Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, July 27, 2012

DEWEY: The Virtues (Wisdom)

Which virtue is the most important: moderation, courage or justice?  According to John Dewey, none of those.  Dewey places wisdom at the top of the hierarchy of virtues.  That’s because of all the habits which constitute the character of an individual, the habit of judging moral situations is most important, for this is the key to the direction and to the remaking of all other habits.  When Dewey wrote about justice he quoted Aristotle’s idea that the individual was to suffer according to his deed.  Dewey then proceeded to disagree with Aristotle, or at least bring him up to date.  The same thing happens when we consider their views on wisdom.  Dewey says possession (of wisdom) is a class idea and tends to mark off a moral aristocracy from a common herd.  Aristotle would agree that Dewey’s analysis is correct; but not Dewey’s conclusion.  Aristotle would look at wisdom this way: it distinguishes those who have it from those who don’t.  Is that a class system?  Maybe.  But Aristotle would go on to argue that having wisdom does indeed give a person an advantage in life.  The person without wisdom is at a disadvantage.  For Aristotle having wisdom is a good solid guide because it gives the wise man a moral compass to succeed along life’s path.  For Dewey it’s not actually having wisdom that’s important but “the desire and effort to discover the good.”   This kind of desire puts everyone on the same plane.  Not everyone can be an Aristotle because not everyone can actually attain wisdom and become wise.  But everyone can at least pursue it.  So the best democratic solution is a sort of nobody-gets-left-behind philosophy.  But Aristotle might respond: every art or applied science and every systematic investigation, and similarly every action and choice, seem to aim at some good… and he would claim that the good which Dewey is aiming for is not wisdom, but equality.  For Aristotle the goal of wisdom is not to stay on an equal level with everyone else.  He would put it this way: my goal is to pull people up to a higher plane of moral development and it’s true that some people won’t make it.  But your philosophy of equality, Mr. Dewey, tends to pull everyone down to a lower level.  Is that a wise thing to do?  Do you call that wisdom?  Aristotle would point out that democracy is very good at developing equality; but it’s not so good if you’re searching for wisdom.  Dewey might respond that wisdom, like all the virtues, changes with the times.  For Dewey, Aristotle has an old-fashioned and outdated view of wisdom.  Dewey says that Greek knowledge was mostly directly concerned with the affairs of their common associated life… knowledge about the city, its traditions, literature, history, customs, purposes… Now we have immense bodies of impersonal knowledge remote from direct bearing upon affairs…  Aristotle was only describing the world he knew then; we have to make our way in the world we live in now.  And we live in a very different world than the one Aristotle lived in.  Here’s the difference for Dewey: in the older sense (wisdom) is an attainment; something possessed.  In the modern, it resides in the active desire and effort, in pursuit rather than in possession…  Is wisdom something we actually get, or is it just a potential we’ll always be chasing after?  It makes a big difference and this whole discussion about wisdom goes back farther than Aristotle in the Great Books tradition.  At the very dawn of history we read these words from Elihu in the Book of Job: Job hath spoken without knowledge, and his words were without wisdom…  Job is suffering and he doesn’t know why.  He wants to understand but it’s beyond his ability to comprehend what it all means.  Elihu and Job’s friends aren’t helpful so Job answered (them) and said, No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you.  But I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you…  Job ends up turning away from human wisdom and takes his case directly to God.  Amazingly, God answers him: it’s beyond human ability to truly understand the world; so be content.  What kind of wisdom is that?  Three different versions of wisdom: Dewey, Aristotle, Job.  Take your pick. 


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