In writing about the 7 deadly sins and their opposite 7 heavenly virtues over the last couple months, I was reminded by a number of you that there are others to consider; for instance, the four cardinal virtues of prudence (wisdom), justice, fortitude (courage), and temperance, and the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.
Since we have covered courage and temperance earlier in the year, and the theological virtues are better left to theologians to discuss, let’s take a look at prudence and justice to round out our discussion of virtue this week and next.
First, why the word cardinal to describe these virtues? Isn’t a cardinal a pretty red bird, or a priest with a fancy red hat? Well, the English word cardinal comes from the Latin word cardo, which means hinge. The thought is that all other virtues hinge on these four principal moral virtues, which can and should be practiced by anyone and everyone.
Plato first discussed the cardinal virtues in The Republic, and they entered into Christian teaching through his student, Aristotle. St. Thomas Aquinas ranked prudence as the first cardinal virtue because it is concerned with the intellect.
Aristotle defined prudence as “right reason applied to practice.” It is the virtue that allows us to judge correctly what is right and what is wrong in any given situation, and to act accordingly. Dictionary definitions of prudence include “the ability to govern and discipline oneself by the use of reason,” and “the ability to discern the appropriate course of action to be taken in a given situation at the appropriate time.”
For some reason I’ve never really liked the word prudence. Do you have words like that? I hear people talk about “trigger” words nowadays, maybe this is one of mine. It reminds me of a song, Dear Prudence written and performed by The Beatles. They wrote it about a girl they met in India while learning how to meditate. It starts out, “Dear Prudence, won’t you come out and play?” It’s one of those songs I immediately skip over.
Anyway, the word wisdom is often substituted for prudence when discussing this virtue. I’m going with wisdom from here on. Wisdom is defined as “the quality or state of being wise; knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action.”
I recall seeing a simple wisdom formula that has stuck with me ever since:
Knowledge (learning) + Experience (living) = Wisdom
Wisdom is a constant process. First you learn. Then you apply that knowledge by making decisions and taking action, by living. Though your actions you experience results. Based on those results you gain a deeper understanding and enhanced knowledge with which to make future decisions and actions.
Let’s use learning to drive as an example. First you learn the basics through instruction. You then take a test to demonstrate your knowledge in order to obtain your drivers permit. Next you get behind the wheel to gain some real-life experience. As a result you gain a better understanding of your current skills and are able to identify opportunities for improvement. You also learn about the behaviors of other drivers. And through your experience you now have an enhanced knowledge of how to safely drive. And the learning and living goes on, eventually producing wisdom.
Upon further review, maybe the formula is better stated as a cycle:
From Knowledge, to Application, to Results, to Understanding, and back around again.
As Albert Einstein once said, “Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.” Or from others:
“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” William Shakespeare
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Socrates
“Pride leads to disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” Proverbs 11:2
Gaining wisdom takes time. It takes patience, a difficult thing in our age of rushing from one thing to the next. We are bombarded with information throughout every waking minute of every day. Who has the time to sort it all out? We are pressed to make quick decisions and move on. Do we take the time to ensure those are wise decisions? Do we make the time to analyze results of those decisions to inform our future choices?
Gaining wisdom also requires humility. First we have to admit we don’t already know it all. Of course as teenagers we did know it all. Then as we matured and ventured out into the real world we quickly realized we still had a lot to learn. Is this still true? Are we open to challenging our youth formed opinions anymore? Or do we just seek out those with whom we agree, and use the four D’s (distract, discredit, dismiss, and destroy) to mob those with whom we don’t. Who has the time to search for truth anymore anyway? Let’s just believe what we want and call it the truth.
Personally, I see very little wisdom on display in our society today. Instead I see wise guys everywhere. You know, people who think they are smart and have an answer for everything. The mobsters of the past were commonly referred to as wise guys, interesting parallel.
My favorite wise guys were The Three Stooges, Moe, Larry, and Curly (or Shemp). One of them would do something annoying and another would exclaim, “Oh, wise guy, eh,” followed by a physical altercation of some sort. Seems that kind of behavior has now moved in a virtual manner onto all the social media platforms. Healthy debate seems a relic of the past. Oh well…
I actually believe we are facing a wisdom crisis in our country. And it’s mainly a problem of knowledge. I do believe most people have the best intentions toward each other. We all want to do what is right and just. But too often we are making decision based on flawed information.
Why do I think this? Because every day I scan all the major news sources and am amazed at all the misinformation and outright lies in print and video. What surprises me is that so much is easily disproven. But nobody seems to care. And unless you have the time to look through many sources, it’s easy to just believe what you hear. Why would they lie? Too many reasons apparently. It truly makes me sad and very unhappy.
The worst thing is, once people have formed an opinion on something in this environment it becomes their truth. There is no talking them out if it. There is no debate. Contrary facts don’t matter. The actual truth doesn’t even matter anymore.
Most troubling of all is the censorship of full facts and truth in favor of opinions and partial truths. I’m finding it more and more difficult to get to the bottom of anything I research currently. The once open and unfiltered access to information on the internet is becoming increasingly difficult to navigate in the search for truth.
But the good news is, with a little curiosity, patience, and persistence, it is still possible to find all the knowledge you need right at your fingertips in order to do good in the world, and to avoid inadvertently doing the bad. For when we mistake bad for the good, we are not exercising wisdom. And unfortunately it is so easy to fall into error though all the bad information we are fed on a daily basis. Trust it at your peril. Or if you must, trust but verify.
Wisdom requires that we learn from many sources, take into account differing opinions, and seek the counsel of others, particularly those we know to be sound judges of morality. Disregarding the advice or warnings of others whose judgment does not coincide with ours is a sure sign of imprudence.
So your challenge for the week is to seek out information about some topic you are interested in, from whatever the opposing point of view is. Then wrestle with the topic until you can argue it from all sides and develop a more informed opinion, or even to get to a truth where possible.
Next week I’ll give you a process to do this in an efficient manner. In the meantime it is useful to go through the struggle by yourself. It will be worth the effort. You will definitely learn something new in the process. Enjoy!
Be Wise, Scott