In the last chapter, Heinrichs talked about Aristotle’s definition of virtue: a state of character, concerned with choice, lying in the mean. Much like virtue, practical wisdom (phronesis in Greek) is about the appearance of moderation. There are two convenient ways of testing for phronesis. First, pay attention to whether the persuader uses phrases like “that depends,” which qualify their judgments. Second, look out for personal experiences and anecdotes. A persuader with practical wisdom will be able to relate their audience’s experiences to their own. Furthermore, someone with practical wisdom will be able to understand the audience’s core needs—often before they know what it is. Dr. Greg House from House is a great example of a fictional character with high practical wisdom—he can tell what his patients need before they know.
Building on the argument he made in the previous chapter, Heinrichs here characterizes practical wisdom as an inherently moderate quality. People with lots of practical wisdom are good at getting things done—as a result, they need to be good at making compromises, bringing people together, and generally splitting the difference. Furthermore, practically wise people have enough worldly intelligence to recognize people’s problems early on, before these problems become too severe to fix.
Ethos can be used to evaluate other people. Imagine, for instance, that you’re evaluating candidates for a job. A candidate should seem disinterested (i.e., she talks about helping the company, not helping herself), virtuous (moderate in her beliefs), and practically wise (experienced with the business and capable of adapting to new circumstances). Or imagine that you’re trying to determine if you’re romantically compatible with someone else. Lovers should be disinterested, in the sense that they’re willing to set aside their own happiness for that of a partner. They should share the same values. Finally, lovers should be good at adapting to each other’s problems and moods (i.e., they should have practical wisdom).
In this passage, Heinrichs suggests that ethos is more than just a convenient façade for a good rhetorician: people can use rhetorical techniques to evaluate other people’s core character—not just the way they seem from day to day. Furthermore, the passage reinforces the point that rhetoric has many different applications in contemporary life: everything from the professional work place to the home. People need to get along with each other, and doing so involves working together, making compromises, and evaluating each other’s feelings and needs.
To name one example of practical wisdom in love, Heinrichs recalls suggesting, almost in passing, that Dorothy should quit her job. Even though Dorothy earned more money than Heinrichs, she decided to take his advice. This exchange was a success and a failure of practical wisdom. On one hand, Heinrichs and his wife adapted to their situation; on the other hand, they didn’t really consider their options carefully, even though one of the hallmarks of practical wisdom is the ability to weigh both sides.
As Heinrichs’s personal anecdote shows, there’s no guarantee that people who recognize the importance of practical wisdom will, in fact, be practically wise in their personal lives. However, it’s worth trying.