Practical Wisdom: The Master Virtue

A practical wisdom is a course of action that leads to the best possible outcome for any given situation. Wisdom, by contrast, is more abstract and less likely to lead you towards an optimal result in your life. There are plenty of virtues that can be considered similar or complementary to wisdom — like courage, creativity and cunningness.

“Practical wisdom is also known as” “the master virtue.”. It is often associated with the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who was a student of Plato. Read more in detail here: practical wisdom is also known as.

A labor with pencil on this ear.

We’ve chosen to reprint a vintage essay each Friday to assist our younger readers discover some of the greatest, evergreen jewels from the past, with our archives currently totaling over 3,500 items. The original version of this essay was published in December 2011.

Christopher Ratte and his seven-year-old son went to a Detroit Tigers game together in 2008. Ratte bought a beer for himself and a Mike’s Hard Lemonade for his kid at the concession counter, thinking that it was an alcoholic beverage. When a security officer saw Ratte’s youngster nursing the poisoned beverage bottle, he took it away from him and transported the child to the stadium’s medical facility. The clinic summoned an ambulance, and the youngster was taken to the hospital’s emergency department. Doctors in the ER determined that he had no traces of alcohol in his system and were ready to return him to his father.

The cops, on the other hand, had different ideas. The police were compelled by process to turn the youngster over to the county’s child protective services. Many of the cops despised having to do it, but regulations must be followed. Even though the case agents didn’t think it was the correct thing to do, county authorities placed the youngster in a foster home for three days because they had to follow process. The youngster may then be freed from foster care and returned to his mother’s custody if Ratte moved out of the residence, according to the judge. Again, the judge was only following process when he made his decision. Father and kid were reunited after two weeks apart.

The police, county officials, and even the court all agreed that what this family went through was not an act of justice because of a father’s honest mistake. But they couldn’t do anything since their hands were shackled.

People are often offended when they hear tales like this one. When incidents like these happen, it seems that something is wrong with society – and there is. The reason may be traced back to the elimination of a characteristic known as the “master virtue” by the ancients, which was seen to be essential for the health of both society and individual men’s lives. This master virtue, which they named phronesis, has played a critical part in all thriving societies throughout history, and is perhaps more required today than ever. 

What Is Phronesis and How Does It Work?

The ancient Greek philosophers spent a lot of time in their togas going about contemplating the nature of things, particularly the nature of virtue. Take, for example, Socrates. Socrates felt that the goal of man’s existence was to find sophia, or wisdom. Obtaining sophia, according to Socrates and his disciple Plato, provided a man with a broad grasp of the essence of virtue. And once a guy comprehended each of the virtues, he would naturally practice them. For instance, if a guy comprehended the actual essence of justice, he would be just by default. As a result, being a man of virtue was an exercise in abstract thinking for Socrates and Plato.


Aristotle, Plato’s disciple, didn’t agree with the concept of reasoning one’s way to a good existence. While he agreed with his master that studying the essence of virtue in abstract terms was required for achieving virtue, he did not feel it was sufficient. Virtuous life, according to Aristotle, necessitated a distinct sort of knowledge, one that was more specific and practical than sophia’s abstract, ethereal, and universal understanding. This kind of insight was dubbed phronesis by Aristotle. 

Phronesis has been translated in a variety of ways, the most frequent of which is “prudence.” However, my favorite version is “practical knowledge.” What is the definition of practical wisdom? Let’s have a look at what Aristotle said in his Nicomachean Ethics:

Practical wisdom is a genuine quality that is linked to action, supported by logic, and concerned with what is good and harmful for a person.

Practical knowledge is concerned not only with the universals, but also with the particulars: it is intertwined with action, and action is concerned with the particulars.

Practical knowledge is concerned with human matters and those about which it is feasible to reason.

He who [possesses practical knowledge] is capable of calculating and striving for what is optimal for a human being in things achievable via action.

Situations and events that are unique. Deliberation. Action. This is the stuff of common sense. It’s down to business. In some ways, phronesis symbolizes street smarts, whereas Sophia represents book smarts. You have the knowledge, but can you put it to good use?

The Master Virtue of Practical Wisdom

For when the one virtue, practical knowledge, is there, all the virtues will be present. —Aristotle

To summarize, Aristotle felt that in order to become a good man, you required phronesis, or practical knowledge, in addition to sophia, or abstract understanding.

But why did he believe that phronesis was necessary? After all, isn’t virtue good in and of itself? What could possibly go wrong if you want to be virtuous?

However, if not used effectively, any virtue may quickly become a flaw. Miserliness may result from frugality. Prudence may develop from chastity. Self-reliance might deteriorate into arrogant obstinacy.

