4 min read

Where the good, the true, the human, and the real meet

In the second of his series on virtue, Andrew Davison explores the underrated virtue of prudence as the ability to live aligned with the grain of the universe.

Andrew works at the intersection of theology, science and philosophy. He is Starbridge Professor of Theology and Natural Sciences at Cambridge University and is currently a visiting fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton.

A carving tool is pressed into a groove in wood.
Photo: Dominik Scythe on Unsplash.

A full human life is a virtuous one, and vice versa. In the second of these eight discussions of virtue, starting in Lent and moving into Easter, we come to the first of the virtues, namely prudence. It’s not a common word today, but you simply can’t have virtue without it, at least according to such luminaries as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. Prudence, Aquinas recalls, is:

‘the mother, custodian, and moderator of the virtues.’

That’s because, for him, prudence is nothing less than the meeting point between the good, the true, the human, and the real.

'That to act well – to be virtuous – is to act rationally.'

Thomas Aquinas

Virtue, as we saw last time, is all about being fully and characterfully human. Human beings are ‘rational animals’, as Aristotle put it, so to be fully and characterfully oneself, someone has to act rationally, to the fullest extent that she is able. (This is also a tradition that has fiercely upheld the humanity and worth of people with disabilities, including mental disabilities.) There is something deeply counter-cultural about placing that sort of emphasis on reason. Isn’t fulfilment about following our desires, with rational interrogation just getting in the way? Moreover, we’ve lived through decades in universities where reason has been treated with suspicion (that’s the technical term), as ultimately an expression of power or some vested interest, such that ‘truth’ more about the speaker than what is spoken about. In contrast to that, Aquinas insists that to act well – to be virtuous – is to act rationally.

‘Reason is an openness to the reality of things’

Thomas Aquinas

That, however, is no cult of abstract or rarefied reason, nor the preserve of some intellectual elite. For one thing, while reason is important, it’s also secondary. Reason matters because of reality. To be virtuous is to live with the grain of how things are: with the grain of being human, of being in a human community, and with the grain of the universe more generally.  The place of reason in virtue, according to Aquinas is not so much for its own sake, but because reason is an openness to the reality of things. Second, the rationality of prudence is a matter of keen-sightedness, especially in keeping two things in view, and coordinating between them: moral principles, and the contingencies of the situation to hand. Such clarity of vision is by no means limited to the highly educated, nor is primarily to be learned from books. It is picked up from good examples, and a well-honed common culture. Third, prudence is a virtue – a ‘second nature’, as we saw in the previous article – and that is as much about the honing of instinct, as anything else. It ends up as much a matter of the body as of the soul. It is about being a rational animal, so it shapes us as animals, and not only as minds.

To be virtuous is to be prudent – to be practically wise and rational – because of the need to attend to reality, and work with its grain, not against it. A good life is lived in a way that’s in-keeping with human nature, and with nature more widely, so as to flourish within it. That’s not simply a matter of living sensibly, although that’s also not a bad start, since living sensibly is also harder than we might think. We don’t naturally always make healthy use of the good things of life – food, sleep, sexual intimacy, responsibility, or authority – as good sense would suggest.

On fraught territory

The association of prudence with the reality of things, especially with the shape of human nature, is fraught territory. Human beings are prone to read all sorts of morally charged things into nature, some of them deeply flawed. Even the great Aristotle thought that some human races were ‘obviously’ and ‘naturally’ slaves. He also bequeathed the idea that human nature at its most authentic is male, such that women turn up when a foetus doesn’t develop along those, better, lines. All of that once seemed natural, which is a problem, but it doesn’t invalidate the place of prudence among the virtues, and the place of reason in a well-lived life. It makes careful use of prudence and reason all the more important.

On the good life

Reflecting on what a healthy, flourishing human nature is like, and a healthy, flourishing society, is a tricky business. That’s why it calls for life-long growth in the virtue of prudence: getting better at knowing what that looks like, knowing it more and more instinctually, and in being able to weigh up what it demands in any particular situation, rapidly in some cases. We won’t all agree on what a flourishing life looks like, individually or community, but there may be room for agreement in on the idea that a good life – a virtuous life – involves following that path, which is to say, the path of prudence.

