The Greek φρόνησις, the Latin prudentia (by contraction from providens according to Cicero, from porro videns according to the Etymologies of St. Isidore); the English word "prudence" has been inflected in ethical writing by the Klugheit of Kant and has ceased to convey the confidence, enterprise, and generosity of what perhaps is better now called "practical wisdom."
Aristotle. Of the five intellectual virtues set out by Aristotle, prudence is the only one to be taken into Christian moral theology, which treats understanding, science, and wisdom as gifts of the holy spirit, and art as outside its scope. It is a steady disposition of the practical reason to right-doing and therefore directly involves morality; accordingly it appears throughout the Nicomachean Ethics and enters the perennial debate whether good or bad conduct can be resolved into knowledge or ignorance or whether affective factors are more decisive. To Aristotle, who combined the statement of universal truths with a strong sense of individual reality, which, he maintained, was an interest for the rational part of man, prudence was like a bridge flung out from necessary principles to contingent occasions in human living. He originated the distinction between the theoretical and the practical reason; and though he recognized the function of appetite in ἠθική, or morals, a dialectic of love the Christian theologians
were to explore at greater depth, he remained faithful to the teaching of Socrates and always qualified it by reason; the final step, he said, and was later echoed by St. Thomas, may be called either appetitive intelligence or intelligent appetite.
This decisive knowledge held in prudence is therefore experimental. It is elicited from the opinative, or calculative, part of the soul, not from the scientific; its regard moves from the abstract and general principles of moral theory to their embodiment in particular practice; hence prudence is to be looked for in men of affairs such as Pericles, rather than in philosophers such as Thales and Anaxagoras. It consists in putting meaning into the moral virtues that otherwise could be represented merely as laudable tendencies toward fair, brave, and temperate dealing—to name only the cardinal virtues from Aristotle's repertory. An act deserves to be called virtuous because it goes to an object, not as happening to be good, but for the reason that it good; it is not only that it is according to right reason, κατά τον ὀπθόν λόγον, by behaviorist tests, or because it manifests goodwill and honest feeling, but because by prudence it is charged with right reason, μετά το[symbol omitted] ὀρθο[symbol omitted] λόγου. So prudence enters into the activity of all the moral virtues; in fact there is no question of acting prudently prudent, but of acting prudently just or courageous and so forth.
The Fathers. The moral science of the patristic writers and of the Latin Stoics whose lessons they digested was less analytic and more descriptive, and it was not until after the middle of the 13th century, when Aristotle was rediscovered, that the special character of prudence was explored and mapped in the scheme of the virtues. Yet in acknowledging its importance, the patristic writers did not soften its intellectual accent. The Scriptures, of course, offer no set of psychologico-moral treatises; yet the conduct of life according to good sense runs as a current throughout the Old Testament, notably in the Sapiential books; the New Testament, notably in the parables (for instance, of the unjust steward and of the wise virgins), enjoins men to use their wits. They are to emulate the cunning of serpents, and the contrast between worldly prudence and the folly of the cross does nothing to detract from the apostolic insistence on an intelligent appreciation of how men should conduct themselves.
Accordingly, SS. Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great helped to form the theological tradition that prudence is the first of the cardinal virtues; and its cognitional content was reinforced by the Vulgate words discernere, disceptatio, and discretio, which represented key ideas in the monastic teaching of Cassian, St. Benedict, and St. Bernard. Discretion is the salt that preserves the virtues, and Richard of Saint-Victor said that without it they go to waste.
