The Virtue of PrudenceDOUGLAS MCMANAMAN
The mould and mother of all the virtues is prudence.
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.
The 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.
Integral Parts of Prudence
Understanding of First Principles (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. 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.
Life: 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).
Truth: 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”.
Beauty: 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).
Leisure, 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?
Sociability: 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 contemplation.
Marriage: 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).
Integrity: 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.
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 arise.
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.
Further, 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.
Moreover, sometimes 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.
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 goods.
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 difficult option.
Below is a summary of some of the secondary precepts derived from the first principle of morality:
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 its mistakes?
Those who lack memory will more than likely lack docility, another integral part of prudence. St. Thomas writes:
…prudence 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.
4. Shrewdness (solertia)
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 its influence.
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.
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.
The Potential Parts of Prudence
Good 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)
Gnome 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.
Contrary to Prudence (Impetuosity, Thoughtlessness, Inconstancy, Negligence)
and the Importance of Thinking
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.
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.
McManaman, Douglas. "The Virtue of Prudence." (February 2006).
Reprinted with 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
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