Prudence: the forgotten Christian virtue

“Prudence is always in season.” 

The French playwright Molière said that, and surely it’s a provocative thought. But what is prudence? Is it carrying your umbrella when it looks like rain? Betting only on sure things? Taking vitamins and eating a daily apple? Is prudence just another name for playing it safe?

Misunderstood virtue 

At a fairly superficial level, maybe so. But the essence of prudence as a Christian virtue goes much deeper, as an example from history makes clear. 

It was late summer of 1534 and Thomas More was languishing in the Tower of London. More, a former lord chancellor of England, was awaiting trial — and, he assumed, a guilty verdict and execution — for refusing to approve King Henry VIII’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon and remarriage to Anne Boleyn, and for not recognizing Henry as the self-proclaimed head of the Church in England. 

One day More’s oldest daughter, Margaret, paid him one of the rare visits allowed him by the government. There was no mistaking her intention. She hoped to argue him out of his “scruple of conscience” as she’d tried to do before. 

Margaret was the best loved of More’s four children, the person dearest to him in the entire world, and he greeted her teasingly: “Mistress Eve … come to tempt your father again.” She tried her best, but to no avail. 

A letter written and signed by Margaret but thought to have been composed by the two of them quotes More at length: 

“Daughter Margaret, we two have talked of this thing more often than two or three times. ... And I have twice answered you too, that if it were possible in this matter for me to do the thing that might content the King’s Grace without God being offended, there is no man who has already taken this oath more gladly than I would do. ... 

“But since, standing by my conscience, I can in no wise do it. … I have no manner of remedy, but God has given me to the straight, that either I must deadly displease Him, or abide any worldly harm that He shall for my other sins, under name of this thing, suffer to fall upon me. ... And since I look in this matter only unto God, it makes me little matter, though men call it as it pleases them and say it is no conscience but a foolish scruple.” 

Study in prudence 

That is the voice of prudence. People who want to understand prudence will do well to study St. Thomas More, a man who didn’t wish to be a martyr but became one anyway because he was convinced he had no other acceptable choice. 

Prudence is widely misunderstood today. In everyday speech it’s a synonym for caution, even timidity, and by no means a character trait to be admired. Josef Pieper, a German Catholic philosopher in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas who has written wisely and well on the subject, remarks that in many people’s minds “prudence seems less a prerequisite to goodness than an evasion of it.” 

But that misrepresents prudence in its classical sense. St. Thomas Aquinas calls it “absolutely the principal of all the virtues.” Evidently it’s important to understand what prudence really is. Here Thomas More is a big help. 

St. Teresa of Avila once said that in a soul seeking perfection, the world often thinks that “something is a fault which perhaps is a virtue.” This was notably true of More. 

After three years in office, he’d resigned as lord chancellor on May 16, 1532, in conscience unable to go on serving Henry Tudor and unwilling to confront this former patron and friend. When the silence of this man of conspicuous integrity became intolerable to Henry, however, the king sought to pressure More into declaring his acceptance of the royal divorce and remarriage and of Henry’s headship of the Church. More declined, was arrested, and was imprisoned in the Tower on April 17, 1534. 

Most of his old friends and colleagues had already gone over to Henry VIII. So, for that matter, had most of the English hierarchy (with the exception of Bishop John Fisher of Rochester, who in time was to be executed like More and in time, also like More, would be declared a saint). Sir Thomas’ family, including his wife Dame Alice, was solidly opposed to what he was doing. 

He knew how it would turn out. A month before he was carted off to the Tower, a member of a commission set up to look into his case warned him that by refusing the king he was risking his life. “Is that all, my lord?” More replied. “Then in good faith there is no more difference between Your Grace and me, but that I shall die today and you tomorrow.” 

Even so, he wasn’t foolhardy, and he had no wish to die. When his long delayed trial finally took place, he used all the sophisticated skill of an experienced lawyer to avoid saying anything that would either cost him his head or be in conflict with his faith. Only after he was condemned — on trumped-up testimony by a former colleague, Richard Rich — did he finally speak out. On July 6, 1535, he was beheaded on Tower Hill. 

