Nearly all of the Founding Fathers of the United States, with the notable exception of Ben Franklin who was sui generis and brilliant and in fact still serves my point despite not being what at the time was an “educated man,” looked to the Classics for practical wisdom. By practical wisdom, I mean neither technical guidance nor some philosophical ruminations deduced from axioms and postulates, but rather something harder to grasp: the wisdom that comes from dealing with the messiness of reality. They believed that by studying the political, historical, and philosophical works of antiquity light could be shed upon their own situation so that they could master it. Their purpose was not merely to understand history but to make it, to intervene in it. At its best, history gives us both who we are, where we have come from, and the tools we need to intervene in it.
When I was a confident youth, I believed exclusively in what might be called philosophical wisdom. I had this caricature in my head of Cicero who studied philosophy in his youth and thus was fit to rule in old age. I would commit my youth to the intellectual life and my adulthood to leadership, like Cicero. In fact, I knew nothing about Cicero. But I believed in the myth of Cicero and myth of the ideal Roman who worked in the fields all day, traveled late into town to debate politics, and returned home still later to eat a bowl of black gruel. I hoped that my study of philosophy would make me a great debater of affairs of state, someone who could cut the Gordian knot of any problem. And while it is true, so true, that philosophy does not cease rewarding those who study her, for indeed Aristotle was right to say that contemplation of true things is one of the finest pleasures of life, there was another part of Aristotle I had somehow missed.
In Book 6 of the Ethics, Aristotle makes a distinction between practical wisdom and philosophical wisdom. Philosophical wisdom is the search for truth, contemplation of it, and the enjoyment of ideas. Reading Isaac Newton’s Principia is an intoxicating Caribbean cruise for the philosophical mind. But philosophical wisdom is in some sense transcendent, our enjoyment of it is an intensely individual experience. The positive benefits of such study in other ways are far enough downstream from the study itself, that the person who partakes must primarily be motivated by a sense of wonder, not a sense of strict efficiency (though oftentimes the long way round is the only way!). This is why great scientists have to be free to think, science is not equivalent to engineering. Philosophy requires time and there is no law of the universe that all philosophical wisdom will have public utility. Practical wisdom on the other hand is directed more towards public utility. Aristotle describes it as the capacity to calculate and act with respect to the goods of human affairs. It is practical wisdom that discovers and implements better management strategies, drafts laws, improves processes for construction, discovers medicines, deploys a scientific discovery into an application, and secures the common good.
I have said before that classical civilization is the perfect sandbox for students to play around with the primary questions and concepts of civilization. The Greek and Roman world is of a manageable complexity, distant yet familiar, something we can both approach with impartiality and yet make our own. And more than this, understanding the rise and fall of the classical world teaches us valuable lessons about the hard work of building, preserving, and extending civilization. The early Americans fostered their own practical wisdom out of study of the classics, their own recent history, and personal experience with law and mercantilism. What will we find in the classics to help us today? There is always something.
Practical wisdom today in our western civilization needs both the wisdom of the classics and the wisdom of the present. Today’s world is a jewel many faceted and extremely complicated. How many of today’s problems are caused simply because the world is complex, and many people were not taught how to navigate it? Legibility is a form of progress. Building, preserving, and extending present civilization cannot happen without educators taking the herculean effort to get a grip on a globalized society and fill the gap between modern history and modern science with practical wisdom. This is work that has yet to be done. While it has been proposed that we need a new science of progress, another way to see the problem is that we need more people who can teach us both how to thrive amidst the complexity, maintain the fragile good things we have achieved, and build towards something better and higher. We need to teach people to deliberate well about what is good and expedient for themselves and society, not just with regard to health or wealth say, but about what sorts of thing conduce to the good life in general. This task is hard, and it is well past time to begin.
In old Ben Franklin’s jovial pithiness, “I find the best way to serve God is by serving my fellow man.” This sentiment of service from a newspaper printer whose contributions to civilizational progress included everything from a guide on how to swim, to roasting a turkey with electricity, to founding a fire brigade, a militia, and a library, and even hosting a Constitutional Convention.