27 November 2012


[These are the notes from a lecture I gave this past summer as part of a series on the Secunda Secundae of Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae.  It's imperfect, but I think a reasonably good outline of the subject matter.  Chances are that I deviate from St. Thomas periodically through ignorance. Mea culpa.]

Prudence and Art

1.  Today we're going to talk about three important virtues: ART, PRUDENCE, and JUSTICE.  Before getting tangled up in the details, we should pause to define our terms.  So here we go:

  • ART is the virtue of a craftsman: it is the ability to see how things should be made.  
  • PRUDENCE is the virtue of self-governance: the ability to see what is to be done in particular circumstances to achieve a given goal.  
  • JUSTICE is the virtue of equity and balance: the tendency to find and respect what is right in relationships with others.  

2.  To get an idea of how these virtues work, let's use an example that involves all three.  Imagine you're a carpenter and you're building a chair.  In order to build a chair, you need to know what kind of materials, tools, and techniques are good to use.  Some kinds of wood are better, some designs are more stable than others, some are more comfortable.  ART is the ability to know how a chair should be constructed in general, and the ability to execute that design effectively.

3.  But, in order to put your skills into practice, you need to deal with the present situation:  what materials are available for you to use?  Which tools do you have?  What's the best method given your materials and equipment?  How much money can you spend producing this chair?  Which of the possible good designs suits the purpose of the chair?  How can you meet your deadline?  This is where PRUDENCE enters the picture: Prudence is the ability to see how a goal is best executed in particular circumstances, to govern the details of a task's execution, and to provide for and deal with any contingencies that might cause you trouble.

4.  Finally, as a carpenter, you're building the chair for someone, and so your goal needs to be oriented toward what they've paid for.  It would be wrong to build a deck chair for someone who had paid for an armchair, or to build a chair from bad materials when someone had paid for the best.  JUSTICE is about always aiming toward what is right and deserved: rendering everyone what is due to them.

5.  Now that we've got an overview of our three virtues, let's look at them in particular, beginning with ART and PRUDENCE.

6.  Art and Prudence are both intellectual virtues, which means that they have more to do with knowing and judging than with willing or desiring.  Given a goal, Art and Prudence can tell you how to accomplish it.  What's important for us is to see how they differ.  ART is specifically about making things in reality match an idea you have in your head: you have an image and you see how to paint it, or you have the idea for a song and you set about composing it.  The classical definition of ART is right reason about the making of things.  Someone who has the virtue of Art can make their ideas a reality.

7.  PRUDENCE on the other hand is more general than art: Prudence is not about making the world match an idea, but about governing one's behavior so as to reach a goal.  Art is value-neutral: someone can be a master locksmith, and be exercising their Art by helping people or by breaking into houses and the virtue wouldn't decrease either way.  Prudence on the other hand is not value-neutral.  Prudence is about achieving reasonable goals using proper means: if one has a corrupt desire or uses evil means to achieve a good end, they lack prudence.

8.  Besides depending of the goodness of one's goals and means, Prudence also differs from Art in its object:  the perfection of Prudence results in a GOOD PERSON doing things well, where the perfection of Art results in GOOD PRODUCTS that have been well-made.  Prudence manifests itself in the prudent person, whereas Art manifests itself in the things produced by the person.  In other words, Prudence perfects the prudent person, where Art perfects the objects of their craft. [Pause for questions.]

9.  Now that we've made clear how Prudence and Art differ, we're going to leave Art behind and focus on Prudence, which is a higher and more important virtue.  In our example earlier of the carpenter making a chair, we saw that Prudence looked at the specifics of the situation and judged what was best given the goal.  Another way of looking at Prudence is as demonstrating the importance of ORDER in accomplishing tasks. We start with a goal, take into consideration the current situation and what needs to be accomplished, and then we watch to make sure that each step is executed properly. Each step we take toward the final product adds to what we have, but doesn't give us the chair itself. The craftsman has to keep in mind the end goal to see how everything he does fits together, and judge whether it's being done properly or requires improvement or change.

