The Revolt Against Prudential Truth

Charles de Koninck

"These ideas appear abstract. Nevertheless, it is time for us to realize in a very practical manner that a generation is being formed, imbued with these doctrines. It has already ensnared powerful nations. These ideas form the substance of communism, fascism and naziism. These ideas are gaining ground even among us."

Because prudential truth is conditioned by the rectitude of the appetite, and because this rectitude is guaranteed only by the moral virtues, the history of philosophy abounds with positions and doctrines which attempt to emancipate reason, from its dependence on the appetite as to practical truth in order to sidestep that difficulty of right action which each one experiences in himself.

This attempt is aimed more especially at political activity, and this we can readily understand, since political action directly concerns the common good. To maintain that prudential truth in political matters is conditioned by the rectitude of the appetite of the politician implies that the judgment of the politician as such depends, not only on his right disposition towards the good of the community, but, at the same time, on his disposition towards any good in action; that the good politician must be a good man; and that this is an essential condition of the very truth of his action.

Now, if there were a means of determining, by reason alone, a proximate rule which, on the one hand would guarantee truth in political action, and which, on the other hand, would free the attainment or the maintenance of the common good from all dependence on the condition of the appetite of the one acting, it seems that the common good would be better assured.

This attempt might be made along different lines. (a) For instance, we might attempt to establish a political science whose truth would be practical and which would therefore be, at the same time, a substitute for prudence. (b) Again, one might try to assimilate prudential truth to the truth of practical art. Here again, the goodness of the end would be independent of the goodness of the agent.

(c) Even more subtly, we might refuse to claim our present judgments to be true or false in the present, demanding that they be judged by their repercussion in the future and by the factual results they might entail.

In all these cases, the common good would be presented as a sufficient justification of either type of emancipation. There would always be, at least theoretically, a perfectly communicable reason for action: a scientific reason; a reason predetermined by the end; or a reason whose validity would be established only in the future.

These conceptions might be favored by the fact that they would claim to free men from all subjection to men. The attainment of freedom in society would be independent of the prudence and moral virtues of its members. The common good would lie, somehow, beyond good and evil in the ordinary sense.

In fact, in either one of these conceptions of truth in action for the common good, we would enjoy a kind of science of good and evil. This statement may sound a little astonishing. But I hope the following considerations will

Prudential truth, as all practical truth, is not the business of knowledge alone in the sense that it would engage only the faculty of knowledge. "The truth of the practical intellect, St. Thomas says, is had in a different way than that of the speculative intellect... The truth of the speculative intellect is had from the conformity of the intellect to what is. Since this conformity cannot take place in an infallible way in contingent things but only in necessary matter, it follows that no speculative habitus of contingent things is an intellectual virtue, but rather it is that only in necessary matter. Again, the truth of the practical intellect depends on the conformity to the rectified appetite. This last is a conformity which has no place in necessary matter, since they are not the product of the human will. This conformity has place only in the contingent things which can be produced by us, whether it be a question of conduct or a question of some external objects to be constructed. That is why the virtue of the practical intellect regards only contingent matter: in the matter of constructing, art; in the matter of conduct, prudence." (I-II,57,5. ad 3)

Our intellect alone cannot bridge the gap that separates practical truth from speculative truth. Our knowledge alone cannot embrace the infinite complexity of the circumstances in which we act. Reason alone, however rectified it may be in the line of knowledge, cannot be the proximate rule of conduct. The very concrete integrity of the conduct to be followed; of that which must be done here and now, depends on something more than knowledge alone.

How ought a man to act in given circumstances? The given circumstances, in which this man is himself entangled, are ineffable. The truth of the most practical philosophy remains speculative, therefore, this side of practical truth. "...Cum sermo moralium etiam in universalibus sit incertus et variabilis, adhuc magis incertus est si quis veilt ulterius descendere tradendo doctrinam de singulis in speciali. Hoc enim non cadit neque sub arte, neque sub aliqua narratione. Quia causae singularium operabilium variantur infinitis modis. Unde judicium de singulis relinquitur prudentiae uniuscujusque." II Eth. 2,259. The most exhaustive moral science cannot serve as the norm for the ultimate concretion of this act, for "prudence implies more than practical science; for to science pertains the universal judgment in moral matters; for example, fornication is evil, one must not steal, and other like judgments. Even when this science exists, it may happen that reason regarding a particular act, may be hindered from rendering a right judgment: for this reason one may say that practical science is of little use to virtue, because, even when it exists, man may sin against virtue. But it pertains to prudence to judge rightly concerning singular actions which must be done here and now; these judgments are falsified by any sin whatsoever. That is why as long as prudence remains, man does not sin; from which it follows that prudence is not of little use but rather very useful for virtue: more than that; it causes virtue itself." (de virt. in comm.,a.6,ad 1)

