The Life of Practical Wisdom

The Second Happiest Life for a Human Being

"That which is proper to each thing is by nature the best and the most pleasant for it. For man this the life according to intellect, if the intellect more than anything else is man. This life therefore is also the happiest. Happiest secondarily (δευτέρως) is the life according to the other virtue. For the activities in accordance with this are human. We display justice, courage and the other virtues in our intercourse with our fellows..." (Nicomachean Ethics X.7.1178a5).

φρόνησις derives from φρήν. In Homer, the shades of the dead lack φρήν ("wits," "sense"). They flit about. They are ἄφρων ("without sense"). Their behavior is crazed and frantic. The presence of φρήν gives one the ability to think and have understanding and thus to act sensibly. The life "according to the other kind of virtue" as the life of "practical wisdom" (φρόνησις). This is a life of reason in the form of "choice" (προαίρεσις). To understand what the cognition in this life is, the first step is to place it within Aristotle's understanding animal cognition generally.

Cognition in Nonhuman Animals


"In the other animals choice does not exist, nor in man at every age or condition; for neither is deliberating (βουλεύσασθαι) and judgment about the why (ὑπόληψις τοῦ διὰ τί). It is possible that many have an opinion whether a thing is to be done, but not through reasoning (λογισμοῦ). For that part of the soul is deliberative which contemplates (θεωρητικὸν) a certain cause. For the 'for the sake of which' is one of the causes ..., and that for the sake of which something is or comes to be, that we say is a cause, so the fetching of things is the cause of walking, if he is walking for the sake of this. Hence, those who do not have an aim [as a cause] are not deliberative" (Eudemian Ethics II.10.1226b).
Aristotle thinks that although all nonhuman animals lack reason, some are capable of controlling their behavior in ways that benefit them. These animals are "sensible" (φρόνιμα). In the History of Animals IX.5.611a, he reports that deer give birth alongside the road where fear of humans keeps predators from approaching. The deer, in this way, are "sensible," but their behavior is not the result of reasoning. He does not think the cognition in non-human animals that underlies purposeful behavior is a matter of "reason" (λόγος) and "reasoning" (λογισμός).

Aristotle thinks that a defining feature of animals is the capacity for perception and that perception implies the capacity for desire. Animals need to behave in certain ways in certain circumstances if they are to survive. Perception is the way they become aware of their particular circumstances, and desire moves them to engage in appropriate behavior in these circumstances. All animals engage in such behavior, but this behavior is the not the result of what Aristotle understands as reason.

"It is apparent that these two produce movement, desire (ὄρεξις) or intellect (νοῦς), if we set down that imagination (φαντασίαν) as a kind of intellect; for many follow their imaginations against their knowledge, and in the other animals intellect and reasoning do not exist, although imagination does. So both can produce movement in respect of place, intellect and desire, but intellect in which there is reasoning for the sake of something is practical (πρακτικός); and it differs from the theoretical (θεωρητικοῦ) in respect of the end. Every desire too is for the sake of something; for the object of desire is the starting-point for practical intellect (πρακτικοῦ νοῦ), and the final step is the starting-point for action" (On the Soul III.10.433a9).

"If a living thing has the capacity for perception, it has the capacity for desire. For desire (ὄρεξις) comprises appetite (ἐπιθυμία), spirit (θυμὸς), and wish (βούλησις). All animals have at least one of the senses, touch. Where there is perception, there is pleasure and pain ..., and where there are these, there is appetite: for this is desire for what is pleasant" (On the Soul II.3.414b1).
In some animals, purposeful behavior is completely a matter of perceptions tied to specific desires. In the History of Animals V.16.548b10, Aristotle reports that sponges are thought to be animals and to have a capacity for perception in the form of touch. A sponge contracts when it is touched because it doesn't like being touched. It finds being touched painful, and when it is touched, it moves in the only way open to it. This behavior is conducive to the sponge's survival because it helps prevent a predator from dislodging from the place to which it is attached.

In other animals, purposeful behavior is more complicated. In the Nicomachean Ethics III.13.1118a18, Aristotle maintains that hounds take pleasure not in scenting hares but in eating them and that the scent merely makes the hounds aware of the presence of a hare.

Aristotle does not explain the cognitive mechanism, but presumably he has the following picture in mind. The hound must represent the state of affairs that is the object of its desire. Perception is not enough to account for this representation. Perception allows the hound to perceive the current state of its environment, but to engage in purposeful behavior, it needs to be able to envisage the prospective state of affairs of itself eating the hare. The hound represents this state of affairs in terms of "imagination" (φαντασία). It has eaten hares in the past, and it remembers these state of affairs as pleasant. Because it is hungry, the scent of the hare triggers an image in the hound of itself eating a hare. This image functions as the desire whose object is the state of affairs of the hound eating the hare. Because the hound (unlike the sponge) can act in many different ways, it needs something like a plan so that its actions result in it catching and eating the hare. As in the case of the prospective state of affairs, the hound represents the plan in terms of "imagination" (φαντασία). The hound has chased down hares and eaten them in the past, and the hound remembers this sequence of events. The desire to eat the hare triggers in the hound an image of itself chasing down the hare. This image moves the hound to chase down the hare and to eat it.

