Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Whatever Happened to Discretion?

[Originally published in Weavings, May-June 2007]

To write about discretion today seems almost subversive. In an age when we now must legislate behavior that used to be recognized as common decency, the constituent adjectives of discretion are seditious: courteous—in Middle English, the word has theological overtones of God’s graciousness—modest, unobtrusive, reticent, patient, humble (that is, seeing things exactly as they are), unflinchingly honest and disinterested (both of which require commitment), responsive, supple, patient—all in service of something other than self.


To try to understand what has gone wrong, what we have lost, and how we might take steps to remedy the situation, we need to look briefly at the history and context of this word. [1] We cannot understand discretion apart from its companion, “discernment,” for in antiquity they were the same word, discretio, and were considered inseparable. They were two sides of a coin: judgment or discernment of the truth, and the ability to act appropriately according to that truth.

Before the eleventh century, students were taught not only how to construct an argument, but also how to understand the difference between what was true and false, particularly within themselves. It was only then that they were taught rhetoric, the art of persuasion by which they learned to convince others to act on what they themselves had already come to believe to be true. [2]

In our day, however, we have not only split discernment from discretion, we also have emphasized discursive reasoning almost to the exclusion of other ways of knowing. Discernment has to do with perception, with discovering how one thing differs from another. This perception is not confined to linearity but engages our subtle senses, intuition, and a sorting-out process that lies beneath our everyday awareness. Although today the word “discernment” is often substituted for “discretion,” the two words are not the same.

Discernment does not entail discretion. To substitute the word “discernment” for “discretion” eliminates the notion that there might be additional factors outside the discerning process that determine wise choice. We may see perfectly well the difference between good, questionable, or bad options (discernment), but because we commonly make choices based on short-term gratification, not to mention the frisson that comes from doing something contrary, we frequently cast discretion to the winds, if indeed we pause to think at all.

Discretion ponders choice of action—or, more frequently, non-action. It determines how we decide to use or not to use what we have discerned. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore, Ged the mage says, “It is much easier...to act than to refrain from acting....[Do] nothing because it is righteous or praiseworthy or noble...; do nothing because it seems good to do so; do only that which you must do and which you cannot do in any other way.” [3]

Discretion entails and elaborates discernment. It has two potentially conflicting meanings, according to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary: “Deciding as one thinks fit,” and—outrageous to an in-your-face culture—“being discreet, discernment, prudence, judgment.” Even more startling, it defines the word “discreet” as: “judicious, prudent; circumspect in speech or action; unobtrusive.”


The notion of discretion figures prominently in every religion. Perhaps the most nuanced presentation is the Tao Te Ching, a collection of Chinese texts that span some eight hundred years before the Christian era. The Tao is about “the middle way” and had its counterpart in the West, known as the “royal road” derived from Numbers 20:17: “[We] will go by the king’s high way, we will not turn to the right hand nor to the left” (KJV).

But this middle way is not to be confused with the “golden mean” of geometry. Nor is it a “place” on a continuum. It is a space apart. Not only will the extremes of our behavioral options on the continuum war against each other, they will also try to obviate the possibility of our escape to what Aristotle called the space where virtue is found. [4]


[1] I am grateful to C. A. Conway for some historical observations.

[2] Today we equate rhetoric with “spin.” But in the world of the Bible and in the medieval world, rhetoric was the means by which you established your relationship to the truth, both for yourself and in your interaction with the community. This task of learning rhetoric was moral and ethical, and pertained especially to the care with which you constructed your memory, so that what came out of your mouth would be both truthful and pertinent to the situation being addressed. The care with which you thought and spoke determined how others judged your character. This was, at least theoretically, the foundation of politics. See the marvelous books on memory by Mary Carruthers, especially The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400–1200 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Religion is political in the best sense of ancient rhetoric; and the Bible, especially the New Testament, can be understood as a collection of rhetorical documents by authors who have discerned the truth and write “so that [we] may believe.” In other words, the Bible gives us difficult material in a form digestible to our memories and on which we can extemporize in an inventive and relevant way in any given situation. See Carruthers, The Craft of Thought, 1–9 especially.

[3] Ursula K. Le Guin, The Farthest Shore (London: Bantam, 1969), 67.

[4] We might think of this space as the center of the Christian paradox where resurrection is found. See “The Space of Prayer” forthcoming in the July/August 2007 issue of Weavings, and my Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood and Spiritual Maturity , reissued by Seabury Press in 2007.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is a peculiar but real comfort to read or listen to someone who reads the same things one reads oneself. Mediaeval rhetoric, yes! Ursula Le Guin, yes! And Abbott Conway was my brother-in-law...
I have enjoyed reading your work first in "Weavings" and then in separate publication.
all blessings!

5:47 pm, April 04, 2008  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thank you so much. Abbott's unexpected departure leaves a huge hole in many lives, mine included. I am so grateful to have known him. My heart and thoughts are with you all during this time of remembering.

6:03 pm, April 04, 2008  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

PS It was Abbott Conway who suggested I start this blog!

12:31 am, April 05, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well bless his heart, indeed.

12:46 am, April 06, 2008  

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