All determination deriving from knowledge alone, even when drawn from experience, remains apart from what ought to be done here and now. Consequently, every example, though apparently concrete, remains somehow abstract; it could not be a true substitute for what must be done here and now. Even when we rely upon another to know what to do here and now, we merely put off the ultimate problem, for even the action of relying on another is inalienable.

Our intellect cannot be infallibly conformed to contingent things. Nor can our reason embrace the infinity of singulars, and that is why, Saint Thomas quotes, incertae sunt providentiae nostrae. However, does it follow therefrom that the agent may abandon himself to chance? Since one cannot know in advance all the possible obstacles and the catastrophe the simple act of crossing a street may lead to, is it enough to make up one's mind at random? "However, Saint Thomas adds, by experience the infinite singulars are reduced to certain finite singulars which happen for the most part, the knowledge of which suffices for human prudence"(II-II, 47,3,ad 2.) If it were necessary to take into account all that could possibly happen; if, for example, it were necessary for me to be certain of reaching the other side of the street before being able to decide to cross, I would never cross the street. "He that observeth the wind shall not sow: and he that considereth the clouds shall never reap." Eccles.xi,4.

Opinion is sufficient for action. However, we should not conclude therefrom that practical truth is achieved in this opinion. It could not be this opinion which is the proximate rule of conduct. This act must he good. But the good demands perfect integrity; evil, on the contrary, results from whatever defect. Therefore, for this act to be good, it is necessary that it proceed in me from certitude. If, in performing this act, I am not certain that it is good, most certainly it is not. If it is only probable that this is what I must do here and now, it is certainly not good. (Practical truth is not untruth for being practical.)

Now, it is in what I am here doing that practical truth consists. Not in: This is what I should do here and now; but in: I do it, as Cajetan points out.

A man crosses the street and he is run down. Has he acted badly? That is possible. Another might have foreseen the disaster. Can we therefore say that the first was mistaken? He may have been mistaken with regard to those things which pertain to the speculative judgment of certain data of the situation in which he acted. It need not be certain that he would arrive safely on the other side of the street in order that he be in possession of practical truth. Practical truth may be compatible with speculative error. He might have done all that was required of him in the given circumstances and yet be run down. In the last instance, the circumstances formally involved are entirely his own.

Practical truth is conditioned by the rectitude of the appetite. Conscience is the proximate rule of conduct. This conduct is good only if the conscience is true. Conscience is true only if the appetite is well ordered. Liberty of conscience consists in that as well. No one can substitute pure reason for conscience. To maintain that knowledge alone is the proximate rule of conduct is to deny freedom of conscience. If pure reason, and, therefore, communicable reason, could be the proximate rule of conduct, a man could assume the conscience of another, or impose his conscience on another; conscience could be alienated. In short, it would suffice to appeal to objective truth as the proximate rule of conduct, to deny liberty of conscience and prudential truth. That is why rationalism which is always so prompt to invoke liberty of conscience destroys this liberty at its very root. Of course, liberty of conscience is far from assuring prudential truth. Conduct is good only if the conscience is true; the conscience is true only if the appetite is well ordered.

All this is to say that a political science, as perfect as one would wish it to be, a prodigious knowledge of the experience of the past, and of the circumstances in which a person must act, could never assure practical truth in political action. Take note that I say "truth", for, in the domain of action, truth and goodness are inseparable. The man who "succeeds" in getting out of a difficult situation, some apparently hopeless dilemma, and who saves a whole people, or even civilisation itself, by means of a small and seemingly insignificant lie, has not simply committed a wrong; his judgment was, properly speaking, false; his judgment was mistaken. He has committed an error in the strict sense of the word.

These are harsh words. They are especially harsh because they run contrary to our desire for the science of good and evil. Since in action, practical truth depends on the rectitude of the appetite relative to that which is absolutely good, and since the prudential judgment itself depends on a faculty which is naturally posterior to it, the empire of the intellect becomes quite limited, the intellect is conditioned.

But, if reason itself and by itself could determine what must be done here and now to make an act good, if it were able to prescribe in advance the proximate rule of conduct to be followed in all circumstances — this seems to be the ideal of a certain kind of casuistry which would dispense with prudence—, if it were able thus to surmount the infinity of the contingent, to speak the unspeakable, practical truth in action would be independent of the rectitude of the appetite of the one acting, or rather the goodness of the agent and his action, would be assured in advance. That would be the case if we were entirely the masters of circumstances; if, by our human condition, we were not subjected to circumstances which, escape our control. In that case we would have the science of good and evil. "L'homme pecha principalemant, dit saint Thomas, en desirant ressembler a Dieu par la science du bien et du mal: que lei promettait le serpent, et qui devait le rendre capable de se fixer a lui-meme, le bien et le mal moral, ou encore de prevoir, le bien ou le mal qui pqurrait lui arriver. Il pecha secondairement en desirant ressembler a Dieu quant a la puissance propre d'agit, afin d'obtenir la beatitude par la vertu de ea propre nature, par cette puissance personnelle dont Eve avait l'amour dans l'ame, comme dit Augustin. " (IIa. IIae,q .l63, a.2,c.)

But the truth of the matter is that man is born into a world that is no more of his own choosing than was his very birth into the world. The circumstances into which he arises, and must move, have not been ordained by him. He has not traced the circumstance which is the shape of his nose nor has he determined the degree of his own intelligence: he has not excited in himself his propensity to anger or to indolence.

Man is born a subject. He will never be able to rule except as a subject. We are not alone in maintaining this doctrine. The political doctrines most opposed to ours, doctrines that are most perverse, do they not subject all our judgments to that invention of human cowardice, which they call the judgment of history.

Man is born a subject. Nevertheless he must be a wise subject since he has a rational nature. There are circumstances which we can dominate and must, some, which we can modify and must: we cannot master them all. Still, in all circumstances, we must act well. In all circumstances we remain subjects, and we shall always be dependent on the condition of our appetite.

The longing for the science of good and evil, the desire to free oneself from this condition of the subject is nothing else than a desire to be, to oneself, universal providence. According to Hegel, humanity has arrived at that maturity where it becomes fitting to appropriate to itself divine providence. This is what is meant by liberty. This is the theme which pervades the doctrines and political practices of modern times. One needs only to read Hegel's Introduction to his Philosophy of History.

The moderation thus imposed upon political action is indeed a most difficult one, especially when a powerful majority is sold on a false liberty, the liberty of doing what one deems necessary to be judged successful in the eyes of men, the liberty of those who have capitulated once and for all before the power of the day of man as opposed to the day of the Lord.

Let us now consider the second form of escape from prudential truth. Most certainly there does exist an art of governing. But the art of governing can never be more than an instrument; it can never be the virtue of the politician as such. If prudential truth were identical with art, the difficulties which separate us from the end to be attained would be, from the point of view of good and evil, absolutely non-existent. For the rectitude of the appetite required in art, does not consist in its conformity to that which is morally good but rather in its conformity to the end which the artisan has chosen and to which he has determined his action. There will be truth here by the simple fact that the work is conformed to the appetite rectified with respect to the end of the art. If there is any defect in the work when compared to that which the artist intended, if he had made a beautiful figure instead of that of the monster which he meant to draw, this defect will be due to a defect in knowledge. The art of a poet is not necessarily diminished when he employs it to form blasphemies. Like murder, blasphemy can be done artistically. The devil is a very great poet. His works are terribly true and dazzling. "The good of an art is to found, not in the craftsman, but in the product of the art, since art is right reason about things made: for the making of a thing passes into external matter, and consequently is a perfection not of the maker, but of the thing made, even as movement is the act of the thing moved; and art is concerned with the making of things. On the other hand the good of prudence is in the active principle, whose activity is its perfection: for prudence is right reason about things to be done.

Consequently art does not require of the craftsman that his act be a good act, but that his work be good. Rather would it be necessary for the thing made to act well; (e.g., that a knife should carve well, or that a saw should cut well); if it were proper to such things to act, whereas rather is it proper thereto to be acted on, because they have not dominion over their actions. Wherefore the craftsman needs art, not that he may live well, but that he may produce a good work of art, and have it in good keeping: whereas prudence is necessary to man, that he may lead a good life, and not merely that he may be a good man." (Ia IIae, q.57,a.5,ad 1.)

