Aristotle on Wisdom

In the fifth section of the sixth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle covers the third of five capacities people have for attaining true knowledge: Wisdom.

Wisdom is the ability to deliberate well about which courses of action would be good and expedient — in general, not to some particular end, as that would more likely be in the realm of Art. Also, Wisdom concerns acting more than making, which also makes it distinct from Art.

When we say “my judgment was clouded” (by, say, anger or drunkenness), it’s usually this sort of wisdom that was faulty: the ability to choose our actions wisely.

There are two seemingly contradictory sentiments I run into in the translations of this section:

  1. Wisdom is demonstrated by someone who chooses the best means to some particular end.
  2. While with Art, the end is not the making but the thing being made; with Wisdom the end is good-acting and not any other end beyond the act itself.

I’m not sure how to make these sentiments agree. Perhaps the first case is a sort of lower-case “w” wisdom — wisdom is about making practical decisions about how to act in pursuit of some end; the second case is a capital-“W” Wisdom — about making practical decisions about how to act in pursuit of The Ultimate End (eudaimonia) which itself takes the form of a life of activity.

Wisdom also is different from Science. You only deliberate about things that might be one way or another; Science on the other hand concerns things that are invariable and eternal.

The final paragraph of this section is very difficult. In Ross, it goes like this:

Practical wisdom, then, must be a reasoned and true state of capacity to act with regard to human goods. But further, while there is such a thing as excellence in art, there is no such thing as excellence in practical wisdom; and in art he who errs willingly is preferable, but in practical wisdom, as in the virtues, he is the reverse. Plainly, then, practical wisdom is a virtue and not an art. There being two parts of the soul that can follow a course of reasoning, it must be the virtue of one of the two, i.e. of that part which forms opinions; for opinion is about the variable and so is practical wisdom. But yet it is not only a reasoned state; this is shown by the fact that a state of that sort may forgotten but practical wisdom cannot.

There is such a thing as excellence in Art but not in Wisdom? What does that mean? It can’t mean that any example of wisdom is as good as any other, can it? Can’t we say A is a better artist than B, and C is wiser than D? Or is Aristotle asserting that you either are wise or you aren’t, with no middle ground?

One possible reading of this sentence goes something like this: In Art, if you’re very skillful, you know how to do the “wrong” thing at the right time — for instance, a blues piano player omitting a phrase from a melody or deviating from the meter for effect. If you’re not skillful, missing a note or deviating from the meter just means you’re playing badly. For this reason, we say that some artists are better than others — the best of them know how to skillfully deviate from the ideal form to reach for a higher perfection. However, with wisdom, this isn’t the case: wisdom itself is the perfection; there is no better or worse way of “playing” wisdom. There is only wisdom, which is good, and deviations from it, which are not good (indeed, intentional “skillful” deviations from it are especially bad, whereas simply mistaken deviations are more forgivable).

What about the last two sentences of the paragraph? There he goes again, enumerating “parts of the soul.” Are these two parts he’s mentioned before, or are they new parts? It sounds like he’s referring to the two parts of the rational part of the soul: the scientific and the deliberative (see section one of book six), and asserting that Wisdom is a virtue of the deliberative part.

Then he says that Wisdom is different from other “reasoned states” by virtue of its durability. Welldon says that this is because Wisdom is a moral virtue, whereas other similar virtues are intellectual only. When you are wise, Wisdom gets lodged in your character, becomes a habit, and stays there — and there are always opportunities to use it, since you are always acting. When you are merely smart, scientific, or clever, these things have more of a practical, means-to-an-end nature, and can atrophy if unused.

Your take-away from this is that wisdom is a virtue of the deliberative part of the soul and manifests in the ability to deliberate about what acts would be beneficial and expedient in leading a virtuous life.

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics