THE FULLNESS OF ACTION
HUMAN activity is a mirror which gives back accurate images of men. Among the pictures presented to us by it are two unappealing extremes. One is the image of the dreamer, which, somehow, suggests nurseries, perambulators and guardians; for such a one is never found alone, someone must take care of him. The other is the image of the “go-getter”, who impresses us often as a victim of glands, sometimes as a champion of trifles, and always as a nuisance.
The activity of men
Somewhere between these two is an image that is close to our hearts. It is linked somehow with freedom; it seems to be the fruit of freedom of mind and freedom of heart. Yet freedom of action is not the whole story, or even the most important part of the story, of that ideal which is so close to our hearts. Certainly the wealthy libertine, to whom riches and complete lack of moral restraint give utter license of action, arouses no writhings of the green-eyed monster within us. We do not particularly want license of action. No one feels hurt at being forbidden to shout or sing in a Pullman car at midnight. If law prohibits a nudist promenade on Broadway we do not consider that the fullness of our action has been impeded, at least not that fullness of action which is the goal of humanity.
Stages of human activity
And, really, this fullness is a goal. lt is a goal to which we approach, step by step, through all of a lifetime. Today we feel no regret that we cannot lie abed all day, like an infant, ceaselessly gurgling. We admire the ceaseless activity of a child; but we have little desire to throw dignity to the winds and rush about expending the same amount of energy on just such childish ends. We can smile understandingly at the great dreams of youth, and at its self-conscious, clumsy gestures towards the realization of those dreams. But that is not what we want. We may sigh a little over lost youth, but not too seriously; we have no more real desire to slip back to our sophomore days than we have to crawl back into our mother’s womb. These steps are only stages in our growth to fullness of action. Man’s discontent and sense of guilt at not having lived up to his possibilities, at not having continued to grow, give us a negative picture of what this fullness of action should be.
Marks of maturity in action: Current expressions of maturity
If we were to try to put this fullness of action in one word, we would have to say “human action”, or “mature action.” It is an action that should have about it something of the maturity of God. The action we demand of a man should not be the unconscious activity of a tree in a high wind, the narrow efficiency of the brute, nor the childish indirection of the infant. It should be responsible, effective, goal-gaining. In a word, we demand an action proper to the image of God: an action proceeding from intellect and will, as God’s actions proceed, deliberately, and to ends worthy of such an agent as a man.
This distinctive flavor of human action is to he tasted in such words as independence, sovereignty, full control; yes, even in the word “humanity.” It finds practical expression and validation in such things as freedom, responsibility, self-respect, self-control, power, shame and remorse, orderly action in the economic, military and political spheres; perhaps above all in sacrifice. This fullness is truly wisdom in action; certainly it is truth in action. It is, at the same time, a confession and a boast: a confession of our need of order in life, and a boast of our power to introduce that order into our actions.
If, in our actions, we are to have this note of maturity which is order, we must have something of the long vision of God. We must have vision, if not of the eternal hills, at least of the footprints of the past, the bustle of the present and the dim outlines of the future. For a definite mark of that order in action is a provision for the future.
Men’s evaluation of maturity in action
That we need vision for orderly action is a significant truth. It means we must soar past the blind efficiency of irrational creation, past the fixed gaze of sense knowledge which never goes beyond the present. We must exceed the limits of time and space. Actually this vision sets man apart from the rest of the universe and brings him very close to God. Man can, somehow, set himself aside from the bustle of life and be a spectator of the whole game of life, even of his own life. He is a provider for himself and for others; in some sense he is a master of his own thinking, of his own action, somehow he directs himself. All this is contained in man’s possession of vision: more concretely it means that for this fullness of maturity in action, we must have a perfection of intellect; for it is only through intellect that we can see beyond the limits of the present. This perfection of intellect is called the virtue of prudence.
Cause of mature action — prudence
Not any intellectual perfection will do. Many an actress, putting on her make-up, has plotted out the glowing path of her rising star; many a Sunday quarterback has won a game without getting out of bed. Unfortunately none of this ever got out of the pretty head of the actress, or the sleepy head of the alumnus. Both of these were purely speculative. Here it is not a question of speculating but of acting, of getting things done.