Being virtuous, according to Aristotle, means avoiding these extremes by walking the line between two vices: not applying a virtue enough and applying it too much. This discovery was dubbed the “mean” of a virtue by him. Courage, for example, is the middle ground between cowardice and recklessness. The middle ground between fickleness and mindless obedience is loyalty. The middle ground between spinelessness and obstinacy is resolution. etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc.,

Of course, it’s easier said than done to strike this balance! This is because the road between the virtues isn’t constantly in the same location – depending on the circumstances, it might be closer to one extreme of the spectrum or the other. Thus, for the man seeking virtue, the problem is to calculate the correct route in a given scenario, which necessitates — you guessed it — practical knowledge. Practical wisdom, in the words of author John Bradshaw in his book Reclaiming Virtue, “is the capacity to do the right thing, at the right moment, for the right cause.”


Given Aristotle’s belief that practical knowledge was the modus operandi for making every correct choice, he considered it to be the virtue that enabled all the other virtues — the master virtue. The other virtues would be lived too much or too little without the right use of practical knowledge, and vices would result.

The importance and consequences of using practical knowledge aren’t as abstract as you would imagine. What should you do if your child returns home after curfew has passed? How would your attitude differ if she was late because of a party rather than losing track of time while chatting to a friend? What would you do if your squandering brother approached you and begged for money? What if he has three children to support? Should you get involved if you observe a crime being committed? How would you respond if it was a handbag snatching rather than a rape? How upset should you be at an employee who sunk a contract due to his negligence? Is it better to fire him or offer him a second chance?

Whether you’re a doctor trying to figure out the best course of treatment for a patient based on their unique circumstances, a teacher trying to figure out how to reach your students, or a father trying to do the best you can for your children, all of our daily decisions require practical wisdom as we seek to choose the best possible course of action in each set of circumstances.

Practical Intelligence’s Decline

Practical knowledge is derived from an individual’s freedom to choose the best course of action to pursue in a given scenario. 

As our society has become more complicated, specialized, and bureaucratic, the ability to consult one’s own conscience and apply practical knowledge has been progressively supplanted by dependence on externally imposed rules, regulations, and standardized penalties and rewards. However, as Chris Ratte’s example in the introduction demonstrates, depending on one-size-fits-all standards to make judgments rather than encouraging individuals to practice practical wisdom has resulted in a slew of unforeseen effects.

The role of context in human decision-making is diminished when we follow rigid rules. Rather than considering all of the facts of a specific situation, you just follow the rule, consequences be damned. Take, for example, certain schools’ zero-tolerance rules for firearms, which have resulted in kindergartners being dismissed for carrying a pocketknife to school. Instead of having the freedom to choose the appropriate penalty, principals are forced to follow a predetermined path.

Incentives may also deplete practical knowledge by causing individuals to do the wrong thing at the wrong time for the wrong reason. Take, for example, our healthcare system. According to Aristotle, a doctor’s telos is to make the patient well, and a doctor should utilize practical knowledge to decide the appropriate quantity of medication or surgery to accomplish this purpose. Instead than receiving a fixed income, some physicians are compensated extra for proposing more costly treatments, even if the patient does not need them. HMOs, on the other hand, compensate certain physicians for keeping their care costs down. As a result of the way our healthcare system is set up, physicians are encouraged to deliver either too much or too little care, rather than being rewarded for finding the middle ground and doing what is best for the patient.


Stultifying rules, laws, and incentives may stifle the application of practical knowledge not just in our businesses and professions, but also in our personal lives. Many of today’s young guys have parents who plan their life for them and make all of their choices for them. Then, when they’re on their own and must select their own path, they’re petrified by fear of making the incorrect decision. Because they haven’t had any experience establishing their own practical knowledge, they expect someone to tell them what to do.

Giving practical knowledge a prominent role in society institutions and individual lives does not imply eliminating all laws and regulations, which may serve as checks and firewalls in areas where phronesis hasn’t matured enough and can’t be depended on to work consistently. Rather, it’s the belief that the person enforcing the rules, as well as the people who are affected by the laws, should always have a fair level of discretion in how the rules are implemented.

What is the Purpose of Seeking Practical Wisdom?

Even in institutions and organizations with a lot of choice-limiting rules and regulations, you’ll frequently have to make judgments when the appropriate thing to do isn’t obvious. And after you leave home, no one will tell you what to do in your personal life, so it’s up to you to chart the best road between pragmatic and moral difficulties. As a result, your capacity to make judgments based on practical knowledge will have a significant impact on how your life turns out. 

Everything, according to Aristotle, has a telos, or ultimate goal or purpose. The achievement of this goal resulted in arete, or excellence. Eudaimonia, or happiness or flourishing — a life lived to its fullest potential — was the telos of human beings.

Decisions made with practical insight pave the way to eudaimonia. The better judgments you make, the farther you’ll advance, the more of your potential you’ll tap into, and the more your life will blossom. Practical knowledge, in a nutshell, is the way to genuine pleasure and distinction.

