Practical Wisdom? (2)

I understand that since it is holy week I should probably be pulling together some reflections on these events which are crucial to the Christian faith.  I suspect many Christian bloggers are doing just that this week.  I, on the other hand, would like to write about Aristotle.  At least initially, Aristotle will figure large in this posting.

Earlier today, my lovely wife and I led a discussion on the second chapter of Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe’s book Practical Wisdom: the Right Way to Do the Right Thing (New York: Riverhead Books, 2010).  The authors both teach at Swarthmore College, which was founded by the Religious Society of Friends in 1860; and, therefore, I suppose I was predisposed to “like” the book before I even cracked it open.  [Speaking of Swarthmore College, supposedly the main dining hall looks a lot like the dining hall at Hogwarts…or so my eldest son recently told me.]  Anyway, Schwartz and Sharpe point out that many, many Americans, both professionals and clients, are dissatisfied with the way our institutions works.  It would seem that, according to the writers, professionals are urged forward by either the goad of administrative oversight and enforcement of rules, commonly known as “the stick”, or teased into better performance by incentives, commonly known as “the carrot.”  However, as our authorial friends (“f” not “F” which would suggest they are Quakers) note: “…rules and incentives are not enough.  They leave out something essential.  This book is about what that ‘something’ is.  It is what classical philosopher Aristotle called practical wisdom.” (5)

Aristotle, according to S&S, believed our most basic social practices were always forcing us to make choices.  For example, how can one be loyal to a friend and still tell him his new hair cut isn’t actually “working” for him.  You need practical wisdom and not mere abstract ethical reasoning to figure out how to do that.  If you followed abstract ethical reasoning like “never tell a lie” that poor guy might start weeping and wailing publically and curled up like an armadillo in a corner when you say, “Well, Bill it looks like two rats just fought to the death over a piece of cheese in your hair.”  No, you need wisdom to respond appropriately when Bill, totally unaware that his barber is legally blind, asks, “How does my hair look?  Do you like the new style?”  Aristotle believed that particular circumstances demanded a specific approach, i.e. wisdom, to making these life choices.  As S&S write, “The wisdom to answer such questions and to act rightly was distinctly practical, not theoretical.  It depended on our ability to perceive the situation, to have the appropriate feelings or desires about it, to deliberate about what was appropriate in these circumstances, and to act.” (5)  Ultimately, one needs a particular character or characteristics to be ethical.  These include, but are not limited to, loyalty, self-control, fairness, generosity gentleness and truthfulness.  In the final analysis, Aristotle was really interested in “virtue(s)”.

These virtues aren’t free floating unconnected commitments.  One doesn’t automatically “act wisely” once they develop a particular level of truthfulness or gentleness.  Sometimes an individual virtue conflicts with other virtues.  Back to Bill and his hair cut.  Bill’s friend, who is very truthful, might make that wisecrack about the rat death match.  But hopefully his friend has also developed the virtue of gentleness.  And there is the dilemma.  What to do now!?  Truth or gentleness or another option.  Aristotle argued the solution is the framework within which we live.  We must be guided by “proper aims or goals” or, as Aristotle said, telos. (7) Our ultimate responses to life are to be guided by the goals we hope to achieve or the ends for which we are striving.  If you are a doctor your goal is to heal patients; and, therefore, your practical wisdom will help you arrive at the correct action in a given instances.  You are not driven by rules or thrust forward by incentives.  You do the right thing because it helps you achieve your telos or goal of healing a patient.

Again, we turn back to Bill’s haircut.  You know Bill considers you his best friend on earth, and as that special person, Bill has told you of his undying affection for Mary, the captain of the women’s lacrosse team.  In fact, you know he went to get that trendy, but insanely ridiculous, hair cut hoping to catch her eye and perhaps, just perhaps, win her affection.  You know that your ultimate goal is to be the best friend you can be to Bill.  Now what will you do, given that telos?  Maybe, you will say, “Bill, old buddy, do you think a competitive lacrosse player will be impressed by that amazingly complex hair cut?  Lacrosse players strike me as people who are straight forward, drive to the goal and score kinda people.  I think she may be really confused by the dense layer of goop you are using to spike your hair.  And dying it the school colors might work IF our school colors were anything other than crimson and yellow.  I think you may want to go back and get a Justin Bieber cut.”  Okay, a real friend wouldn’t say Justin Bieber, but he may suggest something along the lines Matt Damon or Ryan Gosling.  You have just told the truth with gentleness and gone a long way to sealing the deal that Bill will be your friend for life because you cared for him and saved him some serious social embarrassment.  And that is a worthy goal.

