Tag Archives: Benedictines

3 May, Prudence X. Conclusion: Proceeding in Confidence.

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Saint Thomas Aquinas has a genius for analysis, certainly, and analysis often brings to light something of which we were already dimly aware so that we become more conscious of it, and say to ourselves, ‘Yes, that is what I have always thought.’

Someone once asked me, however, if Saint Thomas meant us to have a checklist with boxes to tick each time a big decision was needed in life.  And if not, how do we make use of the insights we’ve just been considering?  My advice is that, like many things that apply to the inner life, these parts of prudence overlap.  Growth in one area will mean that growth in the virtue as a whole.  We might consider the list and see, for example, that we have a hard time with one or two aspects of prudence.  With Thomas’s insight, we can apply ourselves to these aspects and undertake to make some progress in them.  Or, we might find that we were already striving in this direction, but were coming under criticism from others, whose lack of prudence was making them impatient with our tendency to approach matters from the perspective outlined here.

Now, perhaps we can proceed with more confidence in

‘discerning rightly that which helps from that which hinders in our journey toward God.’

SJC.

Many thanks to Sister Johanna for this series of reflections on Prudence. I think I’ll go back and consider them all together, now I’ve read them one by one.   Will T.

Photo: Missionaries of Africa

 

 

 

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2 May: Prudence IX, Hmmm.

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Circumspection. 

Foresight looks ahead.  Circumspection looks around.  It is to do with how the many circumstances in one’s life may combine at this particular point in time in the effort to attain one’s end prudently.  It takes cognisance of the complexity of existence.

Jack and his bookshop might be getting along fine now and he may decide to expand his business.  But then he prudently decides to wait a bit because of, say, illness in the family.  He doesn’t want to be preoccupied with business when the family may need him to be more available at home.  Circumspection strives to evaluate how everything will or will not work together.  It will try to leave room for the unexpected, for the unforeseeable.  Which leads us to: 

Caution 

Isn’t prudence about caution?  Having said so much do we really need to consider caution, too?  After foresight and circumspection, aren’t we sufficiently protected from evil?  Not really.  Thomas says that the things with which prudence is concerned are ‘contingent matters of action.’  Put in more modern words, we cannot control everything, or see into the depths of every action.  The ‘false is found with the true,’ he warns, and ‘evil is mingled with good on account of the great variety’ of life and events and personalities.

‘Good is often hindered by evil, and evil has the appearance of good.  Wherefore prudence needs caution.’ 

SJC.

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1 May: Prudence VIII, Foresight

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Foresight – or looking into the future – might seem to be a bit strange here in our survey of the virtue of prudence.   How can we see what has not happened yet?  How can we control that?  Isn’t foresight God’s affair?  And our part is simply to accept what he disposes?  Not quite, according to Aquinas (Summa Theologica  II.II: 49:6).  It is true, he says, that certain things about the future are subject to divine providence.  But the virtue of prudence is about the ‘means to an end’; it is about setting things in order in the present so as to attain a desirable end in the future.  Foresight is directed to the future, and to something distant, but is brought to bear on things in the present, that are within our power to regulate.

This sounds a bit airy-fairy, so let’s go back to our friend, Jack, with the bookshop.  He wants his bookshop to be successful.  He therefore needs to hire people who will be trustworthy and will help him to attain that end.  He knows now that if he is soft-hearted about hiring unreliable people with poor references, they will probably not help him to succeed in business.  Foresight tells him what will probably happen if he hires the right kind of person.  He cannot know everything about the future, and cannot guarantee absolutely that the person he has hired with the good references will work out fine.  But, he can set things in order by doing as much as he can do, checking the references well, and divine providence will have to do the rest.

Foresight looks ahead and evaluates the present according to the goal that exists in the future.

SJC.

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30 April: Prudence VII, Reason.

