Friday, July 08, 2011

Practical Wisdom is Helpful to a Happy Life, But Not the Highest Happiness

Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe's Practical Wisdom is an excellent book. I find their argument that practical wisdom is superior to both rules and incentives as a way to organize social practices is compelling. They are right that Aristotle's case for practical wisdom is something that is in the grasp of all and very helpful to happiness. In this Schwartz and Sharpe align their argument with the positive psychology of Martin Seligman, with whom they say they have often talked, about what makes for authentic happiness.

But Aristotle goes on at the end of the Nicomachean Ethics to say that the greatest happiness does not come from practical wisdom or the exercise of the moral virtues - the subject of the first 9/10ths of the book. Instead, he concludes that the greatest happiness comes from contemplation. This has posed a puzzle for those trying to follow Aristotle for millennia, as he seems to negate in his conclusion the whole argument he had been building.

Aristotle says that contemplation is what the gods do. When we contemplate, we participate, as we are able, in the divine.

I think there is great wisdom in the idea that our highest happiness comes from participating in the divine. And this wisdom is something that even very smart secular approaches to happiness, and to wisdom, will miss.


Kerri said...

I think it depends on your definition of "divine" though. I am not religious, but I believe in forces bigger than me. I do not pray to them or worship them, but respect the awesomeness of the world in which I am privileged to live. I think it is better to say that without a spiritual life, one is inhibited from true happiness, because of the sense of loss and lack of meaning. And that spiritual life can take many, many forms... I think happiness comes from loved ones. and knowing that we are here to do a job and make the lot better for our fellows, no matter how we contextualize that mission.

Kerri said...

But I should clarify and say that i think my sense of spirituality is grounded in the essence of humanity. We are imperfect and yet we are beautiful. And our deepest happiness comes when we help one another, when we are strong enough to make that sacrifice for a fellow... because we are cut out of the same stuff, and the joy of others is our joy, too.

(that probably sounds like hippie jargon, but I stand by it.)

Thomas said...

I think it can be safely said that most christians don't participate in the divine through contemplation.