10. There are three general steps to prudence: counsel, choice, and command. The chief act of Prudence is to COMMAND, i.e. to order all the parts, degrees, and intentions of your activity toward the goal. Command follows CHOICE, however, since in any set of circumstances there will be multiple possible ways of achieving a goal, and choice depends on COUNSEL, which considers the various ways of achieving the goal and judges the pros and cons of each.

11. Prudence is an ACQUIRED VIRTUE. This means that it's not something you have by instinct or by nature: you have to gain it through experience or by divine gift. Prudence is normally acquired through experience, because it's essential to prudence to judge probable outcomes and to be familiar with the particulars of everyday life and the way the world works. Prudence, though similar to wisdom in its ability to order things rightly toward their goal, does not share wisdom's knowledge of the heights and depths of things. Prudence is thoroughly practical.

 12. There are eight aspects of prudence which can help us see what prudence looks like in action. We call these the "Integral Parts" of prudence, because integrated together they give us a clear picture of the virtue in its fullness.

 13. The integral parts of prudence are: Memory, Understanding, Docility, Shrewdness, Reason, Foresight, Circumspection, and Caution. Let's go through these one by one. 

14. MEMORY is the consideration of some past event or object.  Prudence depends on memory to draw conclusions from how things have gone in the past to how they will go in the future.  Without the use of memory, it's impossible to learn from experience.  E.g. remember that a pot that has been in the oven stays hot when it's on the stove.

15.  UNDERSTANDING is the clear insight into the nature of things and their relations to each other.  Understanding is necessary for prudence so that a person can see clearly what the goal is and how elements of the goal imply the order of tasks to be accomplished and their relation to one another.  Without understanding, it would be impossible to know what you were trying to do or see how to do it.  E.g. understand what it means to be prudent in order to see what parts of prudence you're neglecting.

16.  DOCILITY is the ability to learn from others' advice and from one's own experience.  Docility is necessary when one is taking counsel about what to do.  The person who lacks docility cannot benefit from others' experience and insight and will be more prone to error.  Without docility it is also more difficult to learn from one's own experience, so that you will be more likely to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.  E.g. Pay attention when someone warns you not to drive on an empty tank, or when the empty light goes on, instead of driving your car until it dies.

17.  SHREWDNESS is the ability to make quick, accurate judgments.  Shrewdness is important in the execution of acts because the shrewd person is able to adjust their plans quickly when things go wrong or new information appears.  Without shrewdness, you're more prone to be thrown off by chance or accidents, or to fail to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities.  E.g. Notice that a friend is upset so that you know to attend to what's bothering them without being asked.

18.  REASON is the ability to draw conclusions from given information.  Without reason it would be impossible to put together everything you know to make an informed choice.  Get as much advice and be as careful as you like, without reason it won't help you.  Reason is important also in that it enables one to take general principles and apply them to particular cases.  E.g. Think through your financial needs and resources to determine whether a particular purchase is within your means.

19.  FORESIGHT is the anticipation of likely events and outcomes.  Foresight is essential to good planning and helps you make the best choices.  Without looking ahead it's impossible to know what one should do presently.  E.g. Realize that you'll probably forget to pack toothbrush and soap for your trip, so you pack them first.

20.  CIRCUMSPECTION is the awareness of the present situation and its particularities.  You can be good at making plans in the abstract, but without circumspection you won't be able to tell how those plans fit into the reality of what you're doing.  You won't be able to see what needs to be changed in order to accomplish your goal.  E.g. Look around you when you're walking alone late at night in a bad neighborhood.

21.  CAUTION is avoiding threats to success.  Caution helps you see how things could go wrong, or what could stand in your way, and helps you get past these things without disaster.  Realize that accidents happen in chemistry labs, and you should wear goggles just in case.  [Repeat all 8.  Pause for questions.]

22.  We said earlier that prudence was the virtue of good self-government.  Prudence also extends to the governing of others.  In this case, the good pursued isn't just one's personal desire but matches up with the proper goal of the group one's governing, i.e., the common good.  For example, running a household requires prudence, as does running a city or a country or an army.  In each of these cases prudence changes a little bit, because the goal proper to each of them is slightly different.  But the core of the virtue and the way it works remains the same.  This is worth noticing, because it tells us something about good leaders: if their goals are bad or their chosen ways of achieving them are bad, then they probably can't be trusted to rule well.

