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Posts from — May 2016

Practical Wisdom

Practical Wisdom

The ancient Greeks recognized that, while pure wisdom (sophia) is exclusive to the gods, we humans can achieve a practical wisdom they called phronesis, which involves discerning the appropriate response in any situation, bringing the force of one’s character to bear for the greater good, encouraging others to virtuous action, and so on. Those who pick their battles demonstrate phronesis, as do those who make skillful compromises. Cultivating phronesis allows us to live a life of beauty and excellence, so that our being-here becomes not unlike a work of art.

One good example of phronesis is this business of picking one’s battles, because the ability to do this presupposes a certain self-overcoming or self-possession. Picking our battles implies choice under fire—that is, the clarity that allows us to act deliberately rather than by default, to respond rather than react, and this requires that we gain a certain mastery over the more prevalent tendency to react, which is often destructive. One fascinating thing about this is the immediate impact it has on the world and others. Racing into battle in the heat of reaction tends to escalate conflict, whereas remaining cool and reasonable have a mitigating effect. This appears to be the point Lao Tze makes in the Tao Te Ching in the statement: “The sage cannot be beaten because he does not contend.” Phronesis is, in this case, disarming. It “stops thing when they’re small,” as Lao Tze puts it, and therein lies the art of it. One doesn’t need to dodge bullets that were never fired.

Think of road rage. In most cases that cross the line into tragedy, we can imagine something like an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. There is usually an opening, however brief, to disengage, to “lose” in the confrontation and by losing, to skillfully prevent the thing from becoming something far worse. For those lacking in phronesis, disengagement is difficult if not impossible in practical terms. Ego presses us on, into meaningless violence, past points of no return. But ego and phronesis do not speak the same language, any more than do foolishness and wisdom.

Disengaging when confronted with belligerence turns out to be a wise thing to do for many reasons. Belligerence, for one thing, is the favorite posture of fear. The bully, for all the pain he inflicts on others, is a scared child. It is almost always the victim who victimizes. While reaction might insist that we condemn and retaliate in the face of belligerent behavior, phronesis prompts us to respond with understanding and compassion. In that wiser choice, we dodge the bullet that, if it struck us, might make us a victim, too, in a vicious cycle that can end only in the self-overcoming of phronesis. So are we saved by the cultivation of our character, and our example may well serve to save others.

On the path of phronesis, we do not shrink from those tests of character that can appear without warning. Indeed, we welcome then, since they show us where we stand, and where further self-work is needed. It helps to remember to breathe, to slow down, to take a step back. Living deliberately is challenging, but the self-overcoming that allows us to live beautifully and well is the foundation of meeting and overcoming all other challenges. We are wise to take it up with a willing spirit, and without delay.

May 30, 2016   Comments Off on Practical Wisdom