Thursday, January 10, 2008

Prudence, Practical Syllogisms, Play

.... and Phronesis and Phantasia. I like alliterations. It was so much fun reading Beowulf, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, aloud to my teenager a couple of years ago.

First, phronesis --- isn't that a nice word. It is the Greek word usually translated as "prudence" but of course prudence is one of those words that doesn't mean what it used to mean. Phronesis is "recta ratio agibilium" or "right reason applied to practice."

Here is what Aquinas says about the virtue of prudence. The word derives from "providentia", looking ahead. The reason I'm writing this all out is that prudence is my "theme word" for the year but I like "phronesis" better : ).

Here is an article about Aristotle's Phantasia and its Role within Phronesis. I thought this was interesting, about the practical syllogism:

The most basic form of the "practical syllogism" was laid out by Aristotle in De Motu Animalium 6-8. The form of the argument consists of a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion, from those premises. The major premise, sometimes called the initiating premise, is a propositional expression of the individual's desired end. This is a universal premise, stating a general good to be reached. It is generally considered to be a desire on the part of the individual agent. The next part of the practical syllogism takes into account the individual's perception of his or her own particular situation. Included as the content of the minor premise will be one of a collection of possible alternatives available in the present situation. The minor premise is a belief of the individual about what is possible in this situation, based on perceptions of the situation. The conclusion of this syllogistic argument will be taken here to be a propositional statement about an action to be taken.
To paraphrase what I understand by this:

  • Major Premise: The general good to be reached.
  • Minor Premise: The particular situation of the individual -- the alternatives available in that situation, or what the individual believes are the possible alternatives.
  • Conclusion: =====>> the mental proposal of the action which is to be taken (and presumably, mustering one's will to actually do it, but that's for another topic).

This is really neat. It is sort of what I was trying to say about carrying out resolutions, here. But it is so much more concise and simple.

And this one is a quote I wanted to remember -- still thinking about Amy's post that I mentioned yesterday. She asked if anyone could quote a saint about the merits of relaxing and "taking time for oneself" and I just remembered this one my oldest son and I used to discuss, from the Summa Theologica:

Just as man needs bodily rest for the body's refreshment, because he cannot always be at work, since his power is finite and equal to a certain fixed amount of labor, so too is it with his soul, whose power is also finite and equal to a fixed amount of work. Consequently when he goes beyond his measure in a certain work, he is oppressed and becomes weary, and all the more since when the soul works, the body is at work likewise, in so far as the intellective soul employs forces that operate through bodily organs.

Now sensible goods are connatural to man, and therefore, when the soul arises above
sensibles, through being intent on the operations of reason, there results in consequence a certain weariness of soul, whether the operations with which it is occupied be those of the practical or of the speculative reason. ...

Now just as weariness of the body is dispelled by resting the body, so weariness of the soul must needs be remedied by resting the soul: and the soul's rest is pleasure, as stated above ([3672]FS, Q[25], A[2]; [3673]FS, Q[31], A[1], ad 2). Consequently, the remedy for weariness of soul must needs consist in the application of some pleasure, by slackening the tension of the reason's study.

Thus in the Conferences of the Fathers xxiv, 21, it is related of Blessed John the Evangelist, that when some people were scandalized on finding him playing together with his disciples, he is said to have told one of them who carried a bow to shoot an arrow.

And when the latter had done this several times, he asked him whether he could do it indefinitely, and the man answered that if he continued doing it, the bow would break. Whence the Blessed John drew the inference that in like manner man's mind would break if its tension were never relaxed.

Now such like words or deeds wherein nothing further is sought than the soul's delight, are called playful or humorous. Hence it is necessary at times to make use of them, in order to give rest, as it were, to the soul. This is in agreement with the statement of the Philosopher (Ethic. iv, 8) that "in the intercourse of this life there is a kind of rest that is associated with games": and consequently it is sometimes
necessary to make use of such things.

This falls under the virtue of modesty. If you go to the link to the Summa you can find that this is the via media between an excess of play and a lack of mirth and play. Modesty falls under temperance, by the way -- modesty isn't just about dressing decently, and temperance isn't about abstaining from alcohol.

