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Prudence, Aquinas, and Political Action

English: Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) stai...

English: Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) stained glass window. Cathedral of Saint-Rombouts, Mechelen (Belgium). In the book an extract of St. Thomas’s hymn Pange lingua (“Sing, My Tongue”): Verbum caro pane vero verbo carnem efecit fit(que …) Word-made-Flesh, the bread of nature by His word to Flesh He turns, and He makes … (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Plato, in his dialogue Gorgias, has a debate between Socrates and and the Greek Sophist, Gorgias. Gorgias was a famous debater in ancient Greece, and in the dialogue, he made the case that young men should study rhetoric, and not logic. So Gorgias was confident in the power of rhetoric that he undervalued logic, and the world apart from his speeches. Socrates critiqued Gorgias, claiming that rhetoric not grounded in reality and logic is not true rhetoric, but instead a “knack for flattery.”

In a very different world, a Christian scholar of the Bible, Saint Thomas Aquinas, borrowed some of Plato’s distinctions to help define his explanations of scripture. In particular, in his writings on the cardinal virtue of prudence, Saint Thomas drew both on the bible and also Plato’s logic, when he emphasized Christian actions, political or not, should be founded upon a firm basis in reality.

Or to put it a different way, Saint Thomas taught that a Christian who grounds his actions in a perceptive understanding of reality, can be a stronger witness to his faith because of that knowledge. Reading through the stories on Google News, one can’t help but feel Saint Thomas is being ignored.

If the Christian ideas of Saint Thomas appear to be ignored, the sophist ideas of Gorgias are ascendant. For instance, the IRS targeted conservative and constitutional groups for additional scrutiny for several years.

The IRS claimed they had to discriminate due to the additional increase of new applications for a specific charitable designation. The IRS could have applied the increased scrutiny for all of the new groups based on the date they applied. Instead, the IRS chose only to apply it to conservative groups.

The IRS’s scrutiny of conservative groups did not extend equally to all new applicants; for instance, the IRS decisively approved the application form Organizing for Action, a political group set up by former Obama campaign staffers. Steven Miller, a political appointee appointed by the Obama Administration, tried to minimize the deliberate targeting of the administration’s political opponents as “bad customer service.”

The imprudent use of rhetoric continues with Steven Miller, just as it did in ancient Athens with Gorgias. The Christian response should not be to try to match moral relativism with more relativism. Instead, Christians should turn to the Bible.

The example of the IRS’s abuse of office is not only an example of how rhetoric can be manipulated to try to suppress reality, but it should also remind us of the need for Christians active in the political process. The quickest way for American politics to become more Christian, is for more Christians to volunteer in American politics.

The Religious poet Paul Claudel once described prudence as an “intelligent prow.” Ignoring moral relativism, let’s use prudence as our compass.


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