Stein M. Wivestad 16.06.11

Paper presented at INPE (International Network of Philosophers of Education) conference in Sydney, 18 - 21 August 2000

Art experience for educational agapê and phronêsis

Is it possible to enhance educational agapê (unconditional love) and educational phronêsis (practical wisdom) through art experience (pictures, literature, films)? These virtues belong to different traditions. I presuppose that it is impossible to stand outside any tradition or within every tradition. I want critique of my sketch to an understanding of these virtues, the combination of them, the contention that they are important virtues for educators today and my views on how they may be acquired. I hope for discussion and exchange of ideas concerning art experience as a part of the education of all types of educators.

I became interested in phronêsis through Gadamer (1965). The English literature discussing phronêsis as a virtue for educators, I have quite recently started to read. I think phronêsis needs a correcting or supplementing concept in order to resist both idealist and Machiavellian traditions. The virtue agapê was not known by Aristotle (MacIntyre, 1984, p. 174-175, 182), and seems to be well-suited.


agapê and phronêsis – a possible combination?

Both Aristotelian and Christian traditions presuppose that human life has a telos (a final aim), but the understanding of this aim is different. In my Protestant Christian tradition the central aim is to have a good relation with God. This is not dependent on our good qualities, only on his agapê, a love (charity) that " seeketh not her own" (1 Cor. 13, 5). God's love is given without conditions, and passed on to others in the same way, like in a trust-, play- and love-relation between children and parents.

The Aristotelian understanding of the human telos is focused on the realisation of our special human possibilities. phronêsis has been translated as "intelligence", "prudence" (a word connected to providence), and "practical wisdom". The practically wise is not seeking eternal truth, but the best possible alternative in the always changing situations in life. A modern example might be the prudent driver, whom we expect to "move attentively and be alert and cautious so that no harm is inflicted or danger occurs" (Norwegian law of road traffic, my translation). phronêsis is the key virtue in Aristotelian ethics. It is an intellectual virtue which presupposes the character virtues. It connects general rules and particular situations, both in the slow discursive deliberation before choosing an action, and in the swift aesthetic seeing of the nuances in the situation, awakening the appropriate feelings, virtues and rules.

The priest and the Levite saw a man lying on the side of the road, and hurried on. The Samaritan felt compassion with him and helped him (Luke, 10,30-38). Perhaps the priest and the Levite were prudent, taking no chances for themselves and the waiting congregation? The foreign Samaritan was "seeing with the heart", he gives an example of Christian charity. Or does he combine phronêsis with agapê? Is the combination possible? Does agapê set the aim and phronêsis seek out the means? The recommendation to be "wise (phronimos) as serpents and innocent (akeraios) as doves" (Matth. 10,16), I interpret as an urge to act prudently within a guileless integrity (cf. Rom. 16,19). In my view phronêsis is subordinated to agapê.


Educational agapê and phronêsis – relevant today?

Education today is ridden by technical rationality. It is common to understand teaching and learning as production, the attainment of specified goals defined in advance by the market. The old meaning, where education is seen as eduction - guidance out of a restricted and limited life towards a more free and open, better life - is forgotten.

Some use the production-concept and try to add some ethics. The danger is that ethics may be instrumentalised as well. Others try to revive the eduction-concept and to strengthen the connection between education and culture in general. This implies a broad and normative concept of education. A concept encompassing both formal learning in schools and courses and informal learning in home, church, sports and arts. A concept where learning of techniques never is isolated from deliberation concerning what is conducive to a good life.

By their choice of life pattern parents answer the question: Why do we want to have children? Klaus Mollenhauer answers explicitly: I want children "because I want the (perhaps few) good things in my life to have persistence" (Mollenhauer, 1994, p. 17-18, my translation). The answer implies two subsequent questions: What do we wish for the next generation? And are the things we wish and do really good for the children? These questions are basic to education and human culture.


agapê and phronêsis may help us to find answers to such questions. phronêsis "is 'seeing' in the here and now where the noble (kalon) actually lies and so also where the mean [between excess and deficiency] lies, whether this be the mean in one's own affairs, one's family's, or the city's" (Simpson, 1997). agapê is not restricted to our own kinfolk or fellow citizens. It implies a universal moral responsibility. In The brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky, Book 6, Ch. 2), the dying youth Markel says: "everyone is really responsible to all men for all men and for everything".

