The history, in regard to the term Practical Wisdom is an interesting one that dates back to ancient Greece and the philosophers, Plato, Socrates and Aristotle.
Back in the day, somewhere between 384 BCE and 322 BCE; the life and times of Aristotle, these ancient Greek philosophers would hang out discussing the nature of existence and the meaning or purpose of life. In particular they discussed the nature of virtue and the notion of what was “right” and of “doing the right thing.”
Plato was a student of Socrates who believed that the purpose of life was to look for Sophia or wisdom; wisdom based on concepts or generalized thinking i.e. abstract thinking. Apparently Plato and his mentor Socrates believed that once attained Sophia gave mere mortals an insight into the nature of virtue.
Now rather than going into the years of debate between these guys and having to don our Togas let’s get to Aristotle,a student of Plato who thought otherwise than his mentor and Socrates. Aristotle believed that to live a virtuous life it was essential to have another kind of wisdom, a more practical, rather than an abstract or general kind of wisdom. Aristotle referred to this wisdom as phronesis.
A word from Ancient Greek, Phronesis is commonly translated as prudence however it is also translated as meaning a particular kind of wisdom or intelligence; “practical wisdom.” When one had practical wisdom, Aristotle believed that it was enough to be virtuous and to know what was “right.”
In today’s world, the use of the word “practical” side by side with “wisdom” may itself seem like an oxymoron as we so often associate wisdom with academia, knowledge or aspects of the mind wherein we tend to relate to practical as being more action, process or hands on orientated. Simply having knowledge or information of itself does not necessarily make it useful rather it is the appropriate application of the knowledge or information through experience that makes a person wise.
In simple terms we could say that “Practical Wisdom” is the hands on application of knowledge, experience and wisdom. You need experience to cultivate practical wisdom.
Experience is the key. Would you want to go on a flight with a pilot who had only ever read a manual and never flown an aircraft before?
The notion of what is right is still a popular topic of discussion in philosophy and somewhat of a debate when it comes down to modern day ethics and its application in everyday life. We face a challenge in modern day society as we have come to realize that “Doing the right thing” is a moral judgement and comes down to ethics that can differ between one religion and another or one culture and another.
A controversial example of this can be seen in regard to the use of physical means to discipline a child i.e. to smack or not to smack. In many households smacking a child is considered the “right” thing to do while in others parents are horrified at the mere thought of it.
Research, knowledge and experience have provided us with evidence for both sides of the debate with many of our society’s conundrums when it comes to “the right thing to do.” Does it make the decision any easier? Not necessarily however this is where experience comes in. Having been in the same situation repeatedly through time one would hope to have gained some wisdom as to the “right” course of action for the specific or unique circumstances.
Is it wise for a doctor to treat every patient with the same condition in exactly the same way? Yes, is the most common answer when it comes to something like a cardiac arrest. When a doctor is present and has checked the patient for responses, the go to action will be resuscitation CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and an electric shock to the heart if the equipment is available. Of course calling the emergency/ambulance line for that country i.e. Australia 000 and USA is 911. An experienced doctor will know that the sooner CPR is administered the patients chance of survival is increased considerably.
When dealing with less critical conditions, it would be important to consider the whole of a person’s life and the whole being not simply a set of symptoms. A doctor with considerable experience may come to realize that not all patients will respond to the same treatment or in the same way and in fact some patients may even be allergic to some of the usual medications prescribed for a specific condition.
In terms of experience being the key for practical wisdom, experience comes from doing something repeatedly, learning from mistakes, making critical decisions and honing your skills to be able to do the “right thing” under the circumstances in a specific situation.
An example of practical wisdom in action for me is that I know and understand from experience that life is not black and white. Simply because you see a situation in a certain way does not necessarily make it “right” for the other person. To be able to meet the needs of an individual or specific group you must be able to recognize another person’s perspective on life and their unique circumstances to be able to recommend and offer the optimal course of action for them.
If you have chosen to live your life in a more Blissful Way i.e. to aspire to live in the “the highest happiness”, or as Aristotle would have called it,
Eudaimonia; a Greek word meaning happiness,
then practical wisdom is for you. It is a path to realize more of your potential and create enriched happiness.