The Virtue of Prudence
The mould and mother of all the virtues is prudence.
It is defined as the intellectual virtue which rightly directs particular human acts, through rectitude of the appetite, toward a good end. Emotional well-being, we will argue, comes about through a certain structuring of the entire network of human emotions, one that results from a proper disposing of the emotions by the virtues. If we are correct, then prudence is the mother of emotional health. And if virtue is the secret to looking beautiful, then prudence is, in many ways, the mother of beautiful character. For it is prudence that determines the mean of reason in all human actions and situations.
Prudence, however, is not merely an intellectual virtue; it is also a moral virtue. A moral virtue is a habit that makes its possessor good. One may be brilliant and learned without being morally good, but it is not possible to be prudent and not morally good. The prudent man is one who does the good, as opposed to one who merely knows the good. There are many moral philosophers and theologians around, but prudent persons are probably not as common. It is much easier to talk about virtue — including prudence — than it is to actually be virtuous. And one who does not behave well cannot be said to be prudent, even though he happens to be very learned. We will understand this better as we take a closer look at just what prudence is.
The more abstractly we think, the more certain we are of our conclusion. Thus, mathematics is a very certain science, more so than say biology. When was the last time we heard of a revised mathematical equation? But theories are normally revised in the physical sciences; for the objects of mathematics are more abstracted from matter than are the objects of the science of biology. Similarly, we enjoy a relatively high level of certainty when dealing with very general moral issues such as murder, euthanasia, lying, etc, but as we approach the level of the particular, that is, a more concrete level, we very often become less certain about what we ought to do, because the concrete level contains so many variables that render decision making much more complex; for there is much more to consider.
This does not mean that there is no truth on the concrete level of moral decision making, or that on this level the moral good is merely relative (i.e., relative to how you feel or what you want). Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, it means that a special virtue is required by which one might see and readily make one’s way through these murky waters to the right end. Prudence is the application of universal principles to particular situations, and so an understanding of universal moral principles is absolutely necessary. But since prudence deals in particulars, in the here and now of real situations, a number of other intellectual qualities are also necessary if one is to choose rightly, qualities that one does not necessarily acquire in a classroom setting. St. Thomas refers to these as integral parts of prudence, without which there is no prudence, just as there is no house without a roof, walls, and a foundation.
Integral Parts of Prudence
1. Understanding of First Principles (Human Goods)
Prudence begins with an understanding of the first principles of practical reason, which St. Thomas calls synderesis. Synderesis is a natural habit by which we are inclined to a number of ends. Now the good is the object of desire. Hence, the objects of these inclinations are goods. And since these goods are not outside the human person, but are aspects of the human person, they are called human goods.
There are a number of human goods to which every human person is naturally inclined. These goods are not known by the senses, but by the intellect, and so they are desired not by the sense appetite, but primarily by the will (the rational appetite), thus they are not sensible goods, but intelligible goods. These intelligible human goods include human life, the knowledge of truth, the intellectual apprehension and enjoyment of beauty, leisure (play and art), sociability, religion, integrity, and marriage. Let us consider each one individually.
Life: The human person has a natural inclination to preserve his life; for he sees his life as basically good. He also desires to communicate life to others, to beget human life (procreation). Human existence is a rational animal kind of existence. It is basically good to be as a rational animal, created in the image and likeness of God, in the image of knowledge and love (intellect and will). Human life is specifically “cognitive” life, a life having the potential of self-expansion through knowledge and through love. Everything else in the physical universe exists to serve human life and is valued according to its ability to do just that. Thus, everything in the physical universe is instrumentally good, while human life alone is basically good (the human person alone was willed into existence by God for his own sake).
Truth: This human person, who is fundamentally, intelligibly, and intrinsically good, desires to know truth for its own sake. As Aristotle says in his Metaphysics: “All men by nature desire to know”. Knowing is a mode of existing. In knowing anything, one becomes what one knows (“the intellect is in a way all things”). Knowledge is a kind of self-expansion. Man always desires to be more fully, and he exists most fully as a knower, as a see-er. As Aristotle clearly saw, man’s ultimate purpose in life clearly has something to do with knowing, namely, contemplation, which is his highest activity and, according to Aquinas, “the highest mode of having”.
