the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of
Antioch, 1st c. A.D
How to Acquire the Virtue of Prudence
virtuous person starts with developing Prudence, as Prudence is the
of the Virtues," the sine qua non
of all the others. It
is the virtue that Aristotle -- and Aquinas after him -- described as
"right reason applied to
practice," a perfection of the intellect.
And because it's the intellect that
must decide which actions are the most fortitudinous, temperate, or
just in a given situation, we must begin here.
When we choose something, our natural reason inclines us to choose the
good. Prudence comes in after that choice; it's about knowing how we achieve that good, applying
that knowledge to our circumstances, and commanding action. It's
concerned with finding "the Golden Mean"
of a virtue we need to practice so that we don't err by deficit or
excess in how we regulate our passions and will. This "mean of virtue"
is the sweet spot between too little and too much. For ex., fortitude
is the virtue of regulating our irascible passions -- hope, despair,
fear, courage, and anger. If we need to act to counter an evil but
don't out of fear, we err by deficit; if, to counter evil, we charge in
unthinkingly, guns a-blazin', destroying everything in our path, we err
by excess. But if we deal ordinately with the evil, taking reasonable
steps to achieve the right goal, and reasonably persevering in those
despite hardship, then we've used Prudence to find the mean of the
virtue of Fortitude.
To find that mean and then act on a prudential judgment -- to know
what is the reasonable thing to do
in given circumstance in order to try to attain a noble goal --
we first have to have knowledge about
the facts at hand, and knowledge of the moral principles to apply to
them. To this end, Aquinas tells us we rely on understanding,
memory, docility, shrewdness, reason, foresight, caution, and
circumspection, which the Angelic Doctor collectively terms the
"quasi-integral parts of Prudence."
Each of these in more detail:
Here, Aquinas is referring to first principles -- i.e., those things
about which we have understanding based on the intrinsic nature of
those things, such as: basic moral principles, or the natural law that
is written into the hearts of men -- e.g., that murder is
wrong, that "the good is to
be sought and evil is to be avoided"; the axioms of mathematics (e.g.,
that A=A, or that a thing is what it is (the law of identity); that
can't both be true in the same sense at the same time (the law of
non-contradiction); that either a proposition is true or its negation
is true -- i.e., a thing either is or is not (the law of excluded
middle); etc. These are the fundamental, a
priori rules of thought without which there can be no rational
thought or discussion at all.
Sadly, these most basic first principles are no longer universally
taken for granted. Nowadays, midwits tell us that men can be women,
women can be men, and members of the one group morph into the other
through surgery and hormones -- even as those same midwits assert that
there are no differences between men and women, and that "gender" is
nothing but a "social construct." We see young people decrying those
they call "fascists" -- while burning down police stations, assaulting
passers-by, and looting. We have Bishops who go on about "dialogue,"
"mercy," and "accompaniment" -- but only for radical activists and
heretics, not those who are Catholic in the same way our grandparents
were. As I write, we have a Pope who issued a motu proprio actively
destructive of tradition -- a document entitled Traditiones Custodes (Guardians of
the Tradition). Radical
errors are very widely being presented as "Catholic teaching" in
the human element of the Church.
To wit, we live in a time of diabolical disorientation. We are lied to
constantly by those who run our institutions, and are expected to at
silent and acquiesce if we're unable to enthusiastically embrace their
violations of truth and basic logic. But don't let the prevailing and
utter lack of
reason infect your mind or spirit. Don't fear knowing what you know,
stop speaking what you know when it is
necessary to do so. At the very
least, never lie. Most especially, don't lie to yourself. As it's
written in Isaias 5:20, "Woe to you that call
evil good, and good evil: that put darkness for light, and light for
darkness: that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter." Rest
assured that "a false witness shall not be unpunished: and he that
speaketh lies shall not escape" (Proverbs
19:5). Please, read Alexander Solzhenitsyn's very short "Live Not By Lies" (pdf).
Submit to the Logos, Who is Christ!
Once we touch a hot stove, we have the experience in our "sensory
memory" and are able to call on that memory to inform our judgment to
not touch a hot stove again. There are also, though, the sorts of
memories we acquire in a less immediate manner -- for ex., knowledge of
deadly sins to be avoided, of the ten commandments of God, etc. Our
"intellectual memory" is the reservoir of such things, and Aquinas
recommends that we develop this sort of memory by making the memories
it contains as like a sensory memory as possible (e.g., by using
visualization techniques), by associating one memory with another, by
doing things to keep the memories available to us (e.g., by taking
notes and going over them periodically), and by periodically
actively trying to remember what we need to have in our intellectual
memory (i.e., by mentally recalling the memories in question).