St. Thomas Aquinas. The specific notion of prudence, though somewhat more developed by Philip the Chancellor, working on St. John Damascene, Cicero, and Macrobius, than by Peter Lombard, was not isolated from the general characteristics of inspired common sense that St. Thomas treated as the components, or integral parts, of the virtue. He did not mention some proposed by Chrysippus, ε[symbol omitted]λογιστία, or right reckoning; ἀγχίνοια, or ready wit; νουνέχεια, or discreetness; ε[symbol omitted]μηχανία, or being fertile with expedients. He listed memoria, which profits from past experience; intelligentia, which grasps the point at issue; docilitas, or teachableness; eustochia and solertia, which swiftly find the mark for themselves; ratio, which comes to the conclusion of a practical decision; providentia, or foresight; circumspectio, which attends to the relevant circumstances; and cautio, which does not mean a cautious playing for safety (an attitude later frowned on by the Church under the name of tutiorism) but a wary escaping from the evil that may take on the color of good in the mixture of interests involved in any practical course. These eight headings (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 49), taken from Robert Grosseteste's translation of the περί παθ[symbol omitted]ν of the Pseudo-Andronicus, together with the treatment of the vices against prudence (ibid. 2a2ae, 53–55), provided a clearly articulated summary of the moral theology of prudence as St. Thomas found it.
The vices fall into two classes, of the too little and the too much. The first, generally called imprudence, includes ill-advisedness, carelessness in judgment, and negligence and inconstancy in execution. The second, or false prudence, covers giving in to the wiles of the flesh, the prudentia carnis of the Vulgate; craftiness, astutia, expressed in guile and deceit; and the over-solicitude about temporal things and the morrow the Gospel tells us to avoid.
The precision of St. Thomas's treatment of prudence as a special virtue is prepared for by his two psychological studies—first, on the distinction of human powers (Summa theologiae 1a, 77–83, in particular 79.11–13); next, on the analysis of the partial acts integrating a complete human act (ibid. 1a2ae, 8–17, in particular 16–17)—and by his ethical study of intellectual and moral virtue (loc. cit., 55–61, in particular 57–58). He writes as an intellectualist who holds that an act of mind is constitutive, though not completive, of happiness and of the moral activity that teleologically gets reality and meaning from that end. His detailed study of virtuous activity in the Secunda secundae starts from the high theological virtues whose object is nothing less than God himself. The moral virtues, which come afterward, are concerned with penultimate values in man. In addressing himself to these, he begins with prudence, which strikes the note of intelligence in action.
St. Thomas's notion of prudence is built up in four stages: (1) prudence is about means to ends, (2) which are individual, (3) about which it comes to a practical decision, (4) leading to effective execution. These should not be taken to represent more than four abstract moments that, like the virtues themselves, flow into one another in the acting singleness of a human person; nevertheless it will be convenient to consider them separately.
Concerned with Means to Ends. St. Thomas drew from Aristotle and from St. Gregory the Great for his teaching on the contemplative and active lives. Christian contemplation, which surpasses the ideal of philosophy and of natural mysticism, is of God Himself, in heaven seen face to face and on earth immediately "intended" by faith, hope, and charity and the accompanying gifts of the Holy Spirit, above all through the love-knowledge of Wisdom. The moral virtues are on the lower plane of the active life, and the prudential knowledge that charges them is less final in its reach and bears on more particularized objects. These are called ea quae sunt ad finem, or realities that are Godward; this can be translated as "means to an end" as long as this is not taken to mean that they are mere utilities having no value in themselves and desirable only because of an extrinsic reference to an ulterior end. They are the creaturely objects of moral virtue manifesting reason and grace. In any given situation it is the office of prudence to decide where they are to be found.
Concerned with What Is Individual. Consequently, moral activity neither begins nor ends with prudence. That the theological virtues are already engaged is presupposed (Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 58.4, 5; 65.2), and so also the habit of synderesis (ibid. 1a, 79.12) and the bent of the moral virtues each to its own proper type of good (ibid. 2a2ae, 47.6), together with an instructed moral science. The dialectic of prudence is to bring these premises to bear on an individual course of action in an operative syllogism, so called because it partly resembles a demonstrative syllogism: not rarely St. Thomas compares the process of making up one's mind to the discourse of reasoning. Hence prudence is said to be collativa and consiliativa; it is deliberative and not contemplative; it has to make do with evidences that are more multiple, variable, and contingent than those of scientific argument; and the conclusion it comes to cannot be wholly resolved into necessary premises.
