Aristotle on what Intellectual Virtues Are Good For

I’m off to the NWTRCC National Gathering that will be taking place in Cleveland. I’ll update The Picket Line from the road if I can, otherwise I’ll take good notes and fill you in when I get back.


In the twelfth and thirteenth sections of the sixth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle anticipates and answers some objections to his scheme of intellectual virtues.

Philosophy is the highest excellence of the scientific part of the rational part of the soul; Practical Wisdom is the highest excellence of the deliberative part of the rational part of the soul. But what good are they, really?

  1. Philosophical wisdom concerns things that are perhaps fascinating, but ultimately useless, so it isn’t any good to us is it?
  2. On the other hand, practical wisdom is about things that are good for us, but it isn’t itself useful, since it is whether or not we obtain those things that determines whether we are happy — not whether or not we are wise about them. For example, what benefits a person is to be healthy, and all the wisdom in the world about medicine and fitness won’t measure up against the actual state of being in good health.
  3. Even if you claim practical wisdom isn’t wisdom about The Good so much as advice about becoming Good, it isn’t helpful. If you already are virtuous, practical wisdom is superfluous; if you aren’t virtuous, then you would be just as likely to benefit by following the good advice of someone who does have practical wisdom, than you would by having any practical wisdom of your own. The wisdom itself is of no real benefit. Again, with a health analogy: if you’re healthy, knowledge of medicine is a superfluous luxury; if you’re sick, you’re probably better off consulting a doctor than trying to become an expert on medicine.
  4. Aristotle seems to give conflicting advice on which is the preeminent intellectual virtue. At times, he sees Philosophy as the ultimate achievement, but in this book he seems to concentrate on Practical Wisdom as guiding us in all of our affairs (including, presumably, in Philosophy). Which is it?

Much of these objections comes from trying to bridge the gap between the intellectual and the practical. Aristotle spent Book One talking about eudaimonia as the ultimate end we strive for. He described it as a variety of activity, as living a thriving and excellent life. He also described it as being objective — that is, you can look at someone’s life after they’re dead and gone and say “that there was a life of eudaimonia!” Furthermore, he said that it is acquired by luck and virtue, where virtue is an established habit, or character-trait.

On the other hand, the intellectual virtues seem to be described primarily by internal, subjective knowledge and ability, with the objective capbilities they enable or the character traits they counsel being secondary. Practical Wisdom is meant to bridge the gap, but is it just a theoretical construct designed for this purpose (a la the luminiferous aether) that has no real existence, or is it merely an epiphenomenon of virtuous character that should be of only trivial interest?

To complicate things, later in The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle is going to argue that intellectual excellence — that is, Philosophy — is a superior sort of excellence to practical, moral excellence. He hasn’t gotten there yet, but objection #3 above alludes to this.

Aristotle’s answers to these objections are as follows:

  1. Whether or not Philosophy and Practical Wisdom are useful to obtaining happiness is beside-the-point. Each of them are themselves excellences of the soul, and so are part of eudaimonia for that reason. To thrive and be excellent in all ways includes thriving and being excellent in purely intellectual ways.
  2. Furthermore, Philosophy is useful in obtaining happiness. It doesn’t do this in the way that medicine cures disease or an excercise regimen leads to fitness, but in the way that health itself contributes to its own continuance. Being intellectually excellent is one element in having eudaimonia. It requires a combination of reason and desire to make choices; good intellectual virtue means good reasoning, good moral virtue means good desires, the combination of the two makes for good choices that are likely to improve your life.
  3. While it’s true that you can become healthy either by following a doctor’s good advice or by acquiring the medical wisdom that allows you to formulate that advice yourself — the analogy does not hold for actions regulated by virtue. There is a difference between virtuous acts and acts performed virtuously, although objectively they may seem the same, the subjective difference is a big difference. Possession of the moral virtues is an element of eudaimonia, and merely going-through-the-motions or being obedient to some moral code or lawbook isn’t enough to be virtuous: you have to be motivated by a love of virtue — even if the objective real-world effects are the same in either case.
  4. Practical Wisdom is the cleverness that allows us to choose appropriate means to the ends we desire, combined with good ends. (If it isn’t combined with good ends, it is merely cleverness; if it is combined with bad ends, we call it “cunning”). But, similarly, Virtue is the sort of basic sense we all grow up with (“all I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten”) combined with reason. Good intentions without good reason to back them up “as often result in evil as in good.” True moral virtue requires intellectual virtue, otherwise it is only uneducated good intentions.
  5. Socrates taught that all virtue is a form of intellectual understanding — that if you intellectually understood yourself and the situation you found yourself in, the virtuous response to the situation would also be the only logically correct response — and so the key to becoming virtuous is to have an intellectual mastery of the various subject matter of life. Aristotle disagrees with this, though he says that intellectual understanding is an important component of all mature virtue. Practical wisdom is a combination of understanding the right means and knowing the right end; virtue is practical wisdom raised to the status of a habit or character trait.
  6. Practical Wisdom serves to unify the virtues, or at least to provide a common substrate for them. Some people have more of a natural ability or affinity for some virtues; other people for others. This has led some people to say that the virtues are distinct from each other. But Practical Wisdom can improve them all and develop them together harmoniously.
  7. Finally, as to whether Practical Wisdom or Philosophy is superior, it is certainly Philosophy that is superior. Practical Wisdom does not guide, restrict, or command Philosophy, but on the contrary, it guides, restricts, or commands us on behalf of Philosophy. Using the health analogy, Practical Wisdom is like medicine, Philosophy is like health. We use medicine not to tell us what health is, but to enable us to achieve health and stay healthy.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

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