Human action, in this light, is busy with the means to an end, with the attaining of a goal. It is not enough merely to know; we must apply what we know; consequently we must know that to which we are applying the truths, as well as the truths we are to apply. In other words, we must know, not only the universal, but also the particular, the contingent.
When we overlook this truth, we bring about the fatal divorce of speculative from practical intellect. Alone, the speculative intellect precludes all action but the noiseless grinding of the dreamer’s dreams; alone, the practical intellect gives us action, but the disorderly, feverish action of the “go-getter.” We may take a little of the strain off our spine by holding our chin in our hands as we ponder universal truths; but we will not get much done. It is not enough to sit and think; nor is it enough to rush out doing anything and everything that occurs to us.
Reason and appetite in prudence
Universal truths are extremely practical, for they are the soul of action. But to have them replace action in our lives is like assigning ghosts to stoke the furnace. The external activities of men are the body of action; to entertain that body without its soul is as ghoulish and inane as grouping corpses at a wedding feast. Here it is a question of human action: and such action is truth at work in the singular. It demands a combination of the speculative and the practical; more than that, it means a combination of the intellect and the will, for it is an effective application of truth, and all effectiveness, all movement, must ultimately be traced back to the will.
Work of prudence as a good habit: The work of a virtue
For the moment it is sufficient that we notice that this perfection of intellect, by the good habit of prudence, has about it none of the danger of lopsidedness inherent in mere intellectual development. This latter may make a man a good mathematician, philosopher, carpenter and so on, yet leave him a vicious man. Prudence perfects the whole man, not just a part of him. In other words, while the other intellectual virtues demand the moral virtues for their fulfillment, prudence is, in a very real sense, itself a moral virtue.
Its relations to other virtues
In technical language, prudence is formally or essentially an intellectual virtue, because it perfects our faculty of intellect; but materially, or simply, it is a moral virtue, because the material with which it deals — our human acts — is moral material. But all technical language is a snob, speaking only to technicians; to put the same truth in more democratic terms, the work of prudence is to direct the actions of man to an end, to a proper end, with the obvious implication of a right end to which those actions can be directed, that is, with the obvious implication of moral perfection.
Perhaps this unique position of prudence can be made more clear by a momentary comparison with the other virtues. Prudence does not try to crash the board meeting of wisdom, knowledge and understanding, the speculative virtues which deal with high, necessary, universal truths; it stays in the outer office, chatting with the stenographer about humble, contingent human acts. Art, the other practical virtue, is busy with houses and boats and medicine and masterpieces, with things to be made; while prudence is occupied with loving and suffering and hoping and trying, with things to be done. Prudence is distinct from the moral virtues as the intellect is distinct from appetite. It is set off sharply from the theological virtues as God is set off from the feeble deeds of man; for, while the object of the theological virtues is God Himself, the object of prudence is human action.
Yet, while standing out so distinctly from all the other virtues, paradoxically prudence runs through them all, particularly through all the moral virtues. In somewhat the same way the soul of man is sharply distinct from all his members, yet it is in every part of a man or that part is dead. So, too, charity stands out from all other virtues in the supernatural order; yet it is the life and the soul, the living principle of them all.
In the moral field, prudence builds up from nature as a thinker builds up from the naturally known first principles of thought. The starting point and foundation of everything must come from nature. A philosopher who decides to toss away the natural first principles of thought and construct his own set of first principles, commits intellectual suicide. He is in the absurd position of a man who decided to start life over again without the original dependence on his mother. Both are whimsical declarations of independence; fortunately for both men, the task they set themselves cannot be accomplished. Nature is not to be denied. It remains the starting point and foundation in the world of thought, of action and of being, however we may feel about it.
The starting point in the moral or practical order is the ends of the moral virtues. In the preceding volume of this work, we showed that in human action the end is always the beginning. We must start off with a goal in mind or we wander aimlessly. And the field of human action is the field of moral action. Understand, prudence does not create this moral starting point. Just as the intellectual virtue of knowledge applies the first principles of speculative thought to arrive at conclusions, so prudence applies the first principles, or ends, of the practical order to arrive at action.
