Saturday, August 25, 2012


~~  "Prudence is the virtue by which we discern what is proper to do under various circumstances in time and place."  --John Milton  ~~

Leave it to Milton to state it so plainly- after all, he explained in great poetic detail how man lost Paradise, essentially by failing to act in a prudent way.  I note that Milton uses "proper" in his definition, and I have to agree that the word choice is understandable- even though it feels somehow incomplete.  A great friend of mine often uses the expression: "reasonable, necessary, and appropriate;" which is, in my view, a very decent way to sum up Prudence. 

Here's another definition of Prudence: "Doing the right thing."  If you can do that, you have a virtual superpower; since it is rare and extremely potent.  It is rare because doing the right thing requires a healthy dose of rational thought, and a willingness and ability to overcome distractions and loose emotions.  Hence, Prudence is often seen as the "party pooper" of the virtues.  When Hope calls us to soar, Prudence clips our wings so we won't crash.  When Fortitude wants us to run through the flames, Prudence taps our shoulder to remind us of the temperature.  When Faith promises us what we want, Prudence makes us study and verify.

 ~~  "Prudence is an attitude that keeps life safe, but does not often make it happy."  
--Samuel Johnson  ~~

Although I recognize the frustration that comes when one's party is pooped; I find it somehow reassuring to think of a thing like Prudence that will come along and put my passions and emotions in check when I need it to.  The tricky part is that Prudence does not just magically appear on the scene and guide us in the "proper" direction.  Telling someone to "do the right thing" is tantamount to telling them to "invert the Pythagorean theorem" or "change out the transmission in a '65 Mustang."  So long as they are trained in how to do it, they stand a good chance of succeeding.  If they are not trained and practiced, then... good luck with that.  St Thomas Aquinas calls this "acquired Prudence" ("Prudentia acquisita"), which is gained through experience and not innate.  Like math and mechanics, Prudence takes time and effort to develop-- and is, much like the other virtues, something we have to work at and be ready to listen to when it finally begins to speak to us. 

 ~~  "Hear the words of prudence, give heed unto her counsels, and store them in thine heart; her maxims are universal, and all the virtues lean upon her; she is the guide and the mistress of human life."   --Akhenaton, Pharaoh of Egypt's Eighteenth Dynasty  ~~

By the way, once again we see that the virtues are interwoven together- and they work best when practiced as a set.  So, rather than thinking of Prudence as killing the party, we should look at it as a vital ingredient in our virtuous life.  Operating in unison, the virtues guarantee us a clear vision and a straighter path that we otherwise would not have.  Beyond just nudging or chastising one another, the virtues also harmonize-- and adding two or more of them together will always get us a step or two closer to that elusive superpower.

Let's do a simple exercise and sprinkle in Prudence with the big three to see what comes up.  Combining Prudence and Hope gives us an optimistic realism.  Prudence and Faith together creates rational trust.  Perhaps the most potent combination is Prudence mixed with Love, from which we get justifiable passion and devotion that are solid and powerful enough to withstand most any strife.

In these examples, and any other we could think of, Prudence works with its fellows to keep us from overdoing a good thing-- or, more accurately, from doing a good thing in the wrong way.  (Hey, isn't that the job of Temperance, you may ask?  Nah- Temperance is what allows us to enjoy two glasses of wine instead of four; while Prudence sees the shark in the pool and therefore keeps us from "enjoying" what we thought we saw as a nice swim.)

~~  "Affairs are easier of entrance than of exit; and it is but common prudence to see our way out before we venture in."  --Aesop  ~~

Even standing alone, Prudence is a force to be reckoned with.  It is closely related to-- and may  be thought of as a part of-- true wisdom.  Intellectually, we all want it and we all make some effort to pursue it... but it is a difficult chase, and many would-be sages wind up abandoning the hunt for something easier- such as surrendering to moral relativism and permissiveness in the name of "liberty."  The notion that Prudence takes away from our liberty is beyond laughable- it is childish.  "I'll stick my finger in that light socket if I want to because I'm free!"

Another conventional thought (usually unconscious and untrained) is that Prudence takes time and in turn takes away from our required actions- and that is a key reason why so many quit seeking it.   After all, who has time for second thoughts when something very big and important and emotional is on the line?

 ~~  "Nothing can be done quickly and prudently at the same time."   --Publius Syrus  ~~

I do not completely disagree with the esteemed Syrus... there is an additional step in the process when we employ Prudence, but it really does not require us to slow down all that much.  It is true that Prudence proceeds through a process-- deliberating options, judging those options, and putting into practice what was judged best-- but that needn't be overly time consuming.  Aristotle said to take some time deliberating, but not to hesitate in acting on the judgment.  This process, like most any learned skill, becomes almost second nature once added to our regular mindset.

I think vilifying Prudence for slowing things down has become something of an unconscious excuse to avoid inviting that stern chaperone to our emotional party.  Much easier to just act in the way the moment calls for, right?  Well, if not right, it is certainly common.  Humans seem almost predisposed to rush in where Alexander Pope's angels fear to tread-- and they often do this with heartfelt and solid intentions.

Prudence cares little for our intentions, though; instead it is interested in our judgment and rationality.  This coldness is why the other virtues must season Prudence, even as it is testing them.  In the end, it is a careful balance between our reason and our will, between Prudence and Faith/Hope/Love.  Without this balance, emotions-- especially those with the most noble intentions-- are capable of wreaking disaster in our midst. 

~~  "The prudence of the best heads is often defeated by the tenderness of the best hearts."  
--Henry Fielding  ~~

St Thomas wrote of the absolute necessity of our reason and our will working together.  He said that Prudence was "practical reason" and was in the "cognitive power of the soul."  He thought of our will as the captain of our ship, and our reason (Prudence) as the navigator.  That metaphor resonates with me.  Our willful intentions (we'll be pragmatic here and speak of our better intentions- those borne of our Love/Faith/Hope... since the other intentions borne of the deadly sins really do not care about Prudence) give us a destination to reach for and our prudent discretion gets us to that destination in the best way to ensure that we maintain the integrity of our entire vessel. 

Beyond fulfilling our spiritual need for virtuous completion, Prudence also behaves as something of a bodyguard.  Indeed, it is good to use Prudence to make sure we are using our Hope properly... but it is also good to listen to the quiet voice when it is warning us of physical danger.  In my world, we call it "Condition Yellow" - that is to say a mindset that forces caution and insists that we be ready for anything that may come our way.

~~  "It is better to be careful a hundred times than to be killed once."  --Anonymous  ~~

Overall, then, I find Prudence to be the rational conscience of the other virtues... the voice that admonishes in order to maintain a good and safe course.  Just as with the other virtues, our souls can be strengthened by practicing Prudence, or our souls can be left struggling and weakened by neglecting it.  Also like the other virtues, it will continue to exist- whether or not we choose to employ it.  Just knowing it is out there should be reason enough for us to pursue it relentlessly; but, alas, we know that is not so.  It often takes bitter experience to drag us to Prudence's doorstep.  The good news is, when we knock (and keep knocking), the door will open and our virtuous life will be greatly enhanced.

In the end, I suppose that's the nature of superpowers... once you have proven that you are ready and worthy, they will be there to save the day- if we are willing to act.

~~   “Prudence is not just a quality of mind, it also involves our applying ourselves to a deed, and this comes about by the exercise of will.”  --St Thomas Aquinas   ~~



Anonymous Jess said...

Once again a pleasure and honor to read your take on a virtue. Excellent! The reference to code yellow was delightful!

26/8/12 14:34  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes condition yellow all the way! Cpl S. 1/9

26/8/12 14:48  

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