Abelly: Book 2/Chapter 13/Section 12

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Monsieur Vincent's Prudence and Circumspection In His Service of the King

The government of the state and the service of a sovereign are of such importance that they should be confided not only to well qualified and faithful persons, but also to those alone who are prudent and discreet, of sound mind and solid judgment. They should have a background of experience equal to the importance of the things committed to their care. Also, not all those with reputations of piety have these natural qualities, but among virtuous people some have received these qualities from God. They are able to put them to good use in the service of their prince and for the good of the state. Just as it would be imprudent to think the advice of the pious man should be followed in whatever situation just because we imagine that all he suggests must be good and useful, so too it would be equally foolish, and possibly unjust, to reject or suspect the advice of a good man because of his reputation for piety, as though piety could not be found with prudence, and as though piety was somehow incompatible with serving God and one's king.

Some believe and try to persuade others that whoever performs exercises of piety and is devoted to the service of God (the so-called "devout," whom they decry so vehemently) is unfit for service of the king, or for the conduct of state affairs. Their concern for heavenly things would make them unsuitable for being in charge of mundane matters. The "devout" often are moved by a zeal, if not indiscreet at least too impetuous, and give advice based not on whether it is useful but whether it seems to them to be good. This would eventually be most prejudicial to the service of the prince and the good of the state. To their mind the man of virtue is so suspect that he ought to be looked upon as a disguised spy, or as someone in the pay of a foreign prince or an enemy of the state.

Those who wish to appear less doctrinaire might admit that a virtuous man might have a true and sincere dedication to the service of his prince, and show steadfast fidelity, and even serve him with complete lack of self-interest. Even then he would not be acknowledged as having the discretion and prudence required for important affairs, since his rules of piety might not accord with the maxims of politics.

If things are like this, as those who think this way say they are, advising a king or prince is most unfortunate. Royalty would then be reduced to excluding from their court the most virtuous of their subjects, or to be constantly on their guard against them as persons suspect, whose advice may harm the good of the state. If it be true, as we said before, that those most united to God by virtue and especially charity, have a more sincere appreciation and a more constant fidelity for the service of their prince, they would be the very ones he must exclude from his service. Instead he should commit the care of most important affairs of his realm and take the advice of those whom he trusts less.

It is not difficult to see the falsity of such a position by the example of several great princes. They have trusted in their councils and confided the direction of their realms to various persons renowned for their virtue and piety. By their experience and wisdom they have been most successful. By their advice and faithful service they have contributed greatly to the good of the state.

Not to wander too far from our subject, we have only to recall him whose memory is still fresh, the great servant of God, Vincent de Paul. He joined piety to wisdom, zeal to discretion, the science of the saints to the knowledge necessary to serve his prince. We will relate here only some scattered events which will show clearly that he had in a high degree those excellent qualities needed as counselor to the king.

Evidently, one of the most necessary dispositions to have in handling important affairs of state is a free spirit, unencumbered with uncontrolled affections and passions. These secure the understanding and prevent one from seeing the true state of affairs and likely consequences of actions. All those who knew Monsieur Vincent agree that whether by grace or by a natural disposition he seemed entirely free from uncontrolled emotion or erratic behavior, something found in few other men. If these impressions were felt by him, he had acquired such mastery over himself and all the movements of his soul that nothing appeared externally, either in his gestures, his words, or even his features. They remained calm and serene, even in the face of affronts and most trying insults. What ordinarily would cause strong reaction in others were the very occasions when he seemed most calm and most self-possessed, speaking and acting with great circumspection.

Another feature of his behavior which added to his wise and prudent manner was slowness in giving an opinion. He decided slowly, especially in matters of moment, but gave himself time and leisure to consider all the circumstances, to weigh the reasons for and against, and to foresee the consequences of decisions. This resulted in his advice being solid and assured, which could be followed with no fear of being deceived. He held to this saying from an ancient writer: "Nothing is so injurious in the consideration of great events as to proceed with too great haste. This haste prevents our seeing, and even more so, foreseeing, all that must be considered before giving good advice. We must deliberate and take resolutions with leisure, but once decided, we must act on what has been determined." [1]

After he had maturely considered something, taking into account all the reasons suggested by others and those which came to his own mind, he came to a conclusion and gave his advice accordingly. Later, if it did not turn out the way he thought it would, he did not worry, but remained at peace. He held to the principle of an ancient father, "It is proper for the wise to judge things, not by how they turn out, but by the intention and design with which they were begun. It is a common error to think that only those things that have succeeded have been well begun." [2]

Another disposition of Monsieur Vincent was noted as a sign of his prudence and something that helped perfect that virtue. This was his silence, an important trait in those who manage important affairs. He was never heard to speak of what had occurred in the council, except when absolutely necessary to divulge it. He kept under the seal of silence not only the secrets he had been entrusted with, but everything else he saw no necessity to reveal. In his familiar conversations with others when he came back from court, he spoke no more of the things that had been discussed than if he were returning from the cell of a Carthusian.

Even though he exercised this circumspection and prudence and remained firm in his advice, he was so moderate in his views that he never pushed them heatedly. He was not of the type which always finds a way to contradict the opinions of others because the idea did not originate with himself. He not only was outwardly deferential to those over him in rank, but submitted his judgment as well when he could do so with no reproach of his own conscience. He never criticized others for their way of looking at things, and never complained. After saying what he felt he had to say, he remained respectful and silent, leaving the outcome of events in the hands of Providence.

The chief foundation of his prudence was God's will, manifested by his law and in the Gospel. He held it as an inviolable principle never to take any position contrary to the divine will. As a father of the Church commented, he considered God's will as the sure guide for any advice he was to give or decision he had to make. He followed, to the best of his ability and as the nature of the business to be decided would allow, the maxims of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which he accepted as the fountain of all true wisdom. He found in this source the light for his mind and the basis for the advice he gave to others with such notable benediction.

We could add to these various reflections many different examples of this rare and distinctive prudence that he displayed in the most trying and difficult circumstances. We could also illustrate the marvelous circumspection and moderation with which he acted while in the king's council, never failing to say what he felt was needed, yet with all the respect and submission he felt he owed to Their Majesties. We shall not do so, however, to avoid an annoying repetition. Undoubtedly each reader can supply on this subject for himself from what has been said in this last chapter and all through the two preceding books.

Monsieur Vincent was gifted by both nature and grace with a great prudence. This was a torch leading others by right and safe paths among a multitude of occupations and circumstances in which Providence had placed him. He acted with such integrity, moderation, and wisdom that during life he happily succeeded in all he undertook for the glory of God and in the service of those who represented God upon earth. After his death, his memory remains in benediction among them.

End of Book Two


  1. Abelly has joined two sources: Livy, Histories, 31.32.2 and 22.39.22, with Aristotle, Ethics.
  2. Abelly has joined two sources: Isidore of Seville, Epistle 205, Book 3; and Boethius, De consolatione philosophiae, Book 1, prosa 4.

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The Prudence and Circumspection of Monsieur Vincent In His Service of the King

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