To be more explicit, the ends of the moral virtues are the happy medium of reason. That is neither a pledge of mediocrity nor an excuse for cowardice; rather it is the trade-mark of humanity. Reason is the rule to which human action must measure up; the happy medium is had when there is neither excess nor defect from that rule. Nature gives its none too gentle push toward that medium of reason by the natural inclinations of the appetite, which are the seeds of the moral virtues. How and through what means man can, in the concrete, attain that medium in action pertains to prudence. That is, prudence in the concrete finds the medium, for it is only by a right disposition of the means to the end that the medium in action is to be found. That is precisely the work of prudence: rightly to order the means to the end.
Perhaps we can put this more graphically by saying that no matter how strong the drive of a particular appetite, or a habit of that appetite, without prudence that drive is as disastrous as the speed of a running man who is totally blind. No matter how great the knowledge of the end or goal may be, if the drive of appetite is not there, if it has been destroyed by bad habits, education, and so on, prudence is as helplessly grounded as an aviator without a plane. No matter how healthy and well balanced our natural appetites may be, they do not suffice in us as they do in the beasts. Prudence, the work of reason, is essential because of the infinite variety of means uncovered by human knowledge and the independence of human freedom.
Prudence is the ideal housewife of a man’s inner mansion; it is the virtue that gets things done the way they should be done. It is a virtue which gives us fullness of action In common with all the virtues all the habits. it is a principle of action; specifically it is the channel down which flow the powers of the practical intellect into the sea of action.
The acts of prudence:
Principal and secondary acts: command. counsel, judgment
If we remember this effective character of prudence, the discovery of its principal act is absurdly simple. The acts of prudence will be the acts of the practical reason doing things; so of course the principal act of prudence will be the act by which we actually get results. Let us suppose that the thing we are about to do is to go to a theatre. That involves, first of all, a scanning of the lists of plays actually in town; we are taking counsel. Then a selection of the best show would be necessary; we have made up our minds. passed a judgment. Finally would come the act of command, or precept, by which we get the tickets and go to the theatre. If we stop at the act of counsel, we have obtained some information but no entertainment; if our mental stamina carries us only as far as the act of judgment, we have material for argument but still no entertainment. It is only by the last act, the act of command, that we actually obtain rest for our soul in the make-believe world of the theatre.
This act of command or precept, then, is an application of the fruits of counsel and of judgment. It is the act closest to the end of practical reason, that is, closest to action. It is the principal act of prudence. That this is so will be evident if we look at the question from another angle. Let us say that an artist, with his tongue in his cheek (he must be successful to be so free with his tongue), decides to paint the moon as a square. He is poking fun at the art critics. though ne may win a prize; but he has committed much less of an artistic sin than the student artist who. trying desperately to paint the moon as it is, actually produces a square moon. We may smile with the first artist, sure he can do much better; we must agonize with the second’s pitiful efforts. But the man who deliberately swallows poison, knowing full well it will kill him, is guilty of a sin against prudence; whereas the man who swallows poison unwittingly is guilty of no sin at all. The perfection of prudence, in other words, unlike the perfection of art, does not consist in excellence of judgment but in excellence of command. It is not a matter of knowing the rules, but of getting things done.
It may be well here to summarize the detailed analysis of the act of command, which was given in the preceding volume. Taking it apart, we find it has three elements: an element of ordering, of announcement or intimation, and of motion; the first two belong to the intellect, the last to the will. It can be briefly described as effective direction. St. Thomas, placing this act as the principal act of prudence, shows us that Providence, law, government are all acts of prudence, for they are all acts of command: that is, they are all essentially acts of reason, not of will. From this one article of St. Thomas, locating command as an act of prudence, the exact nature of Providence, law and government can be deduced; from the profound analysis of this act of command, the purpose, limitation, extension and obligation of Providence, law and government, can all be clearly and profoundly discovered. This is a significant truth, as we say in some detail in Volume II, for it removes government and law from the field of mere caprice, distinguishes them clearly from mere power or mere will of the ruler, and places them squarely where they belong — under the protecting wings of reason.
