The Life of Practical Wisdom

Practical Wisdom is For the Sake of Contemplation

"Whether the [best part of us] be the intellect, or whatever else it is that is thought to rule and lead us by nature and to have cognizance of what is noble and divine, this itself being divine or as being relatively the divinest part of us,it is the activity of this part of us in accordance with the virtue proper to it that will be perfect happiness (τελεία εὐδαιμονία); and it has been stated already that this activity is contemplation" (Nicomachean Ethics X.7.1177a). "That which is proper to each thing is by nature the best and the most pleasant for it. For man this is the life according to intellect (ὁ κατὰ τὸν νοῦν βίος), if the intellect more than anything else is man (εἴπερ τοῦτο μάλιστα ἄνθρωπος). This life therefore is also the happiest (εὐδαιμονέστατος). Secondly (δευτέρως) the life according to the other virtue [is happiest]. For the activities in accordance with this virtue are human. We display justice, courage and the other virtues in our intercourse with our fellows..." (Nicomachean Ethics X.7.1178a).

φρόνησις derives from φρήν. The presence of φρήν gives one the ability to think and understand and thus to act sensibly. In Homer, φρήν ("wits," "sense") is what the shades of the dead lack. They are ἄφρων (adjective, "without sense" (ἀ- "not" +‎ φρων (from φρήν), "senseless"). Their behavior is crazed and erratic. They "flit" about. The life "according to the other virtue" is what (given the traditional translation) is called the life of "practical wisdom" (φρόνησις). This is the form the life of "sensibleness" takes for a human being. As Aristotle understands this life, it is a life of "choice" (προαίρεσις) in accordance with the proper virtue or virtues for the part or parts of the soul involved making "choices."

To understand the cognition that characterizes the life of practical wisdom, a helpful first step is to place this cognition within Aristotle's understanding of animal cognition more generally.

Cognition in Nonhuman Animals


"Even some of the lower animals are said to be sensible (φρόνιμά), namely those which display a capacity for forethought (προνοητικήν) as regards their own lives" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.7.1141a)

"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).

"[S]laves and animals have no share in well-being or in a life according to choice (εὐδαιμονίας μηδὲ τοῦ ζῆν κατὰ προαίρεσιν)" (Aristotle, Politics III.1280a).
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, adjective, "in one's right mind, in one's senses, showing the presence of mind, sensible"). 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 does not 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 supposes 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 in the hound, but presumably he thinks about this cognition along the following general lines. In its cognition, the hound must represent the state of affairs that is the object of its desire. Perception alone 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 to change itself and its environment, it needs to be able to envisage the prospective state of affairs of itself eating the hare. Given its cognitive abilities, it seems that the hound must 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 a plan so that its actions result in it catching and eating the hare. 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 general 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. In addition, 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. In this way, making a choice is forming a desire to do something because deliberation has shown that this action is the way to bring about the wished for end that one believes is 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).


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.13.1102b).

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.1.1103a). "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.1.1103b).

Practical Wisdom is a Virtue of Thought

"[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.5.1140b).

"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.5.1140b).

"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.8.1141b).

"[A]lthough the young may be experts in geometry and mathematics and similar branches of knowledge, we do not consider that a young man can be practically wise (φρόνιμος). The reason is that practical wisdom (φρόνησις) includes a knowledge of particular facts, and this is derived from experience (ἐμπειρίας), which a young man does not a possess; for experience is the fruit of years" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.9.1142a).

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

Someone is not practically wise simply by knowing (εἰδέναι); he must also act on his knowledge" (Nicomachean Ethics VII.11.1152a).
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 proper 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 Happiest Life a Human Being can Live

What does Aristotle mean when he says that "[s]econdly the life according to the other virtue [is happiest]" because" the activities in accordance with this virtue are human"?

The answer turns in part on how Aristotle understands what the "life of contemplation" is.

