Tag Archives: Prudence

September 24: The Virtue of Fortitude, I.

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Welcome back to Sister Johanna of Minster Abbey who resumes her reflections on the virtues in Agnellus Mirror.  This week we are considering Fortitude, but beginning with a reminder of what we’ve seen so far. I could not resist this picture, bearing in mind the verse from Psalm 92 describing a virtuous person: The just shall flourish like the palm tree: he shall grow up like the cedar of Libanus. I’m sure Sister’s reflections will help us all to flourish, wherever our roots may be. MB.

  1. Recap

A few months ago we studied some of the cardinal virtues. If you weren’t here for it, it might help to say that the concept of virtue comes from the Latin word for strength: virtus. A person who strives to grow in virtue then, is not a kind of namby-pamby wimp, but a person of integrity and strength. There are four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. They are called cardinal virtues not because they were discovered by a cardinal of the Catholic Church, or are virtues only practiced by cardinals, but because they are of “cardinal” or major importance in the moral life and in our lives with Jesus.

These virtues are sometimes called acquired virtues, because through God’s grace and our cooperation with grace, we can acquire them, and grow in them. I have been writing about the virtues for this blog because studying them has helped me in my life of discipleship. I’d like to share what I have learned in the hope that others may come to love the virtues, and be inspired to interiorise them.

It is not possible to separate the virtues from each other completely because they depend on each other. This is good news because it means that if we grow in one virtue, there is a knock-on effect, and we simultaneously make progress in all the virtues. We have seen in previous posts that prudence exercises a certain superiority over all the other virtues – you might say that prudence presides over them. This is because only the truly prudent person can understand how to live the other virtues of justice, fortitude and temperance. Prudence is the cause of the other virtues’ being virtues at all, as the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper points out in his book The Four Cardinal Virtues. Why is this so? Because prudence acts a bit like a good lifeguard on a beach. The lifeguard oversees what is happening on the beach and, if she is good at her job, keeps an eye on the most vulnerable swimmers, and blows the whistle if she sees someone taking imprudent risks. In the moral life, it is prudence that keeps tabs on all the happenings in our life, foresees what might become dangerous, and guides us to safer, more reasonable pursuits.

Prudence, for instance, asks the right questions (see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, [abbreviated below as S. T.] II.II. 47:7 for his treatment of this). It is through the virtue of prudence that we ask “how” and “with what means” we, in a given situation, shall succeed in doing what is needed. Likewise, prudence never forgets to seek answers to questions like, “Where is this action going? What is the point of doing this? What will it achieve?” It belongs to prudence to direct all the virtues appropriately, so that we do not misjudge a situation and proceed to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, or the right thing in the wrong way, at the wrong time, and in an amount that is either surplus to requirements or in deficit of them, thereby creating a situation that is worse than the one we started with. By being both process-oriented and goal-oriented, prudence helps us to deploy all the virtues in a suitable manner so that we may find a path through the dilemmas and confusions with which existence in a fallen world is inevitably filled.

Justice is connected to prudence as its “first word”, according to Josef Pieper. We saw in our earlier posts that justice is only possible if we can grasp and evaluate rightly what is going on in our lives, and this capacity comes from prudence. No one can be just without the clear-sightedness that prudence gives us. Justice, then, because it is informed by prudence’s knowledge, is able to relate to people and things fairly, because it understands, in an overarching way (and not just from time to time), how much we have received from them and what we owe them.

In our next post we will turn to the virtue of fortitude.

For further study:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church ,Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1994

The Four Cardinal Virtues, Joseph Pieper, University of Notre Dame Press

http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/aquinas/summa/

 

Picture credit

 

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June 6. Justice II: Justice and Prudence Work Together

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Following the herd

 

When we consider the virtue of justice, we first find that it is intimately linked to prudence. Josef Pieper again says: ‘justice is based solely upon the recognition of reality achieved by prudence.’ No prudence, no justice, he seems to be saying. Why is that? Surely, an imprudent person cannot be all bad. Even someone with a limited capacity for making prudent decisions would not wish to be unjust, we might argue. But, sadly, the wish to be just is not the same thing as the capacity to be just.

What is justice? The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us a wonderful definition:

Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbour. Justice toward God is called the ‘virtue of religion.’ Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good. The just man, often mentioned in the Sacred Scriptures, is distinguished by habitual right thinking and the uprightness of his conduct toward his neighbour (no. 1807; also see nos. 2095 and 2401).

Justice is not about merely wanting to be just. Justice, like prudence, requires ‘habitual right thinking.’ The word habitual is the operative one, I think. Once in a while isn’t good enough. Life is too complex, and if we just drift along like an animal in a herd most of the time, without actively questioning our culture’s half-truths and exercising our powers of insight, we will not develop the ability to evaluate situations truly, nor will we recognise what our obligations are in the situations life throws at us. Nor, for that matter, will we respond generously if, by chance, we happen to notice that something is required of us.

SJC

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June 5: The Virtue of Justice I:Prudence Revisited.

Picture Wed 2nd March

Over to Sister Johanna for her reflections on the second Cardinal Virtue: Justice.

The cardinal virtues come in a famous pack of four: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. We looked at prudence in some of our previous posts. I thought it time now to move to the moral virtue that is next in line: justice.

If you weren’t here for the posts on prudence, then it might help briefly to revisit them: they began on 24th April, and can be found at this link.

Prudence has a lot to do with seeing reality as it is, not as we would like it to be. It is also to do with being able to plot out a course of action which takes that reality into account. A prudent person is a great one to have as a confidant, it seems to me. He or she will ask you a lot of questions and help you to arrive peacefully at a decision – which, in the end, will still be your decision, because the questions and answers that prudence considers do not force you into anything. Rather, they reveal a path by clearing away the weeds, and so enable you freely to walk down that path, and own the decision. The words of great twentieth century Catholic philosopher, Josef Pieper,* can be enlightening. He says:

Prudence has a double aspect. One side is concerned with gathering knowledge, with establishing a yardstick, and is directed toward reality; the other side is concerned with decision and command, with evaluation, and is directed toward action.

I love the idea that prudence is about gathering the knowledge that enables us to understand reality. Behind this is the humble acknowledgement that as fallen creatures, our view of things is apt to be distorted. Prudence is about opening our eyes to the truth of things and situations, so that our subsequent decisions and actions will be directed toward that same truth and goodness. ‘Prudence translates the truth of real things into the goodness of human activity…. Thus prudence does not simply rank first in the scale of cardinal virtues, it actually is the “mother of virtues.” And “gives birth” to the others’ (Pieper).

SJC

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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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