Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, July 22, 2005


Thank you all for your patience with our inactivity here -- between Darwin and myself we haven't had much time to blog. But at the moment Noogs and Babs are planted in front of the TV watching Rocky and Bullwinkle, and I have my feet up in the recliner, so I'm ready to rumble (as they say).

On the advice of friends whose advice in these matters is to be trusted, I've been reading Josef Pieper's The Four Cardinal Virtues. I'm only a few chapters into the first section, on prudence, and I'm finding it fascinating. Pieper states that prudence is somewhat of a "lost" virtue now, seen often as weakness, cowardice, or "small-minded self preservation". But nothing could be farther from the truth: prudence is "the mold and 'mother' of all the other cardinal virtues, of justice, fortitude, and temperance. In other words, none but the prudent man can be just, brave, and temperate, and the good man is good insofar as he is prudent."

Prudence is the ability to make right decisions that are based on and informed by reality -- both objective reality, and the facts of a particular circumstance. Here is how Pieper begins his second chapter:
The pre-eminence of prudence means that the realization of the good presupposes knowledge of reality. He alone can do good who knows what things are like and what their situation is. The pre-eminence of prudence means that so-called "good intention" and so-called "meaning well" by no means suffice. Realization of the good presupposes that our actions are appropriate to the real situation, that is to the concrete realities which form the "environment" of a concrete human action; and that we therefore take this concrete reality seriously, with clear-eyed objectivity.

Prudence is both cognitive and imperative. The cognitive aspect has three prerequisites: memory, docility, and solertia, which is the "perfected ability" of "objectivity in unexpected situations." Memory is the true and honest recollection of past events in order to assess current circumstances. Pieper warns agains selective memory or the disortion of past events for whatever reason. To serve the virtue of prudence, our memories must be "true-to-being". Docility is an open-mindedness that recognizes the immense variety of experiences and situations -- the opposite of "a closed mind and know-it-allness [which are] fundamentally forms of resistance to the truth of new things." Solertia is a clear-sighted objectivity that involves a nimbleness of mind, allowing for a proper decision to the good even in unusual circumstances. "All three are focused upon what is 'already real', upon things past and present, things and situations which are 'just so and no difference', and which in their actuality bear the seal of a certain necessariness."

Prudence as imperative involves foresight. Man can never be fully certain of the consequences of his decisions; every decision is a reasoned leap into the unknown. Foresight allows us to estimate the probable consequences of decisions, and, coupled with the cognitive aspects of prudence, allows us to trust that God has given us the ability to make correct decisions with the faculties that He has given us.

This is all quite interesting to me because it's illuminated something I've been pondering lately. At the exits of the freeways around here stand numerous beggars, all holding up cards with sob stories or appeals for money. I've often wondered about the proper Christian response to these people (an academic question, as I never have any cash on me in any case). Reading these chapters on prudence and making correct decisions based on true reality, it struck me that when Jesus was confronted with a beggar, he didn't give money, but instead dealt with the underlying problem of the one facing him -- the "objective reality" of the situation. He healed the lame and gave sight to the blind. In fact, when the penitent woman washed Jesus' feet with expensive spices and Judas complained that the money spent on the spices could have been given to the poor, Jesus replied that the poor would be always with us, whereas soon he would be taken from our sight. (I hope this retelling is correct; I'm pulling from memory.)

Prudence often dictates that we know how our money is to be used for God's glory, such as donating to a documented charity or giving to our parish for the care of the poor. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't work for the alleviation of poverty or refuse to ever give to a beggar, but that our decision must be based on a true understanding of the situation, not simply because we feel bad for the beggar or guilty that we have more. My father, who works downtown, carries rolls of bus tokens to give to those who beg from him -- a concrete means of assistance. (He reports that often gets dirty looks in thanks for his aid.)

I hope I'll be inspired to write more as I progress further in The Four Cardinal Virtues.

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