QA 60. None the wiser (On the obligation and cultivation of wisdom)

Last week, I had the pleasure of addressing a conference of family mediators in Cape Town on the topic of “Wisdom in mediation”.

byzantine philosophy

Two stories

First story. An ethics professor once said to an undergraduate philosophy class, “If you believe that a professor of ethics is an ethical person, you are making a category mistake.” The students recognised that this was true. At the same time, at least one of them thought, “Yes, but you ought to be.”

Second story. Václav Havel, the writer and dissident who became the last president of Czechoslovakia, was hypersensitive to the temptations of political power. In 1991, he spoke about the perks of his office – the chef, the chauffeur, the personal assistants, the special access to medical attention – and the “unassailable logic” of their necessity: “It would be laughable and contemptible for me to miss a meeting that served the interests of my country because I had spent my presidential time in a dentist’s waiting room, or lining up for meat, or nervously battling the decrepit Prague telephone system.”

“But where,” he asks, “do logic and objective necessity stop, and excuses begin?” Indeed, “it takes a high degree of self-awareness and critical distance for someone in power – however well-meaning at the start – to recognise that moment.” His lesson is not that politics is a filthy business. Rather, he sees

an area of human endeavour that places greater stress on moral sensitivity, on the ability to reflect critically on oneself, on genuine responsibility, on taste and tact, on the capacity to empathize with others, on a sense of moderation, on humility. It is a job for modest people, for people who cannot be deceived.

He finished his speech with a confession: “I have no idea whether I am such a person. I only know that I ought to be, because I have accepted this office.”

Two premises

This experience of ought-to-be is both familiar and strange. Familiar, because we do expect high moral standards in certain professions. That’s why we call it “corruption” or “dereliction” when they fall. Strange, because its reason operates somehow apart from “logic and objective necessity”.

The obligation seems to have two premises. The first is that particular professions – perhaps those that exercise political power or social responsibility – come fully-loaded with this anticipation of virtuous action along with the attendant potential for corruption and negligence.

The second is that the obligation can only be met in a personal capacity, in actions guided by one’s own integrity, sensitivity and modesty. We can imagine a nasty person being a good cook or a good surgeon, but a corrupt priest or judge is, prima facie, unfit for office.

So. We cannot assume that an ethics professor or a politician is ethical, but we may think that they ought to be. Ought indicates possibility but not certainty. You can get it right, more or less, but there’s no guarantee. That it is a moral (as opposed to legal or qualified) obligation indicates that it cannot be externally enforced. It depends on one’s own conscience and will. The onus may come from the job, but one takes it on as one’s own, first-person and singular: “I am obliged”. Ought-to-be is also oriented to the future. One’s liability is not discharged once and for all but is continuing, renewed from day to day, moment to moment.

Because you all work with people’s lives in complex, precarious, often high-stake situations, I think that family mediation may be one of these professions. Beyond the theory and skills of your profession, the work also calls for your wisdom, sensitivity and discernment. Yes? [Heads nod, plus two thumbs up from a man at the back.]

We don’t speak much about wisdom these days. It seems old-fashioned, like they don’t make it anymore. Or maybe there are a few wise people around ­– but it certainly isn’t us! I think that’s wrong and I think it is dangerous. In my view, when we lose faith with our essential human capacity for wisdom, goodness and sanity, we look for purely technical or administrative solutions to our problems. (Or, heaven help us, we vest our confidence in some saviour or demagogue.) This is clearly not good enough, and it’s clearly not working. And it is not necessary.

So let’s talk about wisdom. It is, after all, the core business of philosophy.

What we talk about when we talk about wisdom

Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics (350 BCE), distinguished three types of knowing: “states by virtue of which the soul possesses truth by way of affirmation or denial”.[i]

The first is epistêmê: abstract scientific knowing, as in physics and mathematics. Unlike opinion or common belief, it deals with justified knowledge based on general analytical rationality. It is universal, invariable and context-independent. Take gravity, for instance. We can work with it, but we don’t hold an opinion or need to deliberate about it. There it is, as it is, regardless of us or any passing circumstance.

