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.’
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
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.
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.
Carving, Chichester Cathedral. MMB
Our cosy routines are put in danger, but we convince ourselves that right will be on our side because we are mighty and might generally proves itself right. Whether with flag in hand on horseback, or with horsepower under the bonnet, the agreed standards of civic protection will favour us, God or no God. Here is Godfrey de Bouillon again.
We have an army to keep unwelcome passions of others supervised and checked, we imagine, as if there were no rival claims to protection at work in other cultures of the world.
But what are the unexamined passions of consumer indulgence which provide our confidence? Are they the moderated passions of the best adults, or a splurge of childish cravings? A quick phone call and all the luxuries of the world are ours.
We are like baby kings, and the fact that we cannot observe the labourers abroad who provide the goodies does not disturb our sleep.
These three images, all from Brussels, seem to me to pinpoint the unhealthy mixture of a tradition of power, resources of control, and the fascination of gaining our own advantages, and satisfying our tastes, which underpins so much modern existence. We don’t believe that we are in any position to prevent the fallout from this heady combination. But we do have the freedom to seek for a spiritual basis to our friendships and ways of living.
Tommy was feeling pretty good when he awoke because it was his special day, his birthday, and it was a Saturday – so no school! He washed and went downstairs. Mum gave him a kiss and his present, a computer game. His two brothers and his sister also gave him presents and them they all sang to him, ‘Happy birthday, dear Tommy’, which made him feel very good because being the youngest he sometimes felt a trifle overlooked.
Then Tommy had his favourite breakfast, ‘Shreddies’, followed by scrambled eggs. But Tommy had been promised a special treat and these were just the preliminaries. After breakfast Mum called all the family to put on warm clothes because they were going out to have a little adventure.
A few moments later they left the house and walked down the High Street, past the Harbour and the old railway station and the football pitch, on to where the new boating pool had been developed. There was an old boating lake but Tommy considered the new one to be far superior because it was much bigger and had more powerful boats which went much faster, moreover you could land on the islands in the middle of the lake.
However, the most exciting and dramatic aspect of the whole scene for Tommy was the way that when the boat’s number was called at the end of the hire period, if the driver did not respond quickly, the athletic young boatmen who ran the operation would take a flying leap from the shore to the bow of the boat and steer it in to the docking area. For Tommy these young men were a combination of Tarzan and 007.
Tommy’s Mum although in her mid-40’s was still strong and active, an excellent swimmer and a good tennis player who felt quite confident about steering the boat. So Tommy and his Mum and brothers set off without more ado and circled the islands in the middle of the lake before making a brief landing. But time was passing quickly, too quickly for Tommy who was enjoying the whole experience and was a bit surprised that his Mum seemed so competent that she would probably not require a young Adonis to leap on to the bow of her boat to steer her in.
To be continued.