Pondering Prudence and Its "Parts" – A Reflection on the Sometimes-Misunderstood Virtue of Prudence

"Prudence at Loggia dei Lanzi". Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
“Prudence at Loggia dei Lanzi”.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

As a follow-on to yesterday’s post on the spiritual work of counseling  the doubtful, I would like to say a little more about prudence.

Prudence is often misunderstood by those who reduce it to mere caution or reluctance to act. It is true that sometimes prudence indicates caution and that hasty action is seldom prudent. However, sometimes it is prudent to act quickly. Having long discussions about the best way to put out a house fire before acting is not prudent. Quick, expedient action is the best means to an end in this case. This is sometimes the case in less obviously urgent matters, too, such as stemming the inflence of an erroneous teaching that may otherwise confuse or scandalize the faithful. Sometimes a carefully planned and gradual response is best. At other times a quick denunciation of the error is ideal. Prudence is the virtue that sees the best way and commands the will to execute that approach.

Let us consider more fully what prudence is by reviewing the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Thelogica (II, IIae 47). The following is my meager attempt at a summary. Read St. Thomas directly if you seek further clarification.

St. Thomas states that It belongs to prudence chiefly to direct something to a right end; and this is not done aright unless both the end be good, and the means good and suitable (II, IIae 49.7, respondeo). So, prudence is the knowledge of how to act or conduct one’s life rightly, what to avoid or seek in the concrete and particular situations that make up our daily life. While prudence belongs to the intellect, since it so fundamentally guides the will, it also has the quality of a moral virtue. Prudence does not so much determine what is right and wrong as it regulates the means to determine what is moral and good. In effect, prudence discovers what is good by taking counsel, judging what is discovered, and then commanding the will to execute what we ought to choose.

Since prudence is a virtue, not merely an ability, it is oriented to what is good and morally upright. If perchance one were to speak of “prudence” that was oriented to what was sinful or evil we should rather refer to it as “craftiness” or “cunning,” but not prudence, properly understood.

Finally, although prudence can exist as a natural virtue, the Christian tradition usually speaks of it in a way that is charged by supernatural grace and informed by the Wisdom of God as well.

Prudence is fundamental enough that we may and ought to speak of it as having “parts,” which St. Thomas calls “quasi-integral” parts. This is because none of the parts replaces prudence as a whole or describes it alone, but together all the parts make it what it is. Thomas enumerates eight of these parts in the Summa (II IIae 49):

1. Memory – Since experience helps us to discover what is true in the majority of cases, memory of that experience is an important part of prudence.

2. Understanding – This refers to a kind of “grasp” or right estimation of things and what is to be done, rather than the kind of understanding we attribute to the intellect’s ability to synthesize or comprehend mere processes.

3. Docility – The ability and willingness to be taught, especially by our elders and those with greater experience, is part of prudence, since none of us can personally know and experience all the possible scenarios and matters for decision. Stubbornly opinionated people are almost never prudent since they are not open to being taught or to considering that their experience and prudential judgement can be assisted and augmented by teaching from others.

4. Shrewdness – The ability to rapidly estimate what is suitable and proper in a given circumstance both serves and is a part of prudence. While docility looks to the experiences of others, shrewdness is an aptitude for acquiring a right estimation of what is to be done. “Shrewdness” here is not understood in its pejorative sense, wherein it refers to mere cunning or craftiness, but rather it refers to the gift of being able to come quickly to a proper estimation of the good.

5. Reason – Since prudence involves accepting counsel and then taking account of a situation, it is necessary that one be able to reason well. And since prudence belongs to the intellect, reason both serves and is a part of prudence. “Reason” here, however, means not so much logical analysis as the right use of our mind, wherein we properly equip our mind and then use its faculties in a way that is adept but also humble.

6. Foresight – This is the ability to see something distant, namely how future contingencies (or consequences) bear upon what is to be done now.

7. Circumspection – This is the ability to compare the proposed course of action to the current circumstances and see how other things and people will be affected.

8. Caution – Since falsehood is often found along with what is true, and evil mixed with good, prudence needs a caution that is sober about this and seeks to avoid evil and grasp that which is good. Prudence needs a caution that looks to avoid evil—not just the evil of doing something, but also the evil of doing nothing.

And thus we reflect a bit on prudence, one of the four cardinal virtues. Continue to ask God for a healthy prudence, for frequently we err not in determining what is good, but on the best way to accomplish that good. Prudence opens doors and keeps us on course toward that which is truly good. And while at times prudence points to bold action, at others it counsels steady perseverance so that we attain the good without setting loose that which is inordinate or evil. Indeed, Lord save us from being “do-gooders” who lack prudence and may thereby set loose more evil than we seek to end!

4 Replies to “Pondering Prudence and Its "Parts" – A Reflection on the Sometimes-Misunderstood Virtue of Prudence”

  1. Be as clever (shrewd) as a snake but be gentle as a dove. This element of prudence is truly a gift from the HOLY SPIRIT. For a worldly leader would always demand acceptance of his idea, but for one who is of the SPIRIT can slug it out but still come out of it, gentle and finessed and with spirit-filled wisdom. It is truly a gift from above. I just do not know if one can learn and cultivate it. The saints, look at the lives of the saints, they have it. It is being near to GOD and HIS Truths that one can gain this virtue. You have it, Monsignor. Thank you for this article, be blest.

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