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© August 2005
revised 26 June 2008

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on the iconography of phronesis

This is a companion exhibit to the IN BRIEF topic on phronesis, and supplements discussion of prudentia and rhetorica elsewhere on the site.

While acknowledging that

Since the thirteenth century, the concept of phronesis has flourished but has become the subject of debate over its definition and its essence or properties.

(from the article on “Phronesis” in Oxford University
Press’ Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, ed. Thomas O. Sloane)

recent scholarship, “concerned with returning to an Aristotelian formulation of phronesis” (“emphasizing rational deliberation, its ultimate goal of happiness for the larger community, and its eternal ability to adapt to contingent circumstances”) has tended to equate phronesis with prudentia. For example,

Aristotle recognizes the importance of prudential practice at the outset of his seminal discussion of phronesis in Nicomachean Ethics, Book 6. He says, “We may discover what phronesis is by observing those whom we call phronimoi” (6.5.1140a24). The prudent person (phronimos) possesses the ability to deliberate well about what is good and bad, not only for himself, but for the community as a whole. Phronesis requires wisdom, which is knowledge about the origins of things, but Aristotle distinguishes it from theoretical wisdom because it is concerned with what is observable. He also distinguishes it from craft knowledge, which is concerned with producing things. Thus, phronesis, though based on an understanding of the universal, involves deliberation about particular, contingent matters, and is realized in action, not in knowledge about an absolute truth or in production. Since it relies upon practical experience and is concerned with both deliberation and contingent affairs, phronesis is most like political science. Moreover, the prudent person is naturally virtuous and works toward the supreme good, happiness (eudaimonia). His ability to deliberate well allows him to act or offer counsel in ways that are conducive to eudaimonia in whatever specific circumstances may arise. Thus, for Aristotle, prudence participates in and mediates among the spheres of ethics, politics, and rhetoric.

(from the article on “Prudence” in Oxford University
Press’ Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, ed. Thomas O. Sloane)

This GALLERY exhibit juxtaposes various images of phronesis from the Renaissance and early modern period in order to recover an alternative “phronesis-based art of rhetoric” that emphasizes the practice of consilium (“good judgment” or “good counsel”) rather than prudentia.

Unlike prudentia, phronesis has no female figurations of which I am aware. And this male-dominated tradition of iconography would appear to confirm women’s complaints through the ages that “our counsels are despised, and laught at,” as Margaret Cavendish phrased it in an address to the “Most Famously Learned” in 1655.

“Good counsel” — combining knowledge, wisdom, understanding, and virtue with decorum or propriety in its delivery — is among the most valued of social goods in any human community. The fact that patriarchal cultures would associate such a highly-developed human quality with men more than women is not surprising, especially given women’s unequal access to the social conditions that elicit practical wisdom in the individual.

TOPICS:  the allegorical use of the female form; the collective intellectual; early models of the social individual (vs. the bourgeois individual); the applicability of a neo-Aristotelian model (“predicated on a small city-state of a few thousand people”) to modern societies with populations in the tens and hundreds of millions

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