Prudence – Peter Atkinson

WHEN the chaplain invited me to preach, I was very glad to accept the invitation. When, having secured my acceptance, he wrote to say that there was to be a series of sermons on the virtues, and that mine was prudence, I must admit to having had second thoughts. Why prudence? Why me? One could make something of fortitude or justice, one could go far with faith, hope or charity. But prudence? The virtue of caution, I thought; the boring virtue; a virtue for bank managers, investment brokers and chancellors of the Exchequer. But then, I thought, cheering myself up, at least I’ve not been given temperance; that might have spoiled my enjoyment of high table.
And then I thought of Dante Alighieri. Dante’s great poem the Paradiso, the third part of the Divine Comedy, is a magnificent imaginative reconstruction of the cosmos, as conceived by intelligent mediaeval people, in which Dante matches up the seven virtues of classical and Christian tradition with the spheres of heaven. Not surprisingly, he connects fortitude (that militant virtue) to the sphere of Mars; he assigns justice (that kingly virtue) to the sphere of Jupiter; but prudence is found in the sphere of the Sun. And that surprised me. Dante must have seen something in the virtue of prudence that I hadn’t seen: something brilliant, something dazzling, something that reminded him of sunlight. Perhaps there was more to prudence than I had thought. It might be an idea to listen to the people Dante listened to.
The vision of human life set out so comprehensively, movingly and excitingly in the Divine Comedy was shaped by many influences. Foremost among them was St Thomas Aquinas, who brought together the spiritual insights of the Christian tradition (most notably expressed by St Augustine) with the philosophical reflections of Aristotle. That doesn’t make Aquinas infallible, but it does mean that he draws on an astonishingly wide range of human wisdom.
First of all, Aquinas helps us to think about virtue as such. Moral virtues are not the same as moral rules. To talk, for instance, about the virtue of charity is not just to say that people ought to be charitable. The virtue of charity is the strength to be charitable. The word ‘virtue’ translates the Latin word for strength or power, which in turn translates the Greek word dunamis, from which we get words like ‘dynamo’ and ‘dynamism’. So a moral virtue is not just a rule about what we ought to do; it is the dynamism, the energy with which to carry it out.
Turning to the virtue of prudence in particular, Aquinas sees it as an intellectual virtue as well as a moral one: that is, it is the ability to discern, and then, on the basis of that discernment, to act. The prudent person is one who accurately discerns the world around them, sees it as it really is; and so is able to act effectively. We now see, perhaps, why Dante assigned the virtue of prudence to the sphere of the sun. It is seeing things in the broad light of day. It is another word for realism.
Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas and Dante shared a common world-view at least to this extent: that they all believed that trying to live a good life was a rational thing to do, and it therefore belonged in the public forum; it was open to scrutiny, criticism and debate. In other words, morality is more than a matter of purely private or personal choice. That is the gulf which separates their world-view from that of so many people today. A common assumption today is that the private individual is the final arbiter of their own actions, and that questions of right and wrong belong solely to that inward world. A variation on that view is that there are indeed ethical questions that belong to the public world – issues of peace and justice, for example, or issues of poverty or climate change – but personal behaviour is of a different order, and remains firmly tucked out of sight in that other world of personal lifestyle and private choice.
Aquinas challenges us to see reality as a whole, not compartmentalized into public and private sectors; not separating out the ‘ethical’ issues of the public world from the ‘moral’ issues of private life. And in the centre of it he puts the cardinal virtue of prudence, the capacity to see the world as it is and to see it whole, and to act rightly and effectively within it.
This means at any rate that prudence need not be boring; and sometimes it should not be cautious. ‘Prudence’, for example, would describe the gifted politician who sees several moves ahead of his opponents, and recognises that decisive action now will bear fruit later, though no one else can see it. ‘Prudence’ would describe the supreme artist who has a vision and pursues it in the face of public scorn, knowing that one day others will see what she has seen and will applaud it. ‘Prudence’ would describe the skilled military commander who sees the sure chance of victory by one bold move, and takes it. (Valour, we might say, is sometimes the better part of prudence.) In each of these examples, I find that I have spoken of prudence in terms of seeing further: it is, as Aquinas says, a ‘cognitive’ virtue; and so it is the opposite of how we often use the word. We think of the prudent person as one who thinks that the way ahead is hard to see, and therefore acts cautiously. The prudence that Aristotle, Aquinas and Dante celebrated was precisely the capacity to see far ahead, and therefore to act boldly.
Is there a specifically Christian character to the virtue of prudence? In a remarkable passage, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once described Jesus Christ as ‘the most prudent of men’. By which he did not mean that the Lord was cautious, timid, anxious to avoid failure, or over-attached to his comfort-zone: far from it. He meant rather that Jesus discerned unflinchingly the way that God had marked out for him, and having discerned it he followed it unswervingly; in the conviction that even if his life ended painfully and prematurely, God would give that apparent failure some meaning and some point.
Prudence in this sense describes a life lived in the Spirit of Christ. And how is such prudence acquired? Thomas Aquinas tells us that it’s gained in two ways. He uses the word ‘habit’ which for him has an active sense: a habit is something you put on and wear, a piece of clothing. The habit of prudence then is matter of deliberate practice: the habit of assembling the facts before jumping to conclusions; the habit of careful consideration before acting or speaking or hitting the ‘send’ button; the habit of seeing reality and seeing it whole. Anyone can practise the habit of prudence. But for the person who seeks to live their life in the Spirit of Christ, says Aquinas, there is also prayer. By which he doesn’t mean just coming to God with a list of requests, like a sort of Father Christmas, but prayer as Aquinas himself understood and practised it: the prayer of meditation, the prayer of quiet reflection, the prayer of attentiveness and receptivity, the prayer that enables one to stand back from the busyness of life and regain one’s balance. In that sort of prayer, God gives the gift of prudence, the secret of effective action.

PETER ATKINSON Dean of Worcester
31st January 2010

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