Friday, May 21, 2010

Reason and Prudence

Prudence, the most important of the Four Cardinal Virtues, is defined as recta ratio agilbilium – right reason about things to be done. The most important part is knowledge.

Prudence is not just theoretical knowledge, but practical knowledge. It’s concerned not only with universal and unchanging truths, but also with the variable things in daily life.

Reason is defined as “making the necessary connections to discover the laws that govern reality.” Reason and prudence, then, are the same, but with one important difference – prudence is also practical knowledge. Reason is used to discover the laws, but a prudent person puts them to practical use.

Richard Maybury, author of such books as “Whatever Happened to Justice?” and “Whatever Happened to Penny Candy?” points out there are two simple, basic laws that people in all societies must follow for those societies to be successful: “Do all that you have agreed to do” and “Do not encroach on persons or their property.”

Both are these laws in essence are distilled versions of the Ten Words or Utterances (Commandments is completely wrong) in the Christian world, but they exist in all societies. Of course, the ones that don’t follow them all that faithfully are not particularly pleasant places to live.

Maybury’s Two Laws are practical (prudent) and reasonable, i.e. discoverable by reason. All true laws are discoverable by reason, which means they are inherent in human nature, in reality. They are “embedded” in nature, meaning they are Natural Laws.

In theory all of reality is discoverable by reason, although if the universe is infinite it is in toto beyond the scope of the limited human mind. Still, some people will never stop investigating reality to the extent they can -- be it law or physics or economics.

Justice, the second of the Four Cardinal Virtues, is defined as “giving to each person what is due to him, and we do this consistently, promptly and pleasurably.” Justice is concerned with the right relations with others in society. It is summed up in a simple motto: cuique suum -- to each his own.

Justice, too, is rational, i.e., discoverable by reason. If it was not, and somehow grounded in reality, then there would be no “justice,” and it would be anything that people said it was.

The third Cardinal Virtue is courage, which is based on justice, and its purpose is to remove obstacles to justice. This one is an interesting one, since it is so very often not rational.

The simplest of courage, animal courage, is an instinct and not rational at all. It is common and indeed vulgar; the most brutal and primitive of savages have it. Cultures prize this type of courage in young men, before it expends them as soldiers, almost always in unnecessary and unjustified wars. This kind of courage does not see the “enemy” as human.

The only rational kind of courage, which is strictly human and does not apply to animals, is moral courage. It is the kind of courage that attempts to understand the viewpoint of the “enemy” and tries to put itself in the other’s place (indeed, any great military leader attempts to understand the mind of the enemy).

Only moral courage is concerned with justice and prudent, i.e., discovering the laws of reality. Animal courage is not concerned with these interests at all.

Temperance, the last of the Four Cardinal Virtues, governs our appetites for pleasure. Since man can be rational, the pleasures that are in accord with reason are suitable to man. Temperance does not restrain us from the pleasures that are reasonable, but from those that are contrary to our reason.

Temperance does not act against our natural human inclinations, but works with them. Temperance is opposed to the inclinations of nature when they are like a beast that is not ruled by reason.

“A beast that is not ruled by reason” is the important part. Animal courage, for example, is a beast not ruled by reason, and is therefore not temperate, just or prudent. Moral courage, being rational, is all three.

All four of the Cardinal Virtues are interrelated; if a person does not possess one, they possess none of them. All of them are rational, i.e., discoverable by reason. If they were not, people could not be able to tell what they are, or to define them.

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