. There are many factors left out of Aristotle’s work which would contribute towards eudaimonia. Think of the basic meeting of material needs, exposure to aesthetic pleasure, absence of disease, satisfying social relationships, and opportunities for creative expression. These are all external to a person however, while Aristotle is only concerned with personal qualities in his work. These objections then do not invalidate the value of “sophia” or virtue more generally.
Phronesis and sophia in warfare
A thought-provoking, example of phronesis in action is that of a military general aiming to win a war. One has to anticipate the enemy’s actions using the available intelligence and plan accordingly, while knowing that they are attempting to do the same. One has to be aware of the relative strengths and weaknesses of your own army compared to the enemy’s. One has to consider the terrain on which battles will be fought. One has to be capable of forming alliances. One has to be able to deceive the enemy. One has to be able to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, which may be unanticipated. One has to command the loyalty of one’s army. All of this is not saying anything about the morality of war, but only that success in it is heavily dependent on the possession of phronesis.
This is of interest here given that Aristotle was a tutor to one of history’s most successful (in the sense of attaining his objectives, whatever the morality of them) military generals: Alexander the Great. Military academics today still study his battles along with the writings of martial thinkers such as Sun Tzu (“the art of war”), Napoleon (his “military maxims”), and Clausewitz (“on war”). It’s also noteworthy that many martial arts films represent the protagonist’s teacher as wise: think of Mr Miyagi in the Karate Kid films, Master Oogway in the Kung Fu Panda series, and Master Splinter in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles television show and movies.
We also find that both ancient Greeks and Romans tended to associate wisdom – in this practical sense – with warfare in their gods. The Greek goddess Athena, named after the city of Athens and not vice versa, was associated with wisdom and warfare. The Roman goddess Minerva too was a goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare. Considering the connection between war and morality, it is interesting to note that Athena was contrasted with her brother, Ares. Ares was considered to be the patron of violence, bloodlust, and slaughter (i.e. obsessed with total destruction), whereas Athena was thought to only support those fighting for a just cause. Given all these observations, it is not surprising that the disciplined soldier was ranked highly in these ancient civilisations. Looking at the Romans, Ares seems to be paralleled by the god Mars from whence comes the name of the planet.
It’s worth making some passing remarks about the role of Mathematics in military affairs. If anything evokes images of rational and abstract thought, it is Mathematics – although a good debate can be had as to whether it is the pinnacle of such thought. The application of Mathematics to defence and warfare is immense. It’s used, for example, in the formation of optimal strategy, in the securing of one’s own communications, in the revealing of the enemy’s secrets, in the design of equipment, and in the analysis of relative strength. The point for us is to observe how products of sophia can contribute to practical decision-making and problem-solving.
Moving away from Aristotle for a while, let’s consider the connections that the words “phronesis” and “sophia” have with other words, translations, and synonyms in order to further elucidate the concepts. The word “phronesis” is often translated into our word “prudence”, which captures the notion of good decision-making, although our modern term comes with too much of a sense of caution and hesitancy to be a perfect translation. More significantly for this post, “sophia” translates into the Latin “sapienta”. It is fascinating to learn that the botonist Carl Linnaeus – considered to be “the father of modern taxonomy” – decided to name our species “homo sapiens”. We can see then that the virtue of sapience (that is “sophia”) has been considered to be that which separates us from the other animals. While non-human animals can behave in ways that can be described as “phronesis” – think of the squirrel collecting nuts in advance of winter (saving for a rainy day like this is something many would do well to learn from) – none have demonstrated more than rudimentary capability in rational and abstract thought which severely limits their practical capabilities. Many of the pinnacle accomplishments of our species are the consequence of trying to solve a practical problem, finding a working solution, examining why that solution worked, abstracting general principles, and applying that principle to similar but new situations. This wouldn’t be possible without the ability to reason rationally or abstractly.
The word “sophia” is also connected with the word “sophist”, which today has a negative connotation. In ancient Greece, the sophists were predominantly teachers of rhetoric to young statesmen. The ability to make an emotionally compelling, while also rationally persuasive argument, in support of your ideas is obviously an invaluable trait for a politician in a democratic society. Aristotle, frustrated at how this often led to eloquent sounding but fallacious arguments, wrote the classic text on rhetoric (“the art of rhetoric”) to examine how persuasion works in order to teach people how not to be led astray. What an irony then that his work is now a key text in classics, often studied by politicians in their university years. This is not necessarily bad provided that it comes with enough logic to keep grounded in reality.
