Saturday, May 1, 2010

Reason, Prudence and Stupidity

I define reason as the ability to grasp necessary connections among ideas until one becomes aware and understands organizing principles or laws. This definition applies to science, to law, to religion.

Reason does not stand alone, by itself. It is connected to feeling, because without feeling, there is no right or wrong. Reason itself cannot judge whether or not something is right or wrong. Feelings are evaluations of things, whether or not they are good or bad. A person with no feelings at all could murder a million people by pushing a button.

I find it interesting that Prudence is considered the foremost of the Four Cardinal Virtues, and because of its relation to reason and feeling.

“Virtue” means “strength” or “power,” and also comes from the word “man.” It can be defined as “strengths or powers of Mankind.”

The shortest definition of Prudence is recta ratio agilbilium -- right reason about things to be done. Prudence is not theoretical knowledge, but practical knowledge. Prudence is concerned with universal and unchanging truths, and also with the changing things of daily life.

Prudence, then is a strength or power of Mankind that allows us to apply universal principles in daily life, so that we can lead a good life.

People who possess prudence makes good decisions, but cannot easily impart to others how they do it. They cannot always even explain their own thought processes, but after long practice they have a feeling for what they should do.

This feeling is called “connatural knowledge,” and it is important to our moral life. Prudence, then, is both a rational understanding, and a feeling for, the organizing principles (the laws) that allow people to lead a good life. That’s what makes it a power that all people possess, in lesser or greater degrees.

I define stupidity as impulsiveness (not thinking about the future) and not learning from mistakes (not learning from the present and past). These people certainly lack prudence – they lack both right reason and right feelings.

Thomas Aquinas listed several components of prudence, but three of the main ones are:

Memory -- in order to know the meaning of the present, we must have a good memory of the past.

Docility -- we must remain open to reality, always willing to learn as situations change.

Clear-headed decisiveness -- prudence is not merely knowing what we should do, but also making the decision in a timely way.

Stupid people have the memory, but don’t use it. They don’t learn from their mistakes. Since they don’t learn from their mistakes, they are not open to reality and cannot learn as situations change. And they certainly are not clear-headed – in their impulsiveness they do not make decisions in a timely way.

Perhaps some stupid people have good characters, but I have never seen it. All the ones I have met have had poor characters. As Jesus so aptly noticed, “The poor are always with us.” I don’t think he meant financially poor. He meant poor in character.

Unfortunately he was right about them always being with us. There are always going to be people who lack prudence – who lack the ability to reason (to make the proper connections), and the connatural knowledge (the feelings), and so will never lead the best life they can.

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