The medievals had wonderful mnemonic devices to guard their memories --
devices that date to the ancient Greeks and Romans. 1
One of those is the "Memory Palace," or "method of loci": it
involves choosing a place you know intimately, such as your childhood
home, and using it as a mental map of sites on which to mentally place
the things you
wish to recall. For example, if you want to remember to buy bread,
eggs, cheese, and ice cream, imagine you are walking through the front
door of your childhood home, There in the foyer, you see a loaf of
bread. You then enter the next room -- the living room -- and on
the couch you mentally
place a dozen eggs. As you enter the next room, say the dining room,
you mentally place a block of cheese on the table. You make a left turn
into the kitchen, and there you see ice cream on the counter.
Once you have mentally placed the items of your grocery list in the
various rooms of your house, mentally walk through those rooms a few
order, visualizing the items in their places as best as you can, to
cement them in your memory.
The more fantastical or emotionally compelling you can make the images,
the better, because, as
says, "the unwonted (unusual) strikes us more, and so makes a greater
and stronger impression on the mind." So make the loaf of bread in the
foyer 8 feet tall, imagine pink chickens hatching out of the dozen
eggs, "see" a horde of mice nibbling on the block of cheese in the
dining room, and
visualize the ice cream melting all over the kitchen counter. Instead
of using your childhood home, you could imagine a city street you know
well, a map, your church -- whatever works for you. Key to the
practice, though, is the selection of a place you know well and can
imagine in a specific order.
Visualization can aid memory in a thousand ways. It can be used to
remember the names of people you meet: for ex., when meeting Mrs.
Muller, you can imagine her riding on a mule to remember her name, or
when meeting Mr Hunter Woodward, imagine him stalking deer with a bow
and arrow while walking toward a forest. You can associate your new
acquaintance's name with someone else, as well: when meeting Greg
Masterson, picture him in Greg Brady's "groovy" outfits, giving
Leonardo Da Vinici -- an artistic
master -- a Father's Day card.
Anther mnemonic trick is one med students are famous for: using the
first letters of words to be memorized to form a new word or to
associate with a new sentence. Two American standards are using the
mnemonic HOMES to recall the five great lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior), and the mnemonic "My Very
Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine
recall the nine planets
of our solar system:
Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune,
Pluto (yes, Pluto has been demoted, but let's have a little pity for
Things to be remembered can be turned into songs or poems, or
associated with existing songs and poems, to aid in their recall. For
example, consider how
everyone in the 1980s knew the phone number 867-5309 because of Tommy
Tutone's song "Jenny," or how everyone in the 1940s knew the phone
number PEnnsylvania 6-5000 because of Glenn Miller's tune.2
The old "Schoolhouse Rock" cartoons of the 1970s are another example of
this sort of mnemonic device, and it seems that each profession or
trade has its own set of rhythmic, rhyming, or alliterative mnemonics
for its practitioners (e.g., construction workers will know "lefty
loosey, righty tighty" to remind them of which way to turn a tool to
loosen or tighten a standard screw, nut, or bolt; historians should
know the rhythmic mnemonic for remembering the fate of King Henry
VIII's six wives in order: "divorced, beheaded, died; divorced,
beheaded, survived," etc.).
Once you learn something, go over the information to commit it to
long-term memory. Review the information an hour later, then three
hours later. After this, review at a frequency that doubles at each
incident: e.g., review six hours later, then twelve, then twenty-four,
Work to strengthen your intellectual memory, and feed it with what you
need to know
to make prudent judgments. Know the Faith. Study catechisms. Have an
understanding of the basics of Catholic
moral thinking. Know the
meanings of each line of the Church's four
creeds. Learn well what you need to know to carry out the duties
you have in life and to make good judgments about the sorts of
decisions you find yourself needing to make. Most importantly, make a
nightly examination of
conscience, going back through your memories of the day so that, in
addition to discovering what you need to tell your priest in confession, you also find lessons on how to do
better tomorrow. Note that, during your nightly examination, it is
absolutely crucial that your memory be true! As you go through your
day, be exceedingly careful to not distort reality. Be mindful of any
psychological defense mechanisms you employ to appear better to
yourself or the world, or to prevent your looking at the cold, hard
truth about yourself and others in your life.
In addition to making examinations of conscience nightly, periodically
make a practice of mentally going over your entire life and considering
ways in which you've sinned, failed, let others down, didn't do your
best, lied, shamed yourself, etc. Confess these things to God, and
truly repent of them -- i.e., take responsibility for them,
learn from them, make any necessary apologies and restitution, and try
to do better in the future. It is fine --
likely wise -- to not publicly reveal certain failures, but it is never
good or wise to lie about them (especially to yourself) or to
dissociate yourself from responsibility for them. "Own" your past
failures! A general life review is a good Lenten
habit, but it can be done any time. Why should this be done
periodically? Because past faults will likely become clearer to you the
more deeply you grow in holiness. What may have escaped your attention
earlier in your life can come to be seen as a glaring fault the more
prudent you become.