Acceptance of the cross 

In order to understand the practice of prudence by someone like Thomas More, it is necessary to grasp what prudence isn’t. 

One thing it clearly isn’t is worldly calculation — figuring out how to get the best price, the best deal, the best of whatever it is that you, and perhaps your family and friends, happen to want. Pope Benedict XVI made this point in a homily last September to a group of newly ordained bishops, telling them that prudence is “something different from shrewdness.” 

On the contrary, “prudence demands humble, disciplined and vigilant reason that does not allow itself to be dazzled by prejudices; does not judge according to desires and passions, but seeks the truth — even uncomfortable truth,” he said. 

In the Gospel of Luke there’s a point where Jesus seems to be saying something different: “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build, and was not able to finish’” (14:28-30). This is followed immediately by another example, in which Jesus speaks of the need for a king with 10,000 soldiers to think seriously about whether it would be smart to take the field against another king with 20,000. 

Isn’t that precisely advice to plan ahead and calculate carefully? To be sure, Jesus doesn’t rule that out. But observe that right before this passage comes the statement: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:27). 

A man thinking about what it will take to build a tower and a king weighing the pros and cons of a military campaign metaphorically stand for people who take seriously what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the “cost of discipleship” — shouldering their share of the cross. And in the end it is this readiness to accept the cross that stands at the heart of Christian prudence. For as Jesus emphasizes, “whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:33). 

As this implies, Christian prudence and the prudence of worldly wisdom operate accordingly to profoundly different scales of value. Here and there they may intersect, but time and again Christian prudence and worldly prudence are in conflict. 

The Sermon on the Mount is the great catechism of Christian prudence and the way of life it shapes: “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ... If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. ... Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father” (Mt 5:10,40,44). 

More than good sense 

The value system preached by Christ makes it correct to speak of “Christian” prudence, but analysis of prudence as a human virtue goes back to pre-Christian times. In his influential Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses a virtue he calls “phronesis,” traditionally translated as “prudence” and in more recent times as “practical wisdom” and equivalents. The word prudence itself comes from the Latin “ prudens ,” a contraction of “ providens ” that means “providing for.” 

It operates by several distinct functions, including memory (“the objective cognition of re-ality” — knowing things as they really are), docility (open-mindedness to the genuine variety of things and situations), and “providence,” or foresight (“the capacity to estimate, with a sure instinct for the future, whether a particular action will lead to the realization of the goal”). In sum, prudence is the habitual disposition that disposes a person regularly to choose right means to good ends. 

As a Christian virtue, however, it is more than just practicality and good sense. This is underlined by St. Augustine in a beautiful passage linking prudence and the other cardinal virtues to love: “Temperance is love giving itself entirely to that which is loved; fortitude is love readily bearing all things for the sake of the loved object; justice is love serving only the loved object, and therefore ruling rightly; prudence is love distinguishing with sagacity between what hinders it and what helps it.” 

Then Augustine makes the crucial point that the object of this love is not just anything at all but only God, the chief good. “So we may express the definition thus: temperance is love keeping itself entire and incorrupt for God; fortitude is love bearing everything readily for the sake of God; justice is love serving God only, and therefore ruling well all else, as subject to man; prudence is love making a right distinction between what helps it toward God and what might hinder it.” 

In discernment process

Discussions of prudence don’t often link it to personal vocation, but they probably should. 

After all, the essence of prudence as a Christian virtue lies in doing God’s will, no matter the cost, and few if any decisions in people’s lives are more important than the decision to seek, accept and live out God’s will for them — in other words, their personal vocations. 

As Pope John Paul II says in Christifideles Laici , his 1988 document on the laity: “The fundamental objective of the formation of the lay faithful is an ever-clearer discovery of one’s vocation and the ever-greater willingness to live it so as to fulfill one’s mission.” 

The process by which people seek to know God’s will for them is called discernment, and it is undertaken as an exercise of the virtue of prudence and carried on under its guidance. 

