Monday, November 18, 2013

On Practicality

 A couple of days ago I was browsing back through the Circe blog and found an article called:  Truth or Consequences:  On Being Practical.   It made me think, especially as I had just written about St Ignatius being Practical and according to Newman thus suited to teach our modern times.

Some reflections follow.   They are not at all in opposition to what Mr Kern was saying.  I thoroughly agree with his take on American culture in general.   I just want to muse a bit about why homeschool moms (speaking for myself primarily, but I've noticed it in others too) CRAVE practicality, search for it in the fields, sweep the house looking for it like the widow in the parable who lost her coin -- well, you get the picture.

Newman does us a favor, perhaps, by using Prudence as a synonmym for Practicality.   Let's think a bit about what Prudence is.   Here's Aquinas (an easier explanation than some others)
St. Thomas Aquinas ranked prudence as the first cardinal virtue, because it is concerned with the intellect. Aristotle defined prudence as recta ratio agibilium, "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. When we mistake the evil for the good, we are not exercising prudence—in fact, we are showing our lack of it. Because it is so easy to fall into error, prudence requires us to 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 sign of imprudence.
Aristotle teaches that prudence informs all the cardinal virtues. Prudence is the acquired ability—that is, the habit—of discovering and judging what is right in any given set of circumstances, even where this cannot be deduced from general principles. It is prudence that makes it possible to do the right thing in the right place at the right time. An action that is courageous in one instance may be rash or foolish in another, because the time and place are not right. Prudence puts the actions in the right order.  -- Laura Berquist, Character Formation

Some unpacking:

1.  Prudence is concerned with the intellect  -- it comes from your mind, your heart in the Christian sense of "core of your deepest being"
2.  It is also concerned with PRACTICE, the practical, with the active sphere of life.  Things that you DO.   Christ constantly reiterated that the inside is of key importance but it will always be reflected in exterior ACTION.   It is never sterile or hidden "under a basket".
3.  Prudence lets us judge what is right and wrong in a given situation.  -- it lets us "order things rightly"
4.  It can't always be deduced from general principles (because of our limitations of reason).
5..  Prudence requires us to seek the counsel of others -- specifically those we think are sound judges.

David Isaacs, in his book about Character Building which I resort to again and again, says that small children cannot be truly prudent because they have not built up sufficient life experience.   The best they can do in place of prudence is obey their parents, which substitutes for the more adult virtue or rather allows them to imitate and participate in their parent's prudence.  "Don't walk into that street, child; cars drive down it."    At first he does not know, but trusts and obeys. Therefore, prudence requires experience, either our own or other peoples'.

Whenever we get into a brand new sphere of life, we are in somewhat of the position of babies again, though our general life experience may help.   When I first became a mother I had  no firsthand experience of that happy state.   I learned from reflecting on my own childhood, from keeping attuned to my baby, from reading about mothering, and especially from other mothers, specifically my own mother and mother-in-law, who stayed with me and my newborn and gave me some invaluable tips and support.  I would not even have known what to ask for.  They gave me strategies, and practicing the strategies helped me develop my understanding.

Same when I became a homeschooler.  I knew even less and the help was way scarcer because there weren't very many homeschoolers around then.   There was no internet.   Every homeschool book I could acquire, I read to tatters, and still have significant passages memorized.   (Sometimes I disagree with them now, but that is still helpful as I dialogue internally).

And I tried to stay open to MY experience, again, as I had as a new mother.  I watched my children.   When one small son had a violent reaction to Rod and Staff math, I switched over to something else, though with intense doubts because I was afraid I was enabling him.  I wasn't, by the way -- it would have been better if I had done it sooner.

Aquinas says you learn from discipline (teaching) and discovery (personal experience).
Therefore, just as someone can be healed in two ways -- first by the action of nature only, second by the collaboration of nature and medicine -- so also there are two ways of acquiring knowledge. First, when the mind moves by its own natural power to an understanding of things previously unknown to it. This is called discovery (inventio). Second, when the mind is helped by an outside power of reason. This is called teaching (disciplina).
Aquinas also says that in an art, while theory AND practical experience together are better than either alone, if you have to have just one, the practical know-how is better.  To see the truth in this, picture who you would rather have build your house -- someone who had built many solid houses (perhaps learning the practice from his father) or someone right out of school who had learned much about the theory of house-building.  Here is where the American affinity for practicality makes sense.

However, practicality makes no sense in a vacuum.  By definition, the practice of something depends on the ends which you are striving towards.   It is FOR something.  Everything goes back to first principles.  As Mr Kern points out, where we get into trouble is when we don't have true principles to rest on, when we are not "pondering in our hearts" as Mary did.   Then one "expert" tells us to spank our babies whenever they "disobey" where another tells us that children are good and it is the adults who are bad, so we should never reign in our babies or children.   Both bits of advice have significant practical import, but what do you choose if you don't have the least clue what the nature of a child is?

So it is deeply "practical" to think through to the truth of things.    As Mr Kern says:
Not because none of these things matter, but because the truth matters more (I have always been fascinated by how suspiciously and even angrily the practical regards the true, while the true has always loved and honored the practical). ..... The truth is far more practical than practicality.
You don't have to be an intellectual type to think through to the truth of things.   You can be the youngest and simplest of Roman girls who goes to face the lions praising God.    Truth is received by the "intellect" which is not being like Sherlock Holmes or the philosophy prof at the college but is a kind of understanding of the heart that comes above all from God's gift of charity -- of the gifts of faith, hope and love.   It is a habit of seeing clearly in God's light.


  1. Excellent food for thought, Willa. I'm already thinking about applications for our days and plans.


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