Through all these three acts of prudence there runs a double note of quick ingenuity and healthy doubt. The more prudent man is not the cautious man who spends three months considering every angle of a problem, in the hope of getting a guarantee of absolute certitude for his solution. Rather the man who considers the pertinent possibilities, makes a decisive choice and swings into action is much more prudent, though he is not denying the elements of incertitude in his choice. We simply cannot have the certitude of metaphysics or mathematics in things human. We cannot know that a banker is trustworthy or a salesman is truthful in the same absolute way that we know two and two are four. That very incertitude gives us an alertness that quickens our faculties, enabling us to peer quickly into all the possibilities, and at the same time to keep ourselves on the watch against mistakes. Certainly prudence must have that note of eager alertness about it; it is not the virtue of a dull, plodding, ineffective man. It belongs to the man who is getting things done, who applies the results of counsel and judgment quickly. For the whole purpose of counsel and judgment is precisely to prepare the way for the supreme act of command, with its effective results.
For the most part, our superfluous anxiety is caused by a search for the impossible, a demand for absolute certitude in human affairs. It simply cannot be had. Aristotle gave expression to the resentment of men and women, tortured by anxiety, against the serene confidence of the really prudent man, when he said that a magnanimous man is lazy and idle. Of course he is not lazy and idle at all; he merely appears so to us, who are so busy worrying about the things that should be worried about, distrusting those who should not be distrusted. The magnanimous man escapes the excessive fear and distrust of others that drives lesser men into a panic of conferences, advice-taking, fence-straddling and nervous breakdowns.
When the edict went out from Caesar that all the world was to be enrolled, Joseph and Mary were presented with a problem for prudence. They had something to get done; they had to make that long, four-day trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be enrolled. So they set about making their plans. What went into those historic plans which culminated in the birth of God?
First of all, they must have gone over their memories of the annual trips to Jerusalem for the Passover; that would refresh their knowledge of the route and its difficulties, and of the means necessary to make the journey safely. They would have called on their knowledge of the political conditions of the time, the caravan departures, Mary’s own physical condition, and so on. Even without being asked, the town veterans of the road would volunteer advice, plenty of it; Mary and Joseph were, after all, very young. With true wisdom, they showed themselves neither proud nor contemptuous, but humbly docile in the face of this advice of their elders. They themselves would have to take care of the inevitable emergencies which no one could foresee. Mary, of course, would bring along swaddling clothes, because she knew her time was near; but it would be necessary for Joseph to fall back upon his native ingenuity to make the swift decision that would consecrate forever the manger of a stable as the birthplace of God. They were ready then to put all these things together and reason out their procedure. That their reasoning was well done is evidenced by the safe arrival of Mary in Bethlehem, in spite of the rigor of the season, of the delicacy of her condition, of the poverty which forced them to travel in such humble state.
They were ready to reason out their procedure; that is, they were ready to make their plans, actually to order the means to the goal of Bethlehem; and that reasoning took foresight. They would need circumspection that they might overlook no circumstance of the journey: the cold of the mountains, the possibility of exposure during the brisk nights, excessive fatigue and so on. As far as possible they would provide for the avoiding of obstacles; for example, they would take care not to attempt a journey through that dangerous country alone, rather waiting, cautiously, to travel along with the group going south for a similar purpose.
Conditions of perfect prudence: the integral parts of prudence
All of these acts go into every work of prudence, however quickly it may seem to spring into being; for these are the necessary conditions for perfection of prudence. Let us run over them again briefly: there is memory of the past and understanding of the present, which covers knowledge already had; then there is the acquisition of new knowledge, either by the experience and teaching of others accepted through docility, or, when time does not permit recourse to others, by our own ingenuity, our own alert shrewdness. Indeed this last is necessary too when we encounter a circumstance so singular as to have escaped the experience of all others. Finally, all these elements are put together as the material for reasoning out a plan of procedure. At that stage, we are ready for the preceptive part of prudence: for foresight, circumspection and caution, i.e., for actual ordering to the end, for attention to circumstances and for the avoidance of obstacles as far as is possible.
