The Collision of Virtues

Answer not a fool according to his folly,
    lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
    lest he be wise in his own eyes.

Proverbs 26:4-5

A classic problem of philosophy is the problem of other minds. This problem calls into question the existence of any other mind except your own. It is fairly unavoidable that my own mind exists (even Descartes admitted that), but how could I possibly know if another mind exists? The weight of the question relies on the reality of the separation of minds. Our minds do not have direct access to one another, therefore we cannot be sure of what we are interacting with. It is a legitimate problem, even though it feels like absurd philosophical nonsense.

This problem has very profound implications for dealing with people. For example, how is one to deal with a habitual manipulator? Or worse yet, someone who is so insecure as to avoid all things that betray his imperfections, including the truth, and so lie to themselves and everyone else about what they are truly thinking and feeling? The only way we can learn about another’s mind and motives is through their words or actions. We use our wisdom and past experiences to interpret these words and actions. What happens when we suspect someone is not being honest, but they demand that we trust them? What happens when prudence collides with trust?

Consider the case of Paul. When he was Saul, he put Christians to death in the name of God and purity. According to prudence, the Church should believe that any attempt of his to befriend a believer is a ruse. But when it can be seen and felt that he is genuinely repentant, trust dictates that we believe him. Wisdom, however, tells us that we are easily deceived. Charity, though, assumes the best of people. So we see that different virtues were in collision in the Church’s decision. How are we to handle these things? Especially when it really matters? Remember that Saul was a murderer bent on eliminating the Christian faith. A correct decision is important.

It seems clear that no general solution for a decision can be found. This is true not just with Paul, but whenever any virtues collide. In the case of criminals, mercy often collides with justice. With arrogance, gentleness often collides with brotherly love. With habitual sin, patience often collides with redemption. This is why wisdom is necessary. Wisdom guides us to acceptable decisions when in impossible situations, and we are in impossible situations every hour of every day.

Yet this does not mean that Christ sinned in these situations. A true view of morality does not see actions as the primary holders of value. Actions stem from the heart. Christ has the fullest measure of trust and prudence, mercy and justice, and is them infinitely, always. Yet he acted in history. This is the mystery of Christian love. The unstoppable forces of Virtue collide in His will, and the resulting explosion we call actions are varied, even opposite, yet are in union with one another. God is always all Virtue. We yearn and strive for this, but our souls are not yet large enough to be all Virtue at once. We can only hold a few smaller virtues at a time. But one day, in glory, the sputtering firecrackers of our virtuous collisions will ignite into a burning sun, and the mystery will be mysterious, and we will understand it.

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