"In so far as he is a human being and hence lives in the society of others, he chooses to engage in virtuous action, and so will need external goods to carry on his life as a human being" (Nicomachean Ethics X.8.1178b).

"Being human he will also need external prosperity, for his nature is not self—sufficient for the activity of contemplation (οὐ γὰρ αὐτάρκης ἡ φύσις πρὸς τὸ θεωρεῖν), but he must also have bodily health and a supply of food and other requirements" (Nicomachean Ethics X.9.1178b).
"Such a life as this [= the life of contemplation] however will be higher than the human level: not in virtue of his humanity will a man achieve [or: live (βιώσεται)] it, but in virtue of something within him that is divine (θεῖόν); and by as much as this something is superior to his composite nature, by so much is its activity superior to the exercise of the other forms of virtue. If then the intellect (νοῦς) is something divine in comparison with man, so is the life of the intellect divine in comparison with human life (ἀνθρώπινον βίον)" (Nicomachean Ethics X.7.1177b).

Aristotle seems to think that the life of contemplation is not a life a human being can live. Plato thought that the good life for a human being is an existence that, as much as possible, resembles the natural and disincarnate existence of the soul in which it is fixed in contemplation. Aristotle does not agree with Plato about the existence of the soul, but he does think that the exercise of "intellect" (νοῦς) in a human life approximates an existence that is out of reach.

This does not mean that contemplation is not part of the best life for a human being.

"We ought not to obey those who enjoin that a man should have man's thoughts [or: think human since you are human (ἀνθρώπινα φρονεῖν ἄνθρωπον ὄντα)] and a mortal the thoughts of mortality, but we ought so far as possible to achieve immortality, and do all that man may to live in accordance with the highest thing in him" (Nicomachean Ethics X.7.1177b).

"[F]or he does it on account of the intellectual part (διανοητικοῦ) of himself, and this appears to be a man's real self. Also he desires his own life and security, and especially that of the part by which he has intelligence (φρονεῖ) ... And each person would seem to be the part that thinks (νοοῦν), or that most of all" (Nicomachean Ethics IX.4.1166a).

"[H]e takes for himself the things that are noblest and most truly good. Also it is the most dominant part of himself that he indulges and obeys in everything. But as a city and any other composite whole seems above all to be its most controlling part, so it is with man. He therefore who loves and indulges this part of himself is a lover of self in the fullest degree" (Nicomachean Ethics IX.8.1168b).
"It may even be held that this [= the intellect] is the true self of each, inasmuch as it is the dominant and better part; and therefore it would be a strange thing if a man should choose to live not his own life but the life of some other than himself" (Nicomachean Ethics X.7.1178).

The "practical wisdom" (φρόνησις) is the virtue of the part of reason that arranges things so that the life a human being lives is for the sake of the "intellect" and "contemplation."

"[I]t is not the case that practical wisdom is in authority over wisdom, or over the higher part of the intellect, any more than medical science is in authority over health. Medical science does not control health, but studies how to procure it; hence it issues orders in the interests of health, but not to health. And again, one might as well say that political science governs the gods, because it gives orders about [religious observances] in the city" (Nicomachean Ethics VII.13.1145a).

Aristotle's view, it seems, is that the best life available to a human being is a life in which reason in its "practical wisdom" (φρόνησις) arranges things so there is "contemplation" (θεωρία). Further, Aristotle's view is that contemplation is necessary for "happiness" (εὐδαιμονία) and that the more contemplation the life contains the happier it is. The knowledge exercised in practical wisdom is the knowledge involved in making making choices well. By choosing things in accordance with the virtues of character, a human being with practical wisdom arranges things in his life so that given the necessary experience and external goods, he participates in "the life according to the intellect" (ὁ κατὰ τὸν νοῦν βίος) to the extent this is possible for a human being.




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,"
φρόνιμος, phronimos, adjective, "in one's right mind, in one's senses, showing the presence of mind, sensible"


"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).

"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.9.1181b). "[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. ... 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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