If we want a good life for the children, why don't we just start living ourselves? Action still speaks louder than words. agapê and phronêsis ought to be central aims for our personal formation today as parents, leaders, trainers, teachers and tutors.


What may enhance agapê and phronêsis?

We may acquire virtues through verbal teaching, habituation, experience and imitation. Verbal teaching, like the Pauline letters in the New Testament and Aristotelian lectures in the Nicomachean ethics (later NE) may help us to acquire intellectual virtues, while virtues of character "results from habit (ethos)" (NE 1103a14-16). If we only focus on verbal teaching, we may enhance our cleverness in arguing, without really changing what we do.


Guided habituation is learning by doing the right thing in the actual situation. Repeated actions contribute to our "states of character", hexeis: "we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions" (NE 1103b1). Internalising the tendency to act in a good way reduces the time needed for discursive deliberation, and makes the action unfeigned.

The typical experience is negative. A big mistake in a particular situation will be remembered: "I’ll never do that again". To undergo experiences in many different situations take time. The more experience we have from different situations, the more we are able to compare a new situation with similar ones, and see the most relevant nuances in the new situation. phronêsis "includes a knowledge of particular facts, and this is derived from experience, which a young man does not possess" (NE 1142a15).


Imitation of good models is one of the basic Aristotelian principles. The determination of "the mean" for our action in each situation should be based on the reason that a man of practical wisdom would have given (NE 1107a1). "What would a wise person have done here and now?" Imitation (mimsis) is not just copying. There is a creative moment in applying the good example to the actual situation. Imitation is also the typical channel for agapê. The person Pestalozzi and his life story has inspired thousands of educators.


What may be learned through art experience?

Pierre Aubenque (1986, p. 159-160) contends that the Aristotelian concept of phronêsis (in opposition to Plato's) is founded on a broad Greek tradition. The verb phronein, to think, is used in Hippocratic literature as synonym with "sane thinking", and there is a connection between sphrosyn, temperance and phronêsis. The practically wise man knows his own limitation. This is a refrain in the tragedies. Sophocles' Antigone represents for us the experience of a situation where a man who believes he is absolutely right also has the power to stop all criticism. It is the combination of power and assumed correct knowledge which causes the tragedy. The play ends with these words from the choir: "Wisdom [to phronein] is provided as the chief part of happiness, and our dealings with the gods must be in no way unholy. The great words of arrogant men have to make repayment with great blows, and in old age teach wisdom" (Sophocles, 1347).

Works of art represent particular situations and experiences. Great art may help us to see new aspects of reality and "generate a sense of empathy" (Eisner, 1995, p. 2). We may understand the universal in the particular – "the arts can be a source of both personal vision and social commitment" (Beyer, 1985). The concentration and fantasy that is needed to study a work of art may be transferred to observation in educational situations. Art experience may also improve verbal modes of learning. A dialogue following an art experience may give the participants meaningful associations to personal experiences, without laying pressure on them to reveal things that they should keep to themselves. References to paintings, films or biographical anecdotes can have the same function in educational prudence as case analysis in jurisprudence.

Many types of arts may be relevant. Some examples: Self-portraits (of Drer, Rembrandt, van Gogh, Arnold Schnberg, Edvard Munch, Max Beckmann) reveals what sensitive persons have seen of their own problems and possibilities. The same is done in stories like Comenius' Labyrinth of the world and the paradise of the heart and Pestalozzi's Lienhard und Gertrud, dramas like O'Neill's A long days journey into night and Ibsen's Peer Gynt, in novels like Martin A. Hansen's beautiful The liar and Franz Kafka's intense Letter to his father, in films like Disney's famous Sorcerer's Apprentice (built on Dukas' music and Goethe's poem) and Ingmar Bergman's Wild strawberries, and in multi-media "shows" like Mozart's Magic flute and Pink Floyd's The Wall. The foreigner Malthe is a modern Samaritan in the moving Danish film The shadow of Emma by Sren Kragh-Jacobsen, Mme Guerin feels compassion with Victor in Francois Truffaut's Wild child, and Pauls unique poem about agapê is central in Kieslowski's Blue, as text to a "Song for the unification of Europe".

All these examples have in common that they appeal both to the intellect and to the feelings. The fox in The little prince concludes: "And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."(Saint-Exupry, ch. 21).



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