The Cardinal Virtues: Prudence

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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Foresight – This is the ability to see something distant, particularly to envision how future contingencies (or consequences) bear upon what should be done now.
  7. 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.
  8. 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!

A Brief Story About the Need for Prudence

God speaks to us through many experiences and images. Sometimes there are differing layers of meaning and we must carefully and prudently discern what God is saying to us. Prudence is not the same as caution. Rather, it is the virtue that bids us, in each situation, to keep in mind our deeper call and final goal.

Consider the following story:

A man, walking through the forest saw a fox that had lost its legs, and wondered how it lived. Then he saw a tiger come up with game in its mouth. The tiger ate its fill and left the rest of the meat for the fox. The next day God fed the fox by means of the same tiger.

The man began to wonder at God’s greatness and said to himself, “I too shall just rest in a corner with full trust in the Lord and He will provide me with all I need.”

He did this for many days, but nothing happened, and he was almost at death’s door when he heard a voice say, “O you who are in the path of error, open your eyes to the truth! Stop imitating the disabled fox and follow the example of the tiger”  (The Spirituality of Imperfection, p. 93).

This story illustrates the need for discernment and prudence. Growing in trust is a good thing of itself, but not if done so in a selfish or reckless way. Like any virtue, trust is not detached; it exists in real-life situations and the virtue of prudence must direct its application. This is true of all the virtues. St. Thomas and others called prudence the “charioteer of the virtues” because its role is to direct them properly in accordance with our final goal.

In the case of the story above, magnanimity and generosity were the true call; the man in the story sinned against hope. We ought never to despair that when we are truly in need God will supply us with the essentials needed for eternal life, but neither should we presume that He will rescue us from every one of our sins or poor decisions. Like any virtue, hope stands in the middle, warding off both despair and presumption; it gives us the confident expectation of God’s help, but not the kind that reduces Him to a sort of divine butler. Prudence also directs us to remember that our first instinct should be to serve rather than to be served (see Mark 10:45).

On Prudential Judgment and the Question of Corporal Punishment

There was an interesting debate segment today on Fox News on the topic of Corporal Punishment, or “paddling.”  You can see the debate, hosted by Megyn Kelly at the bottom of this post. (cf also Washington Post article).

Not having been born yesterday I realize that the concept of spanking children is controversial to say the least. Paddling children in school is almost unheard of today though I was surprised that it is still legal in over twenty states.

Prudential Judgment – The question of paddling and the use of corporal punishment in certain cases exists in an area of decision making known as “prudential judgments (or decisions).” Prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues and I recall from Thomistic Philosophy that it was defined as recta ratio agibilium (right reason applied to practice). Essentially Prudence is the virtue whereby we are able to properly judge, using sound reason and moral principles, the best way to come to a desired end. That it is called an act of judgment means that we have a decision to make as to best means to an end using the virtue of prudence.

Now “prudential judgments” are not mathematical in the sense that they may vary from person to person. Reasonable men and women may differ within limits as to what is the best means to attain a given end.  This is because circumstances may vary from case to case and from culture to culture. Prudential judgments consider many factors such as the individuals involved, the various means available, the circumstances that both precede and follow from an action, age and or gender factors, cultural norms, moral norms and the like. Hence, as already stated, reasonable people may often differ in prudential judgments.

I point this out because I have noticed that many people treat the question of paddling or similar forms of corporal punishment as something that should be an absolute moral norm. Either they think it should be absolutely and in all circumstances banned or they think it is something that should be prescribed in accord with biblical or other traditional norms. I think the moral absolutism is more common on the anti corporal punishment side but it does exist on both sides.

Corporal Punishment is a Prudential Judgment – In discussing a topic like this it seems important that we should remember that we ARE  talking about a prudential judgment. Parents will often make different judgments about whether this form of punishment is helpful unto achieving the end (e.g. discipline or maturity) which they seek. Since there are many variables in each situation there will be different approaches. If we see the debate in this light it may be more possible for us to allow variability without all the harshness. (It should  be clear that severe beatings causing serious or permanent harm are to be excluded from any notion of prudential judgment).

There are many other issues in our culture which involve prudential judgment. But we seem to live in a culture where we want to make lots of rules for each other. There ARE rules that are essential to make but there are also many areas that admit of variability within limits. (Even our recent discussion on modesty admits of certain prudential judgments within limits).

Other things in the Church admit of prudential judgment such as what kind of music to allow in the liturgy, how and when to apply the Church’s social justice tradition to specific issues, how and when bishops should discipline lay people or clerics who stray from Church teaching, what is the best catechetical method, etc. We are surely free to try and influence each other’s thinking and priorities but we also do well to keep charity in mind since, in prudential judgments, reasonable men and women may differ.

As for corporal punishment I will say it worked for me. I was paddled in school and occasionally spanked at home. My parents did not often spank us but when we were young there was what I would call a judicious use of it. In school I was taken to the Principal’s office and paddled on several occasions in my errant youth. I once recall that Mr. Bulware the principal turned the school PA system on once while I was paddled. This is because I and another boy started a school yard brawl and I and the other instigator were publicly paddled to dissuade others from such actions. For me these paddlings had a salutary effect and my behavior improved. The Principal was skilled in that he did not seriously harm me but my back side stung enough that I was encouraged to avoid the paddle in the future. As I say it several such paddlings to bring the lesson home but I learned that misbehavior had embarrassing and unpleasant consequences.

Now this is MY story I do not say that every one’s experience was mine. Comments are open and you will surely have your own thoughts. But remember, this is a matter of prudential judgment and reasonable people can and do differ.

In the video debate you will see all the women are respectful of each other though one wants to impose, through federal legislation, a ban on paddling. She is free to attempt that of course but here is where I wonder why our culture insists on legislating in prudential matters. What do you think?