By "docility," Aquinas means our openness to being taught, our
willingness to learn, and the quality that allows us to take counsel
from those who know better than we do, who have more
experience, who have shown themselves to be knowledgeable or wise.
acceptance of things based on the authority of another is a type of
knowledge called "faith" (as an example, we as Catholics believe as we
do, by faith, based on the authority of the Church). When we're young,
we accept by faith what our parents and grandparents tell us. Proverbs
that "a fool laugheth at the instruction of his father: but he that
regardeth reproofs shall become prudent." When we grow older, we have
to discern whom to trust to be reliable conveyers of information, and
fonts of wisdom. But these days it's more of a struggle to find such
people. The teachers we should be able to trust our children with have
too often become ideologues who work to almost literally brainwash them
into believing things that are simply not true. We can't trust almost
all of our journalists, most of our politicians, far too many of our
professors and teachers, many of our priests, and even some in our own
families. But wise people are still out there, and it's good to find
Some things to look for in a mentor or source of information are
good will, dedication to first principles, ability to reason,
carefulness with language, humility, willingness to admit wrong,
willingness to say "I don't know" when appropriate,
honorable stated motives, honorable ulterior motives (insofar as they
can be discerned), expertise, ability to accurately apprehend, ability
to clearly and accurately relate information, and, of course,
general virtue. When you
find such a person,
treasure and learn from him (or her).
Learn, too, from those who've gone before us (read the words of G. K. Chesterton about
"the democracy of the dead" on this site's page about The Logos). Hold
on to tradition as the lessons our ancestors themselves learned, with their
century of experiences, and then
passed down to us. Ecclesiasticus 6:34-36:
If thou wilt
incline thy ear, thou shalt receive instruction: and if thou love to
hear, thou shalt be wise. Stand in the multitude of ancients that are
wise, and join thyself from thy heart to their wisdom, that thou mayst
hear every discourse of God, and the sayings of praise may not escape
thee. And if thou see a man of understanding, go to him early in the
morning, and let thy foot wear the steps of his doors.
If we don't learn the lessons our ancestors have to teach us, we are
doomed to repeat their mistakes! I strongly urge the study of History,
too, so that you'll learn from
the past in a more general, comprehensive way -- something that's
extremely important when making political decisions. Use older texts in
this endeavor so that you'll avoid those likely to be contaminated
by ideology. A book you may find helpful, with a few caveats, is "History Handbook of
Western Civilization" (pdf) by William H. McNeill.
Lessons can be learned from most anyone -- even if what they teach are
lessons in what not to do.
Talk to people, and when you do, really listen (Proverbs 18:13 "He that
answereth before he heareth sheweth himself to be a fool, and worthy of
speaking with someone, don't focus on what you're going to say next as
he is talking. Don't unfairly judge
him. Assume you have something to learn from him. Assume the best about
him. Treat him as a brother -- or potential brother -- in Christ. Don't
interrupt him unless it's to ask for clarification. Allow him to fully
make his points before responding. Repeat back to him what he's said,
using your own words, to ensure understanding. Ask questions instead of
assuming meaning when terms are unclear. Be genuine when you respond.
Think before you speak,
choosing your words carefully
and bearing in mind the often subtle differences in how various words
are understood and emotionally experienced. Don't say something you
don't know to be true unless you qualify it as such. If you don't know,
don't pretend you do. Never lie. Apologize if you err. Speak as though
the others's willingness to embrace Christ is dependent on how well you
act as an "ambassador" for Him. If you're discussing a contentious
topic, get your ego out of the way, and don't try to "win"; determine
what you both agree on and what goals you may have in common, and build
from there. When possible and called for, allow him to "save face,"
especially in a conversation overheard by others. 4
There are lessons to be learned, too, from biographies, great
literature, and drama,
through which we can virtually experience the consequences of others'
decisions without having to actually live them out ourselves. Thinking
about having an affair? You might think twice if you remember the fate
of Emma Bovary in Flaubert's "Madame Bovary." Are you always striving
for riches? "The Great Gastby" might reinforce in you the truth that
money doesn't bring happiness. Think that sin doesn't lead to
dissolution and chaos? Read what happened to Raskalnikov in
Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment." Great books, plays, and films can
be good teachers. Make use of them! [See this site's Catholic Library and its list of Recommended Books]
Shrewdness, Aquinas tells us, is concerned with a facile "discovery of
the middle term" -- i.e., that which connects things
together and likely explains them. For ex., you come home and find a
bag of cookies you'd left in the kitchen ripped open, and cookie crumbs
all over the floor. You then spot your dog sitting in the corner,
looking sheepish and not wanting to make eye contact with you. "Bag of
cookies has been opened" and "the dog looks guilty" are the two facts
you know. The "middle term" here is the hypothesis that the dog ripped
open the bag and had himself a feast while you were away (aww, him
still a good boy, though!): it's the hypothesis that serves as
not only a posible explanation, but as the most likely explanation, for
set of facts.
Arthur Conan Doyle's character of Sherlock Holmes5 is the
finding "middle terms" and of abductive reasoning; the characters Lt.
Frank Columbo from the TV show "Columbo," and Adrian Monk from
the TV show "Monk" are two others. All are fun to read about or watch.