Beauty: Man has, at the same time, a natural inclination to behold the beautiful, to see it, to intuit it, to contemplate it. And so he visits art museums, listens to beautiful music, gazes at the sunset or the beautiful face of a child, and he even contemplates the beauty of divine providence. Indeed, his ultimate purpose has something to do with intuition, especially the intuition of beauty, and this is something that Plato understood well (Cf. The Symposium, 210e-212b).
Leisure, Play, Art: Man is a maker. He brings all his sense and intellectual powers to bear upon the project of producing works of art, such as paintings, poetry, sculptures, buildings, monuments, etc., just for the sake of creating, or just for the sake of playing, such as golf, cards, chess, etc. Indeed, there is a permanent and underlying element of contemplation in all of this. It is man the knower who leisures. The person who plays has the cognitive power of complete self-reflection, and so he contemplates the marvel of his own skills and delights in the awareness of their gradual perfection. He contemplates his gifts and detects the giver underneath them. A good player is awed by the laws that he can detect behind an ordinary game of chess, for example, and the players delight in the intuition of the beauty of the execution of a well-planned strategy that resulted in a touchdown or a goal or a home run. Even spectators contemplate and discuss these plays typically after the game. Contemplation permeates the leisure of play and art carried out for their own sake. If it did not, no one would leisure. What brute animal leisures?
Sociability: The human person inclines to harmony between himself and others. He is a social and political animal. The human person is not thrown into this world as an isolated but personal entity. He is born into a family and is inclined to relate to that family and find his place in it. For he discovers himself through others, especially his parents and siblings. He is also born into a nation, and he is inclined to relate to the social whole, and to find his place within that larger whole.
He tends to establish friendships. He is glad to “see” his friends, to “hear” their voices. Ultimately, he wills to share the good that has come to him. Above all, he desires to share what he “sees” or knows with others. And others desire to share with him all that they have been gratuitously given, especially what they possess in knowledge (for knowledge is the highest mode of possessing anything). These others enable him to see what he was unable to see before. The perspectives they bring to him enlarge him, and they likewise are enlarged by what he brings them.
His friendships are not merely utilitarian. Rather, the highest kind of friendship he seeks is benevolent friendship (EN 8. 3, 1156b6). He has only a few genuine friends with whom he can share himself on such a profound level. But he inclines towards them, because goodness is self-diffusive, and the more he is given, the more he wills to share what he has been given, and this is above all the case with what he “sees” or beholds, that is, what he knows, what he intuits or contemplates. Delighting in the presence of friends is nothing less than seeing. It is a form of contemplation.
Religion: Man aspires after what is higher than himself because he is aware of a desire in him for perfect happiness. He beholds his own finitude and the finitude of creation. He aspires to what is beyond the temporal to the eternal, yet he cannot transcend the limits of his nature. But he dreams about it (as we see in Plato). He seeks to know the giver behind the gift of his existence, that is, behind the gift that is creation. As a spiritual nature, he is open to the whole of reality, the whole of being (universal being). He seeks to know the “whole of reality”, that is, to possess the bonum universale. We know from revelation that he is not going to attain it on his own. He might think, as Plato did, that death will free him from the temporal in order to enter into the realm of the “really real” so as to contemplate subsistent beauty. And that might very well be the case. But revelation tells us that this can only happen through God’s initiative. He cannot, through his own natural faculties, attain God. If he is to attain the bonum universale, it can only be through another gratuitous giving (distinct from creation). He depends upon the divine initiative. In fact, even his own natural happiness is dependent upon the gratuitous self-giving of others; for he cannot force people to be his friends. And so this dependency upon the divine initiative is not out of place at all, for man knows already that an element of his own happiness is the feeling of having a debt that cannot be paid.
Marriage: Man is inclined to marry, to give himself completely to another, to belong to another exclusively in one flesh union. Even a marriage consummated by sexual union is a kind of knowing. Mary says to the angel Gabriel: “I do not know man” (Lk 1, 35). The giving of oneself in the marital act is a revealing of oneself to the other. One allows oneself to be known, and one gives oneself in order to be known by the other in a way that is exclusive and thus closed off to others. Marriage is a special kind of knowledge of persons. Love wills that the other see or behold what it knows, especially conjugal love. And both husband and wife will to beget human life, because goodness is effusive, and their unique conjugal relationship is good. They desire that a new life, the fruit of their love, share in what they know, namely the relationship they have with one another (as well as with others, with creation, and with God).
