Dear Prudence

July 13, 2007

On Prudence (1959)
Josef Pieper (University of Notre Dame Press, 1965)
40 pp. First reading.

Among Josef Pieper’s many fine books are found a series of seven on the virtues: one on each of the classical virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, and a trilogy on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. This volume, On Prudence, is brief but rich. His purpose is to present, in a compressed form, the central ideas about prudence to be found in the Western tradition of moral philosophy.

As a starting point, prudence may be defined as “the ability to make right decisions”. It is concerned directly with choosing appropriate means to some end. It is closely related to, but not identical with, conscience and “right reason”. Prudence is the foundation of the other virtues; it is the sine qua non of the virtuous life. “All virtue is necessarily prudent” and, more specifically, “Prudence is the cause of the other virtues being virtues at all.” An act may have good properties — good effects, for instance — but unless the act be prudent it does not have specifically moral goodness. Prudence, says Pieper, “is cause, root, mother, measure, precept, guide, and prototype of all ethical virtues; it acts in all of them, perfecting them to their true nature; all participate in it, and by virtue of this participation they are virtues.”

Prudence has two primary parts: the cognitive and the imperative. It consists first in understanding and then in deciding. Understanding comes first because a good decision must be based on a clear, truthful appraisal of the context within which the decision takes place. Prudence is thus oriented, at its foundation, to reality and truth. In the second, imperative, element of prudence two parts may be distinguished: judgment and action. Unless one both judges the rightness of an act and follows through with it, the virtue of prudence is damaged. The imperative element of prudence, residing as it does in the judgment and will, is oriented to goodness. The cognitive element considers the past and the present; the imperative element the future.

Though prudence is the cornerstone of the virtuous life, it does itself rely on certain things. Consider, for example, the cognitive element, the role of which is to truthfully assess the situation within which a moral choice is being made. Preeminently, this demands that the person strive to perceive reality as objectively and disinterestedly as possible, which in turn requires a capacity for still and silent consideration. What does this striving for truth look like in practice? First, one must foster a memory that is true to past experience, without self-serving distortions or willful blindness. Second, one must cultivate an openness to the variety of experiences and situations one may encounter, not trying to force the world to fit a mold of one’s own making. This also includes an openness to advice, an openness rooted in a genuine desire for understanding. At root, this calls for humility; a prudent person is not a know-it-all. Third, prudence requires what the medievals called solertia, a calm but nimble clear-sightedness in unexpected circumstances. A person strong in the virtue of prudence is not entirely befuddled in an emergency.

The imperative element of prudence has prerequisites too. It demands, of course, a rightness of will to desire genuine goods, for unless this is present the whole structure of prudence is misaligned. And one must have hope, too, that the genuine goods which one seeks can truly be attained, for otherwise the will would falter in its resolution. But primarily, sure judgment requires foresight: the ability to estimate the suitability of actions, always aware that in prudential judgments there is an element of risk, for no one can see all ends. The requirement of foresight explains why we rarely see habitual prudence in the young; it comes only with experience.

The exercise of prudence has a personal existential quality that cannot be removed. It demands that I make a decision here and now in these specific circumstances, and I must do so without knowing with certainty what the consequences will be. In this sense, a moral philosophy based on the virtues seems opposed to casuistry. Pieper agrees, arguing that casuistry can have, at best, a useful pedagogical function. It cannot substitute for the lived experience and demands of the here and now. Prudence demands that we mature to the point of making our own decisions, not that we merely follow a set of rules.

This sketch of prudence as consisting in proper consideration, well-founded judgment, and vigorous decisiveness allows us to discern various forms of imprudence. There are, first, defects of form, such as thoughtlessness and negligence rooted in a failure to investigate and observe one’s situation; there is poor judgment resulting from inexperience or otherwise deficient foresight; and there is irresoluteness, the failure to act on a considered judgment. But in addition to these defects of form, there is the higher corruption of faulty prudence: prudence which serves some false or lesser good rather than the true end of human life. Such a faulty prudence may more properly be called cunning. Like Iago, a cunning man cannot face things squarely or act straight-forwardly, and by his scheming destroys the inner simplicity and silence which we said was a prerequisite for clear perception of truth.