In yet other animals, purposeful behavior involves the cognition Aristotle calls "experience" (ἐμπειρία). "Animals are by nature born with perception, and from this some come to have memory, whereas others do not. The former are more sensible (φρονιμώτερα) and capable of learning than those which cannot remember. ... The other animals live by impressions (φαντασίαις) and memories, and have but a [comparatively] small share of experience (ἐμπειρίας), but the human race lives also by art and reasoning (τέχνῃ καὶ λογισμοῖς). It is from memory that men acquire experience" (Metaphysics I.1.980a).

"[The male glanis (Parasilurus aristotelis, Aristotle’s Catfish)] is recognised by the fishermen wherever he happens to be on guard, for in warding off the small fishes he darts at them and makes a sound and a murmur. He stays by the eggs with such devotion that the fishermen, on every occasion when the eggs adhere among deep roots, draw them up to as shallow a place as they can; but all the same he does not desert the embryos but, if it so happens, gets caught quickly by means of the hook because he is snapping at the small fishes that approach; but if he is experienced and used to biting hooks (συνήθης καὶ ἀγκιστροφάγος) he still does not leave the embryos but crushes the hooks with the hardest of his teeth and destroys them" (History of Animals IX.37.621a)
Animals who have acquired "experience" are better at discriminating among things in their environment in ways that benefit themselves. In the Metaphysics, Aristotle illustrates the point with an example involving a medical practitioner who is more successful than the layman in treating certain diseases. It is clear, however, that he thinks that this cognitive ability, although less developed, is also present in some non-human animals. Consider an older dog who has chased down many hares over a long period of time. This dog may have gained "experience" with respect to the scent of the hare and its hiding place. This would allow the older dog to react to the scent in a more nuanced way and thus make it a more successful hunter than the inexperience dog.

Purposeful Behavior in Humans


"Wish is found in the reasoning part and appetite and spirit in the part without reason" (On the Soul III.9.432b5).

"Choice is not a wish, though they appear closely akin. .... We wish for ends, but choose the means to our end; for example we wish to be healthy, but choose things to make us healthy.... In general, choice is concerned with things that are up to us (ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν)" (Nicomachean Ethics III.4.1111b19).

"It is preceded by consideration (προβεβουλευμένον), since choice involves reasoning and some process of thought (προαίρεσις μετὰ λόγου καὶ διανοίας)" (Nicomachean Ethics.III.4.1112a15).

"We deliberate about things that are up to us and practical (βουλευόμεθα δὲ περὶ τῶν ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν καὶ πρακτῶν)" (Nicomachean Ethics III.5.1112a30).

"Choice will be a deliberate desire of things that are up to us (ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν); for when we judge from deliberation, our desire is according to our wish" (Nicomachean Ethics III.5.1113a9).

"What appears good (τὸ φαινόμενον καλόν) is the object of appetite (ἐπιθυμητὸν), and what is good (τὸ ὂν καλόν) is the object of wish (βουλητὸν). Desire is the result of opinion rather than opinion that of desire; it is the act of thinking that is the starting-point (ἀρχὴ)" (Metaphysics XII.1072a).
In human beings, some purposeful behavior is the result of reason. The desire that belongs to reason is "wish" (βούλησις). When a human action is a "choice" (προαίρεσις), the motivation comes from wish. Wish is a desire for what one believes is good in the circumstances. "Deliberation" (βούλευσις) is thinking about what to do to bring about this wished for end. Choice is desire to do something because deliberation has shown that this action results in the wished for good.

"Choice is intellect (νοῦς) combined with desire or desire combined with thought (διανοητική), and what originates in this way is human" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.2.1139b4).


"Whoever stands firm against the right things and fears the right things, for the right end, in the right way, at the right time, and in the same way is confident, is brave. The actions and feelings of the brave reflect what something is worth and what reason prescribes" (Nicomachean Ethics III.10.1115b17).
For human beings to make choices correctly, the virtues of character are necessary.

