Aristotle on the Intellectual Virtues

We’ve reached the end of book six of The Nicomachean Ethics and its examination of the intellectual virtues. Today I’ll try to sum up what we learned in this book.

The intellectual virtues concern the rational part of the soul, are methods by which people arrive at truth, and come in two categories: the scientific (having to do with things that are eternal and invariable) and the calculative or deliberative (having to do with things that are variable or contingent).

There are five such virtues. The scientific ones are Science, Intuition, and Philosophy, and the calculative/deliberative ones are Art and Wisdom.

  1. Science allows you to draw conclusions in a logical, demonstrable fashion, from known facts and principles.
  2. Intuition gives you the first principles and allows you to bootstrap the process of Science.
  3. Philosophy answers the big questions, that, though impractical, are fascinating and remarkable.
  4. Art gives you the ability to create things that would not exist but for the skill of the artist.
  5. Wisdom enables you to choose the appropriate means for the ultimate end (eudaimonia) at which life points.

Of these, Philosophy is the greatest and Wisdom is its vital servant. Philosophy is Science and Intuition applied contemplatively to The Big Questions, while Wisdom is Science and Intuition applied to practical questions of day-to-day behavior.

This practical application, in order to be really Wise and not just clever, requires the ability to deliberate well — to reach conclusions that are good not just in a middling sense but keeping in mind the big picture and the ultimate ends, and to reach these conclusions not just by happenstance but by a sound process of reasoning. It requires the knowledge of general principles as well as the astute assessment of particular cases.

Wisdom is acquired by practice in such good deliberation. It is a skill that requires experience more than theoretical knowledge. Over time, it can become second-nature: less a matter of demonstrable logic or conscious deliberation than of intuitive understanding. For this reason, it’s a good idea to look to the example of wise elders, even if they cannot necessarily explain themselves coherently.

Wisdom applies at various scales: to self-government, to managing household affairs, and to both the theory and practice of politics.

Equity, that moral virtue that allows you to transcend the letter of the law so as to apply the spirit of Justice behind the law, requires the understanding and good deliberation that is part of the intellectual virtue of Wisdom.

Moral action requires deliberate choice, and such choice happens when reason/intellect and desire/appetite combine. Desire chooses the ends and Reason chooses the means, but it takes both together to actually pick a course of action.

This makes Wisdom important in that it helps us make our moral virtues more than just good intentions: Wisdom, as an excellent form of reason, combines with moral virtues, as excellent forms of desire, to cause virtuous choices. Moral virtues without wisdom to back them up become the sort of intentions that pave to road to hell. Practical wisdom unifies, coordinates, and gives practical, real-world power to our moral impulses. But even aside from this practical issue, intellectual virtues like Philosophy and Wisdom are excellences in their own rights, and therefore are ends of their own that contribute to our eudaimonia.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics