The Virtue of Prudence

Aristotle (Ethic. vi, 5,7,9).

[A prudent man] takes good counsel.

St. Augustine (cited in Aquinas).

[P]rudence is love discerning aright that which helps from that which hinders us in tending to God.

St. Isidore of Seville (Etym. x).

A prudent man is one who sees as it were from afar, for his sight is keen, and he foresees the event of uncertainties.

St. Thomas (ST II-II q47, a11, ans,).

Political prudence … is directed to the common good of the state.

Catechism of the Catholic Church 1806

Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; "the prudent man looks where he is going." (Prov. 14:15) "Keep sane and sober for your prayers." (1 Pet 4:7). Prudence is "right reason in action," writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle. (STh II-II, 47, 2) It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation. It is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues); it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. 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.

The Integral Parts of Prudence, Summa Theologiae II-II, question 48, article 1

Matthew 7:24-27

24 "Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; 25 and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; 27 and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it."

The integral parts of Prudence are those parts of the virtue which are necessary for the virtue to be exercised perfectly. Analogous to the foundation, walls and roof of a house, without them the house (one’s action) will be shaky, if not dilapidated.

The following Parts are needed for the Perfection of Prudence.

They concern the things the prudent person must know, in order to judge rightly, as well as the things to be concerned with in judging and putting the decision into action.

Regarding Knowledge:

  1. Memory – knowledge of the past
  2. Understanding – knowledge of the present circumstances
  3. Docility – ability to learn from those with experience, teachability
  4. Shrewdness – a quick conjecture of the solution
  5. Reasoning – proceeding from knowledge on one thing to judgment regarding another

Regarding Judgment:

  1. Foresight – to order what is befitting the end
  2. Circumspection – to attend to the circumstances at hand
  3. Caution – to avoid obstacles

Imprudence (ST II-II question 53)

The failure to exercise prudence is sinful, if it is due to a lack of diligence, either in being formed in the knowledge necessary for the moral act, or in those things related to the judgment about what to do, or avoid, in carrying it out.

ST II-II q53, a1

Imprudence may be taken in two ways, first, as a privation, secondly, as a contrary. ... Taken as a privation, imprudence denotes lack of that prudence which a man can and ought to have, and in this sense imprudence is a sin by reason of a man's negligence in striving to have prudence. Imprudence is taken as a contrary, in so far as the movement or act of reason is in opposition to prudence: for instance, whereas the right reason of prudence acts by taking counsel, the imprudent man despises counsel, and the same applies to the other conditions which require consideration in the act of prudence.

A privation is an action which is imperfectly prudent, that is, it is a good act, having a right intention, but some unfitting circumstance. It generally doesn’t change the good character of the act, and so constitutes venial sin.

A contrary is an imprudence so great that the opposite of what one wills results. If negligence is the reason, and it concerns things necessary for salvation, or involves contempt for the divine law, the imprudence is mortally sinful. It is only venially sinful if the imprudence involves matters not necessary for salvation.

Different species or kinds of imprudence

St. Thomas identifies various ways of sinning against prudence, in relation to its different parts (ST II-II q53):

Precipitation or rash action, but also Temerity (fearing to act) – lack of docility, memory, or reason

Thoughtlessness – by lack of caution and circumspection

Inconstancy – by improvidence, lack of understanding (intelligence) and of shrewdness. Finally, he identifies the vice of Lust as the progenitor of these defects, which may explain a lot about the lack of prudence in society today.

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