"The nutritive part shares in reason not at all, the part with appetites and generally desire shares in reason in a way, in so far as it listens to and obeys reason. It listens in the way we are said to listen to reason from father or friends, not in the way we give reason in mathematics. The part without reason also obeys and is persuaded in some way by reason, as is shown by chastening, and by every sort of reproof and exhortation. ... [The part with reason has] two parts, one has authority in itself, and the other that has it by listening to reason as to a father. The distinction between virtues also reflects this difference. We say that some virtues are virtues of thought (διανοητικὰς) and that others are virtues of character (ἠθικάς)." (Nicomachean Ethics I.13.1102b29).

In someone who possesses the virtues of character, the part of his soul that does not have reason (but is capable of "listening to" and "obeying" reason) has developed dispositions to act in appropriate ways in the circumstances. Someone who is brave, for example, is disposed to act in appropriate ways with respect to frightening situations. He is not overcome by fear or excessive confidence. He does what is appropriate in the situation, and he does it in the right way.

Human beings acquire the virtues of character by engaging in the behavior that reason deems appropriate in the circumstances. This practice trains the part of the soul that "listens to" and "obeys" reason so that its desires are for what is appropriate in the circumstances.

"Virtue is of two sorts, virtue of thought and virtue of character. Virtue of thought arises and grows mostly from teaching... Virtue of character results from habit (ἔθους)" (Nicomachean Ethics II.1.1103a14). "A state of character arises from the repetition of similar activities. Hence we must display the right activities, since differences in these imply corresponding differences in the states. It is not unimportant, then, to acquire one sort of habit or another, right from our youth; rather, it is very important, indeed all-important" (Nicomachean Ethics II.1.1103b21).

The Life of Practical Wisdom

"[Practical wisdom (φρόνησιν)] is a state of reason (λόγου) attaining truth in relation to things that are good and bad for human beings" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.5.1140b4).

"Of the two parts of the soul that have reason, practical wisdom is a virtue of one of them, of the part that has belief (δοξαστικοῦ) [as opposed to knowledge]; for belief is concerned, as practical wisdom is, with what admits of being otherwise" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.5.1140b25).

"It is not possible to be ... practically wise without virtue of character" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.13.1144b31).

Someone is not practically wise simply by knowing (εἰδέναι); he must also act on his knowledge" (Nicomachean Ethics VII.11.1152a8).

Aristotle does not think that the traditional virtues are sufficient for happiness. He thinks that "goods of the body, external goods and the gifts of fortune" are necessary.

"The happy man (εὐδαίμων) requires in addition the goods of the body, external goods and the gifts of fortune, in order that his activity may not be impeded through lack of them. Consequently those who say that, if a man be good, he will be happy even when on the rack, or when fallen into the direst misfortune, are intentionally or unintentionally talking nonsense" (Nicomachean Ethics VII.14.1153b17).
A human being who has "practical wisdom" (φρόνησις) has the virtues of character. He wishes for the right things, deliberates correctly about how to bring about these wished for ends, and has the part of his soul that "listens to" and "obeys" reason under control.

The suggestion in Plato is that reason in the soul exists before and after its time in the body. In this way, the soul has competing interests. Its own interest is contemplation, but because it is temporarily in the body, it has to take on the practical concerns of the the body. In managing these concerns, it is important for soul not to be confused. It needs to take control of its life in the body so that it spends as much time as possible in the contemplation it enjoyed outside the body.

Aristotle does not have this Platonic understanding of the soul and its relation to the body, but his view of reason is squarely within this tradition. Aristotle thinks that reason focuses on two kinds of matters. That which can be otherwise is the focus of the part of the soul with reason that Aristotle calls the λογιστικόν. This part of the soul figures out how to bring about what is good.

"We said before that there are two parts of the soul, one with reason and one without reason. Now we should divide in the same way the part with reason. Let us assume it has two parts, one with which we consider beings whose origins do not admit of being otherwise, and one with which we consider beings whose origin do admit of being otherwise. For when the beings are of different kinds, the parts of the soul naturally suited to each are also of different kinds, since the parts possess awareness by being somehow similar and appropriate to their objects. Let us call one the part for knowledge (ἐπιστημονικὸν), and the other the part for reasoning (λογιστικόν), since deliberating is the same as reasoning, and no one deliberates about what cannot be otherwise. ... Hence [to understand what the good life is for a human being] we should find the best state of each part, for this is the virtue of each" (Nicomachean Ethics V1.2.1139a3).

The Second Happiest Life of Reason

What is it about the life of practical wisdom that makes it "happiest secondarily"?

"Practical wisdom (φρόνησις) is not about universals (καθόλου) only. It must also come to know particulars, since it is concerned with action and action is about particulars. Hence in other areas also some people who lack knowledge but have experience (ἔμπειροι) are better in action than others who have knowledge. For someone who knows that light meats are digestible and healthy, but not which sort of meats are light, will not produce health; the one who knows that bird meats are healthy will be better a producing health" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.8.1141b14).