Also fun are lateral thinking puzzles, which are an interesting way to
practice abductive reasoning to its limits. You can find lots of books
filled with them, but they're the most fun with two people: one reads
the solution and responds to questions the other asks while trying to
find the answer. As an example, one classic lateral thinking puzzle is
A man lives on
the tenth floor of a building. Every day he takes the elevator to go
down to the ground floor to go to work or to go shopping. When he
returns he takes the elevator to the seventh floor and walks up the
stairs to reach his apartment on the tenth floor. He hates walking so
why does he do it?
Person A reads the solution. Person B asks questions of Person A, such
as "Does the man have an enemy he wants to avoid? Someone who gets on
the elevator from the 8th floor at night or something?" or "Does he do
it for the exercise?", and receives the answers "No," "Yes," or "Not
relevant" as they pertain (see solution to the puzzle here). There can be
multiple solutions to lateral thinking puzzles, some quite bizarre, but
it can be good practice to stretch the mind in trying to come up with
Another fun thing to do with a friend is to sit and people-watch,
making "Sherlockian" observations about the clothing, demeanor,
gestures, etc. of
passers-by, and coming up with best guesses as to who they are, what
their lives are like, what they do for work, and so forth.
By "reason" here, Aquinas is referring to discursive reasoning -- i.e.,
e.g., deductive reasoning (validly reasoning from general premises to
conclusions about specifics -- conclusions that necessarily and
certainly follow from those premises -- and thereby forming an argument
sound if the premises are true)
and inductive reasoning (reasoning from premises about particulars to
conclusions that have some degree of probability of being true). It's
the scope of
this page to cover those topics in detail; the best way to get good at
discursive reasoning is to read a book or take a course on basic logic
-- not formal or symbolic logic, but informal logic, or "Logic 101."
Either of these books (pdf) might help you: An Elementary Handbook of
Logic, by John J. Toohey, S.J. and Introduction to Logic
by Irving M. Copi.
At the very least, become
familiar with logical fallacies -- both formal and informal -- and
learn to recognize them when you
see them. And learn to recognize when you don't see them. A download to help
you out: Logical Fallacies
Beware, too, of the various cognitive biases we humans tend to have.
Three to look out for, and ways around them:
bias: the tendency to remember and give credence only to information
supports one's beliefs. To get around this, when seeking information,
get outside of any "bubble" you're in. Read and seek out opinions and
information from those who are very different from you and those you
tend to surround yourself with. Extend your circle of acquaintances.
Framing effect: the tendency to react to the same information
differently depending on how that information is framed. For ex.,
consider probable emotional reactions to these two different statements
that reveal precisely the same content about the odds of success and
failure: "There's a 10% chance that you will fail" and "There's a 90%
chance that you will succeed." To get around this problem, mentally
restate information you're given, using different words and different
Survivorship bias: the tendency to focus only on things that have made
it through some sort of selection process, ignoring those things that
The classic example comes from WWII, when the Army Air Force looked at
bombers that made it back after missions, saw that the wings and tails
of the planes were the most shot up parts of those planes, and decided
to reinforce only those parts of the planes. What they'd missed is that
planes that were shot up in other areas didn't make it back to base at
all. When this was pointed out to them, instead of reinforcing the
wings and tails, they reinforced the exact opposite areas of the
planes, and after they did, plane loss plummeted dramatically. The way
around survivorship bias is to consider those things that did not make it past whatever selection
processes you're using.
Foresight and Caution
Foresight is the ability to look ahead and imagine how a decision you
or others might make will likely play out. When making a decision, know
that the goal you choose must be a moral
one, and the actions you take in achieving the goal must each be moral
(i.e., know that "the ends don't justify the means", or one can never
do evil in order
to achieve a good).
But even if the actions succeed, will they likely achieve your desired
end? Could your plans backfire and leave you worse off? The prudent
person considers these things. He has foresight, which is what Aesop
warned us about with his tale "The Fox and the Goat":
A Fox fell into
a well, and though it was not very deep, he found that he could not get
out again. After he had been in the well a long time, a thirsty Goat
came by. The Goat thought the Fox had gone down to drink, and so he
asked if the water was good.
"The finest in the whole country," said the crafty Fox, "jump
in and try it. There is more than enough for both of us."
The thirsty Goat immediately jumped in and began to drink.
The Fox just as quickly jumped on the Goat's back and leaped from the
tip of the Goat's horns out of the well
The foolish Goat now saw what a plight he had got into, and
begged the Fox to help him out. But the Fox was already on his way to
"If you had as much sense as you have beard, old fellow," he
said as he ran, "you would have been more cautious about finding a way
to get out again before you jumped in."
Look before you
When making a decision, slow down and think about the possible
ramifications of the actions you choose. Some questions to ask yourself
when making a big decision:
Is the goal I'm
trying to achieve a good one? Would it please God?
Is each step I'm
considering taking to achieve that end moral?
Is there a less
risky way to
achieve the goal?
Is there a more
sure way to achieve the goal?
Is there a more
expedient way to achieve the goal?