It is true that necessary principles are established in the theoretical mind by abstraction from experience; yet a man can remain in a sort of fastness if he merely thinks about things without trying to do something about them. Prudence involves the reflection by which the mind applies itself again to the experience of individual things; and though this attachment implies the appetite for things as they are in themselves and not in the mind, prudence itself is an act of reason reaching past the general meaning to the reality beyond, past quidditas carnis to ipsa caro (Summa theologiae 1a, 86.1; 1a2ae, 27.2 ad 2; 2a2ae, 47.3; In 3 anim. 8).
Arrival at Practical Decisions. The judgment of prudence is practical; it states not what is, but what is to be done. Though the generalizations of moral science can show the necessity of good intention and define the types of good activity, they cannot legislate for individual circumstances. Moreover, the judgment issues from an interaction of mind and will in the field of morals and friendship, where appetitional factors are peculiarly untranslatable into cognitional terms; the possession of virtue sets up a sympathy that requires no rational exposition or justification (Summa theologiae 1a, 1.6 ad 3), and on earth God can be loved more than He is known (ibid. 2a2ae, 27.4). On these three counts, then—namely, because it is individual, practical, and in love—the judgment of prudence goes beyond the findings of moral philosophy and theology, though not beyond the sacra doctrina of revelation (ibid. 1a, 1.3–7).
Effective Execution. At this third stage the judgment is an act of conscience, which itself is not a virtue (ibid. 1a, 79.13). A sincere and truthful conscience is not enough to ensure virtuous conduct; one may stop there or act against its dictate. Even a conscientious person may not be a prudent person. So prudence moves from the indicative to the imperative, from the mood of stating a preference, that this and not that is to be done, to the mood of commanding, do this and not that. Moreover, in this command the forces of the will are gathered so that the deed is effectively executed. In this implanting of truth into action consists the act of prudence as a specific virtue; in the preceding stages of taking counsel and making a choice St. Thomas sees the operation of the associated virtues of eubulia, synesis, and gnome, soon to be noticed.
He treats effective command, imperium, in reference to both the dynamic psychology of a human act (ibid. 1a2ae, 17.1) and the political ordinance of law (ibid. 1a2ae, 90.1) as an act of mind and not of will, in which some later scholastic theologians disagreed with him: for the technicalities of the discussion, which includes the meaning of usus, whereby what is intended is actually carried out, the student is referred to the commentators (ibid. 1a2ae, 16.1; 17.3). His own formula is that the reason is dirigens, the will is movens, while another power may be exequens; in this context he speaks of "application" as the act of prudence to refer to taking the abstract universal to the concrete individual and also to bringing intention into execution.
A Moral Virtue. It is by this commitment to good doing, in which good living consists, that prudence is a moral virtue, surpassing the condition of intellectual virtue, which takes a detached view of things, and of art, which governs the making of external things. And because it is recta ratio agibilium putting "good-as-meant," ratio boni, into what is done, it forms the link connecting the activities of all the moral virtues. As inclinations they may pull apart (thus, for example, friendliness and sobriety), and as defined by types of activity they are distinct from prudence; nevertheless their practice on any occasion is truly virtuous only when directed by prudence. St. Thomas here crystallizes the doctrine received from the Stoics and the Fathers, according to which each virtue represents one general condition of virtue, and all virtue is composed of them all; thus prudence and justice and courage enter into the texture of temperance (ibid. 1a2ae, 58.4, 5; 65.1; 2a2ae, 47.6, 7). Now he is saying more, namely, that prudence as a special virtue commands the acts of all the moral, though not the theological, virtues.