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Saint Thomas Aquinas says that it is important for prudence that a person be “an apt reasoner” (Summa Theologica 49.5).  We have just said that we must not be thinking forever about what to do, but still, we must think enough.   We know, for example, the exasperation we feel when someone flip-flops from one decision on one side of the problem to the opposite decision on the opposite side with very little rational explanation for the change of mind.

Today, pop psychology has placed a rather inordinate stress on the so called “gut feeling,” as though our gut somehow has access to a truth that the mind and the reason cannot find.  Saint Thomas thinks more highly of our powers of reason than that.  He says that reason is the faculty that researches, weighs and evaluates.  Going off on tangents, or taking quantum leaps isn’t really the way to attain prudence, in his thinking.  Rather, he says,

‘The work of reason is research proceeding from certain things to other things.’ 

Eminently reasonable himself, Thomas would have us take a step by step approach to discovering the most prudent course of action:

  ‘It is proper to the rational creature to be moved through the research of reason to perform any particular action.’  

SJC.

 

 

 

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29 April: Prudence VI, Shrewdness.

 

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In the virtue of prudence shrewdness complements teachability and limits it.  (Summa Theologica  II. II. 49:4) ‘It is a disposition to acquire a right estimate by oneself’, says St. Thomas.  In other words, after you have listened to the advice of those who are older and wiser, the obligation to arrive at a decision about what to do still rests on oneself.  Others cannot and should not decide for us.  The weight of the final decision is still a burden we must carry alone.  One can be running to this or that person forever, unable to come to a decision and rest in it.  Shrewdness knows when one has listened enough and found the answer; shrewdness accepts that the answer in this case might always contain some ambiguity, realises that a certain amount of risk and uncertainty must be borne, but that the issue is now as clear as it will ever be, and the time has come to act.  Saint Thomas will even go so far as to say that in deliberation we may take as much time as needed, but a considered act must be performed swiftly (Summa Theologica  II.II. 47:9).  There comes a time, and we must simply get on with it!

It is important to remember that prudence isn’t about being indefinitely watchful and careful.  Its most important act, for Saint Thomas, is the command.  Prudence answers a question: “What is the best course of action in this situation?”  When it discovers this answer, it commands, “Do it.”  Prudence is a “directive knowledge”, for Saint Thomas.

SJC

Carving, Chichester Cathedral. MMB

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28 April: Prudence V, Docility.

 

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Somehow the concept of docility has received a rather bad press.  It seems to denote a quality of weakness, of wishy-washy meekness.  It’s not strong or dynamic enough, we might think.  But this is to misunderstand the word.  Another word for docility is teachability, and it’s vital for the growth of prudence.

Saint Thomas says (Summa Theologica , II. II:49:3) that prudence is concerned with matters of ‘infinite variety,’ and no one can consider them all sufficiently, nor can this be done with the speed we sometimes need in life.

Hence in matters of prudence man stands in very great need of being taught by others,

especially by those of sufficient age and with enough life-experience to have acquired a ‘sane understanding’ of what is really important.  He drives the point home by saying that a person’s own efforts are vital here.  We must ‘carefully, frequently and reverently’ apply our minds to the teachings of those who are truly wise and learned, ‘neither neglecting them through laziness, nor despising them through pride.’

People might comment that “so and so only learns the hard way.”  She won’t listen to anyone, she just goes off hard-headedly, and makes a mess of things.  Only then does she learn – when much damage has already been done.  While this may well be a stage that many of us go through in adolescence, Thomas would say that it’s not really a necessary stage in the journey to individuation.  Through our capacity to learn from others, it is possible to make important decisions that both affirm our independence and are the result of our teachability.  We do not have to learn the hard way in order to mature and attain the virtue of prudence.

SJC

 Picture by CD.

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27 April: Prudence IV, Understanding.

 

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The next step in the dance of prudence is understanding, for Saint Thomas.  Understanding gives us the ability to see how this principle applies to this case.  Each event is different from the one before.  Understanding helps us to see the differences – especially those that are not immediately obvious.  This usually requires us to think something through, and not simply react on the basis of how something appears on the surface.