23.  From everything we've said so far, we can deduce that there are a variety of different kinds of IMPRUDENCE, based on a failure of any of the chief acts of prudence, especially counsel and command.  To reject counsel because you're too sure of yourself is TEMERITY.  To neglect counsel because you fail to consider what you're doing is THOUGHTLESSNESS.  To fail to command what you've judged to be right (i.e., to sway needlessly from your plan) is INCONSTANCY, and if you do it through carelessness then it is NEGLIGENCE.  St. Gregory the Great says that all of these vices arise chiefly from Lust. More on this in Week 6.

24.  Aside from the vices that are opposed to Prudence by lacking one of the chief acts of prudence, other vices are opposed to prudence by being aimed at an evil end or using false means to achieve it.  These are PRUDENCE OF THE FLESH, which is aimed at worldly goods and pleasures to the exclusion of genuine happiness, and CRAFTINESS, by which one attempts to achieve a goal by means of secrecy and deceit.  St. Gregory says that both of these vices are associated with greed.  That concludes our discussion of Prudence.  [Pause for questions.]


25.  Now that we've finished discussing Prudence, it's time to look at Justice.  We said before that the main acts of Prudence are to take counsel and to command.  The main act of Justice is to RENDER WHAT IS DUE.  Justice takes account of the proper balance in relationships and strives to do what is right.

26.  Prudence and Justice are very different from each other.  Prudence is more of an intellectual virtue, and Justice pertains more to the will.  I.e., with prudence what matters chiefly is the ability to reason and judge, but with Justice what matters is what you want and pursue.  A just person pursues what is right and flees what is wrong.  Justice depends on Prudence to see how an action will turn out in relation to others, and to judge what is due to them.  But without the virtue of justice, someone can know what is right and still choose to do otherwise.  Since Justice is based on "Right", we need to think about "right" a little more.

27.  People talk a lot about "Right" and, especially, "Rights".  We hear increasing numbers of appeals to human rights, economic rights, right to privacy, rights to happiness, inalienable rights, universal rights, contractual rights, etc.  The common-sense idea is that a "right" is some fact about a person independent of everyone else, according to which they deserve a certain kind of life or a certain type of treatment when they enter into society. 

28.  This idea that rights grounded in individuals apart from society is fascinating mostly because it's so fundamentally wrong, but so totally pervasive in our civilization.  A right is thought to be something fundamental about human moral agency: a kind of castle keep into which no moral judgment or exercise of civil prudence can intrude. Rights are a kind of entitlement, and the intrusion of any one or anything into the domain guaranteed by a right is an absolute moral evil. Thus the contemporary language of rights implicitly postulates the existence of a sphere of perfect privacy within the person. Within this space the person is separated from the world and exists apart from all truth and objective goodness and free from any constraints of nature, since none of these things is capable of rightful entry.

29.  We could go deeper into our discussion of contemporary ideas about "rights", and see how they lead to a prioritization of individual preferences over and against the common good, how they encourage people to see their own happiness as independent of human nature, and how they lead to weird (but increasingly common) ideas about personal autonomy and a right to self-creation.  But to save time we're going to skip all that and focus on a more reasonable and traditional understanding of right.

30.  RIGHTS only exist within relationships between people.  That means that there are no rights intrinsic to an individual.  A castaway on a desert island doesn't really have rights, since there's no relationship that demands respect or equity.  The castaway couldn't appeal to the UN Charter of Human Rights and claim that their lack of adequate food and shelter was unjust.  This wouldn't make sense.

31.  The flip side of a right is a DUTY.  Within relationships, right measures the equity of exchange and proper proportion between those involved, and in order to respect rights, one must render what is due to others.  This is duty. 

32.  The word Justice actually comes from the Latin word for "right" (jus), so that Justice is really the virtue by which one pursues what is right and avoids what is wrong.