Practical Wisdom’s Essential Ingredients

Aristotle sets forth the talents and traits that a person must cultivate in order to become practically intelligent in Book 6 of the Nicomachean Ethics. Practical knowledge, according to Aristotle, necessitates the following:

Knowing a role’s or objective’s telos. While everyone possesses the generic telos of eudaimonia, each person also has a telos specific to his or her life duties. A teacher’s telos is to assist pupils learn and improve their brains to the best of his abilities. A janitor’s telos is to clean a building to the best of his ability. A father’s telos is to raise his children to be the best they can be. You’ll never attain your goal if you don’t know what it is.

Perception. Remember that Aristotle’s practical knowledge is concerned with specific circumstances. We must be able to see and comprehend the conditions in order to know how to respond in a given scenario. What exactly are the circumstances in this case? What’s the backstory on this place? What are the opinions of others on the subject?


A well-informed mind. Many people believe that Aristotle’s practical wisdom is some kind of subjective moral relativism in which there is no ultimate good or wrong. The opposite could not be farther from the truth. In order to be practically intelligent, Aristotle felt that a grasp of ultimate truth was required. While we practice practical knowledge, absolute truths serve as limits for us. Understanding absolutes requires a well-informed mind. By examining the essence of every virtue and vice, we enlighten our brain of these absolutes. We need the sophia that Socrates and Plato spent their lives seeking in order to be practical smart.

Experience. “Practical knowledge is also of particulars, which come to be understood as a consequence of experience, but a young person is inexperienced: a lengthy period of time generates experience,” Aristotle writes in the Nicomachean Ethics. Practical knowledge, according to Aristotle, could only be obtained via experience. He compared practical knowledge to a trade like carpentry or masonry on many occasions. You can’t expect to become a master carpenter by reading a book on carpentry. To achieve that, you’ll need to go inside a shop and start working with tools and wood. So it is with common sense. The more judgments you make, the more you experience, and the more you learn from your experiences, the more practical wisdom you get. Enrollment at the school of hard knocks is required for a practical wisdom degree.

Skills in deliberation. “The individual competent in debating would in general also be practically intelligent,” according to Aristotle. Deliberation is at the core of practical knowledge. Practical knowledge necessitates deliberation with oneself on the appropriate course of action in a specific scenario. We consider both sides of an argument. We look at the most important elements. We pay attention to our inner selves. Deliberation is a talent that we improve as we get more experience.

Action. Aristotle believes that all the logic and careful thought in the world is worthless if you don’t act. Aristotle often emphasizes in the Nicomachean Ethics that “practical knowledge is linked up with action.” It’s not enough to know what the prudent course of action is; you must also take action.

Thomas Aquinas, a Catholic philosopher and theologian, agreed with Aristotle that practical knowledge was a necessary attribute for human development. He expanded on Aristotle’s list of important abilities and traits for practical knowledge in Question 49 of his Summa Theologica, adding his own, such as humility, shrewdness, and circumspection.

Creating a Culture of Practical Wisdom in Your Life

Learning critical thinking skills, clarifying your objectives and fundamental beliefs, growing your intelligence, and constantly making sure to comprehend the conditions of a situation as much as possible before making a choice are all things you can do to create your own practical wisdom.

However, experience is the most important factor.

I receive a lot of messages from males asking, “What should I major in in college?” and other such inquiries. “Should I get a medical degree?” “Should I join the military?” you may wonder. They’re unsure which course to pursue. I wish I could advise them which path to choose, but I don’t have the knowledge to know what is best for these guys. While seeking guidance and researching your alternatives is beneficial, you must ultimately jump in and see how things go. It’s a Catch-22 situation: you want to know what to do, but you can’t know what to do until you’ve tried it. In order to gain practical knowledge, you must fail and make errors.


Is it bad that I had to go to three years of law school to become a blogger, for example? Both yes and no. That was necessary for me to go through it in order to figure out what I really wanted to achieve, and it was not without its advantages. So what I try to tell males is this: don’t worry about whether or not joining the military or majoring in X or whatever is the correct decision for you, since anything that offers you life experience is never wholly negative, even if you later realize it’s not something you want to do forever. Don’t be frightened to make blunders! Simply get up and do something! Start along the route and give it your all; if you decide you need to alter course after that, that’s OK; as long as you learn from the experience, you’ve contributed to your stock of practical knowledge. Your calculations will be more exact the next time you set course, taking you closer to your telos. The more judgments you make, the more practical knowledge you gather, the better and better your decisions become, and the closer you go to actual human flourishing.

Listen to my podcast on practical wisdom with Barry Schwartz:


Listen to my podcast on practical wisdom with Barry Schwartz:


Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharp’s Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing

John Bradshaw’s Reclaiming Virtue

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics



The “practical wisdom definition and example” is a master virtue that is used in the field of survival. This virtue is defined as having knowledge of what will work and what won’t. It also includes having practical wisdom, which means being able to apply this knowledge in any given situation.

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