St. Thomas puts this in another way when he points out that the highest thing in man is his reason, and the lowest thing in man is the exercise of action by means of the body. In the work of prudence, then, we descend a precipitous hill. We can come crashing down from top to bottom recklessly, without a stop; at the very least, we shall not escape splinters. Or we can pick our way down, carefully, in an orderly, intelligent fashion. If we make the descent humanly, that is, intelligently, the steps we shall take will be: memory for the past, understanding for the present, an alert eagerness or shrewdness for the future; then reasoning or comparing of these elements of past, present and future; finally, there will be docility in learning from others, for of course, no man is sufficiently clever to know all things himself, nor does his experience cover every possible circumstance. We are then on level ground, ready to order things effectively to the end, attending to all circumstances and possible impediments.
This question in the Summa on the conditions for the perfection of prudence is worthy of long study. Invaluable passages are strewn all through it, as though his very generosity had tired a rich man’s arm and in a final gesture of beneficent impatience he had turned the purse upside down. There is, for example, a course in memory training worthy of a modern psychologist packed into the cramped confines of an answer to an objection. Among others, we might mention Thomas’ indication of the happy medium between contempt for the wisdom and experience of others, a result of pride in our own abilities, and the fawning dependence on others that leaves us helpless before emergencies — the sort of thing that leaves a man calling for his mother at the age of eighty. Again, there is his pertinent insistence that the certitude of reason comes from the intellect, while the necessity of reasoning comes from the defect of intellect in man; a remark that might have saved Bergson, and the world, many a headache. Naturally, a man as bold and decisive as Thomas would point out the limits of caution, and do it well. All of these things would repay a much lengthier study.
Prudence in the individual: In sinners Prudence must be in every man if he is to act maturely. But, such is our jealousy of human characteristics, that even in our immature acts we must cling to some shadow of prudence, some semblance of maturity, though it make our acts as comically incongruous as a bearded infant. The prudent burglar goes through the motions of prudence, but he points those motions to a wrong end, like a star football player making a brilliant run to the wrong goal. That is not prudence, for it is not getting something done; rather it is undoing something.
Again, the irreligious business man, who spends every hour of the day making his business a success, is using a kind of prudence; he is going to a true goal, but not to a very important goal. He has no justification for indignant recriminations at the desertion of his wife; he has left her long ago for his business. Nor has he any right to cry out injustice when he is told: “Thou fool, this night do they require thy soul of thee; whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?” Of course, the man who merely makes up his mind but never gets anything done has no business rushing to the front when a call is sent out for prudent men.
In fact, the false prudence of the burglar and the imperfect prudence of the irreligious business man can be present only in the wicked; both neglect the real business of life. The imperfect prudence of the dreamer can be in either good or bad men; but the perfect prudence which enables a man to get the necessary things of life done can be had only by those in the state of grace. It is a virtue which perfects the whole man. We are speaking here, of course, of the infused or supernatural virtue of prudence which, as a concomitant of sanctifying grace, is to be found even in children who are not yet able to use it.
In just men
This alone indicates the gap between natural or acquired and supernatural or infused prudence. Natural prudence is a human structure, built up slowly through the years by our acts; it must be torn down, brick by brick, with the same tools. Normally we expect to find it in the old: but we are not too optimistic in our search for it in the young. For the young are much more apt to have their reason impeded by the heedless elbowing of passion; moreover they have none of that long experience, age’s compensation for the ashes of youth’s fire, to fall back on.
Origin and decay of prudence
From this, it is clear that no man can lay the blame of his imprudence on nature; no man passes all of a lifetime searching as helplessly for prudence as an American in Paris searches for the right railroad station. Nature gives us a definite push towards prudence, not only in the natural inclination to the good of reason, but also by the naturally known first principles from which prudence must proceed. It may be that a hot-headed or full-blooded man finds it much easier to be rash than to be prudent; he can blame some of the difficulty of prudence on nature, but if he has coddled his rashness, he must blame himself for the brat’s impudence.
In other words, our temperament has not the finality of a death sentence about it; rather it is the challenging note of a bugle call to battle. Nature gives the push, puts no insurmountable barrier in the way, but the perfection of this or any other virtue is ours to attain by the simple expedient of exercise.
