Man or woman, royal or republican, political or organisational – anyone who leads or seeks to should reflect on this…
Josef Pieper once again makes the truth limpid – in order for there to be justice, there must be authority; but when that authority is vested in a person, if they are bad there is nothing that can stop injustice.
This perhaps explains the state of the world today – there aren’t too many ‘just rulers’ about…
Of course it’s not easy:
The lesson here is: political nous and worldly wisdom i.e. ‘prudentia‘ and ‘temperantia‘ (self management) might get you there; but if you take a position of responsibility ‘guarding justice’ is your job.
After a full (and indeed a fulfilling) schedule of festive feasts and gatherings; the final set piece hoves into view – the big one: New Year’s Eve…
Classically the ‘bridge too far’, I usually approach New Year’s Eve with a heavy heart and a bulging acid stomach. But not this year!
Perhaps in part thanks to Josef Pieper and St Thomas Aquinas.
Last night I finished ‘The Four Cardinal Virtues’ and found myself reflecting on temperantia which Wikipediahas thus:
Temperanceis defined asmoderationor voluntary self-restraint.It is typically described in terms of what an individual voluntarily refrains from doing.
But not for Josef Pieper, who offers a typically full blooded rebuttal of this ‘modern’ interpretation:
The meaning of “temperance” has dwindled miserably to the crude significance of “temperateness in eating and drinking.” We may add that this term is applied chiefly, if not exclusively, to the designation of mere quantity, just as “intemperance” seems to indicate only excess.
Needless to say, “temperance” limited to this meaning cannot even remotely hint at the true nature of temperantia, to say nothing of expressing its full content.
Temperantia has a wider significance and a higher rank: it is a cardinal virtue, one of the four hinges on which swings the gate of life.
Discipline, moderation, chastity, do not in themselves constitute the perfection of man. By preserving and defending order in man himself, temperantia creates the indispensable prerequisite for both the realization of actual good and the actual movement of man toward his goal.
Which kinda makes sense. So what of the gustatory arts? St Augustine offers a very reasonable take:
It is a matter of indifference what or how much a man eats, provided the welfare of those with whom he is associated, his own welfare and the requirements of health be not disregarded; what matters is just one thing, namely, the ease and cheerfulness of heart with which he is able to renounce food if necessity or moral obligation require it.
To which Thomas Aquinas adds pithily.
To oppress one’s body by exaggerated fasting and vigils is like bringing stolen goods as a sacrificial offering.
If one knowingly abstained from wine to the point of oppressing nature seriously, he would not be free of guilt;”
After all as Pieper points out, the Bible says:
“When you fast, do not shew it by gloomy looks!” (Matt. 6, 16).
Because it transpires, the whole point of temperantia is to keep heart and soul happy and healthy – no more and no less. For as Pieper warns:
All discipline… bears in itself the constant danger of the loss of self-detachment, and of a change into self-righteousness, which draws from its ascetic “achievements” the profit of a solid self-admiration.
And we wouldn’t want that on New Year’s Eve, would we?
Instead, having eaten, drunk and been adequately merry (and stayed on the right side of 11 stone this Xmas) I’ll follow Pieper’s advice and crank out another evening of hilaritas mentis – namely: cheerfulness of heart.
Josef Pieper turns out to be my kind of ethicist: straightforward, practical and direct.
What he sets out on ‘prudence’ (aka Thomas Aquinas’s prudentia or ‘practical wisdom’) chimes entirely with what I think ‘good’ looks like in working life.
Here’s what Pieper has to say:
The first prerequisite for the perfection of “prudence” is providentia, foresight.
By this is meant the capacity to estimate, with a sure instinct for the future, whether a particular action will lead to the realization of the goal.
But foresight is often something you ‘feel’ and can be hard to explain to young idealists, literal-minded folk and powerful ideologues.
A reasonable sense of what will work (and won’t) is like a sixth sense. It’s not about ease or difficulty; it’s a ‘felt sense’ of a workable path through.
As Pieper points out:
At this point the element of uncertainty and risk in every moral decision comes to light.
