Nurturing the Sprouts of Wisdom (Wisdom #5)

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 piece 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."[1] 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."[2]

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 piece, 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).

Cultivation and growth

For all the differences of the societies in which Mencius and Aristotle lived, they shared many concerns. Both of them were systematisers, attempting to wrestle the traditions that they inherited into a more rigorous form. Both of them were preoccupied with the question of how we can cultivate human nature so that we become wiser, better people. And they both saw human nature as itself something rooted in the ability to grow and change.

For Mencius and Aristotle alike, human nature is not just about what we are, but it is also about how we develop. The word for “nature” in Greek is physis. From this root, we get words like “physics” and “physical.” In its earliest uses, the word physis referred to the growth of plants (it appears with this meaning in Book 10 of Homer’s *Odyssey*)**. By the time of the philosopher Heraclitus, the term was being used in philosophy to refer to processes of growth and development more broadly. So when applied to ourselves, our human nature or our physis is not just a matter of what we are, but also what we could grow into.

Botanical illustration of a dandelionFrom Kräuterbuch by J.F. Schreiber (c.1905), Public Domain via Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Similar metaphors appear over in China, where the term that is usually translated as “nature” is xing. The Chinese character 性 is made up of two components. The component on the left (忄) means “heart”, and the component on the right (sheng 生) depicts a plant growing out of the soil, with a shoot springing from one of the side-branches. The scholar Sarah Allan writes,

Recent scholarship recognizes that xing is a dynamic, not a static term. Its dynamic aspects can best be understood if we think of it in terms of a metaphor deriving from the organic world. Xing… is not so much the “qualities that a thing has to start with” or even the “sum total of our genetic and individual inheritance,” but the potential contained by a seed or the first shoots of a seedling to become a fully developed plant. [3]

Our nature, or xing, is about how we grow and develop, how our shoots and seedlings grow to become fully developed plants. So whether we are talking about Greek physis or Chinese xing, the vision of human nature here is organic and supple and capable of growth and development. We are, as contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes, “more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from its fragility.”

Aristotle on flourishing

If we are plant-like by nature, then this raises the question of how we can best cultivate ourselves so we can flourish. For Aristotle, the physis or nature of a thing involves several factors (or “causes” as they are sometimes called): what that thing is made of (its material cause); how it is put together (its formal cause); the vagaries of its own history and experiences (its efficient causes); and the question of what it is for (its final cause). The last of these is important when applied to human life because it says that the question of what we are is bound up with the question of what we could be. Human life is a work in progress, one that can reach its natural fullness through living in a particular way.

For Aristotle, a fully human life is one in which we cultivate ourselves so that we can fully use our capacities and faculties in pursuit of a good end. Aristotle calls this full use of our capacities “eudaimonia”, which is sometimes translated as “happiness”, but means something closer to “flourishing.” Our flourishing may depend to some extent on external conditions; but for Aristotle, it is not just something that happens to us. Instead, it is a way of going about our lives. It is doing well in both senses of the word: in the sense of acting well, and in the sense of living well. “The happy (or flourishing) person,” Aristotle writes in the Nicomachean Ethics, “lives well and acts well, for we have claimed that happiness is pretty much a kind of living well and acting well."[4]

This means that for Aristotle, our flourishing is inseparable from our living and acting well: it is inseparable from virtue. Flourishing, Aristotle says, is “a certain kind of activity of the soul in accordance with virtue."[5] To cultivate ourselves, we need to cultivate virtues. We need to develop a particular set of dispositions and character traits that fully express what it means to live and act well. And if we cultivate these dispositions (for example — friendliness, generosity, courage, truthfulness and so on), then whatever situation we find ourselves in, we will act wisely.

Mencius and the four sprouts

Over in China, the philosopher Mencius was similarly preoccupied with virtue. Mencius systematised and developed the philosophical legacy left by Confucius. And like Aristotle, he saw human virtue involving a suite of different qualities and dispositions. Mencius argued that by nature (xing), we all have four “sprouts” (duan) of virtue. But these sprouts need to be nourished if they are to grow into vigorous forests of goodness.

These four sprouts are ren (仁) or humaneness, yi (義) or justice, li (禮) or ritual, and zhi (智) or wisdom (see the first article in this series for more on zhi). Mencius says that ren is associated with feelings of pity and compassion towards others. It is a kind of fellow-feeling for other human beings, an expression of our natural compassion. Yi is associated with a sense of shame, with the inner feeling for whether we are acting well or badly. It is our internal moral compass, our feel for fairness and unfairness, and what is right or not right. Li is an ability to navigate the shared ritual norms of human social life with grace and elegance. It is about knowing when to go along with something, and when to politely decline, when to act and when to not act, when to engage and when not. It is, Mencius says, the heart or mind that respects others. And zhi is the ability to distinguish between what is and what isn’t the case, what is and what isn’t true.