The destruction of prudence is no less in our power than is its perfection. We can go about its destruction subtly, by poisoning it with acts of its opposite, imprudence. Or, if we prefer violent means, we can shoot its prospective parents at the altar. You will remember the double element of reason and will inherent in prudence: the element of reason can be effectively excluded either indirectly by impeding reason’s control through passion or directly through forgetfulness or ignorance; in either case we leave the will blinded, even if we do not steadily sap its strength or give it the perverted outlook of malice.
Species of maturity
It is a mistake to picture prudence as utterly personal, like the part in a man’s hair. Prudence orders the means to the end of man; and that end includes the good of the family and the good of the community, as well as the good of the individual. For each of these goals of man there is a corresponding type of prudence: personal or monastic, economic or domestic, and political or ruling prudence. But in a larger sense these three cannot be separated. After all, the individual good includes, and in a certain sense is included by, the common good. As a subject, man is a part of society to whom the common good is preferable to personal good; but man, as an individual, possessed of an immortal soul, has a good so far superior to the common good that this latter is itself the means to that supremely personal end.
It is not mere pique at the impossibility of sleep that makes the neighbors call the police when a man is beating his wife. An attack on the family is an attack both on the individual and on the state, for the individual is naturally a part of the family and the family is naturally a part of the state, while every individual, as a subject, is directly a part of the state. Consequently, in his practice of self-control, a man is exercising a part of the rule of the state; more than that, he is engaged in constant practice for that regulation and direction of others, which is necessarily involved in the office of those who have care of the state.
A man who works for the common good is not tossing a coin to a strange beggar from sheer generosity. Without this common good, a man cannot have his own proper good. This truth is fairly evident from the fact that man has a natural inclination to live in society; for nature does not pay much attention to frills, it concentrates on the essentials without which man cannot live. This is a fundamental explanation of the withering effect selfishness has on the very roots of human life. It is a violation of the fundamentals, both natural and supernatural; for both of these rules of human life — reason and love, prudence and charity — are given to man in view of his own fullest development.
At any rate, where there is a special object of direction or government, there is a special type of prudence. It may be the prudence which rules the life of the individual within himself, the prudence which rules the family, the prudence which assures the internal peace of the state or, finally, the prudence which offers protection against external enemies. This last, military prudence, contrary to the absolute pacifist’s notion, is not an unnatural, inhuman thing; rather it is a careful copy by human reason of nature’s design. Even animals that cannot smile were given teeth; and the teeth serve as well for munching on enemies as for munching on the tastiest food the pet shop can offer. Nature has given not only an appetite for good, but also an appetite against difficulty, an emergency appetite that finds its object precisely in those things that threaten to destroy or corrupt the good that is the individual’s perfection.
Complete maturity: the gift of counsel
lt takes a man a long time to grow up. In fact, he does not really reach full maturity until he reaches God. His mind and heart do not reach out with the strong, full gesture of maturity until they reach out for God; nor are his actions fully worthy of his manhood until they exceed it, moving toward the supernatural goal under the direction of the supreme Governor with something of the swift ease of angelic efficiency. We have called these dispositions, which make a man readily moved by God, the gifts of the Holy Ghost. It is eminently fitting that there be one such perfection of movement for the virtue which moves man to his action, the virtue of prudence. It is, in other words, essential that the smooth, easy movement of divinity should flow into those stumbling efforts by which alone we can come to God — our own human acts.
The gift that perfects the virtue of prudence, bringing man to his fullest maturity, is called the gift of counsel. But do not be misled by the name; it is not to be thought of in terms of a board meeting and endless argument. Like all the gifts, counsel proceeds in a manner that can be described by only one word — angelic. It is not a step by step consideration, a weighing of possibilities, but an instantaneous, breath-taking application of supernatural knowledge to individual supernatural work. It is much more practical than a pair of overalls, yet it has the delicate strong beauty of flashing steel.
At the peak of the acts of counsel will of course be acts dealing with the direction of the things most useful to the goal of lite, for, like prudence, counsel is essentially practical. It is highly significant then, that the beatitude corresponding to the gift of counsel should be: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” In other words, the acts most useful to the successful living which is the goal of prudence are merciful acts; when we can suffer with others, we have begun to live.