In the decisions of which by their very nature prudence is concerned; with things concrete, contingent, and future (singularia, contingentia, futura) there cannot be that certainty which is possible in a theoretical conclusion.
Then he quotes Thomas Aquinas.
“Non potest certitudo prudentiae tanta esse quod omnino solicitudo tollatur.”
The certitude of prudence cannot be so great as completely to remove all anxiety.
As Pieper rightly says:
A profound statement, this!
He goes on:
Man, then, when he comes to a decision, cannot ever be sufficiently prescient nor can he wait until logic affords him absolute certainty.
If he waited for that, he would never come to a decision; he would remain in a state of inconclusiveness.
The combination of a ‘felt sense’, the difficulty of unpacking the many factors and years of experience which underpin it – and the inevitable risk it may not turn out to be right – is what prudentia feels like, I believe.
So what to do? Pieper concludes:
The prudent man does not expect certainty where it cannot exist, nor on the other hand does he deceive himself by false certainties.
And, after all, as a man of faith Pieper suggests hope springs eternal:
The decisions of prudence receive “practical” assurance and reinforcement from several sources:
from the experience of life as it has been lived;
from the alertness and healthiness of the instinctive capacity for evaluation;
and from the daring and humble hope that the paths to man’s genuine goals cannot be closed to him.
In sum, Pieper makes a strong case for: thought, listening to your instincts and to others, timely action, accepting anxiety – and the ‘daring and humble’ hopefulness of pursuing genuine goals.
Prudentia is not a bad guide for working and family life.
The wettest holiday ever – well nearly; that was in Biarritz a decade and a bit ago. Still two glorious sunny days in Cornwall fooled us into thinking it was summer… It then rained unremittingly, both there; and then on our French campsite this week.
Yesterday we called it a day; fighting the family holiday ‘sunk cost fallacy’. This was best captured in an overheard quote, during my own childhood, which became our family standard:
“We’ve paid for it, so you will enjoy it.”
But we did ok. We all mucked in: cycling in the teeming rain, wedging into a crowded crèperie, feasting on rotisserie chickens, washing pots and pans and squelching through bogs to the bogs.
But, facing another uninterrupted day of pouring rain, ‘practical reasonableness’ kicked in. Aquinas would have been proud…
We checked out our options, discussed it en famille and concluded, as they say en français: “on se casse” – we’re off. And a mere seventeen hours later: four solid London brick walls, a proper roof and a warm comfy 3am bed…
Family holidays can be memorable for all sorts of reasons. Rain ensured this wasn’t a classic. But sticking together through the soakings, meant, it was a good one all the same.
Some years ago on holiday, we stayed in a French house which had a multi-volume set of philosophy books. Of all the great philosophers of history only Aristotle and Aquinas merited three entire volumes; which was reassuring – I was already reading on Aquinas when we arrived.
Whilst this standing in philosophy is well merited (in my humble opinion), I’ve found Aquinas’s particular method of logical argument, makes his original texts a bit of a struggle.
Blame René Descartes. Mind separated from body – dualism – was his big idea. “I think therefore I am” is probably a fair bet, but Thomas Aquinas got the whole story – we are but one; body and mind entwined.
If in doubt, check out the limbic system or the brain of a crocodile – or indeed the limbic system responding to a crocodile. Fright, fight and flight. Simple instinct doing automatically what nature intended, without the need for laboured thought. The body is more intelligent thank we think. Conscious thought is a bit-part player in most of what we are.
As an aside, I’m increasingly persuaded that the main block to artificial intelligence is not the number and speed of processors mimicking ‘neurones’ but the lack of ‘sensors’ – ie no body to carry so called embodied intelligence. Look at an iPhone – is it software or hardware? It’s neither – it’s both.
At the recommendation of two friends I’m trying ‘mindfulness meditation’ in pursuit of ‘inner peace’. And in the process it’s a shock to discover I am blissfully unaware – almost 100% of the time – of what my body is doing, feels like or needs. All I generally think about is what I’m thinking about.
Bodies get a raw deal, celebrated only for ‘beauty’, reviled for decline and decay. But like a well kept older car, a classic chassis is something to celebrate – and keep rust free and polished.
