Shaking off the dirt

Jun 04, 2024
Image of a donkey next to a well

Phronesis is an ancient Greek term that’s often translated as "practical wisdom".  It is one of the cardinal virtues in Aristotelian ethics and plays a very important role in moral philosophy.

Imagine a doctor treating a patient.  While medical knowledge and technical skills are essential, the doctor also needs phronesis to navigate complex ethical decisions, consider the patient's unique circumstances, and provide the best care possible.  This practical wisdom ensures that the doctor's actions are guided by both expertise and moral understanding.

One of the ways we can embrace phronesis is through lifelong learning.  By seeking knowledge and experiences that broaden our understanding and enhance our practical wisdom, we can make better decisions that positively impact not only our lives but those of others around us.

Today, we use the word ‘stoic’ to describe somebody who is unflappable and remains calm under pressure.  But there’s a bit more to it than that.  Stoics believe that even though we can’t necessarily control what happens to us, we can control how we deal with things.  And that the best way to do this is by navigating our way through in a logical, calm and informed way.

A great example of this is in Aesop’s Fable – The Farmer and the Donkey.

Once upon a time, a farmer’s donkey fell into an old, disused well.

The farmer heard the donkey’s cries for help and rushed across the yard to see what had happened.  The farmer berated himself for not having covered up the well when he had the chance.  Frantically, he looked around for a rope or a ladder or something that would help him retrieve the trapped animal.  Despite his best efforts, he was unsuccessful.  The well was too deep, slippery and narrow for him to either climb down or to manoeuvre the donkey out.

The farmer was a practical man.  He had looked after and dispatched many animals in his life at the farm and had ensured each one had had a good life.  With no mechanical tools at his disposal to dismantle the well without injuring the poor donkey or attach the animal to some kind of pulley system, he gave a great sigh.  With a heavy heart, he decided that the donkey was old and the well needed to be covered up anyway. 

He asked his neighbours to come over and help him fill in and cover up the well.  They sympathised with his situation and pragmatically reassured him that the donkey had had a good innings, all things considered. 

They all grabbed shovels and began to toss dirt into the well. The donkey realized what was happening and started to panic. But soon, to everyone’s astonishment, the donkey calmed down.

After a few shovelfuls of dirt, the farmer looked down the well and was amazed at what he saw. With every shovel of dirt that hit its back, the donkey shook it off and stood on it.  This raised the level of the ground a little.   As the farmer's neighbours continued to shovel dirt on top of the animal, it would shake it off and raise the level a little bit more.  

Eventually, everyone was amazed as the donkey stepped up over the edge of the well and trotted off.

And the farmer sheepishly trotted after his old friend.

Rather than succumbing to panic, the donkey adapted to the situation and used it to rise higher.  What “dirt” can you shake off to help you rise higher in your current situation?

It might feel as though we’re having heap after heap of dirt shovelled on top of us as we try to get out of our own particular tight spot, but every single challenge can be transformed if we shift our perspective.