"Practically wise young people do not seem to exist. The reason is that practical wisdom is concerned with particulars, and this comes to be known from experience (ἐμπειρίας), but a young person lacks experience, since some length of time is needed to produce it" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.9.1142a13).
The life of practical wisdom is a life of reason, but it is not a pure exercise of "intellect" (νοῦς) and "thinking" (νοεῖν). The exercise of reason in the life of practical wisdom is not about universals only. The life of practical wisdom involves experience and awareness of particulars. This makes the exercise of reason in this life second to the exercise of reason in the life of contemplation.


"As then the question of legislation has been left uninvestigated by previous thinkers, it will perhaps be well if we consider it for ourselves, together with the whole question of the constitution of the State, in order to complete as far as possible our philosophy of human affairs (τὰ ἀνθρώπεια φιλοσοφία)" (Nicomachean Ethics X.9.1181b12).

"Now it is clear that the best constitution is the system under which anybody whatsoever would be best off and would live in felicity; but the question is raised even on the part of those who agree that the life accompanied by virtue is the most desirable (τὸν μετ᾽ ἀρετῆς εἶναι βίον αἱρετώτατον), whether the life of citizenship and activity (ὁ πολιτικὸς καὶ πρακτικὸς βίος) is desirable or rather a life released from all external affairs, for example some form of contemplative life (θεωρητικός), which is said by some to be the only life that is philosophic (φιλόσοφον)" (Politics VII.2.1324a).
Aristotle only once uses φιλοσοφία or its cognates to refer to ethics. When he does, he calls it the "philosophy of human affairs (τὰ ἀνθρώπεια φιλοσοφία). The suggestion, it seems, is that the knowledge involved in living a life of practical wisdom is not theoretical enough and hence not enough of an exercise of "intellect" and "thinking" to count as a kind of "wisdom" (σοφία).

It is traditional to translate φρόνησις as "practical wisdom," but for Aristotle "wisdom" is first and foremost "knowledge" (ἐπιστήμη). This is not the concern in the life of practical wisdom.




Perseus Digital Library:

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
ἀκούσιος (Attic contraction for ἀεκούσιος), akousios, adjective, "unwilling,"
ἑκούσιος, hekousios, adjective, "willing,"
ἀκράτεια, akrateia, noun, "incontinence,"
βουλεύω, bouleuō, verb, "take counsel, deliberate,"
βούλησις, boulēsis, noun, "willing,"
προαίρεσις, proairesis, noun, "choice,"
διανοητικός, dianoētikos, adjective, "intellectual,"
νόος, noos, noun, "mind,"
φρήν, phrēn, noun, "the wit of a person,"
φρόνησις, phronēsis, noun, "practical wisdom"


"In Aristotle's view, there is a certain good which we all will or want to attain in life, namely, a good life. As grown-up human beings we have a certain conception, though different people have rather different ones, of what this final good consists of. So in a particular situation we shall, as mature human beings, choose what to do in light of our conception of this final good, because we think, having deliberated about the matter, that acting in this way will help us attain this good. But this is what willing to do something is: desiring to do something, because one thinks that it will help one attain something which one considers a good and which one therefore wills or wants. Hence choosing is just a special form of willing" (Michael Frede, A Free Will Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought (edited by A. A. Long, with a foreward by David Sedley), 27. University of California Press, 2011).

"[T]his is the conception of wisdom Aristotle has, and accordingly he conceives of philosophy. Wisdom is theoretical. ... But if we look at what this means for Aristotle's conception of philosophy, ... we wonder where this leaves practical philosophy, that is ethics and politics. ... It is noteworthy that Aristotle hardly ever talks of ethics or practical philosophy as 'philosophy.' One place in which he does so is at the very end of E.N[= Nicomachean Ethics].X.9.1181b15, where he speaks of 'the philosophy concerning human affairs' (τὰ ἀνθρώπεια φιλοσοφία). Thus he implicitly contrasts it with first philosophy [πρώτη φιλοσοφία] which is concerned with wisdom which is divine and of matters divine, for instance God. It is wisdom which affords us the contemplation of truth, of which Aristotle earlier in E.N.X tells us that it makes our life like that of gods, to the extent that this is humanly possible. But first philosophy is concerned with the good or with what is best, and its concern is a theoretical concern, a concern aimed at satisfying our need to know and understand what is the most important thing to understand, namely, God, a principle of all things. By contrast, ethics is just concerned with the human good, and this concern is not theoretical, but a practical concern. It is aimed at being good and living well" (Michael Frede, "Aristotle's Account of the Origins of Philosophy," 23-24. Rhizai. A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science, 1/2004, 9-44).




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