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On Prudence

“The liberally educated individual is the man who is at home in the world of ideas. And because . . . he is a creature of free choice, he can select among ideas in the light of the relations he has found to obtain among them.” Richard M. Weaver

Aristotle’s treatment of virtue in the Nicomachean Ethics underscores the centrality of choosing well to growth in moral virtue. Aristotle bifurcates virtue at the beginning of Book II, asserting that virtue is “of two kinds, intellectual and moral” (1103a: 14). Intellectual virtue, he notes, “owes both its birth and growth to teaching,” while moral virtue “comes about as a result of habit” (1103a: 16, 17).

The Greek notion of hexis (moral habit) involves alignment toward the Good (through right education, informed by pursuit of Truth, consistent with the intellectual virtues,) and then making choices guided by that “rightly turned soul.” It is the habit of right choice. That is why Aristotle later fleshes out his definition of virtue in terms of, “a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean” (1107a: 1). Correct choices avoid extremes. They are made with respect to the right person, at the right time, for the right reason. Ultimately, the soul guided by “right rule” is perfected in moral virtue. (Please note, I do not intend to argue one is redeemed or “made perfect” in terms of justification. In Lutheran parlance, these intellectual and moral virtues are cultivated for use in the “Kingdom of the Left,” for service in the world, which is the proper domain of liberal arts education.)

I would argue, however, that when Solomon observes in Ecclesiastes that “There is a time and a season for every purpose under heaven,” he teaches the same lesson (Ec. 3: 1). Consider the similarities between Christian godliness and Aristotelian virtue. The person who understands the seasons of life, also understands that there is a right time, a right place, and a right motive. Therefore, the basis of his choosing is essentially that of Aristotle’s virtuous man, for “The man who fears God will avoid all extremes” (Ec. 7: 18b).

The habit of correct choice–moral virtue–requires a reference point, and Christian faith supplies it. Christian faith and liberal learning are most vitally integrated at this point. Beginning with the attributes of God, Christian faith serves to order the goods, thus completing the axiological framework by which choice-making is informed. When God “writes the law on the tablet of our hearts,” He provides us with the true means of happiness: the wellspring of moral habit. Both Aristotle and Solomon teach that good choices result in virtue and that virtue is the key to happiness. With no axiological base, choice is meaningless; a Christian liberal education “supplies the point.”