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Primordial Conscience and the Proper Disposition of Practical Reason


Primordial conscience (synderesis) is a natural innate attitude of the human mind. Through it, man makes a primary and infallible judgment about the good as an end and about the meaning of human action. The content of the voice of conscience is natural moral law. It is therefore the natural awareness of ethical natural law. The voice of the primordial conscience and the basic principle of human action, is determined by being, which presents itself to cognition. The law of reality becomes thus the basic law of all human actions in the voice of primordial conscience. This process may be seen very clearly in what Maritain has called the first act of freedom: the absolute beginning of moral life in the child.

A few points need perhaps to be clarified to fully understand how the voice of primordial conscience necessarily presupposes a definite relation to objective reality. One needs the awareness of reality as the content for the ‘must be’ of the imperative act of the primordial conscience. The content and basis of primordial conscience is the idea of the good, which includes the awareness of the essential structure of reality. All things strive for the good, namely, the perfection or fullness of their being. One could express this movement like this: the real becomes what it is. The source which feeds this movement is the natural inclination or potency of every being to become what it is. So, reason naturally sees as good everything toward which man has a natural inclination. The good is the real fulfilled in being. While irrational creatures follow the law of their being passively, man through his rational knowledge can take the law of his being and make it his own commanding voice. Upon this recognition all virtue depends: the virtues make us able to follow in the proper manner our natural inclinations, which belong to the law of nature.

Prudence, particularly is the proper disposition of the practical reason, in as far as it knows what is to be done concretely concerning ways and means. It is the fruit of fallible knowledge and of the free decision of the will, not guaranteed therefore by natural necessity. Prudence is partly cognitive and partly commanding. The commanding quality of prudence is the expression of its relation to concrete willing and acting. The cognitive quality is the expression of its determination by the objective world of being.

Prudence as knowledge receives the measure; as command, it provides the measure. A command of prudence is directing knowledge. The characteristic of prudence is the concrete command, but this is the transformation of previous knowledge. In other words, prudence is the measure of morality but it receives its measure from the objective reality of things. A prudent person should know the basic principles of reason and the individual facts. This is the domain proper to prudence, as knowledge consists in the concrete situation of the concrete action. That knowledge becomes directive in the command of prudence. The situation itself is transformed into knowledge and command, turns to the will and imposes an obligation. The different types of imprudence are precisely found in the imperfect transformation of true cognitions into prudent decisions. The person who rushes into decision and action without proper consideration and well-founded judgment is being imprudent, rash, and thoughtless. St Thomas Aquinas distinguishes here two types of thoughtlessness: lack of deliberation and lack of judgment. This shows the importance he gives to the cognitive foundation of the prudential decision.


This seems to agree with our idea of promptness and energy in action. There are two ways, however, of being swift and slow: when deliberating and when acting. One should carry out quickly the conclusion of one's deliberation, but should deliberate slowly. Prudence demands that we come to a suitable decision, and promptly. Moreover, St Aquinas considers the capacity for instantly grasping an unexpected situation and deciding quickly to be a component of perfect prudence. Solertia, shrewdness, clear-sighted objectivity in the face of the unexpected, is expressly listed in the Summa as a prerequisite without which prudence remains imperfect.

A second mode of imprudence is the lack of constancy or irresoluteness. It breaks, at the truly decisive point, the part where knowledge is transformed into the imperative of prudence. Deliberation and judgment tumble uselessly into futility instead of pouring into the finality of a decision. The true praise of prudence lies in the decision straightly directed toward application in action. Practical reason is thus perfected by a double set of prerequisite connected with two aspects of prudence, namely, cognition directed towards objective reality, decision directed toward the realization of the good.


Joshua Dehi (author) from Lagos, Nigeria on May 23, 2020:

Logical reason develops with age before been acted on.

Speech is embedded in the proper disposition of the reasonable act...streamlined by prudence

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on May 23, 2020:

Pretty good stuff. I often query about infants and these notions. And exactly what role speech plays.