Is there a
less expensive way to achieve the goal?
Is there a way
to achieve the goal that doesn't rely so much on the good will of
Are the actions
I'm considering taking likely to actually achieve the goal I have in
stand in the way of any of the steps I need to take to achieve my goal?
How can I work around them?
What could go
wrong if I take the actions I'm
considering? How likely is it that things go wrong? How could those
things be avoided? If these things happen, how would I work around
them? What would be my position if any of the steps taken were to
fail? What would be my position if the overall goal were to fail?
taken the step I'm considering taking? If so, what happened? How did
their circumstances differ from mine?
What do others
whom I consider wise and trustworthy think
about the actions I'm considering taking?
How would my
actions affect others?
What would be
sacrificed in trying to achieve the goal? What would be sacrificed or
not gained by not trying to achieve the goal?
Is the good of
the desired end commensurate with the costs of the sacrifices that need
to be made to reach that end?
Am I ignoring my
own cognitive biases, such as the ones mentioned earlier (i.e.,
confirmation bias, framing effect, survivorship bias)? Have I gotten
the opinions of people who don't share my ideas, reframed the
information I'm working with, and considered what I'm overlooking
What might the
potential long-term effects of my decision be? What would things look
like in 5, 10, 20 years if I were to succeed or fail?
Would this goal
be better achieved at a different time? In a different place? With
different people? In a different way?
How will I know
when my goal is achieved?
If my goal isn't
achieved, what will be my exit strategy or Plan B?
(Note: Aquinas lists foresight and caution separately.)
to those last questions in the list just above: in
order for a human act (an act that exercises the will) to be a moral
one, it must have the right end
(purpose), be done for the right motives, and be done under the right
is the ability to assess all of the relevant information pertaining to
circumstances in order to make sure the the actions you take actually
your goal and serve your motives. It involves the classic "journalist
questions": Who? What? Why? When? Where? How? Throw in "Whom?" and you
have the basic "stuff" of circumpsection.
The answers to those "journalist questions" can radically affect the
prudence of a human act. To
illustrate the point, take one word or phrase randomly from each column
below, from left to right, read them all together as one sentence, and
see how different variables can radically change the nature of an act:
at a school
on an ordinary
for the good of
in my breakfast
else was going on
because the dog
next door said to
shot off rockets
in a court of law
just before Mass
because it felt
A serial killer
while a friend
lay dying alone
to please God
at a car wash
on Easter morning
in the nave of a
in the middle of
in a sterile
to have some fun
had drinks with
in an open field
during a party
felt it had to be done
a young child
behind a dumpster
on the weekend
to show off
Many things can be good or neutral in themselves, but not so
circumstances. Per the little game above: From the first column comes
bricklayer" -- bricklayers are good people. Nothing wrong there. A
random choice from the second column gives us "gleefully" -- nothing
wrong with being gleeful, either. From the next column comes "sharing
donuts" -- OK, who doesn't love donuts? Eating donuts is fine, and
them is even better. Now, with whom did he share those donuts? "A
young child" OK, a brick man eating donuts with a kid. Good stuff. What
comes next? "In the nave of a church" -- whoah. Nope. Wrong. Not good.
It's fine to
the nave of a church," but not to eat donuts there.
If our bricklaying friend had shared those glazed sour creams with a
kid in the
same way "at home," "during a party," and "on the weekend" in order "to
have some fun," all would have been well. Alas. In the end, our
bricklayer has failed to be prudent.
The overall point: the mean of a virtue may look very different for
different people in different circumstances. Or for the same person in
different circumstances. Or for two different people in the same
circumstances, for that matter. 6
Another aspect of circumspection is pattern recognition -- the ability
to see that some things recur with some regularity. This skill is key
to higher intelligence, but ours is an age in which certain types of
pattern recognition, such as stereotyping, are considered bad. This is
asinine. For ex., it is true that men, as a group, are physically
stronger than women, as a group. You can cry about it, whine about it,
and call it all unfair, but if you were to place bets that men will
beat women if members of the two groups were to box, you'd be right
much more often than you are wrong. But our world would call your
betting on the men "misogynist," and would treat you as "sexist" for
saying out loud what you know. Don't let the world do this to your mind
or willingness to speak it when necessary. Don't be afraid to know what
you know. As it
turns out, information gathered from years and years of studying
stereotypes reveals that "stereotype accuracy is one of the largest and
most replicable effects in all of social psychology." 7 In other words,
stereotypes tend to be (but are not always) true in describing averages.
Seeing that the
traits or behaviors exist as an average in this group or that is not
socially harmful; what is
potentially harmful is how that knowledge is acted upon. Seeing
patterns that can
be bourne out by science isn't "sexist," "racist," or "ethnocentrist";
what are such are hatred, denying the existence of outliers, unjustly
denying opportunities to outliers, treating individuals as nothing but members
of a group or class rather than as individuals, indulging in some
glee about a negative stereotype, unnecessarily speaking about such
unpleasant general truths, or doing so with no charity or prudence. See
what you see, know what you know,
speak even unpleasant truths when necessary
and with love for your neighbor. And
keep developing your ability to see patterns by such things as playing
with math, playing chess, and opening the
Book of Nature and looking.