In his treatise on the virtues, Thomas Aquinas makes a startling statement about all these forms of imprudence; they all, he says, arise from covetousness, and are by nature allied to it. Covetousness means the immoderate pursuit of goods which are thought necessary to ensure importance or status; it is self-preservation; it is immoderate concern with security. Even if it is not immediately clear that such things prevent one being prudent, I think it is clear that they prevent one being just or brave. The connection to prudence is simply this: all these forms of self-regard will incline one to filter one’s perceptions and prejudice one’s judgments in such a way that the basic orientation of prudence toward reality and goodness is deflected by self-interest.

Prudence is one of the classical virtues, and thus far the discussion has been confined to the precincts of natural goodness. But a Christian will want to press forward to ask about the relationship of this virtue to grace and the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love. Pieper points out that, paradoxically, a truly prudent person may be tempted to resist grace precisely because he is already so competent and capable in the conduct of his life. Yet, if he is open to grace, and lives from a faith inspired by love, he will find his natural prudence strengthened and enlightened in a variety of ways. We have said, for instance, that prudence involves a readiness to accept counsel, especially from those whom we know to have our best interests at heart, and who are able, in some measure, to “put themselves in our place” as they offer advice. By grace prudence opens itself to the counsel of the Paraclete, the “one who comes alongside”, the Counselor. Friendship with God teaches one, also, to see things as they truly are, and to keep them in perspective. It enables us to loosen their grip on our inner selves in order that we act more selflessly than we otherwise could. This “relativizing” of things in the light of the Highest, mind you, does not involve any willful violence toward created things, but retains all the essential qualities of prudence: its respect for truth, its orientation toward good, and its decisiveness.

This was an excellent book, the weightiness of which belies its modest size. The style is terse and occasionally difficult to follow, but one’s concentration is repaid many times over.

[The qualities of prudence]
Prudence, then, is the mold and mother of all the virtues, the circumspect and resolute shaping power of our minds which transforms knowledge of reality into realization of the good. It holds within itself the humility of silent, that is to say, of unbiased perception; the trueness-to-being of memory; the art of receiving counsel; alert, composed readiness for the unexpected. Prudence means the studied seriousness and, as it were, the filter of deliberation, and at the same time the brave boldness to make final decisions. It means purity, straightforwardness, candour, and simplicity of character; it means standing superior to the utilitarian complexities of mere ‘tactics’.

[The challenge of prudence]
Nowhere else is the danger so great as here [in the truthfulness of memory], at the deepest root of the spiritual-ethical process, the danger that the truth of real things will be falsified by the assent or negation of the will. The peril is the greater for its being so imperceptible. There is no more insidious way for the error to establish itself than by this falsification of the memory through slight retouches, displacements, discolorations, omissions, shifts of accent. Nor can such falsification be quickly detected by the probing conscience, even when it applies itself to the task. The honesty of the memory can be ensured only by a rectitude of the whole human being which purifies the most hidden roots of volition…
It therefore becomes apparent that the classically Christian concept of the ‘virtue of prudence’ is a far cry from the ordinary idea of it as knowledge of what to do in a given situation, a knowledge acquired without any great difficulty. The virtue of prudence, too, is a bonum arduum, a ‘steep good’.

[Growth and maturity in prudence]
Only one who previously and simultaneously loves and wants the good can be prudent; but only one who is previously prudent can do good. Since, however, love of the good grows by doing good, the foundations of prudence are sunk deeper and firmer to the extent that prudence bears fruit in action.

[Grace and prudence]
Things are nought only before God, who created them and in whose hand they are as clay in the hand of the potter. By the superhuman force of grace-given love, however, man may become one with God to such an extent that he receives, so to speak, the capacity and the right to see created things from God’s point of view and to ‘relativize’ them and see them as nought from God’s point of view, without at the same time repudiating them or doing injustice to their nature. Growth in love is the legitimate avenue and the one and only justification for ‘contempt for the world’.

One Response to “Dear Prudence”


  1. […] reading: Josef Pieper – Scholasticism Josef Pieper – On Prudence Josef Pieper – In Tune with the World Josef Pieper – Happiness and Contemplation Possibly related […]


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