Integrity: Man is inclined to seek integration within himself, an integration of the complex elements of himself. This is because he seeks to be most fully, and one (along with good, beauty, and true) is a property of being. He is inclined to bring about a more intense unity within himself, namely harmony between his actions and his character as well as his will and his passions. Bringing order to the passions (cultivating temperance and fortitude) is a means to an end. A person aims to be temperate and brave for the sake of possessing the highest good, the possession of which is threatened by excessive sensuality and emotional disorder.
These are the primary principles of practical reason. They are the starting points of human action, the motivating principles behind every genuinely human action that we choose to perform. Now the very first principle of morality is self-evident and is presupposed in every human action. That principle is: good is to be done, evil is to be avoided.
It is from this principle that more specific precepts are derived. A specifically human act is one that is motivated by one or more of these intelligible human goods. Scratching an itch is not a specifically human action, for even dogs and cats scratch themselves when itchy. But asking a question is a specifically human action, for behind it is a will to know and possess truth, which is an intelligible human good. So too, stopping the car in order to behold a beautiful landscape or the majestic beauty of the Rockies is a specifically human and humanly good action.
Now evil is a privation, a lack of something that should be there. It is a deficiency or lack of wholeness. Thus, an evil will is one that is deficient, whereas a good will is whole and complete. Thus, a morally good action is one that involves a will open to the entire spectrum of intelligible human goods, whereas a morally evil action involves a deficient willing, a will not open to the full spectrum of human goods. A person is good if he wills the good, not merely his own good, for “human goods” are not limited to this individual instance which is himself. Nor is it limited to one’s immediate family or relatives, etc. If a person is good willed, he wills the good wherever there is an instance of it.
From these principles, more specific or secondary moral precepts can be derived and, moreover, are naturally known to some degree or another by every human person. For example, everyone (more or less mentally sound) throughout the world and throughout history understands that justice is good and ought to be done. As precepts become more specific, however, and as they are applied to specific situations, disagreements begin to arise.
But let us consider some of the more intermediate precepts derived from the first principle of morality. Firstly, if good is to be done and evil is to be avoided, one ought not to willingly destroy an instance of an intelligible human good for the sake of some other intelligible or sensible good. In other words, one ought not to do evil that good may come of it. Willingly destroying one instance of a human good, such as a child’s life, as a means to some end, involves a deficient will, one not entirely good; for a good will does not willingly attack what is good.
Further, one ought not to treat another human person as a means to an end, that is, love a human person merely for the sake of what he can provide, for this is to treat a human being as if he were an instrumental good and fails to recognize his intrinsic dignity as a person to be loved for his own sake. Human persons are also essentially equal, that is, of the same nature. Thus, it is inconsistent with a good will to treat certain others with a preference based purely on feeling, as well as to treat others in a way that fails to respect their status as equal in dignity to oneself. At times human goods demand that we treat certain others with a preference. In such cases, we do not fail to respect another’s status as a person equal in dignity to ourselves or anyone else. For example, treating a patient who has just arrived at the hospital over one who has been waiting two hours is preferential treatment, but it is reasonable only because the former has suffered a heart attack, while the latter requires nothing more than a few stitches for a cut. A human good is at stake here, namely human life, and so preferential treatment is reasonable and demanded by a good will. Preferential treatment that is arbitrary and not grounded in intelligible human goods, but merely on feelings is what we mean by unfairness or partiality.
Moreover, sometimes certain emotions can move us to act alone for intelligible human goods, when acting in community with others would better achieve the intended end. Some players will not pass the ball or puck, but will hog it and leave team-mates behind. A Student Council president might try to do everything herself when delegating certain tasks to others would more effectively realize the goals that the Council intends to achieve for the whole school. Thus, it is reasonable that one ought not to willingly act alone and individualistically for human goods.
