Studies in prudence

It was late summer of 1534 and Thomas More was languishing in the Tower of London. More, a former lord chancellor of England, was awaiting trial — and, he assumed, a guilty verdict and execution — for refusing to approve King Henry VIII’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon and remarriage to Anne Boleyn, and for not recognizing Henry as the self-proclaimed head of the Church in England.

One day More’s oldest daughter, Margaret, paid him one of the rare visits allowed him by the government. There was no mistaking her intention. She hoped to argue him out of his “scruple of conscience” as she’d tried to do before.

Margaret was the best loved of More’s four children, the person dearest to him in the entire world, and he greeted her teasingly: “Mistress Eve … come to tempt your father again.” She tried her best, but to no avail.

A letter written and signed by Margaret but thought to have been composed by the two of them quotes More at length:

“Daughter Margaret, we two have talked of this thing more often than two or three times. … And I have twice answered you too, that if it were possible in this matter for me to do the thing that might content the King’s Grace without God being offended, there is no man who has already taken this oath more gladly than I would do. …

“But since, standing by my conscience, I can in no wise do it. … I have no manner of remedy, but God has given me to the straight, that either I must deadly displease Him, or abide any worldly harm that He shall for my other sins, under name of this thing, suffer to fall upon me. … And since I look in this matter only unto God, it makes me little matter, though men call it as it pleases them and say it is no conscience but a foolish scruple.”

That is the voice of prudence. People who want to understand prudence will do well to study St. Thomas More, a man who didn’t wish to be a martyr but became one anyway because he was convinced he had no other acceptable choice.

Prudence is widely misunderstood today. In everyday speech it’s a synonym for caution, even timidity, and by no means a character trait to be admired. Josef Pieper, a German Catholic philosopher in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas who has written wisely and well on the subject, remarks that in many people’s minds “prudence seems less a prerequisite to goodness than an evasion of it.”

But that misrepresents prudence in its classical sense. St. Thomas Aquinas calls it “absolutely the principal of all the virtues.” Evidently it’s important to understand what prudence really is. Here Thomas More is a big help.

St. Teresa of Avila once said that in a soul seeking perfection, the world often thinks that “something is a fault which perhaps is a virtue.” This was notably true of More. — Our Sunday Visitor (2/17/2010)