For Mencius and Aristotle, wisdom involves the cultivation of virtues. But how do we do thi, and how do we build a society that supports this cultivation?
Wisdom, virtue and the art of cultivation
If wisdom is something desirable, something to which we can aspire, then how do we go about becoming wiser? We saw in the second class on Aristotle that wisdom involves both thinking (theoria) and doing (praxis). A wise person is somebody who thinks about things clearly and who also acts well. They have both intellectual and practical virtues. And ideally, these virtues support each other. Intellectual virtues help orientate our actions, and virtuous actions help support clearer ways of thinking and seeing.
But can we really cultivate wiser, more virtuous ways of acting and thinking? Or are we stuck with being foolish and unvirtuous? This is a question that appears in Plato's Meno, where Socrates and the military commander Meno discuss the nature of virtue, and whether it can be learned. Socrates argues that "virtue, being beneficial, must be a kind of wisdom." But wisdom is a slippery thing for Socrates. His own claims to wisdom only went as far as acknowledging his lack of wisdom. So where does this leave the possibility of actively cultivating wisdom, whether we are talking about theoria or praxis? By the end of the dialogue, Socrates and Meno have not answered this question, nor have they succeeded in working out what virtue actually is. All Socrates will say is that virtue "appears to be present in those of us who may possess it as a gift from the gods."
Taking Socrates's view in the Meno, it is not clear that virtue (or practical wisdom) can be cultivated at all. Either the gods bestow it on us or they don't. This doesn't get us very far. But if we turn from Plato's teacher Socrates to his student Aristotle (c. 384 — 322 BCE), we find a more promising account of what it means to cultivate practical wisdom.
So in this week's class, we're going to explore Aristotle's views on the cultivation of wisdom, and also the account of cultivation given by the Chinese philosopher (and exact contemporary of Aristotle) Mencius or Mengzi (c. 385 — c. 303 BCE).