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Ancient and modern

How Aristotle would hire civil servants

‘Socio-economic background’ wouldn’t be a part of it

4 June 2016

9:00 AM

4 June 2016

9:00 AM

The civil service is to be allowed to find out what job applicants’ ‘socio-economic background’ is. What abject drivel is this?

Among all the different sorts of wisdom that Aristotle discussed, ‘practical wisdom’ was to the fore. It was for him neither a science nor an art, but ‘a reasoned ability to act with regard to the things that are good and bad for men’. It was especially vital for public servants.


One of the characteristics of practical wisdom was the capacity for successful deliberation. This was not about understanding (which only passed judgment and did not come up with solutions); or cleverness (which was a means to an end, that could be good or bad); or shrewd guessing (which involved no reasoning); or quickness of mind (usually another form of guessing); or just coming up with an opinion (mere affirmation). No: practical wisdom was all about reaching correct conclusions by the proper logical means.

Another part of practical wisdom was the capacity to understand what to do in particular situations. This could embrace qualities such as good sense, intelligence and sympathy. Such attributes, Aristotle argued, tended to be the product of experience, and therefore of wiser and older men. So their sayings and opinions, ‘undemonstrated though they are’, were worth attending to. Underpinning it all were the moral virtues: bravery, self-control, honour, sense of justice, magnanimity and so on. It was the function of practical wisdom to put into effect those desires to behave properly.

Training or habituation were central to Aristotle’s ‘programme’ in developing these capacities or reflexes. As he said, ‘It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or another from our youth. It makes a very great difference — or rather, all the difference.’

So what precisely will be the civil service’s favoured ‘socio-economic’ background? If it has one, it should tell us. If not, why is it bothering with it?


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