And since humanly good action is action motivated by intelligible human goods, as opposed to merely sensible goods, one ought not to act purely on the basis of emotion, either on the basis of fear, aversion, or desire. For example, a real threat to human goods, such as a charging pit bull, would give rise to fear, and it is reasonable to allow that emotion to move us in the direction to which it inclines us. We might evaluate the threat as somewhat surmountable, in which case we ought to run for our lives. Such behaviour is reasonable and motivated by the will to preserve our lives. But refusing to go to school because one finds new social situations uncomfortable is to choose to act on the basis of feelings of fear and anxiety (assuming, of course, that there is a choice, and that there is no serious phobia that prevents a person from making a free choice). So too, refusing to walk to school because there is a dead skunk on the road that causes one feelings of aversion, or because one feels lethargic, are examples of behaviour not grounded in reason. Practical reason demands that good be done, but good is not being done because one values feeling good over intelligible human goods (the lower over the higher).
It is possible — in fact, quite common — to act on the basis of the emotion of desire without reference to intelligible human goods. Eating is a desirable action and it serves intelligible human goods, for example human life, family, and friendships. But to willingly eat merely for the taste of food is unreasonable and not fully human, it is gluttonous. For example, a person who is not at all hungry nor in need of nourishment and sees no reason to eat, but who grabs a can of icing and begins eating it for the sweet taste, is behaving in a way that is not specifically and fully human, but less than human. It is human behaviour insofar as it is willed, but it falls short insofar as it fails to realize intelligible human goods.
Engaging in a mood altering behaviour, such as drug use, in order to feel as if one’s life is all together (integrity) when in fact it is not, is again to engage in behaviour that is not humanly good. Actually taking steps to bring order to one’s life is the more human albeit difficult option.
Below is a summary of some of the secondary precepts derived from the first principle of morality:
- One ought not to willingly destroy an instance of an intelligible human good for the sake of some other intelligible or sensible good.
- One ought not to treat another human person as a means to an end.
- One ought not to treat certain others with a preference based purely on feeling, as well as to treat others in a way that fails to respect their status as equal in dignity to oneself.
- One ought not to willingly act alone and individualistically for human goods.
- One ought not to act purely on the basis of emotion, either on the basis of fear, aversion, hostility, or desire.
If prudence is the proper application of universal principles to particular situations, then prudence demands that one continue to ponder the implications of the first principle of morality and the secondary precepts of natural law. Thus, it is reasonable to devote time to studying the great moral thinkers of the past and present, such as Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Alphonsus of Ligouri, and those of more recent time, such as Father Joseph Rickaby, John J. Elmendorf, John Oesterle, Jacques Maritain, Ralph McInerny, Donald DeMarco, Germain Grisez, Benedict Ashley, etc.
If prudence were merely the knowledge of universal moral principles, we could stop here. But it is much more than that. Prudence requires a sensitivity and attunement to the here and now of the real world of real people. It requires a great deal of experience. That is why Aquinas lists memory as in integral part of the virtue of prudence, for experience is the result of many memories.
There is more to memory than the simple recall of facts. Memory is more an ability to learn from experience. And so it involves an openness to reality, a willingness to allow oneself to be measured by what is real. This quality of openness is not as widespread as we might tend to believe at first. Some people just don’t seem to learn from experience, that is, they don’t seem to remember how this or that person reacted to their particular way of relating to them, for they continue to make the same mistakes in their way of relating to others. It is as if they have no memory of last week, or last month, or last year. They lack a “true to being” memory because they do not will to conform to what is real, but have made a stubborn decision to have reality conform to the way they want the world to be. That is why the study of history is so important for the development of political prudence; for how often have we heard the old adage that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat its mistakes?
Those who lack memory will more than likely lack docility, another integral part of prudence. St. Thomas writes:
…prudence is concerned with particular matters of action, and since such matters are of infinite variety, no one man can consider them all sufficiently; nor can this be done quickly, for it requires length of time. Hence in matters of prudence man stands in very great need of being taught by others, especially by old folk who have acquired a sane understanding of the ends in practical matters. (ST. II-II. 49, 3)
Docility is open-mindedness, and so it requires a recognition of one’s own limitations and ready acceptance of those limits. Proud people who hope excessively in their own excellence will tend to make imprudent decisions because they fail to rely on others by virtue of their inordinate and unrealistic self-estimation. A person with false docility seeks the advice of others, but only those deemed most likely to be in agreement with him, or of those of similar depravity and who are thus unlikely to challenge the overall orientation of his life.
