Thursday, May 2, 2013

Prudence - part 3

A disciple came to the Muslim Master Maruf Karkhi and said, "I have been talking to people about you. The Jews say you are one of their own. The Christians consider you to be one of their saints. And the Muslims look upon you as a glory to Islam." Maruf replied, "That's what they say here in Baghdad. When I lived in Jerusalem, the Jews dubbed me a Christian; the Christians a Muslim; and the Muslims, a Jew." "Then what are we to think of you?"

"Think of me as a man who said this about himself: Those who do not understand me revere me. Those who revile me do not understand me either." (Anthony de Mello, Taking Flight (New York: Bantam Doubleday, Inc., 1990), pp. 140-141)

Unlike the spiritual wisdom of the mystics – regardless of religious affiliation – that is incomprehensible to those whose journeys do not include a mystical component, prudence is, as the second installment of this three part series on prudence emphasized, accessible to people contextually co-located. The prudence of the Greeks, or of modern Pakistanis, may seem incomprehensible to a twenty-first century American but genuine prudence is understandable by people who hold common, or substantially overlapping, worldviews.

Developing the virtue of prudence is no mere intellectual exercise. In addition to grasping concepts or ideas, the virtue of prudence requires practice, that is, opportunities to make prudential decisions. For this reason, Aristotle argued that only rulers can develop this virtue: only rulers have the opportunity to exercise practical wisdom (Politics, III.4). He explains: "Virtue is of two sorts, virtue of thought and virtue of character. Virtue of thought arises and grows mostly from teaching, and hence needs experience and time. Virtue of character results from habit." (Nicomachean Ethics, II, 1)

Thomas Aquinas, in the thirteenth century, recognized the importance of every person developing prudential wisdom: "Prudence is a virtue most necessary for human life. For a good life consists in good deeds. Now in order to do good deeds, it matters not only what a man does, but also how he does it; in other words, it matters that he do it from right choice and not merely from impulse or passion." (Summa Theologica, II(I), Q57, A5) This notion of the virtuous person exercising practical wisdom coheres well with Rawls' description of prudence in terms of reasonableness, decency, and rationality, broadening Aristotle's understanding of prudence without stretching it to a breaking point.

What ongoing steps do you take to acquire practical wisdom through listening to (or reading) the ideas and experiences of others? Do you daily consider your opportunities to exercise prudence by recognizing moral choices that you can make, identifying the issues involved, and then make good choices that rest on the wisdom of a reasonable, decent, and rational community?

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