Now, because some judgments need to be made quickly, it's also good to
situational awareness -- to know what's going on around you. This skill
is becoming increasingly rare as people stare into phones and distance
themselves as much as possible from the real world. It's
fascinating to come to know how very not
observant most of us are. A
video that makes the point:
Knowing what's going on can be the difference between life
and death. If you're at your local grocery and a gunman were to go wild
and start shooting, would you know the best places to hide? Where all
of the exits are? What things you could easily access and use as
Like so many things though, situational awareness can be practiced, and
such practice can be turned
into games. A few to try out with family and friends:
which comes from Rudyard Kipling's 1901 novel "Kim": place fifteen or
so various familiar objects on a tray and cover them up.
Uncover them for one minute so that players can see the tray's
contents. Re-cover the tray and have players try to recall what they'd
seen. The same game can be played blindfolded, with players having to
remember objects they first identified by the sense of touch.
While out with a
friend someplace, during a quiet moment, without warning, take a
picture of your surroundings, have your friend close his eyes, and then
ask him questions about the scene. Who just walked by closest to us?
What was he wearing? What was his approximate age? Weight? Height?
Distinguishing characteristics? What was he carrying? Was he wearing
glasses? Did he have a beard? A moustache? How many stories does the
building across the street have? There was just an animal on the grass
across the road: what kind was it? What color was it? Refer to the
picture you just took for the answers. Have your friend play the same
game with you.
You could do the
same sort of thing while, say, standing in line at the store with your
child or friend. Cover your child's eyes (or ask your friend to close
his) and ask him questions about the
surroundings. How many people are in line in front of us? What color is
the cashier's hair? A minute ago, the man in front of us dropped
something; what was it? What time is it? Which way is North? Where
would the Sun be about now? When we're done paying for our groceries
and it's time to leave, do we turn right or left to get to the door?
Where did we park our car relative to the door? When we pull out of the
parking lot, do we go straight or turn right or turn left first?
A dinner game:
have your children or friends shut their eyes while you remove a few
objects from the table. When they open their eyes again, will they know
[Note that Aquinas lists four subjective parts of prudence,
and circumspection is especially important to each: domestic prudence,
which concerns the proper running of a household; political prudence,
which concerns how citizens and subjects relate to their governments;
reigning prudence, which concerns how rulers rule; and military
prudence, which is prudence in waging war against an enemy. Two
classics from the secular world in two of those types of prudence are
presented here in pdf format: Mrs.
Beeton's Book of Household Management, first published in 1861.
It's fascinating to look through, and presented more for fun and
historical interest than for the cause of prudence (her advice on how
to cook macaroni, for ex. -- just say no) and the 5th c. B.C.'s Art of War by
Sun-Tzu, which is
the most referred to classic in military tactics and strategy -- first
published in the West in 1772 by the French Jesuit Jean Joseph Marie
Amiot, and still used to teach students at West Point today.]
Sins Pertaining to Prudence
any of the above -- memory,
shrewdness, reason, foresight, caution, or circumspection -- can
in imprudence, to wit: defects in our memory, docility, or reason can
to precipitation (temerity or rashness); defects in circumspection and
can lead to thoughtlessness or inconsiderateness; and defects in
or shrewdness can lead to negligence and inconstancy. If these
defects are privations of those things, and we can and should have them, then our
imprudence is sinful. Obviously, too, if we positively act against
those things, we also sin by imprudence.
describes two further sins regarding Prudence -- one related to ends,
the other related to means:
"Prudence of the
flesh": Prudence of the flesh is ignoring the very purpose of our
and using our powers of reason to
focus solely on a wordly end.
An example of someone who sins against prudence in this way is someone
who feeds the hungry only in order to show off.
Craftiness is trying
to attain an end -- even a good end -- by using means that are false, such as
deceit (guile) or fraud. An example of someone who sins against
prudence in this way is a misguided person who wants political power so
he can do good, but who lies to attain office.
To avoid "prudence of the flesh," keep in mind always this
question and answer from the "Baltimore Catechism No. 1":
Q. Why did God
A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in
this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.
Want nothing and do nothing that prevents the fulfillment of the
purpose for which God made you. Advert
your attention to God throughout the day. Pray!
To avoid the sin of craftiness, remind yourself that we can never do
evil to achieve a good ("the ends don't justify the means"), and
meditate on these two verses together:
All the ways of a man are open to His eyes: the Lord is
the weigher of spirits.