4. Shrewdness (solertia)
Shrewdness is the ability to quickly size up a situation on one’s own, and so it involves the ability to pick up small clues and run with them. The shrewd are highly intuitive, subtle and discreet. A shrewd teacher, for example, will pick up subtle clues that reveal just who it is he is dealing with in his classroom and what the needs of his students really are, which allow him to determine quickly the approach best suited to their particular way of learning. The shrewd are also able to detect evil behind a mask of goodness, so as to be able to plan accordingly. Some people are dangerously unsuspecting of the motives of evil and so they miss the clues that suggest a more ominous picture. For we tend to see in others what we see in ourselves, and if our motives are good, it is hard to suspect others of malice. Moreover, excessive empathy has a way of clouding the intuitive light of solertia (Greek: phronimos).
But just as memory and docility presuppose a good will (right appetite), so too does shrewdness. It can be the case that the inability to see is rooted in a will not to see; for sometimes people would rather not think about what the clues could mean for fear of what they might discover about someone, which in turn will affect their security in some way. As the old saying goes: “There are none so blind as those who will not see”. It can also be the case that a person has not learned to listen to his intuition or perhaps confuses a negative intuition with judging the heart of another and so dismisses his intuitive insights, especially negative ones. On the other hand, it is possible that a person wants to see evil where there really is none. This is not shrewdness, but suspicion, and it is often rooted in a spirit of pride.
Once a person sizes up a particular situation, he needs to be able to investigate and compare alternative possibilities and to reason well from premises to conclusions. He will need to be able to reason about what needs to be done, that is, what the best alternative or option is that will realize the right end. Prudence thus presupposes a knowledge of the basics of logical reasoning. If a person cannot see through the most common logical fallacies, he will unlikely be able to consistently make prudent decisions. Some of these common fallacies include: Begging the Question, or assuming the point that needs to be proven, or Ignoring the Question, which consists in proving something other than the point to be established. False Cause consists in assuming that when one event precedes another, it is the cause of the succeeding event. The Fallacy of Part and Whole consists in attributing to a whole what belongs only to its parts (the fallacy of generalization), while the Fallacy of Misplaced Authority consists in concluding that something is true because somebody of authority, such as a medical doctor, said it. The Fallacy of Ad Hominem (directed to the man) involves the rejection of some person’s position not by virtue of the argument itself, but by virtue of some unlikeable aspect of the person. The Fallacy of the Double Standard consists in applying one standard for one group or individual, and another standard for an opposing group or individual. Appeal to the People occurs when a speaker attempts to get some group to agree to a particular position by appealing solely to their bigotry, biases, and prejudices or, in some cases, merely to their desire to hear what they already believe. The Fallacy of False Analogy occurs when a person argues a position merely by drawing an analogy, without justifying the use of the analogy. And the Fallacy of Novelty assumes that what is new and current is necessarily better or an improvement upon what is older. The more adept one becomes at seeing through such deceptive reasoning, the less likely will one’s decisions fall under its influence.
Foresight is the principal part of prudence, for the name itself (prudence) is derived from the Latin providential, which means “foresight”. Foresight involves rightly ordering human acts to the right end. This of course presupposes that the person is ordered to the right end, which is the possession of God through knowledge and love. The greater his love for God, that is, the greater his charity, the greater will be his foresight: “Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God” (Mt. 5, 8). For it is through charity that one attains God, and it is through this supernatural friendship that one grows in a connatural knowledge of God. The more a person is familiar with the city towards which he directs his steps, the more able he is to see which roads lead to that end and which roads lead away. The more a person is familiar with God, the more readily able he is to discern behaviour inconsistent with that friendship. An impure heart, that is, a love of God mixed with an inordinate love of self, will affect one’s ability to “see”. An inordinate love of self will cause certain alternatives to have greater appeal, but these alternatives (means) will not necessarily lead to the right end. A prudent man sees that, but the imprudent do not. And if they lack true to being memory, they will continue to fail to see it.