4 min read

No mercy on the Megabus

Why is sin such a sickly, sticky thing in the human heart?

Jenny is training to be a priest in the Church of England. She holds a PhD in law and previously researched human rights issues in extractive industries.

An upset man holds his hands on his head as he misses a bus.
Nick Jones/Midjourney.ai

“I’m begging you, I’m begging you,” pleaded the passenger. His two large suitcases lying around him, the Nigerian man knelt on the pavement outside the Megabus station. The bus driver stood surly-faced, arms crossed. The passenger’s jacket was ripped where the driver had shoved him off the bus. The passenger had one too many bags; he had not read the Terms and Conditions on his ticket.  

The man groaned – “I must get to Heathrow, I have a flight to catch! I’m willing to do anything – to pay for an extra ticket, to pay the extra bag fee, I have money, see?” He showed the driver his wallet pleadingly, demonstrating his possession of several bank cards.  

A few concerned passengers stepped off the bus. “We don’t have a bag in the hold; we’re happy for this man to have our space.” Another person said, “I booked a ticket but my friend didn’t come – there’s a whole seat’s worth of luggage space available in the hold.” Yet the bus driver would not budge. Even though Megabus has an excess baggage policy, it was down to the driver’s discretion. The driver alone had the power of life and death, to say “yay” or “nay” – to restore a man’s dignity or completely ruin it, along with his jacket.  

As the minutes ticked on, other passengers began to get irate with the Nigerian man – “just buzz off mate, you’re making us late!” “You should have read the rules!” “You’re making the bairns on the bus cry!” Stony faces pressed against the window as the man knelt on the pavement. Even those who had tried to help him left him in the harsh hands of the bus driver and his colleagues, tiny kings in a kangaroo court For the bus driver, there was no backing down – he was pacing, sweating and red-faced, repeating over and over again to himself his side of the story. And in the end, we left the Nigerian passenger in the heartless hands of bus bureaucracy, wiping our hands of the injury done to him – “we tried.”  

How mucky and murky the human heart can be. 

The whole experience on the Megabus that day left me feeling sick. We all like to think of ourselves as decent folks, as long as we do our “bit”. But on that bus I realized the difficulty: what is “my bit”? Who decides what is “enough”? How quickly a petty issue of baggage can descend into a power play. How quickly do ordinary nice people become a mob when they are outraged or inconvenienced. How mucky and murky the human heart can be. 

The only word that feels strong enough to me to describe this condition is “sin”. This word may sound like a relic of a bygone Britain, but I think it’s as relevant as ever. It’s a serious word, loaded with a sense that the things we do mean more than we know. Sin suggests that I am accountable for how I treat people – not just to my own perception but some higher standard that safeguards the dignity of all human beings. Christians believe that it is God who safeguards our humanity, who sets the standard for how we should and should not treat others. We are accountable “vertically” – to God – as well as “horizontally” to each other.  

It seems to me that “sin” is not a laundry-list of rules but more like a tangled knot of slippery threads – I can’t see where it begins and where it ends, in my own heart or in the world at large. The Christian Eastern Orthodox tradition often likens sin to sickness or a dis-ease of the soul; it infects our reasoning, our emotions and our actions. And that’s why the hurt and pain we cause each other is so “sticky” – no one is left untouched by the effects of the damage we cause each other.  

It was quite clear to me that there were some “sins of deliberate fault” on the Megabus that day – the bus driver’s behaviour was patently unfair and verging on abuse. But I would say sin also flourished in the self-defending logic of the passengers who just wanted to stay in their lane, and for the Nigerian chap to stay in his. Don’t bother me, with your problems. I look after me, you look after you. There were sins of ignorance too – I felt this sick sense in my stomach as the bus pulled out of the station that there was more I could have done, but I didn’t quite know what. All I know is that every person needed mercy on that Megabus, whether we knew it or not. Ironically, the Nigerian man was the most innocent of all.