The governing role of prudence extends from the conduct of a single personal life, prudentia monastica, to the business of the commonwealth. It is like justice, which includes the general or legal justice safeguarding and promoting the bonum commune. So there is a type of prudence comprehensively called "political," πολιτική, possessed by all free and responsible citizens in a regime and given the special names of regnativa and legis positiva, βασιλική and νομοθετική, in the ruling and legislating authority (ibid. 2a2ae; 47.10; 50.1, 2); this last, it is worth noting, repeats the prudential dialectic and does not deduce decisions like conclusions from principles but produces them like works of art freely answering to the general specifications (ibid. 1a2ae, 95.2). Two other types may be noticed for directing infrapolitical groups: the domestic prudence, economica, οἰκονομική, for running a family or household, a neighborhood or tribal community, and a business company; and the prudentia militaris of good generalship. Pseudo-Andronicus mentions this στρατηγική; there may have been biographical reasons why St. Thomas devoted a special article to it (ibid. 2a2ae, 50.4) and treated soldierliness as a prudence and not just an art.
More directly needed by everybody are the companion virtues of prudence, its potential parts: eubulia, ε[symbol omitted]βουλίρ, good counsel; synesis, σύνεσις, sound judgment in the ordinary run of affairs; and gnome, γνώμη, which decides about exceptional cases. For Aristotle these three enter into the field of prudence, but St. Thomas was more precise about treating them as distinct and special virtues; to be well-advised is not the same as being judicious in day-to-day events or when the laws do not fit the occasion; and to be judicious does not necessarily amount to an effective precept that carries out what should be done (ibid. 2a2ae, 51). Gnome is of particular interest because of its intimate relation with equity, epikeia, ἐπιείκεια, the highest part of justice (ibid. 2a2ae, 120.2). They check pharisaism (even the noblest), are set on the spirit rather than the letter, and expand in the freedom of the Gospel as against the constraint of positive law (ibid. 1a2ae, 106–108).
Gnome stands as a comment, neglected in some periods of moral theology, on the attempts of the various quasi-legal moral systems to convert a doubtful conscience into a sufficient guide for conduct and in effect to provide a reassurance against sin by a reference to a code or to glosses on it. It shows that prudence does not seek legality as such, but to be reasonable in a unique situation. It may make mistakes and has a healthy fear of the consequences; yet it is not overanxious, for its truth is measured by conformity more to fair loving than to an objective fact (ibid. 1a2ae; 57.5 ad 3). Not looking for a guarantee of fixed evidence that its variable matter cannot provide or for the kind of security not allowed by Providence, it is marked by a robustness and an abandon to God that philosophers are unable to teach and jurists unable to prescribe. In short, there is nothing mean, tame, or timid about prudence, nor is it tangled in regulations; like all the virtues, it gives a strength and ease and, indeed, an elegance about what is best.
This best is nothing less than living in the society of the divine Persons of the Blessed Trinity. Though St. Thomas's treatise on prudence reproduces the structure of Aristotle and the mood of the Stoics, the virtue itself is seen in the setting of Christian theology against the grandeur in the background of St. Augustine's teaching of the eternal law and lit by the revelation of God's majesty and mercy and friendship. It is a virtue infused with grace; its measure exceeds that of living merely according to reason—its measure is the mind of Christ; its purpose is not to be respectable but to be a fellow citizen of the saints and a familiar of God (ibid. 1a2ae, 63.4). It springs from and lives only in charity, without which one may be shrewd but cannot be prudent (ibid. 1a2ae, 65.2, 3; 2a2ae, 47.13, 14). Furthermore it is touched by the Spirit to act with heroism in the gift of counsel (ibid. 2a2ae, 52.2).
Of all qualities, mercy is the most divine (ibid. 1a, 21.3, 4). And St. Thomas, taking his cue from St. Augustine, who with sure instinct if at some strain of literary artifice attributes a corresponding evangelical beatitude to each gift of the Holy Spirit, perceives in counsel a practical compassion (ibid. 2a2ae, 52.4) for which Our Lord has given His promise: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall find mercy.
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