The Virtue of PrudenceDOUGLAS MCMANAMAN
The mould and mother of all the virtues is prudence.
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.
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.
Parts of Prudence
Understanding of First Principles (Human Goods)
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.
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.
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).
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”.
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).
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?
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
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.
Man aspires after what is higher than himself
because he is aware of a desire in him for perfect happiness.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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,
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
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
Below is a summary of some of the secondary precepts
derived from the first principle of morality:
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,
ought not to willingly destroy an instance of an intelligible human good for the
sake of some other intelligible or sensible good.
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.
ought not to willingly act alone and individualistically for human goods.
ought not to act purely on the basis of emotion, either on the basis of fear,
aversion, hostility, or desire.
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.
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
Those who lack memory will more than likely lack
docility, another integral part of prudence. St. Thomas writes:
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.
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).
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Potential Parts of Prudence
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.
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)
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.
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.
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
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".
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.
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.
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
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).
As one grows in holiness, that is, in charity
and faith, one grows in clear-sightedness that is the offspring of purity of heart.
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.
"...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.
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.
Virtue of Prudence by Doug McManaman
Virtue of Temperance by Doug McManaman
Virtue of Fortitude by Doug McManaman
Virtue of Justice by Doug McManaman
Douglas. "The Virtue of Prudence." (February 2006).
permission of Douglas McManaman.
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 Education Resource Center.
Copyright © 2006 Douglas McManaman