It is helpful, I think, to go back to the root meaning of the word “virtue”. As noted in the introductory reflection the word “virtue” has its root in the Latin word “virtus” meaning “strength” or “force”. Over time virtue has been used to connote a variety of different ideas and attitudes and it is helpful to move past these to the word’s original meaning and purpose. Virtue is not something to be laughed at or belittled. It is an active force and a demanding discipline that, when developed and fostered, can truly guide life and even lead one to achieve remarkable things in life.
Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about virtue, “A virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of him or herself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his or her sensory and spiritual powers; the virtuous person pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.” (CCC #1803)
This is not milk toast, nor is it a wimpy passivism and neither is virtue a Victorian or sexually repressed hang-up. Virtue allows one to achieve the best of him or herself. Virtue will not allow a person to sell himself or herself short precisely because virtue is rooted in an awareness of the true dignity of the human person. It is out of this awareness that judgments are made as to what is for the good and what is not.
Some voices would say that one should not judge and would even (incorrectly, I would add) quote Scripture as proof, “Judge not, lest you be judged.” This attitude is a copout rooted in moral sloth. We make judgments everyday. Society and our individual lives would come to a grinding halt if judgments ceased being made. Part of the discipline of virtue is not to cease making judgments but to determine and acknowledge what is within ones individual purview to judge and what is not and what is within society’s purview to judge and what is not. I cannot see within the soul of another (only God can) so I cannot judge what is within another person. But we can (individually and as a society) see actions and their consequences and therefore we do have the right to make judgments on actions. Therefore, we can make judgments and decisions that actually pursue the good in our everyday experiences and we can choose the good in concrete actions and circumstances.
This is where prudence (often referred to as the auriga virtutum – the charioteer of the virtues) comes in.
“Prudence is the virtue the disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; ‘the prudent man looks where he is going.’ (Prov. 14:15) … Prudence is ‘right reason in action,’ writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle. It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation. It is called (the charioteer of the virtues) because it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man (or woman) determines and directs his or her conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.” (CCC # 1806)
Despite what some might say, to make a prudential judgment and choose the good in a situation is not a form of unhealthy repression. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. Prudential judgment witnesses to a robust moral and psycho-social health. Prudential judgment also gives witness to the ability to see through the common illusion of ones self being the center of all existence. We live in communion with others and our actions have an effect on others – either to build up or to tear down. The virtue of prudence demonstrates both an awareness of and a deep respect for the other person. Prudence means that, if need be, I can curtail my own need or desire in order to promote and safeguard the good of the other person. Because of this, prudence also demonstrates a mastery over ones own inner impulses rather than our being controlled by our desires. (Part of being a charioteer is to be the one who directs, controls and guides the energy of the horses rather than the horses having control.)
Prudence grounds itself in an advanced and mature understanding of the human person being more than just his or her desires and impulses and an awareness of the greater context in which we live – that we live in communion with other persons. One way, I believe, to develop the virtue of prudence in ones life is to keep in the forefront of ones own mind both the reality of ones own dignity and also the dignity of every other person. Through this dual awareness the prudent man or woman gains the ability (as Proverb 14:15 states), “to look where he (or she) is going”, make a reasoned judgment and determine a course of action rather than letting the circumstance and/or impulses of the moment dictate what to do.
Through the exercise of prudence and all that forms its foundation it is possible to achieve the beauty and authenticity of a life will lived.