Near the beginning of the Iliad, Calchas "the wise" addresses the assembly of the Greeks in response to Achilles's plea that some "sacred sage explore the cause of great Apollo's rage." (1) Before he gives a succinct and incisive speech in which he displays Agamemnon's impious and pleonexic actions as the cause of Apollo's rage, Calchas is described as a man "whose comprehensive view, the past, the present, the future knew. Uprising slow, the venerable sage thus spoke the prudence and the fears of age." (2) Later in the epic, Hector announces the Trojan offer that Paris and Menelaus fight in place of the two opposing armies, with the winner taking both Helen and the final victory for his side in the war. In his reply, Menelaus says,Let rev'rend Priam in the truce engage, And add the sanction of consid'rate age; His sons are faithless, headlong in debate, And youth itself an empty wav'ring state; Cool age advances, venerably wise, Turns on all hands its deep-discerning eyes; Sees what befell, and what may yet befall, Concludes from both, and best provides for all. (3)
I wish to suggest that, in his description of Calchas and in Menelaus's encomium to the wisdom gained from experience, Homer manifests essential aspects of the virtue of phronesis or practical wisdom. Calchas is wise because he has a comprehensive view, knowing things past, present, and future with an eye toward choosing the best means to achieve the proper ends of the Greeks. Menelaus, describing the advantages of experience generally and Priam specifically, says that the wise man, in the face of complex circumstances demanding intelligent and bold decisions, takes into consideration things that have already happened and those that are to come, drawing from his knowledge of the past and his reliable foresight into the future so as to provide the best course of action for all in the present.
If we look to St. Thomas Aquinas's discussions of the virtue of prudence (prudentia), we find many of the same features of practical wisdom displayed by Homer's poetry, but we find them displayed philosophically and theologically. Aquinas claims that memory, foresight, shrewdness (solertia), and circumspection are among the essential, or integral, parts of practical wisdom and that such wisdom is expressed in commands that hit upon the means conducive to the achievement of the natural ends of human life. The link between Homer and Aquinas is of course Aristotle, who developed a philosophical theory of phronesis within a culture formed by Homer's poetry, a theory that was later to become the philosophical basis of Aquinas's writings on the subject of practical wisdom. (4)
In this essay, I will clarify philosophically what prudence is by illuminating both its structure as the virtue of practical thinking and the ways in which it allows one to deal thoughtfully with presence and absence. Perhaps more specifically, I will discuss the nature of prudence and show how it is made possible by our ability to span presence and absence...