Aristotle’s Wisdom-Prudence Distinction and Ecclesiastes Use of Wisdom

Aristotle’s Wisdom-Prudence Distinction and Qoheleth’s Use of Wisdom


In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, two virtuous lives are presented, characterized by two distinct virtues: the contemplative and active lives, respectively characterized by wisdom and prudence. While wisdom is defined as a virtue of the speculative intellect which allows one to perceive the truth of things, prudence is defined as a virtue of the practical intellect which allows one to act in accordance with right reason in the utmost particular. Aristotle’s relation between these two lives is heavily debated by contemporary philosophers: some think that the two lives are inherently opposed and that Aristotle gives emphasis to the contemplative life, other the active life. While I think that Aristotle’s account is itself one of reconciling these two virtuous lives, my thesis here is that Ecclesiastes’ (hereafter referred to by its Hebrew title: Qoheleth) understanding of wisdom (Hb. hokmah) presents us with a synthesis of the two intellectual virtues and provides a way forward in understanding how to reconcile the contemplative and active lives. My argument hinges on two points: first, that wisdom has a dual function in Qoheleth—as corresponding, loosely, with Aristotle’s wisdom and prudence distinction—and second, that the synthesis between these two virtues is predicated on the connection between ‘is’ and ‘ought’.

Aristotle on Wisdom and Prudence

Previously I stated the distinction in Aristotle between wisdom and prudence, the intellectual virtues which are characteristic of the contemplative and active lives, respectively. The difference between them, however, needs to be made more explicit in order to appreciate Qoheleth’s synthesis. Wisdom (Gk. sophia) in Aristotle is that virtue which is characteristic of seeing or perceiving the truth of things—for this reason it is often seen as the chief of the virtues, as in Plato’s Meno, and often characterizes the ideal of the philosopher. [1] Wisdom, then, is concerned with the universals or generals: things predicated of many or all. Aristotle says, “in contemplative thinking…thinking well or badly consists in the true and the false respectively,” because “wisdom is a science and intellectual grasp of the things most honorable by nature.” [2] Prudence (Gk. phronesis), however, is the virtue which is characteristic of knowing what action is in accordance with right reason and will, therefore, lead to the human telos in the utmost particular, namely, the situation. While prudence involves knowledge of the universals (implied by sight or vision towards the telos of human nature and judging actions accordingly – i.e., by right reason), its distinctive character lies in its capacity to evaluate the absolute particular in view of the end, and no merely any end but the end in accordance with human nature qua human nature. This is what distinguishes prudence from mere cunning. Since, “good deliberation simply is that which guides us toward the end simply,” but prudence “is what guides us correctly towards some particular end.” Thus, “prudence is characterized by the giving of commands: its end is what one ought or ought not to do.” [3]

 Hokmah in Qoheleth

Hokmah in Qoheleth functions, I argue, in two ways: first, in seeing the truth of things; second, in prescribing both an end to be sought an offering itself (i.e., wisdom) as means to achieve that end. Since these two functions of hokmah loosely correlate to wisdom and prudence, respectively, there is, implicitly, a synthesis of these two. Let’s first look at the two ways hokmah functions.

  1. Twofold Function of Hokmah

First, wisdom functions as perceiving the truth of things. This is clear in Qoheleth’s hebel insight, that is, the incongruity-inequity of human existence under the sun. He describes all as hebel (1:2) and demonstrates the absurdity which penetrates through human wisdom (1:12-18; 2:12-17), human activity and agency (2:18-26), human experience of justice and injustice among the righteous and the wicked (3:16-22; 4:1-3; 8:14-15), and seemingly every other aspect of human existence. In this, Qoheleth perceives the underlying quality of things whose acknowledgement is painful. This is why he says, “he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” (1:18) Hokmah in this function, loosely, corresponds to Aristotle’s wisdom, since it involves a proper perception of reality according to its general and/or universal truths—in this case, hebel. The hebel insight of Qoheleth is an insight of wisdom, the perception of the cosmic effects of fallenness: “See, this alone I have found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.” (7:29)

Second, wisdom functions as perceiving proper actions towards the proper end of human nature: this is clear in his persistence insistence on the enjoyment of temporal goods and the fear of the Lord, despite the hebel of life under the sun. He repeatedly says, “I perceived that there is nothing better than for [mankind] to be joyful and to do good as long as they live” (3:12; cf. 3:22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; 12:13-14). Here the utmost particulars are considered and evaluated in light of the end (both in terms of final causality and final judgement) as either conducive towards or detracting from it. This is why Qoheleth speaks of doing good and fearing the Lord and keeping His commandments with virtual synonymy (cf. 3:16-17; 12:13-14). It is also important to note that this second function of wisdom depends on the first function: the proper knowledge of the truth of things contextualizes the particular considerations. The pervasiveness of incongruity-inequity, designated by the term hebel, properly contextualizes the worth of things and various activities.

  1. The Is-Ought Connection

In this twofold function of hokmah, we see Qoheleth arriving at prescription from description—even, in spite of it. The description of hebel contextualizes the prescription of enjoyment and doing good; even so the empirical observation that everything has its season or time grounds the later assertion of divine judgement against evil (see 3:16-17). Contra Hume, Qoheleth understands that any predication of ‘ought’ necessarily derives from ‘is’ since it is only intelligible on the assumption of a connection with and contextualization by ‘is’. This is-ought connection is predicated on the two functions of hokmah, since it seems proper to the one to describe the truth of things and proper to the other to prescribe actions conducive to the end in the context of the real. As Aristotle says, “prudence is not concerned with the universals alone but must also be acquainted with the particulars: it is bound up with action, and action concerns the particulars.” [4]

  1. Reconciling the Contemplative and Active Lives

From this I think we can begin to see how the contemplative and active lives may be understood in such a way as tends towards a synthesis. In Qoheleth, wisdom is one thing; while I argue it functions in two different ways, it remains a singular. Aristotle makes the distinction between these two functions and calls each by a name: wisdom and prudence, respectively. However, these two go hand in hand, as even Aristotle admits. Now, if these two virtues go hand in hand, it is reasonable to assume there is some congruity between the lives that these virtues characterize. The contemplative life of continually seeking to know the true is still a form of activity. The active life of seeking the good corresponding to action and choice is only possible if the individual possesses both knowledge and moral virtue: both contextualize the end in view of choice and action. The difficulty to this is the presence of hebel: the incongruity and inequity experienced under the sun. However, the synthesis of the active and contemplative lives, ironically, results from the uniting of human experience: connecting ‘is’ with ‘ought’ and thereby bringing coherence despite the absurdity of life under the sun. This gives us as Christians and as human beings a way forward in properly understanding the relation between orthodoxy and orthopraxy: ‘is’ leads to ‘ought’; there is no naturalist fallacy. What we are, when we find ourselves (i.e., factual statements) are what contextualize our pursuit of the good. We must never assume the reality of our being does not bear hold on our telos or morality. We must attempt to live coherent lives: ones where in our being imago Dei is united with natural virtue, where our being en Christou is united with theological virtue.


[1] The task of the wise man is to order, this ordering is according to wisdom as per Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles I, c. 1; Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, I, lectio. 1-3

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 1139a27-29, 1141b3-5.

[3] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Bartlett and Collins, 1142b30-33, 1143a8-10.

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Bartlett and Collins, 1141b15-17.


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