Wisdom in Religion
Aristotle is, of course, not the only thinker to have been reasoning about virtue and wisdom. Christianity – not uniquely among the world religions – too put a great deal of emphasis on them. To avoid going too much away from the main threads of this blog post, we will focus only on wisdom here and leave its broader perspective on virtue aside. We make the summarising point though that Christian ethical thinking departs from Greek ethical thinking in that love (Greek: agape) – considered a divine quality – is the highest virtue rather than wisdom. Note – as it is a subtle point that is often missed – that “ethics” here refers to what makes for good lives, as opposed to what is morally permissible, impermissible, or obligatory.
Readers can understand the following literally or otherwise. The non-divine Biblical character most associated with wisdom is King Solomon. [UPDATE: obviously this is shared in Christian and Jewish thought]. After becoming King of Israel after the death of his father, God appears to Solomon in a dream (1 Kings 3, 2 Chronicles 1) and asks Solomon what he wants. Imagine yourself in this situation for a moment: you’ve just become an absolute – insofar as legal power goes – Monarch over a territory and God comes to you offering to give you anything you like. What do you ask for? Wealth? You probably already have that, but you could ask for more. Adoration? Well the people may have initial faith in you given that your father was King David, but it’s not guaranteed to last. Romantic partners? You’re the King, you won’t be short of supply (as Solomon can testify it seems!). World domination? Much easier than fighting. World peace? Doesn’t seem like a bad thing. The end of suffering? Sure would be nice.
Solomon, in the dream, doesn’t ask for any of these. Here’s 1 Kings 3:5-15:
5 At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” 6 Solomon answered, “You have shown great kindness to your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart. You have continued this great kindness to him and have given him a son to sit on his throne this very day. 7 “Now, Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. 8 Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. 9 So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?” 10 The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. 11 So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, 12 I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. 13 Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for—both wealth and honor—so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings. 14 And if you walk in obedience to me and keep my decrees and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.” 15 Then Solomon awoke—and he realized it had been a dream.
This is then immediately followed by a legal case where Solomon passes a judgement which is considered wise. A notable point is that Solomon’s request was not self-centered in nature but was concerned with practical judgement in leadership and in the administration of justice. Sounds a lot like phronesis. Furthermore, Solomon’s wise leadership leads to great material prosperity for the kingdom – The king made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees in the foothills. (2 Chronicles 1:15). There appears also to be good trading and peaceful relations with neighbouring kingdoms, which was then considered an abnormality. Doesn’t rank too badly for a leader.
“Wisdom” in the Bible is also associated with the book of Proverbs. This contains – as you might expect from the title – practical advice for life in the form of proverbial sayings. Most of these take the form of a contrast between what a wise person does and what a foolish person does. To give just one, of many, examples: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice” (Proverbs 12:10) – don’t we all know some fools?
It’s striking that the admonition in Proverbs to seek wisdom, while good for everybody, is especially aimed at the young. The opening few chapters have a father character – supposedly Solomon – advising his son to seek wisdom and giving him some specific guidance particularly around the importance of marital faithfulness. We don’t typically associate “wisdom” with the young today either – it’s something which is acquired over time with diligent study, listening to advice, and experience (school of hard knocks). Young people can be extremely intelligent and inquisitive, but neither is sufficient to make them “wise”. This is probably why youngsters involved in protest groups shouting, “we need radical change!”, are not viewed positively – “who are they to judge the world?” after all. The statements they make may be right, but that alone is not sufficient to make them credible authorities on the subject matter about which they shout so loudly about.
In contrast, think of characters in the movies that are associated with wisdom such as Gandalf, Dumbledore, and Yoda as well as those we mentioned about when talking about warfare. They’re all old, they are all experts in their fields, they are sought out for practical advice, they have already made the mistakes. Not qualities typical of the young. The characters too are humble, whereas intellect alone can lead to arrogance (think of Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory show). Of course, age is not sufficient for wisdom – you can be old and silly, it’s just rarer. Many older people make the mistake of thinking otherwise.
We’ve done all of this thinking about virtue and wisdom now, and you may be asking “so what?”. Here I haven’t tried to advance a thesis via an argument, but rather have aimed to give a miscellany of thoughts around the theme of wisdom drawing from philosophy, etymology, religion, politics, mythology, and modern culture. I hope to have illustrated the value of this “thematically eclectic” approach by having connected things from the past with the present: think of connecting the old notion that leaders should be virtuous with modern politics, the linking of historical thoughts on wisdom and age with protest groups, the degree to which theoretical thinking can enhance practical capabilities, etc. The take home point from all of this that I think both Aristotle and Solomon would say to us is “seek wisdom” – the problems we face require it more than ever.