Abbey of Saint Maurice, Switzerland.
We have not yet talked about justice expressed toward God, but we need to. It is of crucial importance. The Catechism’s definition of justice mentions God as the principal recipient of our justice. Why should that be so? God does not need anything from us! Isn’t justice about responding to need?
Yes, justice is about responding to need, and about paying our debts. But justice is not primarily a virtue by which we learn to add up the numbers and pay the bill. On a more fundamental level, justice is the virtue by which we become increasingly sensitive to our indebtedness. The distinction is subtle, but important. There can be a grudging quality that goes with paying a bill, as we know when we see our hard-earned money vanishing so quickly.
But, a grudge does not belong in the virtue of justice as it relates to God. In being sensitive to indebtedness, we realize how much we have been given by God. In him we have received something far beyond what we have strictly deserved – the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field, the very kingdom of heaven, as Jesus expresses it.
Even if we do not acknowledge God as our loving Father, and the creator of the universe, it is hard to avoid admitting that we have been given gifts in our lifetime that are of vital importance to us, that have helped us to become ourselves. This gives us a recognition, simply put, that someone has loved us, and has shown it, and our life has changed for the better because of it. When that Someone is acknowledged as God, then we need a way that allows us to make some sort of response. Tomorrow, we shall reflect on this.
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).
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 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:
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.’
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.
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.’
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
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.