We don’t hear much about virtue nowadays. We hear a lot about public people who seem to have no virtue. In some cases, they appear to be getting away with it, becoming famous, rich, glamorous people. Yet, often they leave behind a trail of destruction, from failed relationships, to substance abuse, to the obsessive search for new medical treatments aimed at halting time’s affect on their appearance. How can such an existence be a happy one? Or there are others in the media whose lack of virtue leads to behaviours and attitudes that few seem to admire. The media likes to gloat over that kind of moral failure and condemn it in huge headlines – while adverts in the same publication hypocritically try to sell us another, more glossy, version of the same vice. We live in confusing times, and to praise someone for his or her virtue, to name the virtues and speak of them in a positive light – to talk about prudence, for example, as a quality worth striving for: well, that wouldn’t sell many newspapers.
Yet, prudence is a beautiful thing, so balanced, discerning and wise. It is eminently worth striving for. In the next several posts I hope to say why this is so, and make up a little for some of the silence that seems to surround the virtues in our culture.
First, the virtue of prudence is one of a cluster of four moral virtues, the other three being temperance, fortitude and justice. As moral virtues, we must understand that these require some work on our part. But, this is not a hopeless task: God has given us the potential to develop all the virtues through prayer, the commitment of our will, and the follow-up behaviours that are consonant with the virtue.
Before turning to prudence, it is good to reflect for a moment on the notion of virtue itself. To speak of virtue is not to speak of an occasional good action. We are talking about a power which the soul acquires. A virtue is something we must exercise, yes, but in so doing, it becomes part of our very character as persons, part of our personality and nature. It is not a mere role, or a good trick which we perform on a good day if we’ve got the energy. Rather, a virtue becomes an outward expression of what has become intrinsic to us and part of our very identity. It becomes a stable part of us, a habit of goodness.