If the virtue of the politician could be reduced to an art, if the politician could alienate his conscience, he would doubtlessly enjoy a certain liberty which the prudent could not enjoy, the liberty of using his art well or badly, the liberty of having recourse to any means which he deems necessary to accomplish the end he wishes. Whether one uses it well or badly, art conserves its integrity as art. If the art of governing were the virtue of the politician, political assassination on a large scale would be a good thing. And since man worships the integrity of art you would only have to wait the day when it will be proved that without these crimes the public good could not have been conserved, to receive the plaudits of the crowd. Those who are desirous of this sort of integrity have already sinned in their hearts; they have already conceded in their hearts injustice as a means of combatting injustice.

But it is perhaps not necessary to resort to so extreme an example to illustrate this primacy conceded to art in the domain of politics. There has been a lamentable lack or absence of 'plans' in the effort to better the lot of the people. Too many things have been left to chance. Men have begun to take into account the dire necessity and the practical possibility of "plans". They have begun to recognize at last the role which experts may and must play in the common or public good. But in their awe before this possibility, they run the risk of forgetting that political society is not a cattle-breeding farm. It must be remembered that if, as Aristotle has already mentioned, a minimum of material goods is necessary for man for the practice of virtue, it does not follow that men will be good because they enjoy the material goods which are necessary for the practice of virtue. It must be remembered that the end of law is to make men good and not to drug them from the cradle to the tomb. As Saint Thomas says: (1-11,92,1) "since virtue is that which makes the subject good, it follows that the proper effect of law is to make those to whom it is given, good, either simply or in some particular respect. For if the intention of the lawgiver is fixed on true good, which is the common good regulated according to Divine justice, it follows that the effect of the law is to make men good simply. If however, the intention of the lawgiver is fixed on that which is not simply good, but useful or pleasurable to himself, or in opposition to Divine justice; then the law does not make men good simply, but in respect to that particular government. In this way good is found even in things that are bad of themselves: thus a man is called a good robber, because he works in a way that is adapted to his end."

If the good man were the affair of art alone, good men could be produced after the fashion of producing race horses; they would then be the products of the art of "conditioning" such as Aldous Huxley decribes in Brave New World.

Thus men would be tricked into non-ebriety by the non-existence of the matter of the virtue of sobriety; they would be drugged into a state of non-anger; they would make injustice physically impossible by putting everyone behind bars. But, then, "quis custodiet custodes?" The guards, too, should be put behind bars.

In other words, men would be made by depriving them of the very faculty of performing a human act.

Let us now consider a third form of escape from the proper condition of truth in action.

There can be no more insidious revolt against prudential truth than that of the myth of the Future, which is essentially a revolt against the unrelenting exigencies of the presence of action. For it is here and now that we must act well. Strictly speaking, a good action cannot be put off until to-morrow — the present putting off until tomorrow must be good. We cannot wash our hands of that which must be done here and now. It is only in the present that our action coincides with eternity. Is it not according to our condition at the present moment that God judges us? There is no justification at all in the judgment that we would make in the future and in circumstances of our own choice.

The escape into the myth of the future proceeds again from the desire for the science of good and evil. The partisans of this myth refuse the responsibility of their actions in a universe that is not of their own making and where they ultimately retain the condition of a subject. They dissolve the present and substitute to it a false tomorrow; simulating the true future they transpose the present into the haze of a future present; the myth of the future then becomes the unique justification for the present.

What is this world which the myth of the future represents? It is, above all, a world which will be made by us, that is to say, a world in which man would exercise complete and perfect control over all circumstances; a world in which he himself would make the circumstances. In short, it would be a world where the practical truth of our actions would be assured by the fact that this world would be entirely within the power of our direction; where, according to the words of Marx, man proposes and disposes; a world "in which we would no longer be subjects; a world in which we would have the science of good and evil.

Such is the norm according to which some would wish our present actions to be judged. They wish our actions to be judged only according to their conformity to the actions we would perform in the mythical universe. They wish that our actions be judged right according as they might contribute to the realization of the myth,that is, as a preliminary attempt towards future action. The truth of present action would depend exclusively on its repercussion on the future; its truth would become fixed only by the judgment of history. We appeal, then, to the judgment of history; therefore, not to the present eternity which will be manifest at the last judgment, but to the judgment of the man of the mythical future, of man who makes his own history. The wide perspectives of history would then avenge the goodness of the evil we have done.

