January 2016 Print

The Virtue of Prudence

by Dr. Peter Chojnowski

It was as a young boy come down with a fever stemming from a prior stomach ailment that St. Augustine remembers, in his Confessions, an incident which revealed to him a form of worldly “prudence,” which could never come to be equated with the true virtue of prudence. Because of a long standing custom in Catholic circles, based upon a “realistic,” “we can’t be perfect,” “they have to live in the world,” mentality, St. Augustine had attained the middle years of childhood without being baptized. He had indeed entered into the life of the catechumen by being “signed with the sign of his cross and seasoned with his salt,” indicating the initial rites now included in the preparatory part of the traditional sacrament of baptism; but as to the “laver of salvation,” he had been denied this on account of his mother Monica’s fear that the grace of baptism would make the “inevitable” sins of youth even more egregious. When the young Augustine was in danger of death, his mother then arranged for his baptism. The fever, however, broke, meaning that the “prudent” plan of delaying baptism, a grace that would be denied him for some 22 more years, was back in effect. In this regard, St. Augustine relates how the mentality that caused his mother to deny him access to the supernatural fountain of grace, also caused friends throughout his adolescence and early manhood to cry, “sine illum, faciat; nondum enim baptizatus est” (Let him be! Let him do it! He is not yet baptized!).1

Prudence: The Queen of the Cardinal Virtues

Surely the worldly “prudence” of St. Monica—and this was not to be the last example of this in St. Augustine’s life: for example, St. Monica discouraged him from marrying the woman that he was living with, because her low social station would hinder his career advancement—was not the virtue of prudence that has been upheld as the royal “mother” of all the other Cardinal Virtues,2 namely, justice, the ultimate virtue shaping our actions towards others; fortitude, the virtue that is our certain ability to attack and, also, hold out against, all of the great obstacles in the way of our ultimate good; and, finally, temperance, the “lowest” of the Cardinal Virtues, which maintains the entire moral person in a oneness of moral vision and psycho-physical alertness that keeps a man from dispersion amidst the ever-intense and ever-present objects of appetite.

Since “the more things change, the more they remain the same,” it can truthfully be said that the same attitude behind the worldly concept of “prudence” is still present with us today. In this regard, the current “prudence” of the world, if the concept is even bantered about now, is nothing but the calculation of self-benefit in the financial or social orders. What should concern us, however, is the way the general concept of “prudence” has been bent by even those who attempt to adhere to the unchanging mores and beliefs of the Catholic Church. In these circles, one finds a strange duality which compartmentalizes life in order to avoid rebellion by their children or perceived awkwardness in the face of secular minded people. Here true Christian, and even natural human, prudence is distorted by basing its actions and judgments upon a fundamentally different set of principles and assumptions about human life, than those that the Catholic Faith would warrant. The pragmatic judgment that we must “live in the world,” is used to justify basing the greater part of our lives on liberal principles that we inherit from our immersion in the Liberal Indifferentist State. The way in which we can see that this attitude is erroneous is that the “finality” or ultimate goal of liberal society and Catholic society are not the same at all.

Prudence as Making Real the Good

“The preeminence of prudence means that realization of the good presupposes knowledge of reality. He alone can do good who knows what things are like and what their situation is.”—Josef Pieper

It is of primary importance that the virtue of prudence is both a moral and an intellectual virtue of the practical intellect. What this simply means is that prudence is concerned both with intellectually identifying the good course of action in a concrete situation, along with bringing about the goodness of the acting man through this rightly identified moral action. What is important to remember, also, is that the right action which follows from a practical intellect perfected with the virtue of prudence is a means to the attainment of the ultimate good. Prudence, as a perfection of the practical intellect, does not tell us what the overall meaning and nature of reality is and, hence, what is in accordance with it. The being of things, and their essential natures and their ultimate states of fulfillment incumbent upon their nature, need to be identified first before prudence can choose the correct means to achieve the correct ends. It is not without purpose that St. Thomas Aquinas treats the Virtue of Faith as the first virtue to be considered in his specified treatment of all the human virtues. Without this supernatural virtue causing us to understand the ultimate purpose of human life, it is difficult to see how prudence could chart the proper course in the sea of human life, since St. Thomas calls prudence a “directing cognition,”3 when it does not even know what port it is supposed to be heading towards.

