Attaining Virtue Through Practical Wisdom

“What Heaven has conferred is called The Nature; an accordance with this nature is called The Path of duty; the regulation of this path is called Instruction.”

– Confucius

In his characteristic succinctness, Confucius distills the wisdom of a divine intelligence’s role in creating nature in such a way that, upon examining the world and how it works, we may come to know how to act in the world reliably. We can discover and harness truth, using it to our advantage. One of the types of truths we can discover is morality, and through its examination, we may come to find the Path of duty, the Tao, the Mean; or as Christians would call it, the Way. The application of moral principles to behavior is the science of ethics.

Confucius, like Aristotle and many others, developed a code of ethics around the idea of the mean – or the way – through moral philosophy and reasoning. They used the tools of deduction and induction to find principles and apply them so they could build an ethical code of conduct. Each code reflecting the philosopher’s time, society, and personality.

Confucius emphasized propriety. Kant focused on rationality and the value and rights of the individual. Aristotle honed in on the pursuit of happiness through virtue and right reason. Buddha advocated and embodied extreme asceticism. Each one brings forth valuable lessons for how we can live ethical and virtuous lives.

But how are we supposed to examine ethical codes and compare them? Is there a way we can evaluate them and find one that is best?

While many philosophers come to good ethical conclusions, Aristotle’s methodology offers a way of reliably evaluating a number of situations.

“Excellence, then, is a state concerned with choice, lying in a mean, relative to us, this being determined by reason and in the way in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.”

-Aristotle

In Ethics, Aristotle will take two vices and demonstrate how each is an excess or defect of a virtue that lies in the middle of the two. For instance, rashness and cowardice are vices between which is courage. But that knowledge isn’t all. We must learn to apply this to our lives to see when an act is courageous, cowardly, or rash.

When I was in 5th grade, my kindergarten brother was talking about how second graders were picking on him and his friends. A few days later at an open recess, I saw a kid that looked older than my brother pushing him down and playing rough. So, I went over and stepped in and pushed the other kid and told him to leave my brother alone. As it turns out, the kid I confronted was a kindergartener and one of my brother’s friends; that’s rashness. 

Had I seen it and feared someone half my size in a confrontation or feared getting in trouble for doing so, that would be cowardice. I would be shying away from something that would appear I need to confront because, afterall, it appears my brother is being bullied.

Somewhere in the middle is a better solution. I could have recognized my size and strength advantage over a second grader, and simply pulled them apart. Then, I could have asked what was going on and if this is the kid my brother had complained about. That would give my brother the chance to let me know this was his friend and not to worry. Or, if it were an instance of bullying, I could have given a warning… this time at least.

The answer, then, was to not turn to either extreme. But, I should have taken the time to assess the situation, gather more information, and make a better judgement given the newly discovered facts.

Practical Wisdom is the ability, one that is both science and art, to look at a given situation and apply the knowledge you have properly. Sometimes it’s right to stay and fight, others negotiate, and sometimes running and hiding is the best you can do. Each action is not in and of itself good or bad, but can be assessed as good or bad given a certain situation.

But, Practical Wisdom is not common sense or practical knowledge. Rather, it’s the understanding of right and wrong paired with your ability to assess a given situation and apply the fitting tactics to pursue good.

In order to attain Practical Wisdom, you will need two pieces: knowledge and prudence. As for knowledge, you should be well-versed in many fields, especially the virtues, so that you can assess a wide range of situations with as many of the facts as possible. Bioethics, for example, is a tough field to master if you don’t have the scientific and philosophical background to understand the problem. But because our endeavors in life are not so narrowly focused, we must expand our search for knowledge to incorporate all aspects of our lives.

Prudence is the ability to assess the specific situation you’re in and pull from the proper knowledge sources to address that particular circumstance. It is right judgement. A bioethicist may have extensive knowledge of the origin of life on the planet, but that is not relevant to the debate on assisted suicide (at least it’s very low on the scale of relevance). Prudence is your ability to select the right tool out of a whole set to get the job done properly.

Therefore, what you should seek is to gain knowledge and be a well-rounded person: a renaissance man. Then, you should study the virtues and philosophy that you may learn to think through the implications of a situation properly. And lastly, you’ll have to try and fail, using the experience of the real world to show you how to act properly in the world and seek the Way, the Path of duty, the Tao, and find the Mean way of living.

If you like this post, you should check out The Vital Masculinity Podcast for more great posts and content like this. They’ve added this as a guest post there, and have lots of great articles and podcasts for you to learn about leading a life of virtue.

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