Docility and Prudence: The Forgotten Virtues


We live in a sound-byte world, a quick culture that often doesn’t stop and think.  American culture is particularly bad about this, and often fails to dive any deeper than the news headlines or the context that they gained from the last person they spoke to.  This has been seen with practically anything Pope Francis says, or anything that doesn’t fit within the media’s agenda of normalizing sin.  Over the holidays, as I watched the media fury surround Phil Robertson for expressing his views on homosexuality I began to think about how our culture lacks the virtues of prudence and docility.

The word docility has roots in the Latin word docere which means “to teach”.  It’s where we get the word doctor (teacher) and doctrine (teachings).  Docility is the virtue of obedience and openness in those who are taught.  Saint Thomas Aquinas related this closely with the cardinal virtue of prudence: applying earned wisdom to real life situations.  Academically, the formula is essentially to be open to gaining new, sound, truthful knowledge and then applying it correctly in the real world.

But our society generally scuttles that whole discussion.  Instead of asking if something is right or wrong, we are told subjectively “what is right for you is fine.”  Instead of understanding the teachings of Christ in a full, real, and coherent way we are reduced to memes and cherry-picked gospel quotes to justify a myriad of sinful behavior.  Someone suggested to me once that we all cherry-pick what parts of religion to follow.  This may be true to a point… some teachings are easier for us to hear and respond to than others.  This should not be where we stop!  We should be striving to always grow in our faith and be docile and teachable wherever Truth (note the capital) is found.  It’s not subjective… what is true is true.  Similarly, if we then use that earned knowledge to act prudently we can become a living example for others instead of just an academic argument found in a comment-box.

When attempting to discuss the virtues of a teaching – or sometimes, simply stating them out loud – people respond with the glib old diatribe “have an open mind!”  It is very easy to hide behind the auspices of having an open mind.  Also, it is easy to take the hard-headed and prideful approach and think that you know everything.  (Most of these people use Facebook, I have discovered.)  I am reminded of a very good quote by G.K. Chesterton:

Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.

For me, the key has been disposing of preconception and emotion and intellectually processing both sides of the argument.  This is extremely difficult to do when approaching “hot button” topics where emotions run wild… but some mileage can be had from simply explaining your viewpoint, your argument from truth, and listening to the objections.  From there, you can respond to those objections as long as the opposing party will respectfully engage.  The Thomastic philosophy is particularly good at this and can be used with a little practice.

The best we can hope for is to first learn truth for ourselves, apply it correctly to our lives, and then transmit it to others.  And to paraphrase a quote often attributed to St. Francis… if necessary, use words.

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