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.
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.
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.
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Tagged as Benedictines, Dominican, education, experience, Minster Abbey, perseverance, Prudence, responsibility, Saint Thomas Aquinas, sin, virtue
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.
Prudence is knowledge of what to seek and what to avoid.
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.
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.
Saint Thomas Aquinas by Carlo Crivelli
E.D. Dancing at her First Communion, by MMB.
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.
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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Tagged as Benedictines, discernment, Dominican, Mammon, Minster Abbey, Prudence, Saint Thomas Aquinas, scandal, sin, vice, virtue, Wisdom
What did we read yesterday: we should be grateful to Thomas for his doubts – people do not come back to life, do they?
Thomas wanted facts. Well, more facts. That his friends, whom he trusted, were so changed by what they had seen and heard that Easter day, that was not enough. He probably saw himself as a prudent, thoughtful chap. And then when the evidence is flesh-and-blood before him his prudence throws him on his knees.
He should have read Sister Johanna; she has got me thinking. I trust she’ll get you thinking as well. Her series of reflections on the Virtue of Prudence might sound a bit dry, but take it from me, you’ll find well-presented food for thought. And Thomas Aquinas follows on nicely from Thomas the Twin.
I got to choose the pictures this time – a privilege, because Sister has a good eye for a picture herself – so I allowed myself the luxury of using this one. The houses at the back of my mother’s place represent Prudence since their builders chose a site and aligned the building with prudence to capture as much light as possible for the weavers at their looms upstairs. Of course there would have been no sycamores to overshadow them in the 18th Century, but no decent artificial light either.
When the series ends, I’d recommend you go back and read them all consecutively.