“There may be many ways to do wrong in this world, but there are also many paths to the right; those governed by prudence are willing to at least admit the possibility.”

That’s from my recent article at Comment Magazine, a subscription to which would make an excellent Christmas gift to the thoughtful Christian reader in your life.  I sent them a piece that was wreckage, and they graciously helped me work through my intuitions.  I write to learn, sometimes, and this was one of those cases.

Still, I want to say one or two more words about this above line, as the thought beneath it has been rattling around upstairs for a while.  It is tempting to think of ‘prudence’ as virtue which is perpetually guarding against a nearly limitless number of wrongs, which make any action perilous at all. Aristotle famously sums up the intuition by suggesting that “there are many ways to be in error…but there is only one way to be correct.”  Beneath this lies the Pythagorean notion that the bad is boundless and undetermined, but the good has a kind of limited and determined nature: whereas the wrongs are infinite, the good is finite and bounded.*

Now, I am half disposed to grant that this is not merely true, but obviously so:  in evaluating a particular situation, it’s easy to think that the wrongs can multiply, as every husband frantically attempting to find a Christmas gift for his wife will unhappily attest to. From the standpoint of the person who is just or courageous, there may only be one path through certain difficulties, where the goods involved are obscured or limited by the magnitude of the moral dangers and wrongs that such a situation involves. There may be no apparent good to a pregnant woman with cancer who is deliberating about her course: or if there are, it certainly seems like the number and gravity of potential wrongs vastly exceeds them.

But if we remove ourselves from deliberating about the tragic situation, things seem different: it is, in the course of our normal life, the goods that are boundless and infinite and under-specified and the wrongs limit and constrain us. Consider all the goods which might be undertaken in the time it takes to read these musings:  you might enjoy a cup of tea, or donate some money to a charity, or buy a Christmas gift on Amazon, or write a note to your loved ones.  Or perhaps you might undertake a few moments of prayer, or reflect on your own path, or comfort a friend who is in sorrow. There are so many goods in this world that we can fulfill: to consider the opportunities to do good even within a single life is almost immobilizing.  Determining which goods to pursue is at least as difficult as discerning which wrongs to avoid.

I have vague, inarticulate suspicions that the moral atmosphere generated by each of these two outlooks will be very different, and that they matter for what form we imagine the virtue of prudence to take. Asking about the goods I might participate in is a generative question: it is a question which expands our imaginations and turns our attention away from the wrongs which might beset us toward the opportunities to partake in the growing goodness of the world that we have been given. “Let us not become weary in doing good” is a bit of psychological counsel that has deep metaphysical roots: it is tempting to allow lassitude about the goods before us to take over, and to allow our entire spiritual and moral horizons to be overwhelmed by avoiding the sheer volume of potential wrongs before us.

George MacDonald’s little novel sums up the danger in a way that has haunted me since I first read it:

‘I didn’t mean to do any harm, ma’am. I didn’t think of its being yours.’

‘Ah, Curdie! If it weren’t mine, what would become of it now?’ she returned. ‘You say you didn’t mean any harm: did you mean any good, Curdie?’

‘No,’ answered Curdie.

‘Remember, then, that whoever does not mean good is always in danger of harm. But I try to give everybody fair play; and those that are in the wrong are in far more need of it always than those who are in the right: they can afford to do without it. Therefore I say for you that when you shot that arrow you did not know what a pigeon is. Now that you do know, you are sorry. It is very dangerous to do things you don’t know about.’

“Did you mean any good, Curdie?”  It is the good which is boundless, which is infinite, and which if we participate in is a source of endless youth and renewal and joy.  Prudence must, first and foremost, be an activity of mind which turns toward the goods within a particular situation and determines which of them should be undertaken.  And if we will so direct our minds, I suspect we will discover a more varied and colorful universe, full of possibilities for action and imagination, than we had previously known.

*Aristotle is considering the nature of virtue, which is an agent-centered concern and may explain why he is interested in a more limited form of the good.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

One Comment

  1. Prudence, Matt?

    It seems your logic would also apply to varied possibilities of the good in cultural endeavors. If so, isn’t this a nod in the reformed-two-kingdoms direction? I’m not saying I plant my own feet fully and firmly in this camp, but prudence is a big category for the two-kingdoms types.

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