33.  Rights flow from two sources:  NATURE and HUMAN LAW.  From nature we have certain facts about human beings that demand respect:  we owe care to our parents and even moreso to our children; we cannot rightfully infringe on another person's life, we ought not be dishonest, etc.  These are all natural rights which exist between people.  It's not the case that people intrinsically have a right to live, or to know the truth, or to have a spouse, etc.  But one person does not have the right to kill another, or to lie to another, or to be unfaithful to their spouse.  If, for example, you mistakenly tell someone something that isn't true, you have not acted unjustly, and the rights of that person have not been violated.  An untimely injury is not a violation of my rights unless it's inflicted with wrongful intent by another person.

34.  It's important to see that rights are between people and not inherent in individuals, because when people think of rights as existing apart from relationships, they miss something very important: rights exist within communities, among people, and almost every right that I have implies a duty that I have toward the other members of my community, or family, or state.

35.  The relationship between rights and community becomes even clearer when we look at the second source of rights: HUMAN LAW.  Within a community, there is always some lawgiving authority who looks after the common good: a president, a king, a congress, etc.  A LAW is an ordinance of political prudence devised for the common good by the person who has care of the community and made known to them. 

36.  Human laws order communities and provide a reference point against which individuals can order their own behavior.  So, e.g. it isn't a universal or natural fact that one should not drive on the left side of the street, but it is important for the good of the community that everyone follow that rule.  If they didn't, things would go poorly.  Human laws exist to apply norms of equity and right to a political community according to prudence, for the sake of the common good.

37.  Justice is manifested in application to various relationships, and encompasses every aspect of human life with others. (There's a lot to say about Justice.)  There are nine chief virtues which are closely associated with Justice: Religion, Piety, Observance, Gratitude, Vengeance, Truth, Friendliness, Liberality, and Epikeia.  For the rest of our time today we're going to go through each of these and get a sense of what they are.

38.  RELIGION:  Religion is rendering to God what is due to him.  What is our relationship with God?  We are his creatures, who depend on him for everything that we have and are, without exception.  What is due to God?  All that we are.  How do render ourselves to God?  By tending toward perfection, which he desires for us.  Does God benefit from our offering ourselves to him?  No, but we benefit by sharing in his goodness and achieving a greater measure of happiness.

39.  There are ten main ACTS OF RELIGION:

  • DEVOTION is the desire to give oneself readily to the service of God.  It is caused by the contemplation of God's goodness and loving kindness, and of our own shortcomings on account of which we need him.  
  • PRAYER is asking (fitting) things of God.  Prayer is caused by charity, and should be only as long as attention allows, and as short as necessary to arouse fervor in the heart.
  • ADORATION is the (mainly internal) acknowledgment of God's supreme excellence.  It's an act of honoring God.
  • SACRIFICE is a natural outward expression of adoration, in which one offers up what one has to God in recognition of his worthiness. OBLATIONS and TITHES are types of sacrifice.
  • VOWS are promises to God, by which we bind ourselves to some good intention.
  • OATHS are promises to other people in which we invoke God as the witness of the promise.
  • ADJURATION is when one solemnly invokes the name of God to urge someone else to do something.
  • INVOCATION of God's name for the sake of praise is also an act of religion.
40.  There are EIGHT VICES OPPOSED to religion:
  • UNDUE WORSHIP: Worshipping the true God in an unfitting way.  E.g. by human sacrifice.
  • IDOLATRY: Worshipping something other than God.
  • DIVINATION: The prediction of future events not according to reason or probability or revelation, but by consulting spirits or invoking demons or pretending to see signs in natural things, etc.
  • WITCHCRAFT: The use of "magic arts" for the purpose of gaining knowledge, or health: by spells or whatever other means.
  • TEMPTING GOD: To test God by trying to force him to act.  (E.g. Gideon)
  • PERJURY: Lying under Oath.
  • SACRELIGE: Violating sacred things, dishonoring them, or putting them to ill use.
  • SIMONY: The purchase or sale of some spiritual thing (blessing, prayer, etc., but especially ordination — a common medieval crime)
41.  The second virtue associated with Justice is PIETY: the rendering up of good works to those who have given us our being, namely: God, Parents, and Government.  God is the chief recipient of piety, because he has literally given us everything, but the exercise of Piety toward God flows into Religion, which we've already discussed.  So what remains are Filial Piety, i.e. piety toward our parents and relatives, and Civic Piety, i.e. a due honor and service to our country, its citizens, and its allies.