On ox mountain

For Mencius, human nature is inherently good in that we all have these sprouts. But for this goodness to grow and flourish, these sprouts need to be cultivated. This cultivation, Mencius makes clear, is not just something that we do on our own: we have a role to play in tending to the sprouts of our virtues, but the conditions in which we live also have an impact on how much or how little we flourish.

Here Mencius tells one of his loveliest and most famous stories. It is a story about a mountain called Niu Shan, or Ox Mountain

The trees of Ox Mountain were once beautiful. But because it bordered on a large state, hatchets and axes besieged it. Could it remain verdant? Due to the respite it got during the day or night, and the moisture of rain and dew, there were sprouts and shoots growing there. But oxen and sheep came and grazed on them. Hence, it was as if it were barren. Seeing it barren, people believed that there had never been any timber there. But could this be the nature of the mountain? [6]

imgCattle resting in open landscape. Colour reproduction of a painting by T. S. Cooper, 1872. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

We see the mountains of human life barren of virtues and wisdom, and we think that this is what human beings are: they are unvirtuous and unwise by nature. But we are wrong. If this is what we are seeing, Mencius says that the reason is that something in the world has gone very wrong, and has got in the way of our natural tendency to flourish.

Mencius’s vision of what it means to flourish is not just a personal one, but also a political one. As Sarah Allan writes:

like plants, which have an innate tendency to grow and are fed even by the evening moisture but cannot withstand continually being hewn down, the mind or heart has an innate tendency to be good that will try to reassert itself, but eventually be overcome by outside pressure.[7]

Mencius was addressing his philosophy not to individuals, but to the rulers of his day, attempting to persuade them to put in place the kind of just and stable social order that, he argued, could support the flourishing of virtue. He argued that hunger and poverty, injustice and need, create chaotic and destructive environments that get in the way of the flourishing of virtue and wisdom. So if we care about the cultivation of wisdom and virtue, for Mencius, we also need to ask about the social and political conditions that can support this cultivation.

Social goods

The idea of cultivation can be a challenging one. If wisdom and virtue are things that can be cultivated, and if we are capable of plant-like growth and change, this implies that we are not stuck with who we are. If we are mean-spirited, we can become less mean-spirited. If we are bad-tempered, we can become less bad-tempered. And we are foolish with money, we can learn to become more prudent. We are, to some extent, responsible for who we become.

But as Mencius reminds us, the development of virtue is not always easy, and sometimes our own attempts may be thwarted by adverse conditions. You might think that this gets us off the hook: if we are unvirtuous, we can just blame our bad upbringing, or say it is simply because we live in a brutal society. But arguably, Mencius’s social vision of what it means to flourish doesn’t so much get as off the hook, as do the opposite. Because in Mencius’s vision, virtue and wisdom are not just individual goods. They are also social goods. So we need to ask ourselves not only how we can cultivate our own virtue and wisdom, but also how we can put in place the conditions that can support the cultivation of others. And the more we are flourishing individually, the more capacity we then have—and the more responsibility—to attend to this social flourishing.

Discussion questions

  1. Are Mencius and Aristotle right in the claim that wisdom and virtue can be cultivated? Or are we simply stuck with who we are? What are the limits of cultivation?
  2. If they are right, is this cultivation a good thing? Or does it (as the Zhuangzi argues) simply a cause of trouble and strife?
  3. What do you personally need to flourish? Is flourishing something that you can do regardless of circumstances? Or are there external conditions that are important to you in your own flourishing?
  4. In his account of flourishing, Aristotle says that “The happy (or flourishing) person, lives well and acts well.” But is there more to flourishing than living well and acting well?
  5. Mencius’s vision is of a society where the cultivation of wisdom and virtue is possible. What kind of society do you think would best support this cultivation?


[1] Meno 88d. In Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Hackett 1997), p. 888.

[2] Meno 100b. ibid. p. 897

[3] Sarah Allan, The Way of Water and the Sprouts of Virtue, (SUNY Press 1997), p. 108

[4] Nicomachean Ethics 1095a. In Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, edited Robert Crisp (Cambridge University Press 2004), p. 5.

[5] Nicomachean Ethics 1098b. ibid., p. 13.

[6] Mengzi, with Selections from Traditional Commentaries, trans. Bryan van Norden (Hackett 2008), p. 127.

[7] Sarah Allen, The Way of Water and the Sprouts of Virtue, (SUNY Press 1997), p. 111

More further reading


For an in-depth look at the idea of cultivation, try Cultivating a Good Life in Early Chinese and Ancient Greek Philosophy: Perspectives and Reverberations edited by Karyn Lai, Rick Benitez and Hyun Jin Kim (Bloomsbury 2018). I’ve got an essay in this one on the Chinese medieval writer/philosopher Liu Xie.

Online resources

Bryan van Norden’s Aeon Magazine essay on Mencius is worth reading.

This BBC article on virtue ethics, flourishing and the pursuit of happiness is wide-ranging but interesting.

Image credit: Poyi (Poren) working in the field. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

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