Fish Eaters: The Whys and Hows of Traditional Catholicism


``Where 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



Becoming Virtuous:
How to Acquire the Virtue of Prudence

  




Becoming a virtuous person starts with developing Prudence, as Prudence is the "Empress 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 steps 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:



Understanding

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 1+1=2); that A=A, or that a thing is what it is (the law of identity); that contradictory propositions 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 least be 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, and don't 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).      




Memory

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 the seven 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 times, in 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 Aquinas 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 Pizzas" to 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 it).

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.).

Associating one set of information with a known second set of information is yet another way of storing up memory. I use this device off the Moral Thinking: A Basic Primer on Catholic Moral Theology page where I show how the Seven Deadly Sins can be associated with the characters who inhabit "Gilligan's Island."

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.
 


Docility

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.

The 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 15:5 teaches 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 them.

Some things to look for in a mentor or source of information are honesty, carefulness with language, humility, the ability to admit wrong, honorable stated motives, honorable ulterior motives (insofar as they can be discerned), expertise, ability to accurately apprehend, ability to clearly relate information, ability to reason, 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 upon century of experiences, and then preserved and 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 confusion").3  When 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

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 a set of facts. 

Arthur Conan Doyle's character of Sherlock Holmes5 is the master of 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 this one:

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 the answers.

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.



Reason

By "reason" here, Aquinas is referring to discursive reasoning -- i.e., e.g., deductive reasoning (validly reasoning from general premises to come to conclusions about specifics -- conclusions that necessarily and certainly follow from those premises -- and thereby forming an argument that is sound if the premises are true) and inductive reasoning (reasoning from premises about particulars to make general conclusions that have some degree of probability of being true). It's beyond 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 (pdf)

Beware, too, of the various cognitive biases we humans tend to have. Three to look out for, and ways around them:

Confirmation bias: the tendency to remember and give credence only to information that 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 "frames."

Survivorship bias: the tendency to focus only on things that have made it through some sort of selection process, ignoring those things that didn't. 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 the woods

"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 leap.


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 others?
  • Are the actions I'm considering taking likely to actually achieve the goal I have in mind?
  • What things 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?
  • Have others 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 information-wise?
  • 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.)



Circumspection

As 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 circumstances. Circumspection is the ability to assess all of the relevant information pertaining to those circumstances in order to make sure the the actions you take actually achieve 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:



Who
How What Whom Where When Why
I expertly stalked a priest at a school board meeting on an ordinary Wednesday for the good of souls
My boss humbly talked to my spouse in my breakfast nook when nothing else was going on because the dog next door said to
A schoolteacher angrily shot off rockets with
a beggar in a court of law just before Mass because it felt so right
A serial killer boisterously prayed with Aerosmith at home
while a friend lay dying alone to please God
A surgeon while tripping on acid shared donuts with yo Mamma at a car wash on Easter morning to demonstrate something
An astronaut laughingly  made love to Sibyl Fawlty in the nave of a church in the middle of the night just because
Basil Fawlty
reluctantly jammed with an alcoholic in a sterile operating theater during an earthquake to have some fun
A bricklayer recklessly had drinks with
the Pope in an open field during a party because s/he felt it had to be done
An attorney gleefully performed surgery on a young child behind a dumpster on the weekend to show off



Many things can be good or neutral in themselves, but not so in various circumstances. Per the little game above: From the first column comes "A 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 sharing 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 be "in 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 -- prudently, 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 practice 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 weapons?

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: 
  • Kim's Game, 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 what's missing?
[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

Defects in any of the above -- memory, understanding, docility, shrewdness, reason, foresight, caution, or circumspection -- can result in imprudence, to wit: defects in our memory, docility, or reason can lead to precipitation (temerity or rashness); defects in circumspection and caution can lead to thoughtlessness or inconsiderateness; and defects in understanding, foresight, 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.

Aquinas 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 being, 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": 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 classic question and answer from the "Baltimore Catechism No. 1": 

Q. Why did God make you?

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:

Proverbs 16:2
All the ways of a man are open to His eyes: the Lord is the weigher of spirits.


Apocalypse 22:14-15
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 lie.




The Quickest 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 will.

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 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 he mostly 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 and more salacious and twisted material to experience the same level of sexual arousal. Soon enough, he finds himself looking at porn involving rape, torture, homosexuality, animals, incest, etc. By this time, though, any thought that this 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 non-disordered, then celebrating sodomy and pretending gay couples can be married. First shacking up, then polyamory. First treating mental illness as mere quirkiness, then canonizing transgenderism and pretending members of one sex can morph into the 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 United States 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."

Dr. Edward Feser, in a speech on the topic of how lust affects prudence -- Cooperation with Sins against Prudence (mp3)  -- said:

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!






Footnotes:

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:

For Simonides, 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 orchestra, 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 zero is 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 active listening.

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.

5 See "The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes" (pdf)

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.

See https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/rabble-rouser/201408/stereotype-inaccuracy-belief-impervious-data

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