Schwartz and Sharpe have written a very engaging text; however, ultimately it falls short of what it could be.  I am specifically thinking that their Aristotelian suggestions are great for society at large, but I am guessing most of the people reading this have made another commitment other than a generic commitment to the greatest social good.  I suspect most of us identify the kingdom of God as the greatest social good.  In his 2010 text, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, N.T. Wright (in the blog rules, I warned you this would happen, look it up in a previous posting) spends sometime writing about Aristotle’s ethic and comparing it to Jesus and the early Church’s understanding.  The Christian goal or telos is the kingdom of God which was begun in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  Ultimately, that kingdom will come in its fullness when the New Heaven and New Earth appear.  In the mean time believers are called to be priests and rulers with Christ, as we anticipate the kingdom’s full arrival.  As we wait and anticipate that day, we are being transformed…particularly our minds which are to focus on the goal of the kingdom.  This mental transformation leads to the development of three virtues: faith, hope, and love (1 Cor. 13).  These, in turn, result in nine varieties of fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23.  Note that Paul implies that without these one can’t inherit the kingdom of God…Gal. 5:21.  Also, I can’t recall how love gets mentioned twice other than the fact that it is REALLY important).  Our transformed minds, virtues and fruits facilitate and embody our work as priests or intercessors between God and Creation.  We live virtuously as witnesses to God’s greatness and coming rule.  Our virtues are signposts pointing to where we are ultimately heading.  Christian character matters because it is a witness to where God is taking us and is evidence we are being transformed.

And to think: all this began with God coming to us in the person of Jesus, who lived a virtuous life, died a victorious death, and was raised in glory!

[BTW, while I wrote this I was listening to U2 “The Best of 1980-1990” where, on track number 12, B.B. King “schools” the Irish kids regarding passionate music-making.]

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Author: jaymcdermond

Hmmmm. Let's see. How about a string of descriptors: Christian, husband, father of two sons, father-in-law, retired (after 29 years) college prof, wrote one book--a commentary, lived in the UK for six years, rides a Vespa, and loves Newcastle United Football Club.

10 thoughts on “Practical Wisdom? (2)”

  1. Jay! Its great to see you blogging. I have on multiple occasions gotten the itch, but have never stuck with it for very long. Thanks for this post – I’m reading Lewis Smedes’ reflection on 1 Cor. 13 right now (Love Within Limits) and he sums up “it is not boastful, it is not arrogant, it is not rude” by saying “Love has poise.” He doesn’t bring up Aristotle in the following discussion, but I’m sure his influence is present because Smedes goes on to talk about the same sort of struggles you mentioned (you know, your basic rat death match sort of issues). Love, he says, doesn’t do much good if it can’t be communicated properly. Love needs (and true, agapic love is marked by) poise, which as Smedes describes it sounds a lot like the practical wisdom you’re discussing. This is indeed something worth pondering ESPECIALLY given the fact that you bring the kingdom into (and I also always love me some good ol’ N.T. Wright!) I look forward to seeing what you do with the place Jay. God bless!

  2. I’ve missed you. I’ve missed learning. I will now re-evaluate my place in life before going to give a lecture on Erikson and middle adulthood- how ironic.

  3. Great Post, I wonder though, in regards to your last paragraph, what are your thoughts on the idea that there is only one “Fruit” of the spirit, rather than 9 “varieties” I heard a pastor mention this recently, and it jumped into my mind as I read your post.
    -Andrew

    1. Isn’t that kinda being “picky”? Variety still means “different” at some level. I guess I’d rather have the fruits or fruit with variety than get miss led discussing the subject in the abstract.

      1. I agree, I just find the idea compelling. Considering your statement that “Christian character matters because it is a witness to where God is taking us and is evidence we are being transformed.” The pastors point was that there is only one fruit, and it encompasses all of the items in the list. The argument could be made, that if you are deficient in one of the areas it detracts from the witness of the others. I suppose the counter point is that this view positions the fruit of the spirit as a destination rather then a process that the Holy Spirit takes us to.
        Basically, I didn’t intend to be “picky” except for wanting to “pick” your brain on the subject.

      2. Fair enough, Andrew. When I said the suggestion was “picky” I was referring to the pastor’s insight. The suggestion that “one missing variety” means we are deficient makes sense, since I suspect Paul was arguing we need all the varieties. But the harsh reality is that we don’t really develop all these traits in equal measure. Therefore, the suggestion there is only one fruit with multiple varieties might leave us open to the charge that we don’t have any “fruit” if the variety of, oh let’s pick one, kindness is weak or missing. That doesn’t seem accurate and VERY discouraging. Seeing them as distinct fruits, helps give us a sense that we are both moving forward (I am manifesting evidence of patience and joy), but also that I need to yield to the Spirit because my “kindness” is withering on the vine.

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