A Universal Memory
In his discussion on the virtue of prudence, St. Thomas Aquinas follows Cicero in describing the power of memory as a part of prudence. Memory, defined by St. Thomas as the ability to make present that which is not currently apprehended, informs our decision making. We can all relate to this. Our past experiences affect how we respond to present situations. Often it is when we are faced with something new or foreign that we make our most egregious mistakes. But as we gain experience, especially when we choose rightly, we become more and more capable of acting well. Our memories of past actions guide us in knowing the right thing to do. However, I don’t think memory must be limited to our own personal experiences. We can also benefit from the memories of others. In a special way, the Tradition of the Church can be a source to make prudential judgments. The Tradition can serve as a common or collective memory that continually guides us.
The Church, much like any culture or group of people, is influenced by its past. We look to the tradition for answers on current problems. Similarly, in any society there is an institutional memory that helps direct present actions. For example, governments tend to confront issues with a view to similar situations encountered in their past. Even if past events were not directly experienced, or if they occurred in the remote past, the narrative and memory are handed down to help make judgments in the present. The history of any government, culture, or family continues to play a role in future generations. This can become a collective memory that one can look to for help in making prudential choices. In a way, a collective memory can become personal.
The story of salvation history can function in a similar way for us. Generations of Israelites after the Exodus continued to be informed by the wondrous providence of God. Psalm 44 begins, “We heard with our own ears, O God; our fathers have declared to us the things you did in their days, you yourself, in days long ago.” The Jewish people knew that God had guided them, even if his governance and care were not always as readily evident. The Evangelists, inspired by the Holy Spirit, recorded their experiences of Christ on Earth. These serve to instruct us, even if we were not physically present in first-century Palestine.
The Tradition of the Church is, in some sense, a collective memory. It is a memory of God’s care for the Body of Christ and the example of the saints. When new situations arise, we look to the Tradition for the wisdom and guidance to confront modern challenges. It is an inerrant memory, guided by God, which helps the Church act prudently. The Church’s teachings, her triumphs, and her challenges all serve to help her govern prudentially. This contributes to a further part of prudence, our docility to right teaching. If we choose to divorce ourselves from this Tradition, it can only serve to harm us.
Besides the Church’s more general reliance upon Tradition, this has practical importance for us in our own respective fields. To take a personal example, I think this could lead us to further understand St. Thomas’s idea of prudence. Today, we can rely on over 7 centuries of thinkers who have sought to follow St. Thomas Aquinas. Using this tradition as our own source of memory can serve as a great source of wisdom for today’s students. It can give us further insight into the truth, which helps us students study–and act–rightly. The more we look to the past, the more prudently we can act today.
Image: Edward Burne-Jones, The Council Chamber