One of the most misunderstood Cardinal Virtues is the virtue of Prudentia, or Prudence. To the modern mind prudence is associated with merely stepping cautiously when undertaking a series of actions or perhaps planning or thinking about such a set of actions. Perhaps in clarifying what Prudence truly means it should be said outright that the aforementioned characterization of Prudence is not entirely wrong, but reduces process of Prudence to a single mode. The danger of reducing it to such a mode is that it inevitably decays into a process of self-interest and petty narrowness. The late philosopher Josef Pieper notes a stark difference in how the Scholastic understanding of Prudence is misunderstood by contemporary society:
“To the contemporary mind, prudence seems less a prerequisite to goodness than an evasion of it. The statement that it is prudence which makes an action good strikes us as well-nigh ridiculous. Should we hear it said, we tend to misunderstand the phrase, and take it as a tribute to undisguised utilitarianism. For we think of prudence as far more akin to the idea of mere utility, the bonum utile, than to the ideal of nobility, the bonum honestum. In colloquial use, prudence always carriers the connotation of timorous, small-minded self-preservation, or rather selfish concern for oneself. Neither of these traits is compatible with nobility. Both are unworthy of the noble man.” (Pieper, Four Cardinal Virtues, p. 4)
If Prudence is not merely this cautionary mode which individuals arrange actions to better ensure their self-preservation, what is it truly? Prudence is the capacity of the human person to use their capacity to reason in order to effectively understand the moral effects of one’s set of actions before one sets out upon a course of action. In short, Prudence is Moral Reasoning.
One may ask what the dynamics of Prudence are. For example, how does one go about using their moral reasoning before setting out on a course of action? Perhaps one of the most accessible principles to understand and to use as a starting point in developing an example is the simple principle of ensuring that the means (ways) that one goes about achieving a certain end does not violate the moral order (the Ends do not justify the Means). However, this example does not give much depth to the virtue as a whole.
Going deeper, one must also determine whether the end to which they order their actions is in itself Moral. It is this determining of Telos (purpose) by understanding the natural order using one’s natural faculty of Reason that differentiates the Modern and the Scholastic understanding of Prudence. In the modern understanding the person’s actions have a vague reference to the Good, namely a self-referential understanding of one’s own immediate needs or desires. However, in the Classical and Scholastic tradition, Prudence is much broader in scope, and involves the formation of the intellect to the capacity to which it can consider and measure the effects of one’s actions and to know why an action or the degree of application of actions (or sets of actions) are right or wrong.
As noted before, the modern notion of Prudence is a faint echo, a mere caricature of, Prudence. However, this mere echo does tell us about on final aspect of Prudence. Prudence, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, is a “rule and measure”, in that Reason has the capacity to understand the depth of action, the capacity of understanding how much or what degree an action is applied. Prudence may mean in a given scenario, such as in the case of being entrusted with purchasing supplies for an organization, to use the finances entrusted to you in a well-balanced manner (judging the quality of the product alternatives, understanding the future and current needs of the organization, and determining a spending limit). On the other hand, determining the depth of action may entail a seemingly bold action. To give a military example, many of us a familiar with the hold-out the U.S. 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne in the winter of 1944-45. The division’s leadership had the opportunity to withdraw from the town, however, if they had done so they would have yielded a strategic crossroad to the German enemy. Instead the division held out, despite the material hardships and poor weather, against a vastly larger force. By reason, it was determined that it would be more fitting to the end of winning the war that holding out against the Germans would tie up needed German forces and it was also understood that by doing so would give time for the Allied forces to strengthen their position to fight a just war against an aggressor.
A final remark may be that Prudence is not merely a Shylock, miserly application of reason towards self-interest or self-preservation, but can in many scenarios be the pre-requisite to brave action conformed to the Good. In fact, Prudence is the Cardinal Virtue that governs (and makes possible) the three other Cardinal Virtues, to which Fortitude belongs. Prudence tells us both what Fortitude is and how to be Fortitudinous in a given set of circumstances. The same would apply for Justice and for Temperance as well. In short, it must be emphasized that Prudence truly is the habitual application of one’s faculty of Reason to determine the right purpose and the right course of action towards a that said right purpose.
*This piece was written spontaneously; if it is choppy or inconsistent, mea culpa.*