Victor Nuovo: Theory and practice
Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of essays by Middlebury College Professor Emeritus Victor Nuovo on the origins of western political thought.
Among the topics that Aristotle treats in the Ethics are the intellectual virtues. They are capacities of mind that individuals must cultivate in order to become good citizens. Aristotle lists five of them: knowledge, art, prudence, wisdom and understanding. It is a curious combination of the practical and the theoretical, of theory and practice.
“Knowledge and art” are more or less equivalent to “science and technology.” Knowledge is the perception of how things are, of truth or reality. The term Aristotle uses is episteme. The philosophical discipline “epistemology” is an enquiry into the theory of knowledge; how we know anything, and the difference between knowledge and belief.
What Aristotle meant by this term is not occasional knowledge, such as how many toes there are on my foot, but a well-established kind of knowledge that is supported by evidence gathered from systematic observation and by precise definition — in short, science.
Counting, perhaps, is the most basic activity of science and provides the greatest certainty. It well illustrates what Aristotle meant by science. If I count the fingers on my hands and toes on my feet, I can say with certainty that I have exactly the same number of toes as fingers. And I can generalize, after systematic observation, that the same is true of human animals, which leads into observations about the regularities of nature, and more deeply into the causes of them and their statistical reliability.
Aristotle was not so very well versed in mathematics and statistics had not yet been invented, but he appreciated the utility of arithmetic as an example of the perfection of knowledge; and in his notion of a perfect science he anticipated Euclid, who rose to eminence not long after Aristotle’s death.
Knowledge involves a certainty of truth, of the way things are. I mentioned the distinction between knowledge and belief. What one knows is certain and true, whereas anyone’s beliefs may be false and therefore however ardently we may cling to them, they remain uncertain without conclusive evidence and which may never occur. It is essential to distinguish between them correctly. Needless to say, Aristotle would look askance at anyone who seemed content to be a person of faith.
Aristotle’s term for art is techne, whence our term technology. It signifies a refined practice whose purpose is to make useful things, things that benefit us in life and enhance the art of living. Success in this endeavor requires knowing how things are: the nature of the materials we employ and the conditions that apply in joining them together. The motto of the Dupont corporation, “better things for better living through chemistry,” captures this well enough.
Aristotle’s idea of art is much broader, however. It includes the art of speech, poetry, architecture, painting and sculpture, but in all these instances the method is generally the same. For him, the purpose of any practical art is social enhancement. He did not envision modern technology, but given his dislike of any excess, especially excess wealth, he probably would have been troubled by the great power technology has unleashed, exceeding the limits of prudent use.
Prudence—the Greek term is phronesis—is good sense or, as the term is often translated, practical wisdom in contrast to the theoretical sort, which I will get to shortly. It is an ability to decide as occasion requires what appears to be the best or most advantageous thing do to; it is good judgment, which depends upon experience and a willingness to learn from it. At its best, it is rational and deliberative, a careful weighing pro and con of various strategies and methods to achieve desired ends, and choosing what seems the best way to go.
The opposite of prudence is folly.
But prudence is never certain; it depends more on belief than knowledge. Here is the great divide between theory and practice. Good judgments often fail. So the bedrock principle of practical wisdom is that things can always go wrong, very wrong, as the poet Robert Burns put it when speaking to a mouse:
But Mousie, thou art no thy lane [you are not alone],
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley [often go awry],
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
In future ages, philosophers would come to regard prudence as the art of the probable and counsel that probability is the guide of life; but this is an idea that Aristotle lacked.
Although an empiricist, Aristotle preferred the theoretical sciences, and therefore his account of the intellectual virtues culminated in wisdom, which he equates with pure understanding. The Greek term he uses is nous or intellect. We use the term “intellection” to represent an ultimate state of knowledge whereby one understands something perfectly and completely. It is ultimate in the sense that no further enquiry is needed, because there is nothing more to know, all wrinkles have been ironed out, and the object of knowledge is there fully revealed before the gaze of the intellect. Since it is perfect knowledge, it is not only complete but also enduring and everlasting. What is left to the mind is the pleasure of contemplation.
It was this sort of intelligence that Aristotle supposed was the cause of existence, eternal and uncaused intellection of the whole of reality, whose perfection the physical world imitates, although never with complete success. He called this intellect the “unmoved mover” because it was a state that every being desires. The motivation to achieve it is what makes the world turn and activates everything within it.
In the light of this, Aristotle came to an understanding of what he took to be the whole of reality. The virtuous life, one of constant and diligent self-discipline and of deliberate action achieves its end in wisdom, understanding and in the contemplation of truth, which is sufficient compensation for all the uncertainties of everyday life. Centuries later, Spinoza would take all this in and shape it into a philosophical system.
But were they right? I conclude this essay with some questions. How far must we go in our understanding of the nature of things to be secure in our moral and political understanding? And must we be assured that by living morally and politically just lives, we will receive some transcendent reward? Must practical wisdom be merely preparatory to a supreme wisdom, or should we be satisfied with an ordinary life among mice and men?
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