It is possible that acts good in themselves and suitable to the end may become unsuitable in virtue of new circumstances. Circumspection is the ability to take into account all relevant circumstances. Showing affection to your spouse through a kiss is good in itself, but it might be unsuitable in certain circumstances, such as a funeral or in a public place. Telling certain jokes might be appropriate in one setting, but inappropriate in another. Circumspection is the ability to discern which is which. This too, however, presupposes right appetite. A person lacking proper restraint (temperance) will lack thoughtfulness and the ability to consider how the people around him might be made to feel should he take a certain course of action. The lustful, for example, lack counsel and tend to act recklessly. An egoist is also less focused on others and more on himself, and so he too tends to lack proper circumspection.
Good choices can often generate bad effects. To choose not to act simply because bad consequences will likely ensue is contrary to prudence. But caution takes care to avoid those evils that are likely to result from a good act that we contemplate doing. For example, a priest who is about to speak out publicly against a piece of unjust legislation might anticipate offending members of his congregation. Out of cowardice or an inordinate love of comfort, he might choose not to say anything at all and thus risk harming others through his silence. A prudent priest, on the other hand, will speak out when not doing so will harm others, yet caution will move him to prepare his congregation with a thorough preamble so as to minimize the chances of misunderstanding. One must never do evil that good may come of it, but one may at times permit evil on condition that the action one is performing is good or indifferent, that one does not will or intend the evil effect, and that the good effects of one’s action are sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the evil effect.
The Potential Parts of Prudence
Good Counsel (euboulia)
Counsel is research into the various means to the end and the circumstances. A person not entirely pure of heart, that is, whose charity is very defective, will have more options before him, poorer options that nevertheless have some appeal. The better the character, the less will these poorer options present themselves; for they will drop out of the picture very quickly. This can be compared to a person who is physically healthy and has good eating habits and one who is unhealthy with poor habits. A typical menu will be more appealing to the one with poor eating habits, while the former deliberates over a few options, the healthier options on the menu. We’ve all heard the expression, “Where there is a will, there is a way”. Good counsel, resulting from a greater hope in and love for God, generates the energy and imagination needed to discover the best alternative to achieve the best end.
Good Judgment (synesis and gnome)
Judgment is an assent to good and suitable means. Synesis is good common sense in making judgments about what to do and what not to do in ordinary matters. It is possible to take good counsel without having good sense so as to judge well, but to judge well on what to do or not to do in the here and now requires a right mind, that is, an understanding of first principles and precepts and indirectly a just will and well disposed appetites (both concupiscible and irascible appetites). Without these, one’s ideas will likely be distorted, and one’s judgment regarding the best means will be defective; for as Aristotle points out, as a person is (character), so does he see. He writes:
…what seems good to a man of high moral standards is truly the object of wish, whereas a worthless man wishes anything that strikes his fancy. It is the same with the human body: people whose constitution is good find those things wholesome which really are so, while other things are wholesome for invalids, and similarly their opinions will vary as to what is bitter, sweet, hot, heavy, and so forth. (Just as a healthy man judges these matters correctly, so in moral questions) a man whose standards are high judges correctly, and in each case what is truly good will appear to him to be so. Thus, what is good and pleasant differs with different characteristics or conditions, and perhaps the chief distinction of a man of high moral standards is his ability to see the truth in each particular moral question, since he is, as it were, the standard and measure for such questions. The common run of people, however, are misled by pleasure. For though it is not the good, it seems to be, so that they choose the pleasant in the belief that it is good and avoid pain thinking that it is evil. (EN 3, 4. 1113a25-1113b)
Gnome refers to the ability to discern and apply higher laws to matters that fall outside the scope of the more common or lower rules that typically guide human action. It involves good judgment regarding exceptions to ordinary rules. For example, students ordinarily are not permitted to play walkmans in a classroom, but a possible exception to the rule might be the case of a student with a serious learning disability and who is highly sensitive to the slightest distractions. One may be able to think of similar examples on a more judicial level.
Command, which is the direct application of good counsel and judgment, is the principal act of prudence; for it cannot be said that one who takes good counsel and judges well, but fails to act, is a prudent man.