We might expect, since counsel is in the practical intellect and is busy getting things done, that there would be no place for this gift in heaven; surely there, with the main task of life done, there will be nothing left for counsel to attend to. Nevertheless counsel does remain in heaven, at least in a special double sense. That is, we do not forget what we have learned in this life about getting things done, and there are many things to be attended to even in heaven. In fact here and now we spend a great part of our life sending the angels and saints scurrying about heaven running our errands — finding health, jobs, happiness and forgiveness for us. It is true, of course, that counsel is not busy about the last goal; nor is there any of that uncertainty and healthy doubt about heavenly prudence and counsel. Rather there is an instantaneous transition to the knowledge of what is to be done and how it is to be done.
All through this second part of the Summa St. Thomas proceeds on a homely principle as refreshing and uncompromising as the earthy common sense of a farmer. He argues that a man who knows a road well has no difficulty knowing when he has left that road. The thing is so utterly obvious that it smothers all disagreement instantly. And yet, we too often proceed on the assumption that a knowledge of the road is not so very important if we can only know a great deal about the blind alleys and crooked, wandering paths that get us nowhere. Thomas would argue that a man who knows the width and depth and beauty of purity needs no illustrated booklet of the complexities of impurity to keep himself clean. Or, on a wider scale, a good knowledge of a virtue is the best knowledge of the sins against that virtue, for virtue is the highroad to heaven.
Types of immaturity:
Imprudence (precipitation, thoughtlessness, inconstancy)
In this matter of prudence, for example, we find as many sins as there are conditions and species of prudence. Roughly, all of these sins are reducible to: imprudence, negligence, carnal prudence, craftiness and unreasonable worry. The first, imprudence, is obviously directly against prudence, that is, it is an abandonment of the rule of reason; it crashes down from the heights of reason to the depths of action without any of the intervening steps. It will, then, have none of the perfection of prudence about it. Wherever it is found — in the individual, the home, the state, the army — it may include precipitation as against counsel; thoughtlessness as against judgment; inconstancy as against precept or command; and negligence as against the prompt execution of that command. As a result of its rashness and precipitation, imprudence will be incautious and will lack circumspection; as a result of its thoughtlessness it will be deficient in docility, memory and reason; and as a result of its inconstancy and negligence, it will have little of foresight or reasoning.
All this sounds as highly complex in the order of imperfection as prudence’s own complexity in the order of perfection. Really, it should be so; after all, it is not the beggar but the millionaire who can be robbed of a million dollars. And all of these sins are brought about principally — but not exclusively — by sins of luxury. As a matter of fact, anything which can absorb the soul in sensible things can give rise to these sins of imprudence.
The negligent man wanders through life in a rosy daze of naive trustfulness. His sin is opposed to the note of alertness, of healthy doubt which we have said was universal in all acts of prudence. Still other men fall in love with the daughters of the illegitimate branch of the prudence family. They win to an earthly, an animal or a diabolical prudence, according as the goal whose color lights up their lives is the world, their own senses or their own excellence. But in all these cases, the goal is so completely the wrong goal that it draws them in the direction opposite to the flow of rational life.
Carnal prudence (craftiness. guile, fraud)
Where the sin falls, not on the end, but on the means, we have the sin of craftiness, with its execution through fraud and deceit. The very names have a slimy sound that awakens a revulsion in a man enjoying no more than the remnants of moral health. The furtiveness of cowardice and the slyness of trickery have not yet won favor in the eyes of men, in spite of much talk about worthy ends, good intentions, relative values. Even in the moral order, perfume is a poor substitute for soap and water.
Perhaps one of the most human of the sins against prudence is that of excessive worry. Because prudence does deal with human ends, human actions and human circumstances there must always be a note of uncertainty about it; there is always reason for healthy doubt, some reasonable anxiety and a great alertness. We should have some little anxiety for future things, some concern for temporal things; but if we go to the excess of worry, we are not only being unreasonable, we are falling into a trap that Christ went out of His way to protect us against. You will remember that He pointed out the things that divine goodness has given us without any worry on our part, such as our body and soul; He called our attention, too, to the help God gives the animals and plants, the goods proper to their nature. Certainly He will not treat us less kindly than He does irrational creation. He went deeper and insisted that it was the ignorance of the Gentiles in spiritual matters that was behind their gnawing concern about temporal things and their mocking scepticism of things spiritual. With us, possessed of the knowledge and love of God, the spiritual things must be first.
