On phronêsis, or How being rational makes you happy

It was a lazy Sunday afternoon and I was ready. I was fully prepared to be infuriated,  exasperated, and indignant. “Bring it on!” I thought to myself as I was gearing up to rageread a recent New Yorker piece on rationality, “Why is it so hard to be rational?” The title had had me instantly convinced that I was about to read yet another glib and detached essay on why rationality is the best thing since sliced bread, why the rationality movement has it right, why everyone should strive to be more rational, and complete with tips on exactly how to do it.

I’m glad to say I was wrong.

Instead of fuming as I was reading, I found myself returning time and again to Aristotle’s notion of phronêsis, usually rendered in English as ‘practical wisdom’. It is for Aristotle, very crudely put, what makes happy people happy.

The writer of the New Yorker piece, Joshua Rothman, describes a friend whose rationality he admires and he comments that we “hope, reasonably, that rational people will be more careful, honest, truthful, fair-minded, curious, and right than irrational ones”. At the end of the piece, however, he muses that it’s not the friend’s rationality, in the end, that makes him be all these things, but rather the reverse is true: that all his good qualities, one might say virtues, are what make him rational. But how can this be?

Let’s back up a little first. The English ‘rationality’, is etymologically derived from the Latin ratio, reason. The Latin ratio, on the other hand, is in philosophical literature usually the equivalent of the Greek logos, from where, in turn, we get the English ‘logic’. Makes sense, right? The simple formula for exercising rationality, by the psychologist Steven Pinker as recounted by Rothman, is as follows: “know things, want things, use things you know to get things you want”. Rationality defines itself by way of–prides itself in–abstract Bayesian probabilities and unaffected utilitarian calculations, by being distinct from and untouched by things like emotion or sensation. Rationality, like it’s cousin objectivity, is cold, hard, and factual–and there’s a certain comfort in that.

But we all know the story doesn’t end there. Rothman remarks that “it’s possible to be so rational that you are cut off from warmer ways of being”. That telling oneself that one is rational can be a source of cognitive bias itself and that it might be it’s really the admirable appearance of rationality that one seeks when seeking to be rational. That one’s rationality can be limited to a specific area of one’s life, that one’s rationality cannot handle being challenged, that one’s rationality doesn’t recognise its own limits or when to defer to someone else’s rationality, or that it assumes too much rationality of others. These he calls forms of false or compromised rationality.

In this way, when Rothman speaks about rationality he points also to its limits or ways in which it can be skewed. He also helpfully points towards three things we need to correct for these: the need for metacognition, or reasoning about our own reasoning; the need not only to know what to do to get what we want but also the ability actually to do it, “you can know what’s right but still struggle to do it” (Aristotle calls this akrasia or weakness of will); the need to concede authority and to trust others when we recognise the limits of our own rationality.

When Rothman points out that he was able to defer to his father’s rationality “not just because I respected his mind but because I knew that he was a good and cautious person who had my and my mother’s best interests at heart,” we again approach what I think of when I think of Aristotle’s phronêsis.

For Aristotle, phronêsis is something that enables the exercise of any virtue. A brave person is so because they have the capacity to reason, the phronêsis, to know when to act and when to withdraw. They are not rash nor are they cowardly–they have mastered the art, the skill, the virtue of bravery which lies in finding that famous “golden mean” between rashness and cowardice. And they can be relied upon to keep finding that mean, striking the chord just right, regardless of the context. They are able to do what is the brave thing at any given moment. And phronêsis enables not only bravery, but the exercise of any and all virtue: humility, honesty, generosity, kindness, and so on.

In short, Aristotelian phronêsis enables a person to do the right thing, by the right people, at the right time, in the right place, to the right extent, for the right reasons.

But what does all this have to do with happiness?

Aristotle begins his main ethical work, the Nicomachean Ethics, by stating that the reason anyone does anything is to be eudaimon, ‘happy’ or ‘flourishing’ as the two most common English translations have it. (Literally the Greek means “well-favoured by god”, but Aristotle seems to pay very little attention to the etymology of the word himself.) Happiness, in turn, is defined as the thing for which we do all things, and which we seek for the sake of nothing else. We want material things, leisure time, friends, fame, knowledge, power, and many other things because we think (rightly or wrongly) that they will help us be happy. We don’t want to be happy in order to be or have anything else.

For Aristotle, happiness is an activity. It is the active and excellent fulfilment of what he calls our ergon, our task or function. The ergon of a knife is to cut things. The ergon of a house is to give shelter. Our ergon as human beings is to exercise our highest and finest capacity, and that is reason. (The New Yorker piece quotes the sociologist Max Weber: “Rationality is one of humanity’s superpowers”.)

The exercise of phronêsis–being rational–is the unified exercise of our aretai, our excellences or, more traditionally, our virtues–in doing the right thing, by the right people, at the right time, in the right place, to the right extent, for the right reasons–and to enjoy ourselves doing so. That, says Aristotle, is what it means to be happy.