A talk Given at New College Franklin, Prospective Weekend, Spring 2018
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the great Western text on virtue, concludes in a very strange way. After all his work discussing virtue, Aristotle unexpectedly relegates it to second rank. But if I am to make clear the remarkable nature of this move, I first need to clarify what goes on in the main body of the text, where we glimpse some of the glory and splendor of human virtue. We must see this first if we are to understand what it means to award virtue second place. We’ll do this by exploring just one of the virtues—prudence.
Aristotle is not an each-to-his-own, good is one thing for you, another for me philosopher. The telos or purpose of all truly human activity is universal. Yet he insists that our work is also deeply personal and particular.
There is no such thing as the ethical life in the abstract. I am an individual confronted with particular realities each day, and I can only attend to them in the particular.
There are of course the most obvious boundaries for us: do not murder, do not steal. But these hardly suffice to direct me to what exactly it is I should be doing in a given moment. Love the Lord your God is a principle, not a plan of action.
It is upon this fact, the problem or need for particularization that the virtue of prudence begins to shine forth. And it is in this virtue that the Ethics strikes a blow against a pernicious conception of human nature, one which we are often prone to in the Christian community. This error has many names: legalism, command theory, categorical imperativitis, the idea that the heart and soul of human ethics is law—that an objective law by itself is sufficient for the truly human life.
Hidden in this mistake is the idea that the ethical life is basically easy and obvious. What in the world I am talking about. What could be confusing about ethics? What is not easy or obvious about virtue? Do we not have a law that has straightened this out?
Let’s suppose that you are not struggling with whether or not to murder the person next to you or simply filch money from their purse.
Instead, let’s think of the kind of questions we face every day: How do I respect my boss? How do I stop this behavior? Do I have to celebrate Christmas with my parents? What college should I attend? How can I be a friend without becoming a pushover or a blowhard?
If you have never been confounded by such questions, your day is coming. You will one day be a college student, or a parent, or a husband or wife; you will one day be confronted by the vast complexity of human existence, and the short coming of your own practical wisdom will become apparent. This is the meaning of those verses in Proverbs, the one’s which to paraphrase say: Hey, get wisdom…sell everything you have, get wisdom, the beginning of wisdom…get wisdom.
It is only in the most obvious and extreme cases that our actions are explicitly prescribed so that we need hardly think about what to do. But 99.9% of our life, we meet with cases where we need something more than law. This does not mean the truth is fuzzy, but that the truth or rightness of an act is made plain to us in a manner far richer, far more wonderful than any written code, and has everything to do with what makes us human, that is persons created in the image of the Tri-personed God. It has everything to do with faith in and fellowship with God.
The kind of wisdom we need, the kind of wisdom or discernment peculiar to active man is summed up in the cardinal virtue called prudence, also known as practical wisdom. Prudence, by the way, is the virtue classically associated with the counsel of the Holy Spirit.
Being human, making right decisions, beautiful decisions, living fully and robustly is a challenge; it is also an adventure. And it is prudence that makes this possible. It is perhaps with the glory and gift of prudence in mind that Proverbs 25:2 says–It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.
There is a naïve Christianity which reduces wisdom to answers, that is, to a lettered obedience to God. But the temptation in the garden, Eve’s grasping after wisdom does not suggest that wisdom is itself a red herring. Rather, it reveals the shortcoming of human independence and disobedience, the impossibility of true wisdom apart from God. All the treasures of true wisdom are hidden in Christ. In Jesus, that precious fruit which God himself plucked for us from the cross, we receive a wisdom far greater than we could have hope for.
Again, prudence is that virtue by which we live out our lives as truly human; it is that by which we discern the good and beautiful act in a particular moment; it is prudence which is that shining habit in which God’s will for us is made plain, in which his word speaks personally and providentially and powerfully, and creatively in us.
This is because prudence puts man in touch with reality. In doing so, it brings about a distinctly human life because we are created to come into contact with the real. That is, rational man is made principally to know and love the real and all which that world implies. Therefore, prudence is the most humanizing of the virtues, without which we have no virtue.
But lest we think of this wisdom as an achievement which borders on presumption, we can consider what Josef Pieper, who I am following, says…I’ll read you an excerpt from his book the Four Cardinal Virtues:
The prudent man…fixes his attention precisely upon what has “not yet” been realized… [But]…there cannot be that certainty which is possible in a theoretical conclusion…the certitude of prudence cannot be so great as completely to remove all anxiety. Man, then, when he comes to a decision, cannot ever be sufficiently prescient nor can he wait until logic affords him absolute certainty. If he waited for that, he would never come to a decision…unless he chose to make-shift with a deceptive certitude. The prudent man does not expect certainty where it cannot exist, nor on the other hand does he deceive himself by false certainties.
At first this sound farfetched, that Pieper who is following Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle seems to reject the idea that we can know we are making the right decision, but the moment we put this in the context of faith it makes sense.
