American’s trust in our politicians’ ability to handle domestic and international problems is at its lowest point in more than two decades. A Gallup poll in January showed 35 percent of Americans do not trust the U.S. government to handle domestic problems, and only 41 trust it to handle international problems.
If Americans’ faith could be restored in our politicians’ ability to make prudent decisions, we would no doubt see an increase in trust. To be this trusted politician, the Greek philosopher Aristotle said requires practical wisdom, also called prudence. Such a man or woman must be able to choose the clever choice of action and have good intentions.
There are two components to our choices. One is our moral goal, the other is our practical goal. What moral thing do we want? Good choices not only involve good moral intentions, but they also involve practical decisions that pick through the circumstances to determine the correct action.
Dr. Larry P. Arnn said in his free online lecture at Hillsdale College that prudence “is the facility to calculate circumstances and find and issue true command.” It is practical wisdom about things that are always changing.
“Statesmanship is the scene where practical judgment is demanded intensely all the time,” Arnn said. Things are constantly changing, demanding good judgement of situations.
Practical wisdom is different than knowledge, however. Aristotle defines knowledge as “knowing a thing that is fixed and can be relied on,” Arnn said. Practical wisdom and judgement, on the other hand, are adaptable, as they are about changeable things.
Practical judgement is “a truth-disclosing active condition involving reason that governs action, concerned with what is good and bad for a human being,” Aristotle wrote in “Nicomachean Ethics.” It finds the truth about what to do and then does it. It is key that the judgement fit the circumstance.
We learned in Book One of “Ethics” that something is good only if it fulfills its purpose. A cup is only good if it has a bottom; otherwise it is not a cup. Likewise, a judgement is only good if it fits the circumstance that it is in. It requires wisdom because accurately placing judgement on ever-changing circumstances is difficult.
This is how we can determine a good politician in these always changing circumstances. Those who can calculate means and ends, and can understand evolving circumstances, tend to serve their nations well.
There are three distinctions to practical judgement. Astuteness is understanding the moving parts of a situation but does not issue action. Cleverness does issue action, as it knows how to insert oneself to get what one wants. Prudence, or good judgement, pursues action with good intent.
Arnn pointed to Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill as examples of cleverness and prudence. Both were lethal individuals who knew how to get their way, yet used their discernment and action for opposite ends. Hitler used his charisma and cleverness for evil ends, while Churchill used his for good.
Alas, astuteness does not guarantee possession of all virtues. Hitler can be considered brave, but not just. To be clever but not prudent is incredibly dangerous. While not many are as dangerous as someone like Hitler, politicians without prudence may only pursue their own gain.
Perhaps our politicians can learn something from Aristotle, and learn to pursue a good beyond themselves and for the country.