Last week we considered the seven deadly sins; this week we begin a series on the virtues. Traditionally, there are seven Christian virtues: the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. There are also seven virtues (some of which are also in the previous list) that are specifically directed against the seven deadly sins. I will begin today with a consideration of the cardinal virtue of prudence.
Prudence is often misunderstood as merely caution or hesitance in taking action. While prudence sometimes dictates caution, and hasty action is seldom prudent, there are times when it is prudent to act quickly. Having a lengthy discussion about the best way to put out a house fire before acting would not be prudent. This is sometimes the case in less obviously urgent matters as well. For example, it would not be prudent to hesitate in stemming the influence of an erroneous teaching that might confuse or scandalize the faithful. Sometimes a carefully planned and gradual response is best, but at other times a quick denunciation of the error is in order. 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 Theologiae (II, IIae 47). The following is my meager attempt at a summary. Read St. Thomas directly if you seek further clarification.
St. Thomas states, 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—because 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 what is wrong as it regulates the means to make that assessment. 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.
Because prudence is a virtue rather than merely an ability, it is oriented to what is good and morally upright. If perchance one were to speak (incorrectly) of prudence that was oriented toward what is sinful or evil, we should instead refer to it properly as craftiness or cunning.
Finally, although prudence can exist as a natural virtue, the Christian tradition usually speaks of it in a way that is also charged by supernatural grace and informed by the Wisdom of God.
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 alone describes it; rather, together all the parts make prudence what it is. St. Thomas enumerates eight of these parts in the Summa (II, IIae 49):
- Memory – In the context of prudence, this refers to the recollection of what has been discovered, through experience, to be true in the majority of cases.
- Understanding – Rather than the kind of understanding we attribute to the intellect’s ability to synthesize or comprehend, in the context of prudence this refers to a kind of grasp or right estimation of situations and what should be done.
- Docility – This refers to the ability and willingness to be taught, especially by our elders and those with greater experience. None of us can personally know and experience all possible scenarios and matters for decision. Stubbornly opinionated people are almost never prudent because they are not open to being taught or to considering that their experience and prudential judgment can be assisted and augmented by teaching from others.
- Shrewdness – This is the ability to estimate rapidly what is suitable and proper in a given circumstance. While docility looks to considering 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 cunning or craftiness, but rather as it refers to the gift of being able to come quickly to a proper estimation of the good.
- Reason – In the context of prudence, reason means not so much logical analysis as the right use of our mind, wherein we properly equip it and then use its faculties in a way that is adept yet humble. Because prudence involves accepting counsel and then sizing up a particular situation, it is necessary that one be able to reason well. Prudence belongs to the intellect and so reason both serves and is a part of prudence.
- Foresight – This is the ability to see something distant, particularly to envision how future contingencies (or consequences) bear upon what should be done now.
- Circumspection – This refers to the ability to compare the proposed course of action in the current situation and consider how other things and people would be affected.
- Caution – Falsehood is often found along with truth, and evil is mixed with good; sober care (caution) must be exercised in order to grasp the true and good while avoiding the evil. In addition, prudence requires caution to avoid the potential evil of doing nothing.
Thus we have reflected 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. 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!