Prudence and the Foolishness of God

The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,
And the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

We are continuing a thematic approach to these evenings together. Each night we will consider one of the virtues of the soul – starting in the last three months with Love, Faith and Hope – gathered together by St Paul in different places in his writings – they are the foundation of the Christian life. Tonight we begin to reflect on the cardinal or natural virtues of prudence, temperance, courage, and justice.

This is paralleling a Student Study Group being organized by Jonathan Fink-Jensen on the virtues and vices. On Tuesday night, Rosemarie led the Bible study on Prudence and did a wonderful reflection, which I asked her to share it, to help me prepare tonight.  In reading it, I realize that I was imprudent to take on this task of preaching tonight!


Perhaps to see where prudence fits in with the soul, as a kind of gift, a crown, an adornment of the soul, it is helpful to have the model of the soul provided by Plato before our eyes – I suggest this because it has been adopted so universally through the ages and the cardinal virtues connect well with that model – as do the seven deadly sins and their remedies.

Why can we look to this model of the soul from the pagan Plato?

As Christians, we search eagerly for the Truth wherever we can find it.  Just as we don’t look to Scripture for an elaborate physiology of the body, we allow for the insights of modern medicine, just so, we are not afraid to acknowledge descriptions of the soul that are made by careful observation, whoever makes them, so long as they accord with truth and are helpful.  Of course we must see that such observations are tested by what Scripture says and as long as they are not contrary we hold them. And Scripture will give us insight from God in areas that human reason cannot penetrate – such as how to heal the sick soul, and about the workings of grace in the soul, our salvation in Christ.

So what is that model?

The soul is not a body and so it cannot properly be spoken of as having parts, as if we could divide it like a three dimensional body. But it is not improper to speak of the soul as having properties or aspects which sum up its activities.  There are three aspects, which have been observed from ancient times about the soul of human beings.  This is not the image of the Trinity in the soul.  But this is a more basic division: between (1) the rational aspect, that which decides; (2) the irascible or spirited aspect, that which responds to a perceived danger – fight or flight; and (3) the appetitive or desiring aspect, that which moves us towards what is good.

Plato famously described the ideal ordering of the soul as the charioteer (the rational aspect) holding the reins of two horses (the spirited and appetitive aspects).  A soul out of control is one where the charioteer has lost the reins and the soul is being led wildly astray or no where at all by these horses.  Christian teaching would agree that reason must be restored to its proper place of rule by grace – Jesus’ miraculous healings of the blind point to this (the mind being enlightened by the truth), he continually makes reasoned arguments to help us see through our confused thinking, and he calls on us to “judge with right judgement” [Jn 7:24], and he has come to save us from when we’ve lost control of the “horses”, giving us self-control and healing from the effects of that loss.  We are called to live a moral life: following the commandments is to rightly respond to the passions of the appetitive, irascible and rational aspects of the soul, that is to be endued with virtue.  [for a fuller explanation of the The Soul with Its Virtues and Vices click here]

The virtues adorn the soul as gifts from God and through good habits.

Tonight we are considering “Prudence” – it is the most important of the four natural cardinal virtues.

From Rosemarie’s notes…
Prudence is “a habit of the practical…intellect and is properly called wisdom with respect to human activities.” [Thomas Aquinas]

So we can see why prudence would be the most important virtue as it adorns the most important aspect of the soul…the rational aspect or intellect – [most important, because it is within that aspect that we find the image and likeness of God (since all animals have appetites and irascible aspects and even a lower reasoning mind).]

Prudence is about making the right decision in practical matters and it is based on two things:

  • a knowledge of what is good
  • an understanding of the earthly circumstances in which a decision needs to be taken to act

As Christians we have a certain knowledge of what is good in the face of Jesus Christ – no where else can we find such perfect thinking and acting in a human being – WWJD – what would Jesus do – to ask ourselves that question is a counsel to be wise.

