Reflections on Wisdom and Politics



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Reflections on Wisdom and Politics

Walter G. Moss

Copyright © 2012 by Walter G. Moss
TABLE OF CONTENTS (with links)

The Goal of Politics 3

Practical Wisdom, Virtues, and Values 6

Realism, Idealism, Truth, and Hope 7

Love, Compassion, and Empathy 9

Humility 10

Tolerance and Compromise 13

Humor and Creativity 17

Temperance and Self-discipline 21

Passion and Courage 21

Justice and Freedom 24

Exercising Political Wisdom 26

Conclusion 32


Reflections on Wisdom and Politics


The subject of political wisdom is so complex that nothing less than years of study and at least a book-length work would do it justice. But a Google Search (in late 2011) of the subject turned up mainly links to quotes from people like Mark Twain or Edmund Burke, partisan blogs, or pieces that did not display much wisdom. So, perhaps the preliminary reflections presented here will prove useful. They will be concerned primarily with the exercise of such wisdom in the United States, though they may well also apply to other democratic countries in our globalized world. In a companion essay, “Barack Obama and Political Wisdom,” I will soon furnish a specific “case study” of the more general points made in this present effort.

To begin with, however, we need to examine ideas regarding political wisdom from past thinkers beginning with Aristotle. This ancient Greek philosopher wrote on both wisdom and politics, and what he had to say is still useful. He believed that a political leader should devote himself to exercising practical wisdom (phronesis) or prudence—more on this concept later—but he also believed that the goal of politics should be to help people lead as good a life as possible.



The Goal of Politics

Aristotle thought that the happiness or wellbeing (eudaimonia) of society, what we might label the common good, should be the aim of politics.1 “Everything that we choose we choose for the sake of something else—except happiness, which is an end.” But he did not define happiness as some might today—gaining more wealth, fame, or pleasure—for they were insufficient. True happiness necessitated living according to reason and being virtuous, which, although pleasant, is “also good and noble.” Therefore, “the true student of politics, too, is thought to have studied virtue above all things.” Aristotle divided virtues into two categories, intellectual and moral (or ethical). Of the first type, he lists five: art, scientific knowledge, practical wisdom, philosophic wisdom, and intuitive reason. Among the moral virtues he identifies or suggests are courage, temperance, justice, self-discipline, moderation, gentleness, modesty, humility, generosity, friendliness, truthfulness, humor, and honesty. But to exercise them properly wisdom was necessary.2

Following Aristotle, some political thinkers continued emphasizing that political leaders should seek to be wise, but stressed other goals such as maintaining power. Machiavelli is perhaps the best example. In his Renaissance book of advice, The Prince, he frequently stresses how a prince should act if he wishes to rule wisely—for example, “a wise prince ought to adopt such a course that his citizens will always in every sort and kind of circumstance have need of the state and of him, and then he will always find them faithful.”3 But the main goal is gaining and retaining power and not the common good.

The twentieth-century French philosopher Jacques Maritain, who followed in the tradition of Aristotle and his chief medieval Christian admirer, St. Thomas Aquinas, criticized Machiavelli extensively for this approach. He wrote:


For Machiavelli the end of politics is power’s conquest and maintenance. . . . On the contrary, according to the nature of things, the end of politics is the common good of a united people. . . . This common good consists of the good life—that is, a life conformable to the essential exigencies and the essential dignity of human nature, a life both morally straight and happy—of the social whole as such, of the gathered multitude, in such a way that the increasing treasure and heritage of communicable good things involved in this good life of the whole be in some way spilled over and redistributed to each individual part of the community. . . . Justice and civic friendship are its cement. Bad faith, perfidy, lying, cruelty, assassination, and all other procedures of this kind which may occasionally appear useful to the power of the ruling clique or to the prosperity of the state, are in themselves . . . injurious to the common good and tend by themselves toward its corruption.4
Maritain believed that Machiavelli “thoroughly rejected ethics, metaphysics and theology from the realm of political knowledge and political prudence.”5