Blessed are they that wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb: that
they may have a right to the tree of life, and may enter in by the
gates into the city. Without are dogs, and sorcerers, and unchaste, and
murderers, and servers of idols, and every one that loveth and maketh a
and Most Effective Way to Destroy Prudence
In his "Morals on the Book of Job" (Moralia),
Pope St. Gregory the Great teaches that "from
lust are generated blindness of mind, inconsiderateness, inconstancy,
precipitation, self-love, hatred of
God, affection for this present world, but dread or despair of that
which is to come." Aquinas, in his inimitable way, explains how those
"eight daughters of lust" attack the virtue of prudence, with the first
four chipping away at our intellect, and the last four taking on our
To understand what Pope St. Gregory and Aquinas meant, let's imagine a
young man. This
young man comes across some porn on the internet and masturbates to
it. Because he finds it pleasurable, he convinces himself that pure
entertainment is a good use of the genitals and
that there's no great harm in "having a little fun" once in a while.
"In fact," he thinks, "it's healthy!"
("blindness of mind," a defect of understanding). The Church, his
parents, and experts in addiction he's read about on internet forums
try to tell him that masturbation and porn are sinful or harmful, but
ignores them, considering their arguments prudish or overblown
("precipitation," "rashness," or "temerity", which destroy
docility). What they say is still there, in the back of his mind, so
has some effect. But not a big one. Once in a while, he thinks he
should maybe give it up; he does feel a little silly about it, after
all. And he does have a horror of being caught in the act, or of the
idea of anyone knowing what he gets up to in his room late at night.
So, he makes a small effort once in a while to quit, but
always goes back to his habit ("inconstancy"). Over time, he becomes
more and more addicted to the smut -- so much so that he stops thinking
at all about whether it's good or bad for him ("inconsiderateness" or
"thoughtlessness"). After a few years, he finds himself needing more
salacious and twisted material to experience the same level of sexual
enough, he finds himself looking at porn involving rape, torture,
homosexuality, animals, incest, etc. By this time, though, any thought
could be very wrong is pushed away ("self-love"). He long ago stopped
praying. He has no skills with real members of the opposite sex, and no
interest in them
anyway; he prefers the "safe," digitized woman who can't refuse him and
whom he doesn't have to work to attain. He sits in his room, night
after night, alone in front of a
flickering screen. He hates his life. He hates that he's miserable. And
he's come to hate God --
the very idea of Whom reminds him of his dissolution and shame ("hatred
of God"). Depressed, alone, demotivated -- that young man has "removed
himself from the gene pool" and made himself unfit to attain and
protect what he should be claiming as his.
What that imaginary young man went through is what hundreds of
thousands of young people (including girls and young women) are going
through right now. And it's what
most of the world has gone through on a civilizational level. The
West is at the "hatred of God"
stage, but think of how incrementally it all happened. First, some sexy
movies and a few jabs at the Church, then the Pill and abortion. First
treating homosexuality as
celebrating sodomy and pretending gay couples can be married. First
shacking up, then polyamory. First treating mental illness as mere
canonizing transgenderism and pretending members of one sex can morph
other. First John Lennon's "Imagine," then Lil Nas X with videos that
show him giving Lucifer a lap dance. First
imprudent levels of tolerance and compromise, then Satanists in the
putting up statues of Baphomet in public squares. Osee 4:11-12 comes to
mind: "Fornication, and wine, and drunkenness take away the
understanding. My people have consulted their stocks, and their staff
hath declared unto them: for the spirit of fornication hath deceived
them, and they have committed fornication against their God."
We have to say
that the West is falling into a state of extreme sexual depravity. As
Aquinas's account suggests, this is no accident. Sexual immorality
tends to erode the virtue of prudence, and the erosion of prudence, in
turn, tends to undermine morality in general. That, in turn, erodes
sexual morality in particular, which further erodes prudence, which
further erodes morality in general, so that we have a vicious cycle.
One of the diabolical features of this cycle is that the further
you are along in it, the less likely you are to see that you are.
Open your eyes and look!
We're in a great vortex of intellectual
blindness and depravity, a race to the bottom that will end in tyranny
if we don't reclaim the virtues, starting with Prudence. And that's all
there is to it.
A Final Note
I've noted how smartphones detract from our ability to be circumspect
-- to take in necessary information about what's going on. But the news
is worse than that:
our modern technology drastically affects our ability to even be still
and focus attention on whatever task is before us.
Prudence is an act of the intellect, of our minds. But our brains,
which mediate our minds and the world, are being rewired by our
technology such that
we need constant input lest we feel restive. Video with quick-cuts and
lots of noise and action, smartphones that are constantly notifying us
of things, bombardments by text messages and emails 24/7, social media
techniques that, with their like buttons and invitations to engage in
incessant scrolling, exploit how our bodies use dopamine: we simply
must put an end to all this. We need to use computers, video, and
social media as tools and as limited forms of entertainment, not as
ways of being or as objects that mediate everything in our lives. We
must work to stop them from overtaking our abilities to perceive and
think clearly. Please, read this article by Johann Hari: "Your Attention Didn’t
Collapse. It was Stolen" and think of how you can take back control
of your mind from technology. Turn your smartphones off. Better yet,
get rid of them, or if you must have a phone that goes with you, get
one that doesn't have all the bells and whistles, but just makes
necessary phone calls. Put an end to endless notifications. Check your
email only once a day outside of work. Limit the time you spend on
social media. Talk to people face to face. Open the Book of Nature and read. Play board
games with your family instead of video games alone. Keep your work
life at your workplace. Read real books again. Pray. And keep your
growing children and grandchildren far away from large doses of these
mentally and spiritually disruptive technologies!