Pope John Paul gives this thumbnail checklist for what discernment always involves: “a receptive listening to the word of God and the Church’s fervent and constant prayer, recourse to a wise and loving spiritual guide, and a faithful discernment of the gifts and talents given by God, as well as the diverse social and historic situations in which one lives.” 

Clearly, a discernment process carried on in light of prudence will bring into play all of the virtue’s functions — memory, docility, foresight, objectivity, and the rest. It’s important, too, to understand that it must be repeated, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout one’s life. 

English Cardinal John Henry Newman, scheduled for beatification next September, speaks of the common failure of even good people to grasp that “Christ calls us now.” But he does, Cardinal Newman insists, and it is the task of discernment guided by prudence to hear his lifelong call. 

Prudential judgment 

It might occur to someone to ask what the expression “prudential judgment” means and how the virtue of prudence and the “prudential” way of deciding things are related. 

The function of prudence is to keep us in touch with morally relevant facts. Fundamental moral principles — for example, the wrongness of deliberately destroying innocent human life — are such facts. 

But along with fundamental principles, concrete circumstances — who is innocent and who is not, what will happen if I do or do not take this action? — also are highly relevant to making a moral choice. In the nature of things, moreover, they are facts about which even people of good will who agree on the fundamental principle can and often do differ. 

In that case, a prudential judgment is needed to settle the question. As the word “prudential” suggests, this is a judgment in which prudence in its role as discerner of reality is called particularly into play. 

But since a judgment like this depends on matters of concrete fact about which good people, given the limits of human knowledge, can be wrong, a prudential judgment also can be mistaken, even though the prudent person making it earnestly wants it to be factually and morally right. The moral evaluation of the war in Iraq was an example. The war in Afghanistan is one now. 

All who call themselves followers of Christ are obliged to act according to the dictates of Christian prudence. “If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age,” says St. Paul, “let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God” (1 Cor 3:18-19). 

And Jesus says: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Mt 6.19-20). That’s real prudence.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.

Saintly examples (sidebar)

The lives of the saints provide many examples of Christian prudence practiced to a heroic degree. 

Think of St. Damien de Veuster (1840-1889), canonized by Pope Benedict last October, who contracted leprosy from the lepers of Molokai — not because he wanted to die of leprosy but because he wanted to do God’s will by serving his beloved outcasts even at the cost of his own life. 

Another example is St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821), the first American-born saint, who as a young widow with five children converted to Catholicism despite the prospect of social ostracism and financial hardship, because she had come to believe in the Eucharist. 

The list goes on and on. And beyond the canonized saints, whose life stories are known, stands a vastly larger number of unheralded Christians who achieved sanctity by lives lived under the guidance of prudence.

'Charioteer' of the Cardinal Virtues

Traditionally, prudence has been recognized as one of the four cardinal virtues together with justice, fortitude and temperance. “Cardinal” here is another word from the Latin and signifies a hinge. Prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance are “hinge” virtues because other virtues depend on them — for example, patience in suffering and the readiness to attack evil both depend on fortitude, chastity and humility depend on temperance, and so on. 

Called auriga virtutum — or “charioteer of the virtues” — prudence comes first, because, as philosopher Josef Pieper remarks, it is “the cause of other virtues being virtues at all. ... Whatever is good must first have been prudent.” Or, as the Catechism says, “It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid” (No. 1806).

Literary Examples of Imprudence (sidebar)

Literature is full of cases of imprudence. Shakespeare’s Othello and King Lear, for instance, are tragically imprudent men. 

Othello, “the Moor of Venice” and a renowned military leader, is deceived into believing his faithful wife guilty of infidelity and ends up killing her in a fit of jealous rage. Lear insists that his three daughters take a foolish loyalty test that one of them — the only genuinely loyal one of the three — refuses with contempt. The king’s folly sets in motion a chain of events that ends in disaster. The common thread linking Othello and King Lear is an inner insecurity that causes them to lose touch with reality, with which prudence would have kept them in contact.