“The prudent man looks where he is going.” Proverbs 14:15
Prudence and Charity out for a spin
So, the war of words over cycling has broken out again – in the media – and on the streets, as the war of the roads always continues. This latest outbreak of hostilities comes after a series of very tragic deaths on the roads in London. And each ‘side’ is blaming the other… although there are, in this argument, three or possibly four or more sides.
Over the years, being a nervous and unflashy bicyclist and a cautious defensive driver, I have given matters of transport behaviour a great deal of thought. Many is the time, seeing a cyclist scattering pensioners, buggies and toddlers in a pedestrian area, that I have longed for a sharp stick and the courage to put it through the spokes of a bicycle wheel. But that would be unChristian.
Following an exchange yesterday on social media, I decided to write down my thoughts. Being Catholic and thoroughly ‘British’, the main issue for me to consider is that of responsibility to the common good. This is, after all, the essence of the Highway Code – although, where I live, it is not clear how many people using the roads have ever read this document.
To consider safe responsible cycling in a metropolitan area, it is necessary to consider the four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance and to attempt to align our behaviour to these ‘human virtues’, founded as they are on the divine virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that Prudence is the ‘charioteer of the virtues’ and that “Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.” The practice of this virtue thereby allows us to consider one’s own safety and that of others whilst making all those rapid cycling decisions so necessary on the blighted city roads. Prudence (combined with humility and terror) also ennobles my tragic practice of getting off and pushing when faced with a fearsome right turn or a truly terrifying roundabout. It also helps us to remember that getting home alive is a better option than getting home quickly.
“Justice towards men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good.” Clearly, the virtue of justice allows us to consider the God-given rights of our fellows to negotiate the roads with safety and peace of mind. Justice also requires us to remember that a bell is to warn of danger, not to instruct others to get out of one’s way, that using lights and wearing visible clothing is a boon to others, not simply a safety device for ourselves – and, finally, that the most terrifying sight on London streets (rickshaws apart) is that of a visitor on a Boris-bike who has never ridden a cycle before….one must, obviously, know one’s limitations.
“Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good… [it] enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions”. Exactly, as I used to remind myself when leaving the house to negotiate the three-lane throughway shared with every juggernaut in London. Fortitude also reminds us that waiting at a red light is a very minor irritation, not a cosmic challenge to one’s ego.
“Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honourable.” Obviously, one should not take to the roads under the influence and I believe that one can be done for drunk-cycling as much as for drunk-driving. Temperance extends further than this, however – it is, for example, the virtue that enables one to resist the temptation not to limit one’s speed. It is the virtue that helps us avoid terrifying and endangering pedestrians, other drivers and, indeed, other cyclists. Temperance requires us to recall that wearing exquisitely expensive cycling gear does not make us better cyclists and that shouting swearywords at random fellow-humans only expends vital energy. Also, see above, on traffic-lights….
Of course, one of the best cycling passages of all time is in The Third Policeman, in which the policeman reminds us of how easy it is to turn into one’s own vehicle….
“The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles…when a man lets things go so far that he is more than half a bicycle, you will not see him so much because he spends a lot of his time leaning with one elbow on walls or standing propped by one foot at kerbstones.” Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman
‘Dandy-bikes’ image rights here.