The Preeminence of Prudence – Part 1 (Chief Among Virtues)
“Conservatives are guided by their principle of PRUDENCE.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles
What would you say is the most important virtue our political leaders could possess? Is it charisma, the art of persuasion, the ability to move the nation to action? Is it courage and a steady hand in the face of impossible odds? Is it dependability, honesty, and integrity that would keep them humble servants of the people? What about intelligence, a quick mind, and a strong vision for the future?
All of these things are important, of course, and if any are sufficiently lacking we wouldn’t call that a good leader. But what would you say is the chief virtue?
How Did Our Ancestors Answer the Question?
In an effort to better understand the conservative worldview I have immersed myself in the writings of conservative intellectual thinkers throughout the ages. And one of the things I’ve found surprising is how often the virtue of prudence is mentioned. Even more surprising is how many insist it’s first and foremost among the civic virtues we should demand of our leaders.
Conservatism isn’t an ideology—that is, it isn’t an abstract set of ideas someone dreamt up one day. Rather, it’s a tradition that’s been molded by thinkers throughout the centuries. As a result, those who are considered the intellectual godfathers of the conservative worldview often viewed their role as simply describing something that had come before them—something that no one person was responsible for, but could nonetheless be discerned through careful scrutiny. This is certainly true of the idea that prudence is the chief political virtue; the godfathers of conservatism attribute that idea to those who influenced them who, in turn, attribute that idea to their influencers.
Take, for example, Irving Kristol whose neoconservatism was rooted in the teaching of Leo Strauss: “Strauss believed, along with the ‘greats’ he revered, that prudence was the greatest of practical virtues.” Or how about what Russell Kirk had to say about his hero Edmund Burke: “Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues.” In each case we that the idea of prudence as a preeminent civic virtue came from what the godfathers of the conservative worldview taught, who got it from the people they most admired, who got it from the “greats” of ancient times.
Though prudence is often thought of as a “secular” or “civic” virtue, it has also earned praise from religious quarters as well. Catholicism devised the Seven Cardinal Virtues in the fourth century as a means of combatting the Seven Deadly Sins and thus overcoming the evil within us. Prudence is listed among the seven, demonstrating once again its importance in the minds of generations past.
But why prudence? What could possibly be so important about this oldfangled and seemingly outdated virtue? Surely prudence has been knocked from the lofty pedestal on which it was placed by the ancients. This descent was observed by Gettysburg College professor Allen C. Guelzo in his article Prudence, Politics, and the Proclamation: “Say the word prudence to the ancients, and it would be a virtue; say the word prudence to the faculties of the American colleges of the 19th century, and it would be a part of the curriculum in moral philosophy; say the word prudence today, and it would be part of a joke.”
Prudence is nearly inseparable from notions of prudishness in our liberated and expressive culture. It sounds a bit stuffy, intolerant, bigoted, unimaginative, boring, fearful, antiquated, even more of a vice than a virtue—let alone the chief virtue.
Did prudence lose favor because it’s no longer relevant? Have we progressed beyond some ancient relic that once held value but now just hinders our efforts at social justice or helping people? Were the ancients right to regard prudence with such seeming reverence? In this series we’ll attempt to answer these questions. But first, we need to get a better grasp on what prudence actually means beyond the images it invokes or any antiquated feelings the sound of the word might produce before we could hope to make much progress. And that is where we’ll pick things up in Part 2.