For we don’t simply believe in God for salvation and then go about our day; rather, our whole life is to be marked by faith, resting in his guidance, and his mercy in all our actions and choices…I don’t just parent my kids with the blind conviction that my wisdom is sufficient, but rest in faith that God is guiding me and will guide me, and finally them. In classical ethics, faith truly lives, because prudence respects the depth of need which is part and parcel to being human.
Now we can hear with new appreciation what Pieper says a bit later about where assurance does come from:
The decisions of prudence…nevertheless receive “practical” assurance and reinforcement from several sources: from the experience of life as it has been lived; from the alertness and healthiness of the instinctive capacity for evaluation; from the daring and humble hope that the paths to man’s genuine goals cannot be closed to him; from rectitude of volition and of ultimate “intention”; from the grace of direct and mediated divine guidance.
I could talk about just this virtue of Prudence for our entire time, all without exploring courage, temperance, or justice.
But we need to shift gears to see that there is something more at stake, something yet more wonderful, of which Aristotle had an inkling.
Aristotle’s great text on ethics comes to a startling close in book Ten. After all his work on virtue, he concludes that the happiness of the virtuous person is itself incomplete, insufficient. That is, the great manual on virtue concludes that virtue is not enough!
It is not easy to communicate how significant this is. In the rest of our time I will try to say a little bit about this.
What this means at bottom is that the perfection of human nature is not enough. It means that the human longing for happiness surpasses human nature. We are made for more than merely human perfection.
No other being in the universe is like this. A perfect tree is perfectly a tree, a perfect hammer a hammer…a squirrel whose is healthy and has what it needs is satisfied and complete as a squirrel, but the perfect man, the man who is completely virtuous, who is just, courageous, temperate, and of course prudent, who has friends and family and sufficient wealth, this man will not be perfectly happy without something more. We could theoretically stand at the very height of all our natural capacities and yet fall infinitely short of true fulfillment.
This is because man, by the very fact of his rationality, is a being open to something other than himself, and ultimately open, of course, to God. This is Aristotle’s, the pagan philosopher’s conclusion; though without the hope of fulfillment we have in Christ.
Man is a creature whose perfection and fulfillment, whose true happiness is not in himself. Therefore, the achievement of such happiness is not within his power; it is not strictly speaking a human achievement!
The happiness of contemplation, of seeing God face-to-face is not something we make happen.
The virtues are at best preparatory and protective of this end, but they have no proportion to it. Let me explain what I mean. Beholding God is a human activity which we can in no way cause or initiate or even become capable of on our own.
All the virtues of character, including prudence, are like playing the scales. They are but practice for the real thing. But they are also very much unlike playing the scales. When I practice the scales, I am the one working away at the piano. But then I can turn to play a Bach cantata and put those very same skills or mechanics to work…the work of playing Bach is proportioned to scales and vice versa.By the way, I do not actually play the piano.
But let us consider contemplation, that is the vision of God…there is no human activity which I can at some point put to use to see the face of God. There are activities are in some sense preparatory to and protective of this great hope, like prayer, but when I play the scales, I can then turn to the sheet music of Bach.
I cannot pray and then look at God’s face, see his very essence. I do not flex a muscle, or turn a page, or will him to reveal himself to me, to pass me by as He did Moses.
This speaks to a single fact, that to see Him as he is a pure gift, a gift which any and all the work I ever do has absolutely no proper ratio of merit.
A human person in all his splendor and virtue is yet a being made for an excellence which infinitely surpasses his own. This was true of Adam and it is true of us now.
Aristotle himself never conceived that we might hope for such a vision. He rather thought we could on occasion enjoy a natural contemplation– for him, this delight was the greatest share in perfection which could reasonably be expected.
While natural contemplation is simply a foretaste of the real thing, a drop in the ocean, yet, since none of us have ever seen God, we must grasp something of divine contemplation by considering this imperfect or natural analogue.
In thinking about the nature of contemplation, we can turn again to Pieper who reminds us that it refers to something like vision, an immediate intuitive possession of the beloved. In such vision, we find rest.
He then says that in natural contemplation, there are three elements. First, that “everything holds and conceals at bottom a mark of its divine origin.” Second, “one who catches a glimpse of this sees that all is good beyond comprehension.” Finally, “seeing this he is happy.”
Such happiness is akin to the happiness God has known from all eternity, the happiness by which and for which he willed all things to exist. It is the happiness hidden in Christ, even or especially in his sufferings.
To recall this joy, to believe in it, to hope for it, to experience some share of it in this life requires courage, it requires faith, it even requires suffering at times. It is our job at New College Franklin to continually keep the avenues open by which such vision may time and again steal into our hearts. Our job is very much like practicing the scales over and over again with our students, ever remembering that while we practice, we wait for something which will show how very much all our practice has been child’s play.
 Divine Command theory may fall short on two levels. First it may suggest that the law can create an ethical or virtuous being, that it has the power to make us righteous. Second, depending how it is understood, it fails to grasp the fact that Law/Divine Command flows from Being. God commands the perfection of a nature which he has created and this nature is created in his image. It is not good because it is a commandment, but because He commands what is good.