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The Actual Perfection of Prudence

In this weekend’s first reading, prudence is mentioned in a context that would make all Virtue Ethicists proud: “For taking thought of wisdom is the perfection of prudence.” Thus, prudence looks to wisdom in order to find its perfection. As always, Jesus shows and tells us the way.
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
 
First Reading: Wisdom 6:12-16
 
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 63:2-8
 
Second Reading: St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Thessalonians 4:13-18
 
Gospel: According to St. Matthew 25:1-13
 
Josef Pieper was one of the great voices of the philosophical movement known as Virtue Ethics.  His brief text The Christian Idea of Man along with his lengthier follow-up The Four Cardinal Virtues were seminal works that set the stage for such writings as After Virtue by Notre Dame’s Alasdair MacIntyre and Vision and Virtue by Duke’s Stanley Hauerwas.  The modern turn in Virtue Ethics is rooted in the ancient Greeks, especially Aristotle and his Nicomachean Ethics, as well as the vision of reality presented by Christ in the Gospels.  Where philosophical ethics can only ponder the theoretical ‘truly virtuous man,’ Pieper and other Christian ethicists can claim to have found Him.
 
As with all good philosophers, Pieper begins at the beginning and proposes that the order of the four cardinal virtues – prudence, justice, courage (fortitude), and moderation (temperance) – is not random, but is logically necessary because each virtue depends upon the one or ones that precede it.  He then quotes St. Thomas Aquinas who, in his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, states that “Prudence is the mother of the virtues.”
 
The belief that only the prudent person can be just, brave and temperate, and that a good person is good only insofar as she or he is prudent is a belief that, in the words of Pieper, “strikes a note of strangeness to the ears of contemporary Christians.”  For us, the common understanding of prudence brings to mind those who can be described as wishy-washy, weak-kneed, and, worst of all, milquetoast. The prudent politician, for example, always bends her or his message to the audience at hand, and always makes sure to leave the door open to changing beliefs depending on the direction of the winds of popular opinion.
 
Such politicians would not be very comfortable in the world presented by the aptly titled Book of Wisdom.  In this weekend’s first reading prudence is mentioned in a context that would make all Virtue Ethicists from Aristotle and Aquinas to Pieper and his heirs proud: “For taking thought of wisdom is the perfection of prudence.” Thus, instead of looking to self-preservation, prudence looks to wisdom in order to find its perfection.
 
Thinking back to how Jesus led His life one can come up with numerous examples of actions that seem imprudent to the eyes of the world, yet are the actual perfection of prudence.  One compelling example is that of the woman caught in adultery, and His response to her situation.  A worldly approach to prudence would say, “Mind your own business, keep your head down, nothing to see here.”  Yet Jesus sticks His nose in where others might cross the road and keep moving.  He knew the injustice of the situation, and He stepped in to stop it.  He knew the true reality, and He knew how His actions should deal with that reality.  He acted in accord with true prudence – prudence in accord with wisdom.
 
In the Parable of the Ten Virgins, recounted in this weekend’s Gospel story from St. Matthew, we see a very different situation, yet based on the same principles of prudential judgment – know what is really happening and determine what needs to be done.  When the Bridegroom is late in His arrival to the wedding feast some are not prepared, and they must leave to buy oil for their lamps.  Upon their return the door has been locked.  If they had only been prepared and ready for the Bridegroom, then they would not have found themselves left alone in the utter darkness.
 
Just as there was no excuse for the foolish virgins to be without oil, so with us there is no excuse for not being prepared for the heavenly banquet – whether it comes today or in the distant future.   Prudence demands that we be ready, but it also enables us to act with justice, courage, and temperance, and, in the end, these are really the only gifts that we can offer to the Bridegroom at the wedding feast.
 
A.M.D.G.