How the Ancient Greek Principle of Phronesis Helps Us Develop Practical Wisdom in Daily Life
Sometimes, I wonder what it would be like to go back in time to ancient Greece.
The wisdom exhibited from the most notable of Greek philosophers — from which concepts (that are still in use today by positive psychologists) like Eudaimonia came from — is immense, to say the least.
And one important piece of that wisdom is in the Greek word and concept of phronesis and its similarities to modern mindfulness, the meditation craze that’s taken over schools and corporations throughout the United States and in parts of Europe over the past decade.
Practical wisdom is only to be learned in the school of experience. Precepts and instruction are useful so far as they go, but, without the discipline of real life, they remain of the nature of theory only.
– Samuel Smiles
According to ancient Greek texts, phronesis (φρόνησις or phronēsis in ancient Greek) is a form of practical wisdom. From Wikipedia:
An ability to discern how or why to act virtuously and encourage practical virtue, excellence of character, in others.
But why is this important? Why do we want this practical wisdom anyway? Many ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates believed that phronesis was the essence of what it means to be a good, reasonable, and wise person and this helps us move about our life in the most effective and meaningful way possible.
Such practical wisdom helps us deal with challenges more effectively, make better decisions when faced with conflict between others, and it helps us find meaning and purpose in daily life. Really, the applications are endless.
The only problem? Socrates goes on to explain that the practical wisdom that is phronesis can’t be taught and must instead be acquired by developing an understanding of ourselves and the world around us (as for the wisdom to be practical, it has to actually deal with ourselves and what we’re going through in daily life).
But we’re all living life. We’re all always learning new things, right? So we should be good on this…right?
Not quite. Let me explain why.
Why practical wisdom takes work to develop (and the phronesis-mindfulness connection)
The problem is, while we’re all living life, and have convinced ourselves that we’re learning as we go, we’re really not. Some of us are, but learning this practical wisdom from our experiences isn’t an automatic thing.
And if we are learning something, as some of us surely are, there’s so much more we could learn if we knew how to open ourselves up to the wisdom available to us in everyday life. When it comes down to it, most of us are only scratching the surface.
So then, what is the problem? How do we optimize our life in a way that allows us to tap into this wisdom and acquire more of it than we are now?
The problem is a lack of awareness.
To learn something is first to become aware of it. It’s a major reason why people do bad things and is considered one of the three “poisons” of Buddhism (in the form of ignorance). They don’t understand the consequences of their actions and are not aware of how the repercussions will make them feel.
Interestingly enough, American novelist Thomas McEvilley has proposed that the most accurate translation of the Greek phronesis is in fact mindfulness, which refers to both the practice of mindfulness meditation as well as the quality of mindfulness, a continuous, deep-seated awareness of what is going on within and around us that often allows us to tap into the sort of practical wisdom associated with phronesis.
With that in mind, thinking with mindfulness could be considered the same as thinking with phronesis. I’ve experienced first-hand the kind of practical wisdom that mindfulness allows us to tap into and there is very much a quality of practical wisdom that becomes available to you through the practice.
In fact, it often feels as though this deep form of awareness is inseparable from this state of wisdom itself. In this way, mindfulness is thinking and acting with phronesis, the key to allowing us to tap into this practical everyday wisdom to live and move about life in a more effective and meaningful way.
How to develop phronesis in daily life
I’ve practiced and taught mindfulness for years. And in that time, I’ve worked hard to develop this sense of practical wisdom. I can personally attest to its ability to help us move through life more effectively. However, it can often be difficult to describe exactly how and why it makes such a positive difference in one’s life.
But, fortunately, it’s much easier to develop the quality of phronesis/mindfulness than it is to describe it and how it works.
There are two ways to develop, and tap into, this quality of practical wisdom in your daily life and two associated practices which allow you to develop it:
- Directly: This is done through daily mindfulness practice. It’s about learning how to pay close attention to what is going on within and around us as we go about our daily life.
- Indirectly: This is done as a form of reflection at the end of a day or beginning of another. By sifting through what is going on in your mind, which is often a collection of thoughts and feelings associated with past experiences (both recent and not), you’re able to uncover useful insights that offer more of this quality of practical wisdom.
The first, direct practice, is developed through practices such as mindful walking, driving, eating, and a practice I call everyday loving-kindness. Really any activity you typically do in your daily life, done mindfully, is effective for developing this quality.
Second, indirect practice is developed through quiet reflection in the form of a more formal sitting meditation practice. However, make sure you’re practicing mindfulness meditation. There are many forms of meditation and they all offer valuable benefits, but only mindfulness meditation offers the kind of practical insights that represent phronesis.
Experience the power of phronesis
Still today, thousands of years later, we revere the wisdom and intelligence of ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Plato. Distilling their wisdom from ancient texts is a difficult job, but fortunately, they’ve left us a lot to work with.
Phronesis is a quality that represents practical wisdom and this wisdom helps us move about life in a more effective way. From finding meaning in the little things to navigating daily challenges with strength and resolve, practical wisdom offers endless applications that help us lead a happier and more meaningful life.
And the great part is, it takes no more than a few minutes a day to begin developing this ancient Greek wisdom for yourself. So, try one of the above practices and see how it helps you live in a more balanced, peaceful, and meaningful way.