A Primer on Politics and Prudence

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The political scene is drawing toward the center of our national consciousness (if it ever left) as Democratic presidential debates take place and the 2020 election nears. As this process happens, faithful Catholics need sound ways to think about candidates, policies, and the landscape in general.

Josef Pieper, a great twentieth-century philosopher, provides a broad but excellent definition of politics: it is “the summation of all man’s active cares about securing his existence.” This encompasses all that we see and experience in modern politics. Every political act, from public referendums, to legislative statutes, to newspaper op-ed pieces, to public protests, is ultimately about people trying to secure their livelihoods or the livelihoods of other human persons (usually those they consider weaker). Misguided as some actions may be, they have this goal nonetheless.

We live in a political age that is deeply divided. There is a deep chasm between two sides. It seems impossible to stay abreast of current affairs without being dragged into the muck and mire of the modern political scene. It feels very much like our culture has devolved into those “works of the flesh” against which St. Paul warned: “enmity, strife, [and] party spirit” (Gal. 5:20).

Can we overcome, even heal, this political climate of deep division and distrust? Classical philosophy and Catholic teaching suggest that it is possible. Better yet, they prescribe a remedy.  In recent generations—building on the rich teaching of Plato, Aristotle, St. Paul, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas—the Church has seen fit to deepen her teaching on politics, and to provide clear principles for directing the faithful.

 

Just after World War II—that terrible political and moral tragedy—Christopher Dawson, the great Catholic historian, wrote of the antidote to the diabolical trends of modern political culture:

The obvious remedy for these evils is to be found in the old natural and political virtues … above all the virtue of prudence which Aristotle defines as the truly rational and practical state of mind in the field of human good and evil. It is only by the exercise of these virtues that it is possible to save society from the political disintegration that threatens it, and maintain an island of society amidst the rival barbarians of Left and Right. [Emphasis added.]

Take heed. Virtue, particularly the virtue of prudence, provides a stalwart defense against sliding into the realm of cultural and social division where politics potentially takes us. Thus, as citizens and political actors, we must seek to understand and, more importantly, grow in prudence.

The Second Vatican Council also forms us for political life, and gives us principles by which we should operate. Gaudium et Spes (i.e., The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) clearly states that the common good is the raison d’être for the political community: “this is its full justification and meaning and the source of its specific and basic right to exist” (GS 74). Thus, we understand that political discourse exists solely for the establishment of the common good. The common good must be the principle that we keep in mind as we engage in political acts such as news-watching, letter-writing, legislating, rallying, campaigning, or voting.

In order to bring about and foster the common good, we must know its nature and how to foster it. Again, Gaudium et Spes provides clarity. The common good is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (GS 26). This fits almost exactly with Pieper’s definition of politics quoted above. The common good, then, is ordered toward human flourishing.

The Catholic faith also forms us to understand that virtue, particularly prudence, is intimately related to politics. Securing the common good, we are taught, “calls for prudence from each and every person engaged in its building” (CCC 1906). The common good is the guiding principle of political discourse, but prudence is the way that it will be fostered and brought into being. Therefore, prudence must be present in all political action. Prudence must be the “charioteer”—as Aquinas called it—of all the virtues.

Gaudium et Spes gives us yet more for our reflection and understanding. A truly human political community, the constitution tells us, is fostered by an “inward sense of justice” and “good will” (GS 73). These two qualities only operate rightly with the aid of prudence. If justice is not measured by prudence, it becomes simply vigilantism. If goodwill is not measured by prudence, polities end up exhausting resources on things that may not fulfill the common good best. Both of these results, ultimately, are harmful to the social and political project. Prudence prevents straying toward either extreme.

Finally, the pastoral constitution makes this line of thought eminently practical. The Council fathers exhort Christians to “combat injustice and oppression, arbitrary domination and intolerance … with integrity and wisdom” (GS 75). Injustice, oppression, domination, and intolerance remind us of much of our modern political discourse. Thankfully, we are called to remember that there is a solution to the moral problems of our age. Moral integrity and wisdom are found when we cultivate the virtue of prudence. If we are to achieve what is good for ourselves and our social communities, we must first know what that good is. Then, we must be committed to keeping it intact, doing so all the while with prudential judgment.

Political discourse seeks to create and develop laws and policies that bring about the common good and human flourishing. Prudence seeks to achieve the “intellectual vision, moral integrity, and persevering effort” that will lead to the flourishing of individuals and whole social communities. The goals of politics and prudence, then, are one and the same. Therefore, as political beings engaging in public discourse, we must pray for an increase in prudence (and its perfection in the spiritual gift of counsel), and we must look for opportunities to exercise this essential virtue in our public, political action.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer” painted by Rembrandt in 1653.

Derek Rotty

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Derek Rotty is Director of Evangelization & Discipleship at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Jackson, Tennessee. He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Memphis. His first book, A Life of Conversion: Meeting Christ in the Gospels, will be published by Our Sunday Visitor Press in October 2019. Find out more at www.derekrotty.com.

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