Prudence Is The Key

The Christian life is to be one in which we are free to love others, even sinners. We are going to be around others who do not live like we do, who do not seek to be holy as hopefully we seek to be holy. We are not to constantly berate them for their lack of holiness. We are to show them dignity. We are to respect them as persons. We can, when the time is right, explain, in a prudential fashion, the harm we think they are doing to themselves, but even if they will not listen to us, we should not use that to distance ourselves from them. Only if what they can affect us personally, if they are liable to encourage us to follow a way of life which is harmful to us or those dear to us, should we consider not being with them. If we have an addiction to alcohol, it probably is best to avoid bars and to avoid the near occasion for sin. On the other hand, if we find ourselves untouched by temptation, how we handle ourselves with others can have a positive effect upon them. It should not be seen as a sign of sin to hang with people who live in sin. Indeed, if we have matured enough spiritually, there should be no temptation:

For just as it is not possible for the sun ever to soil its rays by shining on a swamp, neither is it possible to soul the soul or reasoning faculty of a man who has received the grace to bear God even if his most pure body should chance to be wallowing, so to speak, in a swamp of human bodies – a situation, to be sure, which is unusual for God-fearing people. Nor do I stop there, but even if such a man were to be confined with tens of thousands who were unbelieving and impious and debauched, and his naked body were to be in contact with their naked bodies, he would not be injured in his faith, nor estranged from his Master, nor forgetful of His beauty.[1]

Sadly, prudence is lost to many who seek the way of holiness. We must avoid what tempts us, but not all sin is going to tempt us. And not everything which would tempt us has to be, in itself, sin. More importantly, not everything which is a temptation for us turns out to be a temptation for others. We must not confuse what works for us, what is helping us overcome temptation, as being necessary for others. This truth must be recognized, not just on the personal level, but with societies as a whole. Social mores affect us in many ways. The mores of one culture will differ from the mores of another culture. What we see as unacceptable might be acceptable in another culture with different social cues. Temptation is, in part, based upon how we read the situation, and social mores affect this greatly. The example of nudity is a good one. For some, nudity is a sexual thing, and so all nudity is seen with a sexual lens. For others, such as in many tribal cultures, it is all around them and it doesn’t entice them, because they do not interpret such nudity with sensual overtones. Modesty is what is important.  One can be fully clothed and immodest, or nude and quite modest. What lies within, not without, is what defiles someone. This is not to say that if we have no problem with nudity we should be out in public in the buff. Again, prudence says we should consider others and how it would affect them. But, when dealing with others, the key to remember is not to project judgments upon them based upon our own cultural standards or personal needs. Yes, they might be sinners, but on the other hand, it is not necessarily the case and we can end up condemning someone holy. The words of St Symeon the New Theologian above came as the result of condemnations placed upon his mentor by those who saw him walking around in the buff. St Symeon was able to prove that his mentor was a holy man, and had him canonized in the process of proving his holy innocence.  Let us not make the same mistake. Love, and let God judge the soul.


[1] St Symeon the New Theologian, On the Mystical Life: The Ethical Discourses. Volume II:  On Virtue and the Christian Life. Trans. Alexander Golitzin (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 71.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    Henry,

    I agree that the virtue of prudence is a vastly under-appreciated good. It seems obvious that part of the reason for that lack is that it is hard now for many to distinguish it from what we might call “Machiavellian caution”. True prudence comes from a deep understanding of things. Perhaps it does not have to be philosophical per se, because it is a virtue that one sees in virtuous leaders, and leaders are rarely philosophical types primarily by disposition. But prudence involves elements of a more philosophical take on life, whereas Machiavellian caution does not. Such conniving caution is now the well circulated coin of our cultural realm. But the irony is that such opportunistic caution has a self-destructive naivete at the heart of it, or a kind grotesque hyper-technologized optimism at the heart of it. It is based on the view that you can be clever enough routinely to fool others, and get away with some little scheme, or precious private plan about how you personally want others to be. So you can be more comfortable with yourself or the world.

    Prudence, by contrast, starts with respect and love for others. It acknowledges a deeper sense of life for others, not just for yourself. It means that others are not just objects to be perfected in my own little world, but ends in themselves, not means for my little plans, even if they are virtuous one ironically. Many things follow from this simple and deep reality. Only a fool or a nut keeps company with those you do not feel some deep congruence with, and feeling of existential comfort. You must share the basic ideal that others share, in the group you choose. If not, prudence knows, you will be found out in short order. Similarly, as the world only works by having leaders, it is crucial not to serve a leader(s) you do not like, rather it must be someone with whom one feels you basically share deeper values.

    The beautiful part is that having such deep congruent prudence makes dealing with people more natural. If you have that deep sense of congruence you will be less disturbed by the very inevitable stuff you don’t understand by some people in whatever group one belongs to. For this is exactly what 80% of what life is about, realistically. There is always so much stuff we don’t get about others, and there is always an odd person in any group. If you deal with them only with Machiavellian caution you are fooling yourself if you think they will not know. Instead if you embrace them on the prudential horizon of larger commitments, there is a chance for real growth. Again, even the MOST virtuous sentiment used or deployed in a merely Machiavellian way is what I call a sin, and worse it will always make everything turn to crap in short order.

