The Preeminence of Prudence – Part 2 (What the Heck is Prudence?)
Updated: Apr 11
“Conservatives are guided by their principle of PRUDENCE.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles
In Part 1 we noted how a great many thinkers from ancient to classical to modern times often vaunted the virtue of prudence and how some even considered it to be the chief public or political virtue. I doubt there is much debate about whether prudence continues to enjoy this lofty position today. Some may even view prudence as more of a prudish hinderance to progress than a desirable trait in our leaders.
So, what changed? Do we live in an era where prudence is no longer virtuous—or, perhaps, no longer beneficial? Were those who came before us wrongheaded or do we lack the ability to appreciate this seemingly outdated virtue? Before we can tackle questions of this nature, however, we need to have a firm understanding what we mean by prudence.
The Simple Definition
“Prudence means practical common sense, taking the trouble to think out what you are doing and what is likely to come of it,” wrote C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. “The fact that you are giving money to a charity does not mean that you need not try to find out whether that charity is a fraud or not. The fact that what you are thinking about is God Himself (for example, when you are praying) does not mean that you can be content with the same babyish ideas which you had when you were a five-year-old.” Lewis had a knack for breaking down complex ideas and expressing them simply. And, from this vantagepoint, prudence sounds agreeable enough. But it could hardly be called the chief political virtue if that’s all there were to it. Other traits—such as discernment—might get us the same results. What’s so special about prudence?
The Not-So-Simple Definition
“The link which prudence provides between seeing and acting is what distinguishes it from simple discernment, which is a function of reason,” explained Gettysburg College professor Allen C. Guelzo in his article Prudence, Politics, and the Proclamation, “It is the roadbuilder toward the goals marked out by the reason.” Professor Guelzo noted that Catholic philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas recognized the uniqueness of prudence as an “intellectual virtue” which performed two vital tasks: “First, it was the nail head which fastened the intellectual and moral virtues together. Second, because it was housed in the reason, prudence acted as a restraint on ‘impulse or passion.’ It was ‘right reason about things to be done.’”
Indeed, Aquinas is an ideal source for diving deep into the subject since the Catholic Church has long reckoned prudence as one of the Seven Cardinal Virtues. In the thirteenth century, Aquinas penned his Treatise on the Virtues which deeply examined the seven cardinal virtues and had a great deal to say on the subject of prudence. Let’s look at the two vital tasks noted above:
First, Prudence Links Intellectual and Moral Virtues
“Prudence is more properly a virtue than other intellectual virtues…because it presupposes rectitude of appetite and seeks to apply right reason to the enactment of means to morally appropriate ends,” elaborates St. Thomas Aquinas. On the other hand, “it is its formal aspect…the application of right reason to a given matter, that distinguishes prudence as an intellectual virtue from the appetitive moral virtues.” So here we see prudence as more than an intellectual virtue or a moral virtue. It’s a blending of both.
What exactly are “intellectual virtues”? Think art or science. These intellectual traits are certainly desirable and have been enormously beneficial to humanity, but there’s nothing inherently moral about art or science. Art and science can be used morally or immorally; they are nothing more than tools, not ethical behavior in and of themselves.
And what about “moral virtues”? Think humility, faith, or love. While these are fine things they must always have as their object something transcendent, not something material. There’s a lot in Christian teaching, for instance, that instructs the believer on how they are to live their lives in faithfulness to Christ. But applying these virtues to the public square in things like business or politics would be fitting a square peg in a round hole. A business that practiced the sort of charity advocated by Christianity would soon cease to be a business. A nation that turned the other cheek would soon cease to be a nation. A good Christian loves God with abandon. A good Christian leader must take into account the impact of their actions on those they are leading.
“Prudence involves the application of counsel…and so prudence is more than a merely intellectual virtue…Further, prudence is a habit of the practical, rather than speculative, intellect and is properly called wisdom with respect to human activities.” Prudence then is the link between the intellect and the moral. It is the link between the head and the heart. It is the link between mind to thing in that “speculative truth involves the correspondence of mind to thing, whereas practical truth involves the correspondence of thing to mind.”
In summary, prudence is an intellectual tool that is concerned with material ends. So, prudence might be used to comprehend what tax policy is best or whether war or peace should be pursued. But prudence is also a moral virtue that is concerned with what ought to be done. So, the question of which tax policy is best would imply best for all parties concerned and not just the reelection efforts of the current political leadership. The question of whether war or peace should be pursued would take into account the likely long-term consequences of action or inaction, and not just the immediate results.
Second, Prudence Restrains Passion
We might thing of prudence and passion as opposite ends of a seesaw. In order to exercise prudence, one must first learn to put their passions in check. A dash of passion is desirable in our leaders. But a leader that’s enslaved to their passions will be disastrous.
Passions may be good, bad, or somewhere in-between; but even the noblest passions can be destructive if they are left unchecked. A passion for feeding the hungry is commendable. But if that passion drives someone to steal food from others to feed the hungry their “good” passion has corrupted their actions. Prudence forces us to think through the feasibility, pragmatics, and morality of our decisions and actions.
“Prudence is not in us by nature,” continues St. Thomas Aquinas, “though some might be more disposed for it by nature than others, depending on their experience and upbringing and docility. Further, prudence cannot be lost directly through forgetfulness. It is rather directly diminished by the passions.” Just as prudence works as a check on our passions, passions run amok weakens our prudence. This isn’t so hard to imagine as you’ve probably known someone who was so blinded by their passions that they ultimately did damage either to themselves or the things they were passionate about.
Government, by its very nature, is an ever-expanding beast. Thomas Hobbes famously depicted the State as the Leviathan—an image that’s used to describe the monstrous and untamable nature of government. It is here where we most easily see why prudence is such an important civic virtue; for prudence is a restraint on the natural passions of our leaders.
I have written an entire series on the importance of restraining passions, so I shan’t belabor the point here. What’s important here is that prudence is the ideal virtue whereby our leaders restrain their natural passions once they take power. There are other “virtues” that might produce similar restraints—a belief that government is evil and must be reduced, sheer incompetence, a lack of ambition or vision, unceasing gridlock with opposing forces—but prudence restrains the passion with the best immediate and long-term interests of the citizens in view. Prudence accomplishes this by minding both the means and ends. That is a topic worthy of an entire post, and that’s where we’ll pick things up in Part 3.