Finally, I found this article about Humor and the Thomistic Mind. It says in part:

The men or women who do not recognize this union and interdependency of soul and body, will be the ones who look upon wittiness as in some way wrong and unsaintly. Just as the festive and impish joy which marked the Catholic nations of Europe and Latin America disappeared when the dialectical materialism of Marxism triumphed, so too does it disappear from among those with a certain "religious" "turn of mind," who, in their attempt to escape from the world, attempt to escape from nature also. Wit requires a close attention to and scrutiny of the things of the world. What both the naturalism of the Marxists and the false supernaturalism of many among the faithful, who do not have an integral outlook on human existence, have in common is their failure to perceive the intrinsic value of rest. If man is merely a body, rest is only of instrumental value. It is tolerated so as to allow for the more effective functioning of the organism after a minimal period during which there is a cessation of labor. Among those who, implicitly, think that man is a soul temporarily trapped in the body, there will, also, be a lack of appreciation for the various manifestations of rest. Angels do not need rest, do they? Among these "supernaturalist" folk, we find a subtle condemnation of the joking which attempts to bring more perfectly to light the paradoxical structure of the real, of the delight found in the meaningfulness of literature and the beauty of art, and of the primal joy experienced by the triumphant sportsman.

Since rest from labor, especially if that labor is of an intellectual or spiritual kind, is necessary in any humane life, there must be a virtue which regulates and orders that essential activity. To speak of "restful activity" seems oxymoronic. It is not, however. For St. Thomas, human perfection is realized through activity. What St. Thomas says about "playfulness" or "wittiness" is that these forms of rest are perfective activities, which are to be engaged in for the pure delight which they bring to the soul taxed by the trisitia mundi (the sadness of the mundane) and for the refreshment which will allow the soul to again concern itself with those "grave and serious matters" which are the substance of the life of all responsible men.

This got long -- it was meant to be just a collection of links but I wanted to preserve those quotes too!

ETA: And this isn't meant to be an argument with Amy, since I could really totally see her point of view in her post, or even a bid for that box of chocolates -- it's just one of those fascinating rabbit trails, or perhaps epiphanies, for me looking into the treasure house of our Catholic faith.

If I had to give my thoughts on Amy's particular situation, I would reflect back on interrupted, worried nights in the hospital with Aidan, days of weariness and burdens when a moment of "time for myself" would have been a moment stolen from the necessities of others who depended upon me. There ARE those times -- our times to share in carrying our Lord's cross. But that doesn't work against the general principle that rest ---play, fun, mirth, relaxation, even "time for mom" --is a good and necessary thing in itself, though we may sometimes be deprived of it for a greater good.


Amy said...

LOL Willa, I can't imagine you trying to pick a fight with me. :)

I am so glad you found these quotes just now. I've been reading St. Francis de Sales "Letters to Persons in the World" who is very big on prudence and moderation in those letters.

Then yesterday(?) Jen at had a post about getting things done, "hard stops" and feeling overwhelmed. She gave me much food for thought as she discussed why life before electricity could seem much more in balance. However, short of pulling the plug on our house, I'm not quite sure how to apply the thoughts.

Then you post this're convincing me, you're convincing me!

I think I'll buy 3 boxes of chocolates - send one to you, one to Jen (although she doesn't know who in the world I am, LOL) and eat another myself while toasting to St. Francis de Sales. ;-) La'chaim!

lissla lissar said...

"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly"

With his corollary about Satan falling through gravity.

I can't find an exact quote, but your post reminds me of the spirit of Chesterton's writing in Orthodoxy- the assertion that balance does not mean lukewarmness, it means tension and relaxation, fasting and feasting, joy and sorrow- entered into wholly, not held back by a false sense that either (but especially fun, play, happiness, celebration) are inappropriate for serious Christians.

Chari said...

Prudence, eh?

I would love to explore this further with you....via phone...please remind me. :)

And, think of a theme word for me...perseverance? Chauffer? Sleep?


Willa said...

I was going to say that you should buy the chocolates, eat them yourself, and say a prayer for me at the same time. You could use the chocolate more than I could (oh, my it is hard to write that though! ) I am trying to lose a bit of weight, after all. And I could sure use your prayers (though CHOCOLATE is so nice too)


Willa said...


Survivor? Like Mary Chris?

Or like Laureen W -- Refocus and Refresh (the Mama)?