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Aristotle’s guide to the elderly and ancient Greek wisdom

The wise, the old, and the experienced matter to a full and happy life.

Credit: Jixiao Huang via Unsplash

Key Takeaways
  • Life is full of complicated and difficult moments, but we can become better at dealing with them. This practical wisdom is a cornerstone of Aristotle's ethics.
  • When we practice this skill, we become more adept at seeing situations and people differently — not unlike an artist viewing a painting.
  • The elderly and experienced of this world have such wisdom in spades. But those of us in the West rarely tap into this precious resource.

Who do you turn to for advice? When things are hard, and you don’t know what to do, who are those people you ask for help? It might be your mom or that one person at work who knows all the answers. Perhaps it’s an internet stranger on some comment board or a professional you pay. But the question is: why do you choose them?

These experts and advice givers are an essential part of our human experience. From consulting the wise old lady in the primeval village to texting your doctor-friend, humans have always needed people to rely on for advice. As social beings, we want to help each other. But what role do experts play in our moral development? This is a key part of Aristotle’s moral theory.

Phronimos: a sage of ancient Greece

According to Aristotle, a full and flourishing life (or what the Greeks like to label “eudaimonia”) is characterised by virtue guided by something called phronesis or “practical wisdom”. Phronesis is the ability to find the middle ground in any given situation — to know what is courageous, or kind, or fair, when it’s not immediately obvious. But, like any skill, this does not come naturally. It requires experience and conscious effort.

The person who has mastered phronesis is known as the “phronimos.” These are the sages who have experienced enough of the world to know how to act and give great advice as a result. As the cliché goes, they have “been there, done that.” Just as we seek a doctor about disease or an engineer about building a house, we turn to the phronimos to learn from their wisdom.

This wisdom manifests as a kind of perception. In the same way that an artist might see a painting differently than the untrained eye or how a wine connoisseur will taste flavors the average person will miss, the phronimos sees people differently. This ability is called “nous.”

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For instance, a naïve but well-intentioned boy might think honesty is always best. Honesty is, after all, a virtue Aristotle would be proud of. So, this boy tells his friend that he finds her ridiculously ugly. The phronimos, though, has the nous to see that his friend is desperately shy and incredibly self-conscious and instead decides to hold his tongue — or perhaps even lie.

Or, a new teacher might decide to punish a student for not doing their homework without noticing how fragile that student is. The phronimos teacher is one who sees the situation properly — perhaps the child has a difficult home life — and offers a kind word or some other assistance.

Phronesis comes with the hard graft of experience and conscious self-improvement. It’s seeing enough of the world to know what to do — or not to do. It’s to identify someone correctly as embarrassed, scared, or angry when others might miss it.

It’s hard to describe, but we all know the phronimos person in our life. Aristotle’s advice is to call on them as much as we can.

Text your grandparents every day

In many ways, life is just like an apprenticeship. When we’re born, we have only a few basic, natural instincts to get us through the day alive. The rest we need to be shown or taught. That is why it is so important to make sure that we have the right mentors in our life.

A lot of people are lucky to have great parents who teach them most of what they need to live in modern society, but sometimes even this isn’t enough. Parents, especially during a child’s formative years, are often only middle-aged and have much to learn themselves.

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While being elderly is not a requirement for Aristotle’s phronimos, it is often the case that with age comes wisdom. Yet, as society becomes more and more isolated (even before COVID-19), and with household sizes shrinking, we rarely think to use the phronimos people in our lives.

In the English-speaking West, especially, old people are shuffled off to retirement villages or care homes, only to be brought out for Thanksgiving or little Ava’s birthday party. If Aristotle had his way, you would text them every single day. After all, they have experienced it all before — and made it out alive!

Perhaps Aristotle’s philosophy also reveals a deeper truth: how incredibly valuable the elderly of our society are. Besides the intrinsic cruelty of a society that isolates and forgets its old people, Aristotle asks us to ponder what we’re really missing in the process. These people — these phronimos — have so much to offer. They’ve made the mistakes, so we don’t have to. We really ought to call on their wisdom much more.

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.


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