The Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, part I
“The good must be loved and made reality”
I noted last week that the language of the virtue has become horrible confused—and serious consequences have followed. Moral striving seems pointless when the words become diluted with connotations of lameness. In this essay I want to turn to the first of the cardinal virtues and look a little closer.
We’ve been led to believe the virtue of prudence is basically the art of small-souled calculation. The modern understanding takes the prudent man to be a clever tactician. He’s more evasive than good (and perhaps not totally trustworthy). We talk about prudence as though it were something like the coward’s virtue, which teaches a man to dodge those confrontations which might require him to be brave. According to this understanding, lying also is sometimes thought to be prudent (read: cunning, crafty).
Which should prompt a spirited person to ask: why would I want to be lame, calculating, cowardly, and dishonest? If that’s all this supposed virtue is, then to hell with it!
This was certainly how I understood prudence prior to reading Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues, which reintroduces the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and the Western tradition before it was broken by the Reformers. Just a few pages in, my misconceptions were throttled. What I love about Pieper is his understanding of the futility of grumpy moralizing about how people need to act right, Jeremiads using language that no long has much hold on us. He understands the need to recover an older, truer, nobler, and more vigorous vision of the good life, and he suggests starting with the words themselves.
So if prudence does not mean utilitarian calculation and quasi-cowardliness, what does it mean? Really the essence of the virtue is this: prudence is the art of making good decisions. Prudence turns knowledge of reality into accomplishment of the good.
Though a thoughtful virtue, prudence is not the domain of nerds and academics and their abstract theories; prudence is for the purpose of action. Prudence is for living.
The First of the Virtues
One of the most important things to understand about the cardinal virtues is that prudence precedes the others: justice, courage, and temperance. Acts are only virtuous when prudence declares them so—because, in order to make good things happen, we must have some knowledge of the good and how it might be made reality in the specific situations in which we find ourselves. Prudence performs this service as the “cause, root, mother, measure, precept, guide, and prototype of all ethical virtues; it acts in all of them, perfecting them to their true nature; all participate in it, and by virtue of this participation they are virtues.”
“All virtue is necessarily prudent,” Pieper explains, because “realization of the good presupposes knowledge of reality.”
Without prudence, any seemingly virtuous act is more like a lucky shot or an instinctive guess. We might, Pieper says, intuit the need for moderation in the consumption of wine, but these intuitions are perfected and made into something more only under the guidance of prudence.
This means, among other things, that good intentions are insufficient to justify a man’s course of action. When some unwise course of action blows up in our face, we cannot plead that we meant well, as though this lets us off the hook. We have a responsibility to know how to make our good intentions realized.
Against Instructional Manuals
Many implications follow from the primacy of prudence. One is that we cannot outsource our decisions to the experts, cannot turn to authorities for instructions on how to act in every circumstance. Virtue thus opposes casuistry, the “branch of ethics which has as its aim the construction, analysis, and evaluation of individual cases.” The casuists would simplify our lives by publishing the requirements of conduct in manuals. In this case, do X. In that case, do Y. But prudence cannot be muscled out of the picture without great damage being wrought.
Smallness of soul is the result of trying to relieve men of their obligation of deciding well. Casuistry results in a “degenerate, anti-natural state of nonhuman rigidity,” turning ethical considerations into a “science of sins.”
(Teenagers asking “How far can you go?” are the perfect examples. Is first base fine? Is second base a sin? Is it a mortal or venial sin? At what exact point on the basepath does one cross the line? Anyone wanting to publish exact instructions on these matters misses the point, in addition to provoking a good deal of deserved resentment.)
Prudence says that man cannot be reduced to a mere rule-follower. The point is to face the opportunities and challenges before you like a free man, rather than turning to some guru to tell you what to do. Your eyes must be clear and your judgment sound.
There are certain general requirements that apply always and everywhere: a man is always called to be just, courageous, and temperate. But the precise shape and form of virtuous actions might differ according to the time and place and the thousand different variables that accompany any particular situation. For example: a confrontation with a dangerous man might be necessary or it might be foolishly rash, depending on the risks, rewards, and reasons involved with the individual case. Only the prudent man will know the difference.
And in case it isn’t yet clear, the prudent man is more than willing to face tremendous risks when required. He knows to pick his battles, but he also understands that ultimately one must fight. Backing down from the right battle is failure to be prudent, a failure to understand how to bring about the good.
I hope to have done justice to this virtue, showing it to be about far more than small-souled calculation.
There’s a great deal more to say about prudence and how one might become prudent. I aim to write more soon. But for now we might take a moment to appreciate how wildly this differs vision from the commonplace claim that the Catholic one seeks to “control you.” As Pieper writes, “The doctrine of the preeminence of prudence lays the ground for the manly and noble attitude of restraint, freedom, and affirmation which marks the moral theology of the universal teacher of the Church.” Thomas Aquinas, writing on behalf of our tradition, asserts that we need this virtue if we are to live free and good lives.
Thank you for a thoughtful presentation of prudence. You have expanded my concept of the meaning of prudence and prudent living.
This sounds like what the rationality crowd calls “rationality,” except with belief in good replaced with “whatever your utility function is”