Memoria: Well-Spring of Personality and Moral Imagination

St. Augustine, wishing to show that the Holy Trinity has implanted its seal on all of its creation, especially on man, one of its greatest creations, speaks of the human soul as being divided into three separate parts, each mirroring a specific attributed characteristic of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. Whereas the Son or the Verbum is compared to the human intellect, and the Holy Ghost is compared to the Will, the memory is related to the Divine Person of God the Father on account of His being the principle from which the Son and Holy Ghost proceed.4 Since man is a being of spiritual soul and physical body, whose every action has either a positive or negative moral quality due to intention and circumstance, each human action has surrounding it, in front of it, and reacting to it a material dimension. Man acts morally amidst the physical things of this world. Since prudence is the virtue of the practical intellect that applies universal moral norms to the particular situations of a man’s life, the images of the particular things, people, and places that have accompanied our past moral life carry through to the present moment and help us situate our particular moral moment and relate it to previous moral acts that, likewise, have taken place amidst the particularities of the material world. The brute matter of the empirical world is transformed into an adequate response to the demand of the real world. Since our moral analysis of the present moment is always saturated by and related to a memory of a similar past instance in our lives, Josef Pieper, citing St. Thomas Aquinas, emphasizes the need for “true to being” memory, undistorted by a malicious, vicious, or simply frightened will.5

Solertia: The Decisiveness of the Prudent Man

Just as worldly calculation of personal gain has little to do with the virtue of prudence, which seeks to “make real the good,” so too a moral conscience that continually retraces its steps and refuses to act forthrightly and swiftly in the face of ever changing moral circumstances, cannot have perfected prudence. Prudence is meant to realize the good through moral action. The perfection of prudence is the perfection of thought operating in any conditions that reality puts in front of it, no matter how unexpected. One of the parts of prudence is then solertia (from solers citus),6 somewhat awkwardly translated as “shrewdness.” Solertia is the perfected ability by virtue of which man can swiftly decide for the good, avoiding injustice, cowardice, and intemperance. Without this virtue of “objectivity in unexpected situations,” perfect prudence is not possible.7 Solertia, or celerity, is the part of prudence that helps to vitiate the indecisiveness, which scruples endlessly over circumstances, motives, and the possible breaking of rules. The scrupulous man wants mathematical certainty in areas of human action that, because they deal with the singular and contingent, do not admit of such certainty. As St. Thomas states, “the certitude of prudence cannot be so great as completely to remove all anxiety.”8

Docilitas, or the ability to take advice or higher instruction, best shows itself in the moral life of man, when he is open to the example that the actions of other superior and good men provide to him; even though the letter of the law may kill, the constant appreciation of good, courageous, agile, intelligent, and prudent men will slowly shape the young soul so that in perfect openness, objective clarity, and joyful exuberance, it may love the good and seek to make it a reality.

Dr. Peter Chojnowski has degrees in political science and philosophy from Christendom College, Virginia, and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Fordham University, New York. He specializes in the philosophy of St. Thomas, Logic, and Catholic Social Thought and has written over 150 articles and reviews on topics such as economics, aesthetics, education, and religion. Dr. Chojnowski has lectured throughout the United States, and also in Canada, Brazil, Spain, the Philippines, and in Rome. Having taught at St. Louis University, Fordham University, Fairfield University, Iona College, St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, and at St. Mary’s Academy and College, he now teaches at Gonzaga University and Immaculate Conception Academy. He lives with his wife and six children on a 3-acre farm in Washington State.

1 Cited in Peter Chojnowski, Saint Augustine as Educator, Vol. 1 (Post Falls, ID, Pelican Project, 2005), pp.19-22.

2 Cf. Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1966), p. 3.

3 Ibid., p. 12.

4 St. Augustine, De trinitate (Coeur d’Alene, ID: Mediatrix Press, 2015), XI, 3-5; XV, 22.

5 Pieper, p. 15. Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Westminster, MD: Christian Classic, 1983), II-II, Q. 49, Art. 1.

6 ST, II-II, Q. 49, Art. 4 in St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Latin edition)(Taurini, Italy: Marietti, 1937), pp. 294-295.

7 Pieper, p. 16.

8 Non potest certitudo prudentiae tanta esse quod omnino solicitudo tollatur in ST, II-II, Q. 47, Art. 9 ad 2.