Only partly justifying my absenteeism as of late, I'm currently blogging from Tampa, Florida, where I'm combining a weeklong conference with a couple days of vacationing with family and friends in nearby Sarasota. I hope to check out the campus at Ave Maria in Naples while I'm here, and, if I manage to convince the wife and kids, drive across the peninsula to St. Augustine's on the East coast.
In the meantime, I hope to post a few passages and comments from a book I've just finished, Joseph Pieper's The Four Cardinal Virtues
. I highly recommend the book, especially for those whose fairly extensive background in moral theology more or less overlooked the natural virtues. Pieper, of course, is thoroughly Thomistic and Aristotelian in his outlook, which is pretty much the only game in town when it comes to traditional virtue theory, as far as I've seen.
In regards to the first and 'chief' of the virtues, prudence, Pieper defines this virtue as pre-eminently an authentic knowledge of reality.
The pre-eminence of prudence means that so-called 'good intention' and so-called 'meaning well' by no means suffice. Realization of the good presupposes that our actions are appropriate to the real situation, that is to the concrete realities which form the 'environment' of a concrete human action; and that we therefore take this concrete reality seriously, with clear-eyed objectivity (p. 10).
This involves, of course, the commonly understood aspect of prudence, as the application of objective principles of moral law to the concrete situations of human behavior. This relates it to conscience. But it also includes the aspects of perceptive 'recollection' (memoria) of the truth of things, true 'open-mindedness' (docilitas) to authentic understanding, and a certain 'nimbleness' (solertia) in responding to suddenly-imposed moral choices.
And here, according to Pieper, is where casuistry most often rears its ugly head. Casuistry attempts to flatten prudence into an absolute system, morphing the necessary providentia ('foresight') required by the virtue of prudence into a full-scale program of constructing, analyzing and evaluating individual events in the abstract. This program is fueled by a quixotic desire to attain perfect 'security' in regard to human action, since all situations are envisioned and resolved in advance. Yet, for all of its assistance in this, the program is doomed to fail, since its system cannot hope to be anything more than a dim shadow of the 'flesh-and-blood' reality of the concrete human situation. It can never substitute for prudence as an absolute standard for making ethical judgments and performing concrete ethical actions.
In the end, no one can make a man's decisions for him, no matter how much these are foreseen and anticipated. Certainly, objective moral principles can be grasped and fastened upon. But the subjective approximation of these principles to a concrete human situation cannot be carried out by someone outside that situation. "But no," says Pieper, "there is a certain way, a single way: that is through the love of friendship." A prudent friend, strengthened by the chief of virtues, can make a friend's problem his own, can visualize and concretize that situation, so to speak, in the person of his friend, and help shape that friend's decision. This, of course, is made possible by the love of friendship.