Word of the Month: Phronesis

David Zapatka

Reading Acton Institute’s monthly newsletter this past week, I ran into a word I’m fond of. Reverend Robert Sirico, Acton Institute President, speaks about phronesis, this month’s Word of the Month. Phronesis fits in well with Acton’s mission statement which is “to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.”

Phronesis – noun, /froh-nee-sis/ a Greek word for a type of wisdom or intelligence. It is more specifically a type of wisdom relevant to practical things, requiring an ability to discern how or why to act virtuously and encourages practical virtue and excellence of character. Per Plato – a type of knowledge related to how to act and think in ways related to virtue, a moral understanding that penetrates deeper than immediate practicality.

Historical – Rare wisdom personified.

Philosophy – Practical understanding; wisdom, prudence, sound judgment.

Origin – early 16th century; earliest use found in John Skelton (c1460-1529), poet. From classical Latin, phronēsis, wisdom, in post-classical Latin, also wisdom personified from ancient Greek, ϕρόνησις, thought, sense judgment, practical wisdom, prudence, to think, to have understanding, to be wise.

Historical Examples

Phronesis, with her prize, turned to the way by which she had ascended, regained her chariot and Reason, her charioteer. The Mediaeval Mind (Volume II of II) by Henry Osborn Taylor.

Phronesis puts up his umbrella and goes home as fast as he can. The Eagle’s Nest by John Ruskin.

Phronesis used in a sentence – Phronesis is the ability to both figure out what to do in any given moment while also knowing what is worth doing. So the idea is that it’s a practical wisdom; that you are wise about your intentions, wise about your ends and at the same time you have a very clear understanding of the means that you need to actually get there.

American poet and novelist, Thomas McEvilley, proposed that the best translation of phronesis is “mindfulness.” Socrates is known to have considered phronesis to be the same as being a virtuous person. By thinking with phronesis, a person has virtue. Therefore, all virtuousness is a form of phronesis. In the mind of Socrates phronesis equals virtue; they are the same thing. Being good is to be an intelligent or reasonable person with intelligent and reasonable thoughts. Phronesis allows a person to have moral or ethical strength.

In Plato’s Meno, Socrates explains how phronesis is the most important attribute to learn although it cannot be taught and is instead gained through the development of the understanding of one’s self.

According to Aristotle’s theory on rhetoric, phronesis is one of the three types of appeal to character (ethos). The other two respectively appeals to virtue (arete) and goodwill (eunoia). Gaining phronesis requires experience according to Aristotle.

Please submit any phronetic (that’s not frenetic!) thoughts about life you may have, any thoughts you may have on this month’s column or any word you may like to share with our readers along with your insights and comments to [email protected]