    I cannot help but feel that these very sorts of questions are on the minds of many liberal Catholics nowadays. The question is, is there a deep congruence for them with the Catholic institution?? I have no trouble acknowledging that Catholicism is easily amenable to larger visions of things. But it is an historical strangeness of our contemporary moment that the very “Magisterium” of the Catholic Church is embroiled, by their own design seemingly, in political matters so minute as to make a larger vision seem simply statistically unlikely in myriad circumstances. In this country, it is quite unprecedented and disturbing. I think this is what is making prudence very hard in Catholic realms nowadays. It is ultimately not really about prudence; it is about congruence. Or lack of it for lots of Catholics.

    • http://roadgoeseveron.wordpress.com Henry Karlson

      I think it depends upon where one is looking. Prudence is taught in the universities, in theology, though the political side of things has gone to a very imprudent position. The center of this comes from the pro-life “fight” in the US, leading to a rather unholistic approach to everything else. Prudence seeks balance, is able to juggle many things at once, and of course, accept that other positions are possible.

      I fear things are going to get worse before they are better, but I think the core “middle way” is there and will come back.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    Henry,

    I agree that the virtue of prudence is a vastly under-appreciated good. It seems obvious that part of the reason for that lack is that it is hard now for many to distinguish it from what we might call “Machiavellian caution”. True prudence comes from a deep understanding of things. Perhaps it does not have to be philosophical per se, because it is a virtue that one sees in virtuous leaders, and leaders are rarely philosophical types primarily by disposition. But prudence involves elements of a more philosophical take on life, whereas Machiavellian caution does not. Such conniving caution is now the well circulated coin of our cultural realm. But the irony is that such opportunistic caution has a self-destructive naivete at the heart of it, or a kind grotesque hyper-technologized optimism at the heart of it. It is based on the view that you can be clever enough routinely to fool others, and get away with some little scheme, or precious private plan about how you personally want others to be. So you can be more comfortable with yourself or the world.

    Prudence, by contrast, starts with respect and love for others. It acknowledges a deeper sense of life for others, not just for yourself. It means that others are not just objects to be perfected in my own little world, but ends in themselves, not means for my little plans, even if they are virtuous one ironically. Many things follow from this simple and deep reality. Only a fool or a nut keeps company with those you do not feel some deep congruence with, and feeling of existential comfort. You must share the basic ideal that others share, in the group you choose. If not, prudence knows, you will be found out in short order. Similarly, as the world only works by having leaders, it is crucial not to serve a leader(s) you do not like, rather it must be someone with whom one feels you basically share deeper values.

    The beautiful part is that having such deep congruent prudence makes dealing with people more natural. If you have that deep sense of congruence you will be less disturbed by the very inevitable stuff you don’t understand by some people in whatever group one belongs to. For this is exactly what 80% of what life is about, realistically. There is always so much stuff we don’t get about others, and there is always an odd person in any group. If you deal with them only with Machiavellian caution you are fooling yourself if you think they will not know. Instead if you embrace them on the prudential horizon of larger commitments, there is a chance for real growth. Again, even the MOST virtuous sentiment used or deployed in a merely Machiavellian way is what I call a sin, and worse it will always make everything turn to crap in short order.

    I cannot help but feel that these very sorts of questions are on the minds of many liberal Catholics nowadays. The question is, is there a deep congruence for them with the Catholic institution?? I have no trouble acknowledging that Catholicism is easily amenable to larger visions of things. But it is an historical strangeness of our contemporary moment that the very “Magisterium” of the Catholic Church is embroiled, by their own design seemingly, in political matters so minute as to make a larger vision seem simply statistically unlikely in myriad circumstances. In this country, it is quite unprecedented and disturbing. I think this is what is making prudence very hard in Catholic realms nowadays. It is ultimately not really about prudence; it is about congruence. Or lack of it for lots of Catholics.

    • http://roadgoeseveron.wordpress.com Henry Karlson

      I think it depends upon where one is looking. Prudence is taught in the universities, in theology, though the political side of things has gone to a very imprudent position. The center of this comes from the pro-life “fight” in the US, leading to a rather unholistic approach to everything else. Prudence seeks balance, is able to juggle many things at once, and of course, accept that other positions are possible.

      I fear things are going to get worse before they are better, but I think the core “middle way” is there and will come back.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ivan.kauffman Ivan Kauffman

    I find this very helpful. Thank you. We in the West have so much to gain from listening to the saints and other voices from the Eastern churches.

    • http://roadgoeseveron.wordpress.com Henry Karlson

      Yes, being Byzantine, I try to bring this out (though I also point out the need for the East to look West, too). I chose St Symeon for a point today because it is his feast day — and he is a favorite saint of mine.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ivan.kauffman Ivan Kauffman

    I find this very helpful. Thank you. We in the West have so much to gain from listening to the saints and other voices from the Eastern churches.

    • http://roadgoeseveron.wordpress.com Henry Karlson

      Yes, being Byzantine, I try to bring this out (though I also point out the need for the East to look West, too). I chose St Symeon for a point today because it is his feast day — and he is a favorite saint of mine.

  • Bruce in Kansas

    Great post.

  • Bruce in Kansas

    Great post.