Note that this escape into the mythical future does not differ very profoundly from the escape in the past In one case as in the other, one refuses to accept the responsibility for present action; one refuses to recognize as ours the circumstances in which God has raised us. But again, where one sees in our condition of subject a pretext for revolt, the other finds a pretext for inaction. They would respect their father if he were what they would wish him to be; they would be devoted to their family if the conditions in which they must work were reasonable; they would devote themselves to the good of their country, if the men in power were what they ought to he; they would defend their land if their civil leaders-had a correct notion of the common good; they would devote themselves to an intense intellectual life, if they lived in the middle ages. What heroic actions they would perform in a universe of their own concoction, as they have fully demonstrated to themselves in their dreams.

This attitude is manifestly odious. Nevertheless, the active revolt against the condition of subject also has its point of departure in a capitulation, it also engages in dreams, but in dreams which it clamorously imposes on reality. Its action takes its origin in despair.

Indeed, things are not what they ought to be. We read in Ecclesiastes: IX.ll.

"I turned me to another thing, and I saw that under the sun, the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the learned, nor favor to the skilful; but time and chance in all." Hegel has no difficulty in getting out of this situation. Here is his solution: "...It is not that which is, which makes us furious, and torments us, hut the fact that it is not what it ought to be; if we recognize that it is as it must be, that is to say, that it is not arbitrary, nor contingent, then we recognize also that it ought to be thus."

How is this idea incorporated in the myth of the future? Considered in its isolation the present would be the cause of an irritating desperation. But from the moment we see things in the perspective of the future, the social calamities and the murderous revolutions, when we see these in the perspective of a society growing progressively better, we see also that things are not as they ought to be because they have not yet attained their term. It is therefore impossible that they be other than they are; therefore they are what they ought to be; but what is as it ought to be, is good; therefore, they are good. Evil is a pure fiction due to the lack of perspective. The recognition of its necessity places us above the division of good and evil. In the recognition of this necessity human life becomes strictly reasonable; reason is emancipated; it becomes free from free will and from the necessity of acting properly. Action, then, becomes good from the moment that it is recognized as conformed to this necessity. Reason emancipated from the submission to the division of good and evil will henceforth be able to impose itself on reality. The liberty of reason thus defined becomes the principle and justification of even the most violent revolution.

This revolutionary action brings us face to face with two reasons: the reason of man who by revolting against the exigencies of prudential truth revolts against the Reason of God. Human reason, then, is not content with action in history. It wishes to take over the direction of history itself; it wishes to be radical, that is to say, it wants to be the very first root of human life. To attain this radical condition, to reach himself as the root of himself, the reason of man must have recourse to revolt and destruction, to that destruction which creates the malleable conditions which are necessary for the construction of his absolutely free universe. This reason is the quest for creative power. Does not creation start from nothing?

These ideas appear abstract. Nevertheless, it is time for us to realize in a very practical manner that a generation is being formed, imbued with these doctrines. It has already ensnared powerful nations. These ideas form the substance of communism, fascism and naziism. These ideas are gaining ground even among us.

Let us not try to justify our actions by the myth of the future. The true future is that which coincides with the present and which is not of this world. Do not succumb to the idea that human society is inevitably moving towards an always better state. This is an abominable perversion of Christian truth. We are traveling towards the kingdom of God which is not of this world.

Against the cowardly optimism of those who have conceded that society is evolving towards these progressively better states and who dare to seek therein a consolation for the violence and pains of the revolutions which accompany their birth, we can oppose texts, the authority of which, in matters of prophecy, is quite reliable, and which have been given to us to read:

"Take heed that no man seduce you: For many shall come in my name saying, I am Christ: and they shall seduce many. And you will hear of war and rumors of wars. See that ye be not troubled. For these things must come to pass but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and there shall be pestilences, and famines, and earthquakes in places. Now all these things are the beginnings of sorrows. Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall put you to death; and you shall be hated by all nations for my name's sake. And then shall many be scandalized: and shall betray one another: and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall seduce many. And because iniquity hath abounded, the charity of many shall grow cold. But he that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached to the whole world, for a testimony to all nations, and then shall the consummation come." (Matt. XXIV, 4-14)

Philosophical writings of Charles de Koninck