Let’s go back to Jack, our small-business owner about whom we were thinking yesterday.  Let’s say he has a bookshop.  Let’s say his down-and-out employees help themselves to the cash.  Now Jack had better think this through.  He wants to help the needy – this is an important principle.  So he turns a blind eye to the disappearing cash.  But sooner or later, this is going to have an adverse effect on his business.  Sooner or later other principles, that are arguably more important, get buried – such as his obligation to support his family.  If the business suffers, he will soon be in a position to help no one, including himself.

Good people are not usually attracted to doing bad things, but to doing a good thing in an immoderate way, at the wrong time, under the wrong conditions.  With understanding we acquire the ability to set priorities, to determine which good thing I need to be doing now, to say no sometimes to one good thing in order to safe-guard a greater good, and to see what is really at stake in a given situation.

SJC

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26 April: Prudence III: Memory,

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So then, where does St. Thomas begin when he looks at the virtue of prudence?  For him, the first aspect of prudence is memory (see Summa Theologica, II.II: 49:1).  Why?  Because

…it is typical of prudence to be aware of what is true in the majority of cases.  This kind of awareness is fostered and engendered by experience and time, therefore, prudence requires the memory of many things.

Perhaps it is easier to understand this by looking at the opposite quality.  I suspect we all know someone about whom others will roll their eyes and sigh, saying, “Oh dear.  Jack never learns.”  Here, Jack is someone who makes the same big mistakes over and over: the small business person, say, who hires incompetent and dishonest employees out of a desire to help the under-dog.  These employees subsequently harm the business through irresponsibility or theft.  This becomes a pattern, though, in Jack’s business career.  He lets his need to “save” people who have a sob story get in the way of his judgement.  Repeatedly.

It is the repetition of the error that is at issue here.  Memory, says Thomas, is aided by diligence.  With diligence, we make a mental note of what happens, we put conscious effort into noticing how events unfold in matters that are important to us.  We don’t just let life go by, and let the same mistakes happen again and again.  We ask why something keeps happening.  From this, we gain some capacity to predict what is likely to happen if we do the same thing again.  ‘It behoves us to argue about the future from the past; therefore memory of the past is necessary in order to take good counsel for the future,’ says Saint Thomas.

SJC.

Prudence suggests a waterproof in Wales.

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25 April, Prudence II: Prudence is Like a Dance.

 

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Saint Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica (II.II) writes at length on the virtues.  This is an unsurpassed source text for anyone wishing to make a deeper study of them.  About prudence, he says,

Prudence is love discerning rightly that which helps from that which hinders us in tending to God.

And,

Prudence is knowledge of what to seek and what to avoid.

And,

A prudent man is one who sees as it were from afar, for his sight is keen and he foresees the event of uncertainties.

These are wonderful, life-affirming statements.  Imagine for a moment substituting our name for the word prudence in the remarks above: “John is someone whose love discerns rightly that which helps from that which hinders us in tending to God.”  Or, “Amanda has the ability to know what to seek and what to avoid in the complexities of human existence.”  What a wonderful, peace-giving thing it would be to have such an ability.aquinas-carlo_crivelli_007

Saint Thomas Aquinas helps us to understand the virtue of prudence by analysing the “parts” of prudence.  Prudence isn’t simply one thing, existing as a sort of spiritual lump. As a virtue, prudence comprises other abilities.  Prudence, in Saint Thomas’s thinking, is a bit like a dance, then, with a number of different steps.  When learning a dance, we break it down into its steps, practice the steps individually, and then eventually put them all together.   And we’re dancing!  Tomorrow we will begin to learn the steps.

SJC.

Saint Thomas Aquinas by Carlo Crivelli

E.D. Dancing at her First Communion, by MMB.

 

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24 April: The Virtue of Prudence: I, Worth Striving for.

 

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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.

SJC.

A monument to a picnic that led to the end of the Iron Curtain. The time was right, and people acted with prudence. We’ll learn more on 19 August, the anniversary of the event. Picnic monument by Kaboldy

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