Prudence is one of the four Cardinal Virtues. If you read the last post in this series, you’d remember that Cardinal Virtues are known as Hinge Virtues because all other human and moral virtues pivot upon them. This means that if we want to be growing in virtue as Catholic Gentlemen, we’d better understand the four Cardinal Virtues so as to understand how they are at work in all the other virtuous habits we set out to practice. So let’s look at Prudence.
The gist of Prudence can be seen in what some of the saints have said about it. Saint Augustine says, “Prudence is the knowledge of what to seek and what to avoid.” Saint Isidore qualifies Prudence further by saying, “A prudent man is one who sees as it were from afar, for his sight is keen, and he foresees the event of uncertainties.” To be Prudent is to exercise the human gift of foresight. Prudence enables us to possess knowledge of the future by foreseeing distant or near outcomes, judge them by our past or present knowledge, and act accordingly in a right and virtuous way. Prudence is really quite a remarkable superpower if you think about it.
Saint Thomas Aquinas ranks Prudence as the foremost Cardinal Virtue. His basis for this is claiming that Prudence descends from the highest human faculty. Of course, to Aquinas, that is the intellect. Exercising Prudence demands the use of reason to make right judgement and moral choices. It’s a virtue that first and foremost originates in our intellect and then carries through to our action.
We have said already how other virtues pivot or “hinge” upon the Cardinal Virtues. This is pretty clear to see in the case of Prudence. When Prudence decides what a man is to do or what he is to avoid, in carrying out that action, it is often, if not always, necessary that the man also practice one or more of any of the other virtues. For example, if I reason that it is within my means to provide material help for my neighbor, then my prudent action also employs the virtue of generosity. In both my decision and my action I have been prudent, but also generous. You see, Prudence enlivens other virtues within us, which is why it is a Cardinal virtue!
One last interesting thing about Prudence is that it can be thought of as threefold. First, there is “False Prudence” which is what we mean when we say someone is good at what they do when what they do is evil, such as a good terrorist or a good criminal. They exercise Prudence in a completely inverted way, so that it seeks evil and not good as its end. Needlesstosay, “False Prudence” is not what we want to make our habit.
The second is “True Prudence” which is what we mean when we say someone is good at some particular skill or profession. Essentially, by exercising Prudence within a specific discipline, you become a good businessman, leader, teacher, athlete, etc. In this regard I’m sure we can all relate, as we likely already strive to practice Prudence in our own professions (otherwise we probably would be fired and replaced by someone who did). Now “True Prudence” is admirable, but it is the third that is our target.
The third is both “True and Perfect Prudence” because it looks for the good in our professions and skills, in addition to the moral good we seek for ourselves and others in all our decision making and actions. “Perfect Prudence” is a tall order, because if we are sinners who sin, which we are, then we are not perfectly prudent.
So unless he is not sinning, Prudence is always a virtue every Catholic Gentleman needs to keep working on, for the good of his himself and the enlivening of other virtues, for the good of the world, and heck, to see the future better! A world with more Prudence is a world with more virtue is a world with more beauty.
~ The Catholic Gentleman's Guide