The Dianoetic Virtues

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Phronesis and the Dianoetic Virtues

Phronesis allows one to use dianoetic (rational) wisdom in a practical way.

Aristotle, in both his Posterior Analytics and in his Nicomachean Ethics identifies five intellectual virtues: sophia-wisdom (of first principles); episteme-knowledge of empirical truth; phronesis-practical wisdom/prudence; techne-craft knowledge; nous-intuition.

Sophia has traditionally been granted preeminence because wisdom regarding the eternal and unchangeable is presumptively most important. Yet, I wonder. It seems to me that, the older I get, the more I consider phronesis the highest kind of wisdom. Not that operating in the practical arena is the most important thing in life. The things of this world are, indeed transient. On the other hand, I think one of the fallacies of modernism is that, if one acquires enough speculative wisdom (knowledge of absolutes and universal principles) one would be equipped to answer all the questions of life. (Hence, Social Science, if it were brought to the same level of knowledge as the natural sciences, could, it was hoped, eliminate wars, misunderstandings, etc.) We have seen the folly of this sort of “hysterical optimism” (as Richard Weaver would call it,) and yet, the Platonic bias holds a certain appeal.

Consider how, in terms of sheer complexity, phronesis is the equal of sophia. Universalized reasoning, by its very nature, requires that one abstract from reality in order to attain internal consistency and universalizability. It is the complexity of being that complicates the process of speculative reasoning, and frustrates its aims. Phronesis, on the other hand, equips one for managing precisely that sort of “real world” complexity. Practical wisdom, in my view, is superior to sophia insofar as the aim of life is action, not contemplation. I don’t wish to be misunderstood here, first principles are, absolutely, the most important of considerations in the acquisition of wisdom. But many have concluded, therefore, that the contemplation of principles is (a) most important and (b) the answer to all problems. I propose that such is not the case. The life lived well consists in maintaining balance between wise action in this world and diligent preparation for the next. But if one prepares for the world to come to the exclusion of the present, one is, by definition, useless in this world.

One last thought. Phronesis does not exclude first principles; it brings them to bear on practical
problems. Through the combination of the light introduced by those principles, combined with experience, wisdom, deliberation and, yes, intuition, phronesis guides one to choose well. But Aristotle’s intellectual virtues are not mutually exclusive anyway. In the final analysis, (and I think this was Aristotle’s point)

the best person, the one who possesses the well-ordered mind, has cultivated all five of the virtues, and exercises each according to the demands of the question at hand. This results in mental dexterity.

Now, back to the trivium!

Aristotle wrote a number of works on reasoning. Collectively, they are known as The Organon (Instrument). They have, throughout the Western tradition, been understood as an instrument to equip human beings for intellectual excellence. Aristotle begins by explicating grammatical categories (“This is a noun, this is a verb . . . when combined in the following way they make a declarative statement. A declarative statement is a proposition. A proposition in doubt is a question, etc.”) Aristotle then examines (in his Analytics) analytic or demonstrative reasoning. This is the realm of syllogistic logic, of speculative reasoning, of absolutes. Then, in The Topics, and its companion volume, On Sophistical Refutations, he explores and teaches dialectical reasoning. Dialectic operates in the realm of the contingent, that is, in the realm of opinion, of probable truth. Now, because of the infamous “fact/value split” (one unfortunate consequence of the Enlightenment project,) the contingent realm has been relegated to the subjective, mere opinion, etc. When combined with Platonic Idealism (only that is real which exists in the realm of the Ideal) this empiricism leads to a strong bias against both rhetoric and phronesis. In the Medieval trivium, dialectic was the emphasis in logical studies, not speculative reasoning processes. The ideal student was “a speaker of words and a doer of deeds” not a pointy headed logician. The aim of education was to equip men and women of faith for wise action.

That is why, for all the reasons alluded to above, rhetoric has [more often than not] obtained an elevated status in the trivium. It is the “Queen of the Liberal Arts” because it equips students to take the truth discovered through logic and dialectic and make it appealing to one’s fellows. It equips one to compete successfully in the marketplace of ideas. Such an enterprise is vital in a society of free and virtuous persons. People who are free must choose; good choices are impossible without virtue and without phronesis. Hence, phronesis is at least as important as sophia, even though sophia is, of necessity, logically prior to phronesis.