Vices Contrary to Prudence (Impetuosity, Thoughtlessness, Inconstancy, Negligence)
Impetuosity is the vice contrary to good counsel and amounts to a failure to adequately consider all available means to a particular end. Consider the teenager who is tempted to skip class, or lie for something or other, or become sexually intimate with someone. Rather than thinking things through and considering other alternatives, he skips a major test, or lies to get out of it, or immediately surrenders to the temptation to be sexually intimate for fear that further consideration will ruin the prospects. Impetuosity often results from an impulsive will or inordinate sense appetite, or from contempt for a directive (i.e., contempt for one’s parents or the Church). Impetuosity is a defect of memory, docility, and reasoning.
Thoughtlessness is a defect of practical judgment and amounts to a defect of circumspection and caution. Consider the young person who curses in a public place, totally unaware of how his actions might affect others, or the young girl who, caught up in the excitement of having an older student take interest in her, gets into his car and drives off with him. Thoughtfulness, on the other hand, is a necessary condition of gratitude, which in turn is a prerequisite of the virtue of justice.
Inconstancy is contrary to command, the principal act of prudence, and is a failure to complete a morally good act by refusing to command that an act be done, a refusal rooted in inordinate love of pleasure. Consider the person who just can’t get around to doing what he knows ought to be done, because of laziness or attachment to some pleasure.
Negligence is also contrary to command, but it differs in that it is a defect on the part of the intellect to direct the will in carrying out some good action. These vices involve a defect in understanding, foresight, and shrewdness.
Prudence and the Importance of Thinking
Adolescence is a period fraught with danger because it is a very emotional stage of human development, and unchanneled emotion has led many young people to decisions that they are now forced to live with for the rest of their lives, all because they chose not to think before choosing. Excessive emotion tends to cloud judgment, and it affects our ability to see clearly, often inclining us to see what we want to see, and pushing us to make decisions before we have completely thought them through. And so now we have young adults who will never be parents because of scarring of their fallopian tubes, or as a result of contracting HPV, which led to cervical cancer, which in turn necessitated a radical hysterectomy. We have young adults suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome because during their teenage years they regularly deprived themselves of sleep in order to get more out of life. Some adults suffer from personality arrest and have the emotional maturity level of a young adolescent because of chronic abuse of mood altering substances. Many young adult females are living below the poverty line because they are single mothers and believed it when they were told “I love you”.
It is very important that young people use the memory they already have in order to consider the possible consequences of decisions they are about to make. It is also very important to turn towards those who truly have their best interests in mind, namely parents. No matter how smart or sophisticated we might think we are, there is so much that we don’t know and that only time and experience can teach us. Those unfortunate people described in the previous paragraph, who have been irreparably damaged by bad decisions, are almost always the type of person who holds his or her parents in contempt.
Prudence and Ethics
As we said above, prudence is both a moral virtue and an intellectual virtue simultaneously, for a moral virtue renders its possessor morally good. A prudent person is one who makes good decisions. A bright and learned person who makes foolish decisions, who is arrogant and subject to outbursts of anger, for example, is hardly someone whom we would hold up as an example of prudence. A person may study and grow in knowledge of the science of ethics without a corresponding moral growth, that is, while holding on to some very serious vices.
Thus, prudence is not quite the same thing as being a moral philosopher or theologian. One may be very learned in these disciplines, but lack prudence, at least to a certain degree. Perhaps we can compare this situation to the person who has studied art history and who knows about proper technique, materials, how this or that artist paints, by whom he was influenced, etc., but who is himself a poor artist. A moral thinker might have good counsel and judgment with regard to general moral issues. He may be a good problem solver and know how to apply universal moral principles to more or less general situations. But, as Aquinas writes: “In wicked men there may be right judgment of a universal principle, but their judgment is always corrupt in the particular matter of action” (ST. II-II. 51, 3, ad 2).
For prudence requires more than an understanding of first principles and precepts. It requires true to being memory, docility, circumspection, discursive reasoning, foresight, and caution as well as a shrewd mind. An expert in moral science might lack the humility to be docile, or lack experience with certain people and the intensity of charity necessary to develop a shrewd mind. His arrogance may render him relatively blind or dark of mind, for the “Lord looks upon the arrogant from afar” (Ps. 138, 6). He may lack patience, and he may have an exaggerated sense of self-importance and a hint of narcissism typical of professors today, and he may carry a great deal of resentment. Such a lack of humility destroys virtue, and without right appetite one is not prudent, for prudence requires a just will, a patient disposition rooted in charity, a humble self-estimation, a spirit of forgiveness, honesty with oneself, self-awareness, an awareness of temptation, etc. Without these, one will lack good counsel and good judgment, at least with regard to highly contingent matters.
