Rediscovering the Virtue of Prudence

Our polarized culture seems to be obsessed with good and bad. That divide is an essential part of polarization, after all: “my side is good; it’s their side that is bad.” However, from what I can tell, in this conversation about what is good or bad, no one uses the language of virtue. In ye olden times, back when we were more savage and, of course, morally corrupt as a society, goodness was intrinsically tied to the concept of virtue. Virtue is “the good” played out and made tangible. If a characteristic was not a virtue, then it was a vice–a force to fight against. When virtue was discussed, the focus fell on four cardinal ones–prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude–the chief of these being prudence. 

Interestingly enough, of the four virtues, I see our culture talking about two of them. Justice and fortitude, or at least versions of these, are lauded throughout social media. So much of the public conversation is focused on social injustice in our country and we salute those who have the fortitude to stand against it. However, we cannot pick and choose virtues. We cannot prioritize justice and fortitude, the seemingly action-heavy virtues (the type that can be posted about on social media and demand a response), over the assumedly passive virtues of prudence and temperance. 

In ye olden times, society named prudence the chief of all virtues. They saw the other three virtues as reliant on prudence. As Christians and as thinkers, I believe that going back to this understanding of virtue and reintroducing prudence into the conversation will positively impact our culture. The cause of justice and the laurel of fortitude will ultimately be advanced. 

Our culture has come to embrace the language of personalized truth. Again and again, we see “my” and “your” placed before it. This is wrong. While experience should not be dismissed, conflating personal experience with absolute Truth is dangerous. Truth is something that is found not in us but in God. When truth and reality are based on us, we no longer talk about either of the two and should change our language likewise. Our personal interactions with reality are how we understand it, and therefore need to be a part of the conversation. However, they should never come before Truth. Prudence tries to see reality as clearly as possible before making a decision. As Christians, we believe that we only have a right view of reality when we have a right view of God. 

In order to determine the essential value of prudence, we must establish a good understanding of the term. Most simply stated, prudence is essentially “keeping with reality.”1 It is wrapped up with seeing properly. If one sees the world properly, one can make better judgments. Prudence assumes that reality can be understood by humanity as something worth knowing. If something is not reality—if it is not true—it should not be used as a measure. For Christians, submission to a truth greater than ourselves is no novelty. We must submit to our identity as sinners deserving of Our Creator’s wrath. We must submit to the fact that our desires are often going against what is good, and that Goodness can only be found in the hands of the One who created us. To talk about “good” requires us to first and foremost talk about what is true, something that involves us but does not rest in us. 

Prudence does not pass over the complexities of any judgment on good and evil. Even though right, wrong, and reality are concrete, our ability and understanding in the moment to discern them often is not. Prudence will not hand us a flowchart or spreadsheet with all the right answers. Instead, prudence, though dealing in certainties, does not permit us to fully see the answer. After all, humans are finite beings. Although we are limited, an absence of certainty does not negate the existence of an absolute, only the comfort of absolute certainty. To assume that we can have that comfort would corrupt our prudence with arrogance. Prudence requires discernment, wisdom, and action. If we do nothing with the insight that we possess, we have rendered that insight useless. 

It is the right-seeing essence of prudence that makes it the chief of all virtues, because without prudence all other virtues are uncertain. Justice cannot be justice without the possibility of a right understanding of the situation. Temperance is useless without knowing what needs to be tempered. Fortitude is foolishness if one does not have the prudence to know when it is wise to hold one’s position on a subject. At the end of the day, prudence is necessary to guide and determine the other three virtues. Ultimately, placing prudence first is what paves the way for “restraint, freedom and affirmation” (Peiper 27). Even though we might laud justice and fortitude, they are lacking if they are not combined with this virtue of prudence. So then let us work towards prudence, submitting ourselves to God and his precepts. 

If you are interested in learning more about the four virtues, I would like to recommend the book The Four Cardinal Virtues by Josef Pieper. He does an excellent job of explaining the classic views on virtue.

  1. Pieper, Josef. The Four Cardinal Virtues. University of Notre Dame Press, March 31, 1966.

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not proport to reflect the opinions or views of the Gordon Review, editorial staff, or its members.

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