“O, Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High, pervading and permeating all creation, mightily ordering all things. Come, and teach us the way of prudence.”
For liturgically minded Christians the Great O Antiphons mark the most contemplative part of Advent. Meant to be chanted one each day beginning on Dec. 17, these short reflections focus on various characteristics of the anticipated Messiah.
Their origin is unknown but the tradition for early authorship and use in the church is strong. The Roman Catholic Church attributes them to Ambrose in the fourth century and the martyr Boethius referred to them in his “The Consolation of Philosophy,” written in the early sixth century. They have been cherished by the church for centuries.
The first of the seven, quoted above in a translation used by my Lutheran church, calls the Messiah “Wisdom” and then unites him with us humans as the teacher of prudence. Why is prudence given precedence in the O Antiphons and what is its connection to wisdom?
There must be more to prudence than our current usage of the word. When we call someone prudent, it almost seems like a backhanded compliment. Those of my generation should recall the epithet “prude,” an insult even before all sexual rules were flushed to oblivion.
Has the connotation of the word changed over the centuries? I know little Latin and even less Greek, but I do know that one should not assume a classical word that survives in modern English has the same meaning as it did back then. Is that the case with the Latin prudentia or its Greek predecessor phronesis?
To the ancient Romans, acting with prudentia meant acting wisely with foresight but with a sense of caution. Clearly this was an important virtue for a society that stressed virtue, albeit with an incongruous underlying appetite for cruelty, but that is a rant for another day.
Perhaps the Greeks are a better source for understanding phronesis. Even though I am a Platonist, turning to Aristotle in this instance is instructive. Aristotle viewed prudence as a practical virtue, one that serves well for informing the virtuous life.
So how did Aristotle define prudence? To his way of thinking, only a prudent person can be temperate, no surprise there, but he also sees it as a precondition for being just. I don’t think he was speaking of justice as our contemporary social justice warriors define it.
Note also that the term virtue was heard in both Athens and Rome. For all their faults, both societies stressed virtue as the highest of human achievement. Philosophers throughout the ages concur, mostly. So then prudence as a virtue must be more than simply avoiding acting dumb. There must be a heartfelt desire for prudence to place this first in our appeals to the Messiah. And, significantly, linked to the holy attribute of wisdom.
Look around today. Are we practicing prudence? Are we acting temperately, wisely and justly? Do we carefully think through the repercussions of our actions or, more importantly, our speech? Do we inspire our interlocutors to virtuous thoughts leading to beneficent works?
Mirriam-Webster defines prudence as self-discipline coming from reason. Aristotle would agree, or perhaps I should say the dictionary editors agree with Aristotle. Reason is the means to the end of ascertaining truth and informing our actions in line with this truth.
Sad to say, truth has become an irrelevant word today. Have you ever heard some use the term “subjective truth”? Now there is an oxymoron. Truth by its very nature must be objective and universal, a proposition that produces bile in a postmodern world anchored on the “truth” that there is no truth. Philosophical skepticism has devolved to nihilism. I think the current term for this denial of all external reality is solipsism, one I don’t recall hearing during my student days.
The ancients strove to discover truth, using different methods and sometimes arriving at different answers. But the existence of eternal, objective, absolute truth was never doubted. This was their path to wisdom in thought and their prescription for prudence in action.
So it makes perfect sense that the church today still chants the O Antiphon that asks Wisdom to teach us the way of prudence. We need it now more than ever.
But if a renaissance of prudence is to occur, why not right here, right now? While I didn’t read the book, only the book review, author Jon Lauck may be instructive. His recent book, “The Good Country,” points to the Midwest as a paragon of prudence. Whether he cites Aristotle, Ambrose or Boethius is something I need to check out, but I’m sure he is on to something.
And I have the four weeks of Advent to contemplate it.
Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.