Food for the Soul
A bi-weekly blog on the virtuous life. Written not by a master, but by a student, but one at least who knows whence sound teaching is found.
Prudence is right reason about things to be done. - St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae IIa, IIae Q. 47.
Every sin is opposed to prudence. - Josef Pieper, Four Cardinal Virtues
The prudent man does not expect certainty where it cannot exist, nor on the other hand does he deceive himself by false certainties. - Josef Pieper, Four Cardinal Virtues
But prudence is concerned with human things and things about which it is possible to deliberate, for we say that this work belongs to the person of prudence most of all, to deliberate well, but no one deliberates about things incapable of being otherwise, nor about variable things among which there is not some end, and that end a good achieved by action. - Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics
The value of prudence consists not in thought merely, but in its application, which is the end of the practical reason. - St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae IIa, IIae Q. 47, art. 1.
And if prudence renders service, who in the world is a better craftsman than she? - Wisdom 8:6
For some reason we have lost touch with the importance of order in our lives. The monks in their wisdom set an horarium, or order of the hours of the day that was kept as a way of keeping oneself in proper balance and relationship with God, others, and themselves. Perhaps this neglect of order is due to the largely licentious vision of freedom that we have imbibed through our culture in which we consider freedom from constraint, including the "constraints" of nature and divine truth, as an ultimate good. "Give me liberty or give me death!", spoke Patrick Henry in his rousing exhortation aimed at a revolutionary war. It is not a stretch to assume that those words would mean something quite different for most Americans today than they did at the time Henry spoke them. A modern rendering of the meaning based on today's all too common conception of evil might be "Let me do what I want, or I'll kill myself." I really don't think Henry had anything like this in mind when he spoke of freedom. The primacy of tolerance as the greatest virtue and assisted suicide as the apex of freedom in progressive culture today has obfuscated our understanding of the nature of freedom. Subsequently, we are often slow to recognize that freedom is only truly free when we act in accord with orders of nature and grace.
The truth is that order is a fundamental aspect to living virtuously. The order I speak of is based on the truth of things, not just an imposition of a subjectively constructed order on our experience. This order is present in all things: physical, immaterial, moral, and divine. Prudence is the intellectual virtue that recognizes the moral ordering of things and causes us to act in accord with that order so that the means are fit to achieve the end for which we act here, now, and in a morally good way. Prudence is the virtue that determines the "ways and means" associated with down-to-earth realities. It applies universal principles of actions, such as "do good and avoid evil" to concrete situations through discrete actions. It is the first of the cardinal virtues because in the order of action our true perception of things (prudence) is requisite for the accomplishment of what we ought to do (justice, courage, temperance). In the order of the moral life, there is primacy in the virtue of prudence over all the other moral virtues.
Thus, prudence and synderesis (the principle of knowledge in our intellect to "do good and avoid evil") together form what we call conscience. In this light, two commonly accepted axioms from theology become clear in their relationship to each other: "Every sin is opposed to prudence" (St. Thomas), and "A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself" (Catechism of the Catholic Church). The prudent person and the good person are identifiable each with the other.
We are always acting for the sake of some end. Always. There is never a moment in which we are deliberately acting, but in a completely aimless manner. Our lives may be a mess. Our ends might change with our emotional status. But when we set out to act it is always for a purpose. In order for prudence to function well, the end or goal of our deliberation must be a true good, and not only an illusory one. In order for our ends to be upright and good, our appetites, both spiritual and physical, must be upright and good. If our appetites are distorted, prudence will not be able to identify and follow through in achieving what is truly good for us. This is why temperance and courage are required for us to be able to think well as well as act well. Yet, the key to prudence is based upon the accurate perception of reality. This is why prudence, which is a virtue of the intellect, is the first of all the cardinal virtues. Truth is prior the good, just as knowledge is prior to action.
As St. Thomas so pithily states in his definition of prudence as "right reason about things to be done", prudence is the perfection of thinking that leads to acting. How does this happen? In three steps: deliberation (counsel), judgment, and command. In order for these three parts of a prudential action to happen, three more helper-virtues should be present: circumspection, docility, and foresight.
Deliberation (Counsel): Let me quote again the aforementioned words of Aristotle about deliberation and its relationship to prudence: "But prudence is concerned with human things and things about which it is possible to deliberate, for we say that this work belongs to the person of prudence most of all, to deliberate well, but no one deliberates about things incapable of being otherwise, nor about variable things among which there is not some end, and that end a good achieved by action" (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics).
If I want to graduate from UND Law School, then I need to aim at getting there with all my actions. Some actions are going to lead me there, and others will not. But there are multiple ways for me to approach this goal. There are various undergraduate programs and schools from which I can choose. There are a thousand ways to build my resume. There are various relationships that I can focus on building or neglecting. There are various timelines to follow. Prudence is required to take into consideration the past, present, and future in order to act in such a way that will actually accomplish the end for which I am acting. The act of deliberation means that I need to sift through through all of the particulars of my life as the preliminary part of acting prudently.
Judgment: Once I have deliberated about the impending decision to act in a certain way as a means to the end of graduating from UND Law School, I must make a good judgment about how to proceed. Perhaps, some of us know people who can never make a decision. This part of prudence would be lacking in them, and it will stall the whole process of acting well. It is in this part of the prudential act that the question of certainty becomes important. Some people are paralyzed by a lack of certainty about whether or not their judgment of the situation is the correct one. In our moral lives the level of certainty that we should have in order to act is not absolute certainty, but moral certainty, which is not mere opinion, but also not as great as mathematical certainty. There are so many variables in human action, especially when you consider the fact that our action is an action of a fallible human being, that to expect too much certainty about the quality of our judgment can paralyze us from achieving the good at all. "The prudent man does not expect certainty where it cannot exist, nor on the other hand does he deceive himself by false certainties" (Josef Pieper).
Command (Act): While prudence is a virtue of the intellect, which is primarily associated with knowledge, prudence is also turned toward action as the "charioteer of the moral virtues." Prudence commands the moral virtues such as temperance, justice, and fortitude as a charioteer drives the team of horses upon which it depends to win the race. The last part of prudence is the command of the intellect to put into action the deliberated judgment about how to act. Perhaps, some of us know people who know what they should do, but can't get it done. They probably lack in the part of prudence identified by commanding action to happen, and to happen in a certain way.
So here is a basic introduction to the virtue of prudence. A blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while, but we should aim for a greater consistency in good action than that of blind squirrels. For this to happen, we need to focus on reflectively becoming aware of our thought processes in acting. The picture at the beginning of the blog is an allegory of prudence. The "Virtue" is holding a mirror of introspection and a serpent, a symbol of the shrewd character of the prudent person. The mirror reminds us that in order for us to be good we need to accurately and in fine detail know ourselves. To this end, some questions we should ask ourselves include in order to grow in prudence include: Am I deliberating well about this decision? Is some disordered appetite or attachment skewing the way that I am seeing the world in this situation? Am I seeking advice from a trustworthy source? Do I struggle to make a sound judgment based upon the facts? Do I merely think about what I should do, but fail to command myself to carry out the good decision? Are the means to the end morally good? Is this the best way to go forward here and now? Are fear or anger driving my thought process?
You can see that prudence is not a virtue that we can achieve in its fullness over night. It is a virtue that should naturally grow more and more refined over a lifetime of good decisions. Every good action that I accomplish gives me a greater insight into how to act virtuously. You can also see that prudence is quite complex. There are other virtues that I need to foster in order to really grow in prudence. It is of these three supporting virtues that I will write next time.