This week, in my fist ever eye test, I discover I have two healthy optic nerves, two unblemished retinas and scored a perfect 16 in the ‘puff’ test of eyeball pressure. My eyes will neither explode nor collapse in the foreseeable future. Marvellous.
Part of the point of ‘mindfulness’, I’m learning, is to recognise that there’s 70+ kilos of amazing living breathing body here as well as 1.5kg of grey matter.
Remembering you actually are your body – forgetting the contemporary obsession with how it looks – and instead marvelling that it lives and breathes and broadly speaking works, is harder to do than it seems.
Western philosophy has largely forgotten bodies since Aquinas. So I’m going East for a few weeks to meditate on the philosophical reconnection of mind with body. It’s no more complicated than breathing.
Talking to someone at work, she said she’d been surprised that a very experienced chap in his late 50s had come on a training course.
We concluded that age shouldn’t matter in deciding who gets training. I know plenty of pig-headed twenty and thirtysomethings who’d have got less and will give less as a result of that training course – it’s openness to new ideas that matters.
It dawned on me that nearly all the people I most enjoy conversation and contemplation with, are at least ten years older than me. And many much older. When it comes to thinking about things, you can’t beat the right sort of older person.
Contemporary society glorifies youth. But younger people haven’t always got much to say. Of course there’s freshness and simplicity but relevant complexity in people takes time to grow.
Openness, curiosity and the experience of age are key attributes of the Aristotelian ‘friend in contemplation’. Aquinas’s ‘prudentia’ – practical wisdom – is not innate, it is learned. Wisdom takes time. Forget youth, when comes to interesting people – the oldies are the goodies.
I’m reading the ‘Death’ edition of the redoubtable Philosophy Now magazine. And a bone-rattlingly good read it is too. Death dissected through metaphor, thought experiments, cool logic and rational argument.
The core issue, this issue: as medical technology advances should we prepare for immortality or stick with three score and ten? Imagine a typical lifetime of 300 years, the necessary absence of children, the ceaseless marinating in one’s own juices.
As always with philosophy there are no easy answers, but plenty of better ways of thinking about the problem. I remember reading the last half chapter of Julian Barnes ‘A history of the world in 10 1/2 chapters‘ at university as suggested by my philosophy tutor.
It perfectly captures the problem of eternal life – and heaven. Once you’ve had sex with everyone, studied and discussed everything, got your golf handicap down to a straight 18 (‘holes in one’ all the way round) and scared yourself at the ‘Hell’ theme park, what’s left to do.
Easy to say with the expectation of a good few years ahead, but I’m with Aquinas – the human animal makes no sense outside or beyond nature’s limits. Philosophy has always wrestled with it, but ‘death becomes us’.
As Seneca said its not so much the shortness of life, it’s not properly filling it, which is the tragedy.
I came upon a terse description of ‘identity’ this week in a longer piece by neuroscientist Terrence W. Deacon of USC Berkeley:
An intrinsic tendency to maintain a distinctive integrity against the ravages of increasing entropy as well as disturbances imposed by the surroundings.
He was describing the way molecules come together in sympathetic, then symbiotic relationships to form ‘auto-catalytic’ processes – where one chemical reaction feeds, and is fed by another. But deliberately he was defining ‘self’ in a way which embraces chemicals, bodies and minds.
I watched a chilling piece on the news last night about Alzheimer’s, with an awareness raising TV ad portrays sufferers fading through transparency to invisibility. Another of Deacon’s definitions – intended for chemicals, is as true of minds:
To be truly self-maintaining, a system must contain within it some means to ‘remember’ and regenerate those constraints determining its integrity which would otherwise tend to dissipate spontaneously.
Which leads me to the conclusion that:
After Aristotle, as moral animals, we are what we repeatedly do.
After Aquinas and McCabe, as linguistic animals, we are what we think, say and write.
And after Deacon, as forgetful animals – sometimes helpfully, sometimes tragically – we are what we can remember against the ravages of entropy, the environment and time.
All the more reason to write the odd reminder I think.