Wisdom, Prudence, and the Search for the Good
By Audra Nakas
Editor's note: This essay is the first by our 2015 Via Sapientiae Fellow, Audra Nakas. It responds to a prompt to consider the ways in which the author has known and understood wisdom and prudence through her college years.
I still remember the sunny day, sitting outside with the first friend I’d made in college and opening my copy of Aristotle’s Basic Worksto Metaphysics, Book I: “All men by nature desire to know.” It was my first college reading assignment, and I was a little intimidated to read The Philosopher.
I read diligently, annotating, underlining, and rereading passages I didn’t understand. As I continued readingMetaphysics, I learned that wisdom is knowledge of causes and first principles, and therefore of God. For Aristotle, knowledge of God, the impersonal unmoved mover, was a purely intellectual endeavor. But for a Christian, knowledge of God entails not only factual knowledge, but also a relationship with a God who is himself a communion of persons. My thirst to know this God helped me make prudent decisions in the many choices I faced throughout my college career.
When I think of prudence in the context of college life, I initially think of walking home at night with a buddy and avoiding frat parties. I’ve come to realize, however, that virtue is essentially an embrace of the good and only accidentally a rejection of evil. To know what is good requires wisdom, and wisdom, knowing God and putting him first, requires a living relationship with God. So coming to college, excited to live out my faith as an adult, I made choices that were conducive to such a relationship: I moved in on the first day with roommates I’d found on Facebook who shared my values, and I became active in Campus Ministry and attended daily Mass and adoration regularly.
Wisdom guided my priorities in ways that I didn’t expect. Often, for instance, I had to choose between staying up into the early hours of the morning spending time with friends, or going to sleep so I could function the next day. I think most people are inclined to say that choosing the latter is more prudent—and most of the time, it probably is. But when I found myself in the midst of a heart-to-heart or a stimulating discussion, I considered such conversation to be part of my learning experience, and therefore part of my vocation as a student. In that situation, conversing with a friend was an act of putting God first. After all, I could always take a nap tomorrow.
As time went on and each semester presented its own challenges, I saw more clearly that a life of virtue is not a solitary endeavor. Besides choosing to spend time with peers who supported each others’ faith, I also found myself seeking guidance from people in my campus community who were older and more experienced than me and could help me make prudent decisions amid all of the opportunities and paths that were open to me. I often touched base with my professors and academic advisers, who helped me both discern and reach my academic and professional goals.
Then, after life took a rocky turn in my sophomore year and I had a hard time putting the pieces back together by myself, I sought spiritual direction. I found a Dominican friar who’s become a mentor and a trusted source of insight for how to discern both weighty decisions, such as whether to accept a job, and more trivial matters, such as the minor existential crisis I suffered over which philosophy class I should take in my last semester of college. Importantly, none of my mentors told me what to do; rather, they helped to clarify the principles by which I should make decisions.
Besides shaping my day-to-day decision-making, wisdom allowed me to make the most of the special opportunities that came my way. For example, when I went to World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro with nine of my classmates, we learned a motto that we repeated every day: “We are pilgrims, not tourists.” Anybody who’s been to World Youth Day knows that it’s not a vacation, even if there’s leisure time; it’s a journey that requires patience and sacrifice. The advantage of a pilgrim mindset is that inconveniences such as delayed flights and going hours without food, far from ruining the trip, become part of the experience of growing closer to Christ.
I liked this mindset so much that I adopted it for all of my travels, not just pilgrimages. So when I studied abroad in the UK in the spring of my junior year, I made two conscious decisions: First, that when I traveled in my free time, I would seek out beauty, whether churches, historic districts, parks, museums, or natural beauty, because I was beginning to find it important for my spiritual life. And second, when I wasn’t working on the difficult coursework that took up much of my time, I would cultivate friendships with the other students at the university by getting involved in their equivalent of campus ministry.