Although Machiavelli saw no contradiction between a quest for power and ruling wisely, historian Barbara W. Tuchman thought that one of the main reasons for political folly, the opposite of wisdom, was the “lust for power.”6 What Machiavelli’s political thought and the comments of Maritain and Tuchman demonstrate is the importance for politics of the goal or goals that rulers and people set out to achieve. In our own Declaration of Independence, our Founding Fathers declared that people had the “rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” A recent essay on this passage, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, suggests it was influenced by words from the English political theorist John Locke, who himself was influenced by classical thinkers like Aristotle. What Locke and Jefferson had in mind by happiness was similar to what Aristotle had meant by it. As Jefferson wrote in a later letter, “Happiness [is] the aim of life. Virtue [is] the foundation of happiness.”7


As Aristotle and Jefferson realized, it is important how we think about happiness. The Russian novelist and moralist Leo Tolstoy thought about it often, and in the mid 1880s he noted that purchasing goods did not lead to happiness and that something much more was required.
To-day we must buy an overcoat and galoshes, to-morrow, a watch and chain; the next day we must install ourselves in an apartment with a sofa and a bronze lamp; then we must have carpets and velvet gowns; then a house, horses and carriages, paintings and decorations, and then—then we fall ill of overwork and die. Another continues the same task, sacrifices his life to this same Moloch, and then dies also, without realizing for what he has lived. . . .

. . . One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be severed, that is, that he shall be able to see the sky above him, and that he shall be able to enjoy the sunshine, the pure air, the fields with their verdure, their multitudinous life. Men have always regarded it as a great unhappiness to be deprived of all these things. . . .

Another inevitable condition of happiness is work: first, the intellectual labor that one is free to choose and loves; secondly, the exercise of physical power that brings a good appetite and tranquil and profound sleep. . . .

The third undoubted condition of happiness is the family. . .

The fourth condition of happiness is sympathetic and unrestricted interaction with all classes of men. . . .

Finally, the fifth condition of happiness is bodily health.8


Despite the earlier thinking of many philosophers and religious thinkers, throughout the twentieth century many governments seemed to equate increasing the production of goods and services, as measured by increases in GNP or GDP, with increasing happiness. More recently, however, criticism of such an assumption has heightened.

A 2002 study used by the British government found that although people in faster growing economies were generally happier than those in more stagnant ones, “the relationship between economic growth and changes in life satisfaction appears weak—and certainly much weaker than would have been expected on the basis of cross-national association between GDP per capita and average life satisfaction.” That same study concluded that people “tend to overestimate the pleasure that they will derive from a given purchase. . . . Similarly, evidence indicates that people tend to overestimate the importance of income for their wellbeing.” An annex to this work refers to various alternate wellbeing indices, many of them reflecting an attempt to consider environmental and other factors often ignored in measuring GNP or GDP. These indices indicate two important points: 1) that measuring economic growth by such measures as increases in GDP is by itself an inadequate tool to measure overall progress, and 2) when factoring in environmental and other changes, some countries that displayed considerable GDP growth actually regressed in overall wellbeing.9

Although most people might agree that the goal of politics should be to increase the common good or “overall wellbeing”—and not as Machiavelli indicated to obtain and retain power—the problem, of course, is that people define the common good very differently. And even if they agree on a condition necessary for it, for example freedom, they might disagree vehemently on what that condition means.10

In mentioning such disagreements we come to the question of judgment, and this leads us back to wisdom. One of the most prominent contemporary wisdom researchers, Robert Sternberg, states that “Wisdom is . . . the application of successful intelligence and creativity as mediated by values toward the achievement of a common good. . . . [It] is not just about maximizing one’s own or someone else’s self-interest, but about balancing various self-interests (intrapersonal) with the interests of others (interpersonal) and of other aspects of the context in which one lives (extrapersonal), such as one’s city or country or environment or even God.” Thus, he refers to his “balance theory of wisdom.”11


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