Phronēsis | Practical Wisdom

Greek Philosophy
Greek Philosophy

1. Phronēsis

Phronēsis (φρόνησις), translated into English by terms such as prudence, practical virtue and practical wisdom is an ancient Greek word for a type of wisdom or intelligence relevant to practical action.

It implies both good judgment and excellence of character and habits, and was a common topic of discussion in ancient Greek philosophy, in ways which are still influential today.

In Aristotelian Ethics, for example in the Nicomachean Ethics, the concept is distinguished from other words for wisdom and intellectual virtues – such as Episteme and Techne – because of its practical character.

The traditional Latin translation was prudentia, the source of the English word prudence.

2. Plato

In some of Plato's dialogues, Socrates proposes that Phronēsis is a necessary condition for all virtue:

Being good, is to be an intelligent or reasonable person with intelligent and reasonable thoughts.

Phronēsis allows a person to have moral or ethical strength.

In Plato's Meno, Socrates explains how Phronēsis, a quality synonymous with moral understanding, is the most important attribute to learn, although it cannot be taught and is instead gained through the development of the understanding of one's own self.

3. Aristotle

In the 6th book of his Nicomachean Ethics, Plato's student and friend Aristotle famously distinguished between 2 intellectual virtues:

  1. Sophia (wisdom)
  2. Phronēsis (practical wisdom),

- and described the relationship between them and other intellectual virtues.

Sophia is a combination of Nous, the ability to discern reality, and Epistēmē, which is concerned with things which could not be otherwise... e.g., the necessary truths of mathematics and is logically built up and teachable.

This involves reasoning concerning Universal Truths.

Phronēsis involves not only the ability to decide how to achieve a certain end, but also the ability to reflect upon and determine good ends consistent with the aim of living well overall.

Aristotle points out that although Sophia is higher and more serious than Phronēsis, the highest pursuit of wisdom and happiness requires both, because Phronēsis facilitates Sophia.

He also associates Phronēsis with political ability.

According to Aristotle's theory of rhetoric, Phronēsis is one of the 3 types of appeal to character (ethos).

The other 2 are respectively appeals to Arete (virtue) and Eunoia (goodwill).

Gaining Phronēsis requires experience, according to Aristotle who wrote that:

...although the young may be experts in geometry and mathematics and similar branches of knowledge (Sophoi), we do not consider that a young man can have Prudence (phronimos):

The reason is that Prudence (Phronēsis) includes knowledge of particular facts, and this is derived from experience, which a young man does not possess; for experience is the fruit of years.

/Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics /

Phronēsis is concerned with particulars, because it is concerned with how to act in particular situations.

One can learn the principles of action, but applying them in the real world, in situations one could not have foreseen, requires experience of the world.

For example, if one knows that one should be honest, one might act in certain situations in ways that cause pain and offense; knowing how to apply honesty in balance with other considerations and in specific contexts requires experience.

Aristotle holds that having Phronēsis is both necessary and sufficient for being virtuous; because Phronēsis is practical, it is impossible to be both phronetic and akratic; i.e., prudent persons cannot act against their better judgement.

4. Pyrrhonism

Pyrrhonism denies that the existence and value of Phronēsis has been demonstrated. The Pyrrhonist philosopher Sextus Empiricus explained the problem of Phronēsis as follows:

Thus, insofar as it is up to his Phronēsis, the Wise Man does not acquire self-control, or if he does, he is the most unfortunate of all, so that the art of living has brought him no benefit but the greatest perturbation.

And we have shown previously that the person who supposes that he possesses the art of living and that through it he can recognize which things are good by nature and which evil, is very much perturbed both when he has good things and when evil.

It must be said, then, that if the existence of things good, bad, and indifferent is not agreed upon, and perhaps the art of living, too, is non-existent,

and that even if it should provisionally be granted to exist, it will provide no benefit to those possessing it, but on the contrary will cause them very great perturbations,

the Dogmatists would seem to be idly pretentious in what is termed the ethics part of their so-called philosophy.