The Greatest of These is Prudence
This unheralded virtue serves as a GPS for decision-making
Dominican Father Ignatius Smith was a gifted preacher who served as dean of philosophy at The Catholic University of America. He once paraphrased St. Paul’s naming of the theological virtues by saying, “Faith, hope and love remain, and the greatest of these is … prudence” (cf. 1 Cor 13:13). Father Smith was being playful, but he also was making a significant point. If we are going to reach our goals in life, we need prudence to direct our actions.
Contemporary Perception and Need of Prudence
Unfortunately the virtue of prudence has fallen on hard times. No longer is it understood as the dynamic disposition that readily sums up a situation, decides what must be done and moves the person to act rightly. Rather, prudence has come to mean caution, uniformity, even rigidity. In the popular mind, prudence is more associated with being a prude than with its more characteristic root of providence. The Beatles did the virtue no favor when they sang, “Dear Prudence.” The song pleads with a too-earnest student to relax and enjoy her surroundings.
Prudential decision-making may never have been more in demand than today. Customs prescribing how we are to act in many situations are no longer honored as they were a generation or two ago. Too often trusted authorities, including doctors and teachers, recommend immoral action. And then there is the internet that entices one with the push of a button.
Acting rightly is not easy. We first must determine what is right. A “right” action is not one that is merely morally good. Most situations allow a person to do what is good in different ways. To say “right” here is to take the most efficacious moral means to achieve the desired end. Prudent people have developed the intuitive skill to accomplish their purposes effectively and justly in any given set of circumstances.
|Prayer for Prudence|
Guide, support, and inspiration,
please assist me with your grace.
If it be your will, grant that I have
faith to know you,
hope to trust your promptings,
and love to channel your mercy.
With these virtues
may I also request prudence?
It would conform my actions
to your gracious will
and lead me directly
to the Father, through the Son
and in your peaceful ways. Amen.
— Father Carmen Mele, OP
Prudence’s uniqueness lies in its being a virtue of both the intellect and the will, or, as sometimes is said, of the head and of the heart. It is called “practical wisdom” because it discerns what must be done in concrete situations. Prudence uses our perception and personal experience to assess possible courses of action. It takes counsel from authorities like Scripture, Church teachings and trusted experts to derive different courses of moral action. It then examines these possibilities for the one that will best produce the desired effect. In reaching a conclusion about the action, prudence checks with our conscience to assure that the intention is worthy and that nothing bad is being done under the semblance of good. The intellectual process may seem cumbersome, but, as is the case with all the virtues, it becomes almost instinctive with practice.
Prudence then moves from the intellect to the will. Quite instantaneously (think of it as a command sergeant) it issues an order to act. Prudence neither allows much time for reconsideration nor permits us to fret over what has been executed. Rather, it instills a hopeful trust. Prudence cannot guarantee that our action will have the desired results, but it does assure that we have done our best.
Actions, as well as people, are described as prudent. Prudential acts, in fact, delineate the acts of all other moral virtues. An act could not be considered just, courageous or temperate if it were not prudent as well. The preacher who invited Muslim wrath by publicly destroying a copy of the Quran was not acting courageously because he failed to act prudently. Similarly, the perennial dieter who regularly adopts and abandons weight-reducing schemes cannot be considered temperate. Without prudence the other virtues would be just urges to act righteously without a mechanism for control.
Development of the Concept of Prudence
Aristotle did much of the groundwork in the study of prudence more than three centuries before Christ. He understood that it does more than assure that an act conforms to right reason. Rather, he would say, prudence insists that an act radiate excellent reasoning in every sense. As helpful as the moral virtues are to acting well, Jesus does not comment on them explicitly in the Gospels. However, as the Church Fathers pointed out, he implicitly taught about prudence in such parables as the unjust steward (cf. Lk 16:1-6) and the 10 virgins (Mt 25:1-13). In the first case, it should be remembered that Jesus does not recommend the steward’s manipulating his master’s accounts. But he does see the need for positive actions that move us closer to our goal of eternal life. In the second, the five virgins who took extra provisions of oil in case their lamps grew dim show how prudence requires foresight.
St. Thomas Aquinas developed Aristotle’s theory of prudence in light of the Gospel to give it a full Christian significance. He noted how charity, our love for God, directs prudence beyond a satisfying human life to the happiness of eternal life. The truly prudent person always acts with this goal at the back of his mind. For Aquinas, this sometimes means not playing it safe, but taking risks. To give a challenging example, Aquinas would see as prudent the married couple who, having ample reason to limit the size of their family, use natural family planning. Even though a miscalculation of days to abstain from marital relations or a mistaken instrument reading may lead to an unexpected pregnancy, they move to accomplish their end without violating natural law.
Prudential Use of the Internet
The young often are criticized for overusing the internet, especially social media, but many older folks are equally taken up with it. One memorable article published in The Atlantic magazine paradoxically asked, “Is Facebook making us lonely?” The author illustrated how people are avoiding efforts to make friends of neighbors in favor of attracting hordes of admirers in other locales by artificially projecting themselves. The result of the practice has been exhaustion from the ceaseless demand to make oneself appear interesting, as well as a dearth of real care for one another. Prudence will note the hypocrisy of self-reinvention and the human need for true friendship. It will instruct us, like commentators before Sunday Mass, to turn our electronic devices off and pay attention to what is happening in our midst.
In a more recent article from the same magazine, another writer demonstrates prudential decision-making. Noting that most tweets that go viral convey anger-causing distress, he recommends Twitter users to turn off the reception of retweets. He says that after arranging this maneuver in his own Twitter account, his experience of the app has become less one of outrage and more one of legitimate interest in what others are thinking. He believes Twitter should provide a function so that anyone may eliminate retweets.
We might compare and contrast prudence with another computer device. Like a GPS, prudence directs us to where we want to go in the best way possible. But unlike a GPS, prudence does not blunt our natural sense of direction. Rather, it develops our capacity to do what is good so that we may never fail to reach our goal.
FATHER CARMEN MELE, OP, has a licentiate in moral theology from the Angelicum in Rome and a doctorate of ministry from Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University, in Fort Worth, Texas.