1 Aristotle wrote much about memory, as
did Quintilian in his Institutio
Oratoria. Cicero did so as well. From Book II, chapter LXXXVII
of his De Oratore:
or whoever else invented the art, wisely saw, that those things are the
most strongly fixed in our minds, which are communicated to them, and
imprinted upon them, by the senses: that of all the senses, that of
seeing is the most acute; and that, accordingly, those things are most
easily retained in our minds which we have received from the hearing or
the understanding, if they are also recommended to the imagination by
means of the mental eye; so that a kind of form, resemblance, and
representation might denote visible objects, and such as are in their
nature withdrawn from the cognizance of the site, in such a manner,
that we are scarcely capable of comprehending by thought we may retain
as it were by the aid of the visual faculty. By these imaginary forms
and objects, as by all those that come under our corporeal vision, our
memory is admonished and excited; but some place for them must be
imagined; as bodily shape can not be conceived without a place for it.
That I may not, then, be prolix and impertinent upon so well-known and
common a subject, we must fancy many plain, distinct places at moderate
distances, and such symbols as are impressive, strking, and
well-marked, so that they may present themselves to the mind, and act
upon it with the greatest quickness. This faculty of artificial memory
practice will affford (from which proceeds habit), as well as the
derivation of similar words converted and altered in cases, or
transferred from particulars to generals, and the idea of an entire
sentence from the symbol of a single word, after the manner and method
of any skillful painter, who distinguishes spaces by the variety of
that he depicts.
2 I'm a fan of Big Band jazz, so looked into the
history of Glenn Miller's "PEnnsylvania 6-5000." Turns out that the
number is that of New York City's Hotel Pennsylvania, where many
musical groups of the World War II era, including Glenn Miller and his
played. For those unware, phone numbers used to be arranged such that
their first two numbers were given in alphabet form.
If you look at a phone dial, you'll see that each number but one and
associated with three to four letters. 2=ABC; 3=DEF; 4=GHI; 5=JKL;
6-MNO; 7=PQRS; 8=TUV; 9=WXYZ. The first two numbers of a phone
number were associated with letters, which were then associated with
words which formed their "exchanges." For
ex., the numbers 3 and 5 were associated with the letters F and L. F
and L were then used to come up with a word beginning with those
letters, for ex. FLeetwood. The numbers 5 and 4, associated with L and
I, might be given as LIncoln or LIberty. And so on. The P and E of
"PEnnsylvania" indicate the numbers 7 and 3. So the number sung about
is 736-5000. The area code for New York City at the time was 212, and
still is for a large part of it. And that number -- 212-736-5000
-- still works as of this writing. It still dials up the Hotel
Pennsylvania, and when you call it, you'll hear a recording with Glenn
Miller's song playing in the background. Update: As of January, 2022,
the Hotel Pennsylvania is no more. It's being razed to be replaced with
glass office towers.
3 To watch a person who's mastered
listening skills, look for videos of interviews of or debates with Dr.
Jordan Peterson. He is definitely someone to emulate when it comes to
4 The idea of helping others "save face"
-- keeping them from social embarrassment -- is an important one, an
aspect of good manners, which can be seen as an aspect of the virtue of
Justice. Turning away quickly if someone falls flat on his face, and
carrying on as if you didn't see him stumble at all, or sensing that a
new acquaintance has forgotten your name and finding a way to slip it
into conversation to remind him ("Oh, my husband said to me, he said,
"Isabelle, you're so silly!") -- there are many ways kind people go
about helping people feel more comfortable and dignified. One of the
most famous "saving face" stories involves Queen Victoria and a finger
bowl -- a small, individual bowl brought out for each guest after
dessert at fancy dinners and used by those guests to rinse their
fingers. As Anwer Mooraj tells it in Pakistan's Express Tribune:
When it comes to
diplomacy at the highest level, nobody can beat the British. A supreme
example is the one where Queen Victoria hosted a banquet for the King
of Afghanistan. Whether or not it is apocryphal I have no idea, but it
makes the point rather well. Everything was going rather well until the
royal foreign guest feeling rather thirsty after the pudding, picked up
his finger bowl with both hands and tipped it over into his mouth.
There was a sudden hush, then some feverish whispering. And then, as if
it was the most natural thing in the world, the royal monarch picked up
her finger bowl and drank the water, and all the lords and ladies of
the realm followed suit.
6 An old
WWII-era song -- "T'ain't What You Do (It's The Way That You Do It)" --
written by Sy
Oliver and Trummy Young, recorded by Jimmie Lunceford, makes this point
and might help you teach your
children the concept of circumspection in a fun way. MP3 here.