For there is a realm that exceeds the range of the science of morality1, just as there is a large realm that exceeds the limited range of a wireless router. Moral science helps to sharpen judgment, for not all moral matters in the here and now are strictly speaking prudential judgments, such as abortion, active euthanasia, contraception, adultery, lying, etc. The reason is that there are no circumstances that change the nature of these actions, which involve in themselves a deficient willing, that is, willing that is incompatible with complete openness to all human goods, such as human life and marriage, and justice. But a special virtue is required for the here and now precisely because of this limited range; for as we move outside of the realm of the universal and into this rather murky territory of the variable and particular, decisions on what to do and how to proceed become more difficult, far less certain, and they require very well developed sensibilities, intuition, experience, rightly ordered appetite, both rational and sensitive, especially a will formed by charity. It is not always easy to demonstrate the correctness of good prudential judgments; for some people don’t see, for their reasoning is grounded in what they know, which in turn is rooted in who they are; for as a person is, so does he see (EN 3, 4. 1113a25-1113b).
A prudent person, on the other hand, is a good person. He has practical intelligence, or practical wisdom, and although one may have speculative wisdom without being morally good, including the science of ethics that settles for general statements about what is variable, one cannot have practical wisdom without being morally good. The more noble a person is, the more wise will he be in the practical sense, that is, in the concrete decisions he is required to make daily in the here and now. As one grows in holiness, that is, in charity and faith, one grows in clear-sightedness that is the offspring of purity of heart. One begins to contemplate God here in this world, for one comes to know God connaturally. One contemplates the genius of his providence and the depths of His love, which the pure of heart know from within. St. Thomas writes: “Now this sympathy or connaturality for Divine things is the result of charity, which unites us to God, according to 1 Cor. 6:17: “He who is joined to the Lord, is one spirit.” Consequently wisdom which is a gift, has its cause in the will, which cause is charity, but it has its essence in the intellect, whose act is to judge aright, as stated above” (ST. II-II. 45, 2). That is why the saint enjoys a level of contemplation and wisdom that is unavailable to the theologian or philosopher who is lacking in charity. The light of contemplation in turn enhances one’s ability to determine the mean of reason in fortitude and temperance and all their parts as well as the mean of justice, and the fire of charity renders one more just, brave, and temperate, which in turn spawns a greater prudence. Perhaps moral and emotional growth can be compared to the perpetual motion machine that has yet to be invented.
By McManaman, Douglas
- “…speculative reason differs from practical reason as the unchanging differs from the changing. What we know through speculative reason is something which always is what it is; it is invariable and therefore cannot be otherwise than what it is. In this way we know, for example, that a triangle cannot be otherwise than having its angles equal to two right angles. What we know through practical reason is variable, for in seeking to know how to act we are dealing with what is in itself changeable and subject to alteration. But, to avoid a possible misunderstanding here, let us note that what is variable can be known in two ways: in general and in particular.
General statements about what is variable are themselves unchanging. For example, the statement that every twenty-four hours the earth turns completely on its axis is a general statement about something changing. Such knowledge is still speculative even though it is concerned about something changing….The good state of speculative reason is simply knowing truth…The good state of practical reason does not consist simply in knowing truth. Because practical reason is connected with singular action involving desire on the part of both the will and emotion, the virtue of practical reason, though an intellectual virtue itself, will be necessarily connected with moral virtue.” John A. Oesterle. Ethics. (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc 1957. 173-174.
McManaman, Douglas. “The Virtue of Prudence.” (February 2006). Borrowed From Douglas McManaman. https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/education/catholic-contributions/the-virtue-of-prudence.html
Douglas McManaman is a high school religion teacher with the York Catholic District School Board in Ontario. He is currently teaching at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ontario and maintains a web site, A Catholic Philosophy and Theology Resource Page, in support of his students. He studied Philosophy at St. Jerome’s College in Waterloo, and Theology at the University of Montreal. Mr. McManaman is the past President of the Canadian Chapter of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. Douglas McManaman is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator’s Resource Center.