The second type of knowing is technê, which survives into English as technology, technique and all the other tech- words that refer to skills, arts and crafts: “the set of principles, or rational method, involved in the production of an object or the accomplishment of an end”. Aristotle’s examples were boatbuilding and medicine. Based on practical instrumental rationality and governed by a conscious goal, this kind of knowing is knowing-how: pragmatic, variable, context-dependent and productive.

The third type of knowing is the one we’re looking for: phrónēsis, or practical wisdom. Aristotle identified it with the fields of ethics and politics. There is no modern English word from phronesis, but the Romans translated it into Latin as prudentia, which gives us “prudence”, as in jurisprudence. Prudence suggests sagacity, common sense, judiciousness and good judgement, as well as cautiousness, foresight, shrewdness, discretion and thrift.

Practical wisdom is deliberation about values with reference to praxis (which means practice as distinguished from abstract theory). Like technê, practical wisdom is pragmatic, variable and context-dependent. Unlike technê, it is directed towards action rather than production. As practical value-rationality, it guides us to right conduct. It informs our response on the spur of the moment, when we can’t rely on blueprints or laws. When we make fresh judgements that become precedents. It is a full-bodied, full-presence kind of knowing. Mind and heart and hand altogether at once.

Cultivating wisdom

People like you, whose work creates a “greater stress on moral sensitivity”, as Havel put it, need knowledge and skills and the practical wisdom to use them well. Like other professions, you have to keep up with legal and institutional frameworks as well as shifts in theory and practice. But how are you supposed to wise up? Workshops? Mentorship? I imagine it’s haphazard at best.

If you think about it, that’s pretty weird. Every culture worth its salt has its own ways with wisdom, which is generally known as its philosophy. Africa, for example, is home to many so-called “sage philosophies” developed and passed on by wise elders, often with the use of proverbs. Buddhism has a whole array of practices for working with the mind. Ancient Greek philosophical schools developed practices based on their different beliefs about what makes for a good human life. The spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola are an example from the Christian tradition. Similar contemporary philosophical concerns are Michel Foucault’s “care of the self” and Pierre Hadot’s “philosophy as a way of life”. These wisdom practices include meditation, contemplation, reading, writing and conversation, often with associated physical training.

All of these practices stress two elements. First, the importance of daily ongoing practice, personal dedication and discipline, of making it “a way of life”. The second is a community of practice. You have to do it yourself, yes, but you can’t do it by yourself. On the one hand, one can’t learn to think for oneself without access to other people’s thinking. On the other, we are social beings, interrelated and interdependent. We become persons through other persons. It is not easy (maybe that’s a third common element). In this vein, for example, I think of Pema Chödrön’s discussion of a Buddhist confession practice:

To see clearly how we strengthen or weaken crippling patterns, we have to bring them to light. It’s like getting ready for bed at night: we easily remove our clothes in a room by ourselves, but the presence of another person heightens our awareness. The role of others… is simply to hear us out, without judging or needing to fix us. In this way, confession overcomes ignorance or lack of self-reflection.

We have access to these traditions if we only search them out. We can draw on them here today to develop communities of practice that suit our own needs and circumstances. In the cultivation of wisdom, it’s true: where there is a will, there is a way.

Now that I have hopefully encouraged you to take up the quest for wisdom, let me close with a bit of cautionary advice from the ancient Chinese sage, Confucius, who tells us,

There are three methods to gaining wisdom. The first is reflection, which is the highest. The second is imitation, which is the easiest. The third is experience, which is the bitterest.



[i] This section draws from Amalia Pedemonte’s helpful “Aristotle’s Three Types of Knowledge in the Nicomachean Ethics”, available here.



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