Conclusion: The condition for fullness of action — maturity
Perhaps we can sum this chapter up best by saying that the condition for fullness of action is maturity, a maturity that comes only by the virtue of prudence. In the physical order, we would be astonished to see an infant swinging a sledge hammer or directing a bank. We do not expect a child to produce the works of a man, to have the endurance or intelligence of an adult. That last point is all-important: a man works perfectly only when he works intelligently, and he works with full intelligence only when he is working by prudence.
Men have always sought fullness of action, which is no more than saying that men do not relish being morons; men have always wanted to grow up. Like everything else in the world, men have always sought their fullest perfection; and the men of our age are no exception to the men of all other ages. In fact we have sought maturity of action rather desperately.
Modern attempts to attain maturity of action
We have resorted to mass education as a means of opening more and more goals to human action. We have championed the political theories of democracy in the hope that men might have greater opportunities for action. We have advanced psychological theories as a means of freeing the motive power of man from all checks. Finally, our age has been swept by totalitarian political practices calculated, and rightly so, to remove the check of an absolute standard of action, allowing men a devastating adaptability to times and circumstances.
But really all of these attempts have been somewhat lopsided; they have looked at everything but the central figure — man and his humanity. No one of them has been aimed at moral fullness, that is at human fullness. Two, education and democracy, have been extrinsic; that is, they have added nothing to a man himself, indeed have neglected man himself, in their concentration on the things outside of man. The other two are indeed intrinsic, the psychological and totalitarian attempts, but they have not added anything to man, not developed anything within him, rather they have taken something of his humanity away from him.
Modern philosophical and political attacks on maturity
It would seem as though our desperate striving for fullness of action is, in reality, a desperate struggle to destroy maturity of action. Let us look at it this way: full maturity of action comes from the effective direction of our action to a worthy, personal goal. Today we talk of motion without direction, or direction without motion, direction and motion to wrong ends, direction and motion to good ends by bad means, or even of no motion at all. It would seem almost as if we were trying desperately to dodge the right answer to the problem of full action. Look at these attempts, or attacks, on fullness of action in the concrete. Behavioristic and animal psychologists have denied our self-direction; pragmatists and organistic philosophers have made a strange friendship in denying not only direction, but the things to be directed, the very truth of direction. The emotional philosophers, of the aesthetic, romantic and neo-supernaturalistic schools, attack reason itself, the one directive faculty. Then there is naturalism, in all its weird, irrational forms, denying a personal goal, in this respect taking its place staunchly alongside of humanitarianism and totalitarianism — all of which, in a real sense, destroy the whole reason for direction by destroying the goal of the individual.
The desperately young who will not grow up
Certainly we are not growing more mature in our action; we are not attaining a greater fullness of action, in spite of the mechanical and scientific helps that have been evolved to lengthen the faculties of man. Perhaps we are forgetting that human fullness of action is moral fullness of action. At any rate, we seem to be trying desperately to stay young; we have adopted the cult of youth, not only in the physical order, but in the intellectual and moral order. It is as though we insisted on clinging to the gurglings of an infant, the constant activity of a child busy with childish ends, or the large dreams of youth, along with youth’s clumsy gestures and self-conscious effrontery.
The eternally young who are always mature
There is a human side to all this, for youth has always been a desirable thing. Age creeps upon us with a definite threat of destruction; and that, perhaps, is the whole explanation of our terribly young world, a world that is so young it is in its second childhood. For if the men of that world cannot see beyond the limits of the material, then, in their eyes age is a thing of horror, a relentless enemy that irrevocably wipes the individual human being from the world of reality. But if our eyes are lifted up beyond the barriers of nature to the limitless stretches of eternity, then maturity is not something to be feared, but to be worked for earnestly. For then it is not a destruction of youth, but a promise of eternal youth; it is not a concomitant of corruption and disintegration, but rather it is a fundamental condition for eternal life.