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.
Picture by CD.
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.
Prudence suggests a waterproof in Wales.