42.  The third virtue associated with Justice is OBSERVANCE: the rendering of honor due to someone on account of their excellence.  Observance applies to several types of people: those who are in positions of authority or dignity, and those who have achieved an extraordinary degree of excellence (e.g. the saints).  There are two SPECIAL FORMS OF OBSERVANCE:
  • DULIA, which is the honor due to the saints in heaven on account of the holiness of their lives here and their perfect union with God at the present time.
  • OBEDIENCE, which is toward those in positions of authority: God, spiritual authorities, and political authorities.
43.  The fourth virtue associated with Justice is GRATITUDE, which is offered to our benefactors.  Gratitude should be expressed in the returning of favors, and it should be expressed (if possible) with generosity (i.e. more than the gift received).  Gratitude need not be expressed immediately, since the rushed return of a gift inspires a sense of indebtedness instead of thanks.  (They're different!)

44.  The fifth virtue associated with Justice is VENGEANCE, which is the rectification of injustice by means of punishment, not with the intention of hurting those who have done wrong, but with the intention of restoring equity and order.  Vengeance has two purposes:
  • PUNISHMENT: The dealing out of dues based on the injustice of one's crimes, so as to restore the order of a community.
  • PREVENTION: The rectification of the wrongdoer's disposition so that he understands and no longer desires to do evil.
45.  Vengeance is only rightfully doled out by a person in authority: Parents over children, Governments over Citizens, and God over all.  Just as rights exist in communities, they can only be violated in communities (however small), and thus can only be restored by the community which has suffered wrong.

46.  HONESTY is the sixth virtue associated with Justice, and it consists of telling the truth to other people, in accord with our common membership in society, which is impossible without Honesty.  Opposed to honest are lying, hypocrisy (pretending you're holy), boasting (claiming you're holy), and irony (making oneself out to be worse than you are).

47.  FRIENDLINESS is the seventh virtue associated with Justice, and it consists of being pleasant toward the people who live with and near us.  Friendliness is violated through flattery and quarreling.

48.  LIBERALITY is the eighth virtue associated with Justice, and it consists of being generous with money and using money freely for the benefit of others.  Opposed to liberality are GREED, which is an excessive love of possessing wealth, and PRODIGALITY, which is an excessive love of spending.

49.  Finally, the ninth virtue associated with Justice is EPIKEIA, or "equity", which respects the proper proportion of things aside from the mandates of human law.  Certain acts of mercy would be attached to Epikeia, including clemency toward criminals.

50.  A lot more could be said about the various acts of Justice, the vices opposed to it, the virtues which assist it, and so on.  Hopefully we've covered a good chunk of the basics.  Before stopping for today, we should notice one final thing about Justice and its place among the virtues.

51.  Justice includes every act that has to do with rights and duties and the proper equity within society. But Justice is not the whole of morality, and if you were to attend to Justice alone without looking at the other virtues, you would end up with a very cold and awful understanding of the moral life: one governed solely by obligation and law, without flexibility or real choice, one constantly weighed down by the need to fulfill requirements and empty of genuine love or active prudence.  

52.  The picture of justice we've given here should help us avoid that, though.  At every turn, Justice is tied to the other virtues: Charity, Friendship, Generosity, and the rest.  Justice is a kind of frame that allows the rest of life to take place, that holds things in place with law and obligation so that one is free to express one's adherence to the law and to transcend it as one wills.  

53.  Perhaps most importantly, we should always remember that Justice is a virtue of the will: it has to do with what we want to do, not just what we ought to do, and the various virtues attached to justice all arise as expressions of some Good done by someone else that we want to honor or repay.  Justice ties together the other virtues of the will, Temperance and Fortitude, which we will discuss next week, and makes them cohere in the natural community of human life.  It begins to show us how our own perfection in virtue and struggle for happiness is tied up with the same desires and struggles of everyone around us.