Aristotle, Ancient Greek Wisdom and the Elderly

The National Herald

Aristotle and Phyllis Aquamanile, a vessel for pouring water used in washing hands, late 14th or early 15th century, South Netherlandish, depicts the ancient Greek philosopher in a moralizing legend popular in the late Middle Ages. Photo: Public domain/ Metropolitan Museum of Art

NEW YORK – The Big Think posted the article titled “Aristotle’s Guide to the Elderly and Ancient Greek Wisdom” on July 2 noting that “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,” BT reported, adding that “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.”

According to Aristotle, “a full and flourishing life (or what the Greeks like to label ‘eudaimonia’) is characterized by virtue guided by something called phronesis or ‘practical wisdom,’” BT reported, adding that “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,’” BT reported, noting that “these are the sages who have experienced enough of the world to know how to act and give great advice as a result… 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,” BT reported, adding that “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.’”

For example, honesty might seem like the best policy, so a boy being honest might tell “his friend that he finds her ridiculously ugly,” but the phronimos “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,” BT reported.

Another example, “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,” BT reported.

“Phronesis comes with the hard graft of experience and conscious self-improvement,” BT reported, adding that “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,” and “Aristotle's advice is to call on them as much as we can,” BT reported.

“While being elderly is not a requirement for Aristotle's phronimos, it is often the case that with age comes wisdom,” BT reported, noting that even so, “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.”

While the elderly “in the English-speaking west, especially,” are moved into retirement or care homes, “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,” BT reported.

“Perhaps Aristotle's philosophy also reveals a deeper truth: how incredibly valuable the elderly of our society are,” BT reported, adding that “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.”