Study Guide

The Nicomachean Ethics Wisdom and Knowledge

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Wisdom and Knowledge

Spoiler alert: Aristotle thinks that wisdom is the virtue that leads to ultimate human happiness. There. We've said it.

As an intellectual virtue, wisdom almost has it all. Aristotle defines it in his Nicomachean Ethics as the acquisition of "scientific knowledge" ("things that do not admit to being otherwise") and is quite different from another intellectual virtue: prudence.

Prudence doesn't require knowledge, but is a kind of intellectual property. It uses experience in order to help us deliberate and make good choices. While wisdom is the superior of the two, prudence will help us keep the lights on and move up in the world (since it is concerned with action). Wisdom, though noble, is useless in this respect.

And yet Aristotle says that wisdom makes us god-like and leads us to the activity that will make us most happy in life (i.e. contemplation). That's because wisdom makes us a "knower," which gives us the freedom to act well and to choose our course of action consciously. Without this, we're basically enslaved to our desires, which is no fun at all.

Questions About Wisdom and Knowledge

  1. What is wisdom, according to Aristotle? Why does it rank so highly in his book?
  2. What is the difference between wisdom and prudence? Between wisdom and intellect?
  3. Why is being a "knower" such a valuable thing?
  4. In what ways is a wise person in control of or able to achieve his own happiness? In what ways does this fall beyond his capacity?

Chew on This

A wise person may not be able to act in favor of his own happiness, but he's concerned with the things that will make society as a whole a better place to live.

A prudent person is actually superior to a wise person.

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