We build up a knowledge in our minds of what is good in various ways as Christians,

  • by reading the Bible to so to better appreciate WWJD – a wisdom shown most profoundly in the Cross – it is a deep wisdom that we hold before our minds always to be renewed in our minds. St Paul, a very wise man, can say, I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
  • by asking other wise people, other Christians, their thoughts, their advice, reflecting together, and,
  • because we believe the Holy Spirit dwells in us and would whisper to each of us counsel, we ask continually in prayer for God’s advice and listen attentively for those whispers within.

All of that is kind of obvious.

That’s the first half.

The second is that we are also to engage in this world to understand it

  • to understand better the dynamics of human relationships,
  • to understand our world in all its workings – the sciences, the arts, business, government;
  • to understand our own souls, its gifts and our self-deceptions, where we are ignorant, and to have a healthy skepticism of our too quick answers about important things.
Prudence, Piero del Pollaiolo, 1470

In the figuring of the virtue Prudence in art, you will often see (right) a women holding a serpent (from Matt 10:16) and a mirror – not for the sake of vanity or self love, but to follow the ancient Greek adage, the Delphic oracle – “Know thyself”.  If you know how your own soul works, you get insight into how every person’s soul works.  For a Christian, we hold that mirror up, and compare it with the image we know of Christ – not to feel badly about ourselves when we see our failings, but to see where we might correct ourselves.  St Paul says, Do not think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but think with sober judgement. [Rom 12]  Self-reflection is necessary if we are to think with sober judgement.  If we do that, we will be led to seek the aid of others and of God continually.

So we need to know what the Good is to make good decisions, and we need to have a certain engagement in the world to understand how to apply it.

There is one main thing that will hinder us from being prudent, from being wise.

From Rosemarie’s notes…
“No moral virtue is possible without prudence” and “Without the moral virtues there is no prudence.”  These two sentences are both found in Thomas Aquinas’ treatises on prudence.  Only the prudent person can be just, brave and temperate, but he who is not already just, brave and temperate cannot be prudent.

There is always a connection between our moral life and our intellectual life, how we live our lives affects our ability to see the Good, to see God, and so to make good decisions – there is just no getting around this.

If we are intemperate – loving excessively or insufficiently the good things of this world – we will not be wise in our decision making.  An addict to whatever earthly pleasure does not make wise decisions until he or she seeks self-control, to be temperate.

If our irascible “horse” – the passions of fear or anger that arise in the face of danger are not rightly responded to with courage, we can hide ourselves away and fall into depression or despair or we can fly into a rage, our minds darkened and the light of God hidden – bad decisions are made if that unruly horse is allowed to lead.

This is simply another way of saying that if we fall into sin it affects our ability to act with prudence.

But as I said last Sunday – as Christians, we don’t stop sinning to be saved, we are saved by our baptism and faith in Christ, we are God’s children.  And now that we are Christians we stop sinning because we want to see our beloved God ever and ever more clearly – God is beauty, God is Wisdom, God is Love – and we seek God out so that we might know Him, and in knowing, come to a greater love of God, and also in that knowing we will be wise to act in this world in the most loving ways, in prudent ways.

Rosemarie spoke about a kind of circular logic…
Only the prudent person can be just, brave and temperate, but he who is not already just, brave and temperate cannot be prudent.

Perhaps a better image than a circle is a spiraling ascent…

Faith looks up continually to God, hope expects an answer, charity keeps our minds fixed on God and unafraid. These three theological virtues perfect all of the cardinal virtues: because they make us wise to God, we make better decisions in our lives, that in turn clarifies our minds, opening us to a greater vision, to wiser decisions and so a more holy life, until one day, when we are ready, we will see the Beatific Vision.

What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
Nor the human heart conceived,
What God has prepared for those who love him.

These things has God revealed to us through the Spirit,
for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.

Through baptism and faith we have received that Spirit – and over time, if we listen and act on that counsel, we are being given the mind of Christ.