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Prudence: Cognition and Decision



Prudence as cognition of the concrete situation includes the ability to be still in order to attain objective perception of reality. It also includes the tiredness of experience (experimentum) of trials and errors. These cannot be replaced by an obstinate appeal to faith or that restricted point of view which confines itself to seeing the general rather than the particular. The key prerequisite for the perfection of prudence as cognition is the attitude of silent contemplation of reality. This quality could be described as recollection, silence, openness and docility Otherwise, in the words of Guardini, we have the man who no longer has a living centre. The events of life constantly flow through him and carry him about. He does not stand anywhere but is tossed about by a thousand influences. He does not possess himself but happens anywhere. This perfection in turn involves three elements: memory, docility, sagacity.


Memory is here more than the capacity of recollection that we have by nature. Nor has it anything to do with any capacity not to forget. The good memory that reaches the perfection of prudence means nothing less than true-to-being memory that contains the truth of real things. By the true-to-being character of memory is simply meant that it contains real things and events as they are, and as they were. Memory's worst enemy is the falsification of recollection by assent or negation of the will. It frustrates its primary function of being a container of the truth of things.

This memory is a true requisite of prudence. It is not just mere coincidence that the Greek word for truth, aletheia, means precisely that - do not forget. Nowhere else is danger so great as here, and it is greater because it is so imperceptible. No more insidious way for error to establish itself than by this falsification through slight retouches, displacements, omissions, shifts of accent. It is difficult to detect by the probing conscience even when it applies itself to it. The honesty of memory can be ensured only by a rectitude of the whole human being, which purifies the most hidden roots of the will. Prudence, upon which all virtues depend, is in its turn clearly dependent in its foundation on all other virtues and above all on the virtue of justice. There is here more than just psychology, it is the metaphysics of the ethical person that is at stake. Many world troubles arise because we give a false prudence priority over justice.


St. Thomas makes this simple and succinct statement: “No man is altogether self-sufficient in matters of prudence”. The need for docility is thus spelled out. It is not the docility and simple-minded zeal of the good pupil. Docility is the discipline that recognizes the variety of things and situations to be experienced and does not cage itself in any presumption of deceptive knowledge. It is the ability to take advice from a desire for real understanding that includes humility, the true virtue of the real scholar. Indiscipline and the mania of being always right are ways of opposing the truth of things. Both reveal the incapacity of the subject to practice that silence that is the absolute prerequisite to all perception of reality. To know, one first has to listen. To manifest an absolute pretension in favour of a certain content, leaning only on an immediate subjective security, has always been called fanaticism.

If the Ancients always considered ‘docilitas’ an essential part of prudence, it is because the knowledge of reality, by its very nature, is a task to be tackled jointly with others. Every person is dependent on his neighbour. Here comes to light the importance of the public presence of truth within society. One can see how disastrous is the public obscuring of reality caused, for in stance, by the abuse of the mass media, as Pieper appropriately recalls - disastrous for the community, but also for the individual whose decisions have to be according to reality. This is where the doctrine of prudence, particularly in its social dimension as political prudence, can cast new light on the whole sociological phenomenon of the ideologies: those isms that, to the satisfaction of their adherents, can explain everything and every occurrence by deducing it from a single premise.


Solertia may be translated as alertness, vigilance, preparedness or sagacity, although none of these words gives the full meaning of the original term. Solertia is a perfective quality through which man, when confronted with a sudden event, does not close his eyes instinctively and then takes blindly a random action. On the contrary, he is ready to objectively confront reality with open eyes and decide for the good, avoiding the pit falls of injustice, cowardice and intemperance. Without this virtue of objectivity in unexpected situations, perfect prudence is not possible. Aristotle places solertia or quick wit as part of vigilance and sees it as the ability for the swift and easy finding of the solution. At times it is prudent to delay a decision until all factors that should influence our judgement have been brought together. Occasionally, it would be very imprudent not to begin to carry out immediately what we see needs to be done. This is especially true when the good of others is at stake. Prudence becomes a habit through which one knows quickly what should be done. This is because one realizes that the ever changing forms of reality are compatible with the permanent truth of things. It includes therefore physical alertness and healthy flexibility



The previous qualities of the mind of the prudent man are all focused upon what is already real, things past and present. Nevertheless, the prudent man who makes resolutions and decisions also fixes his attention upon what has not yet been realized. Therefore the first requisite for prudence is the imperative of foresight (providentia): the capacity to estimate with a sure instinct for the future whether a particular action will lend itself to the realization of the goal. Prudence and providence are in origin two forms of the same Latin word, etymologies are often misleading but, as Geach says, this one is not.

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Here is where the element of uncertainty and risk involved in every moral decision comes to light. In the decisions of prudence, which deals by its very nature with concrete things, contingent and future, there cannot be the kind of certainty found in a theoretical conclusion. There is the certainty found in a truth, but not such as to remove all anxiety. That is, man, when he comes to a decision, cannot be sufficiently sure of which way to take nor can he wait until logic affords him absolute certainty. Otherwise, he will never come to a decision, unless he deceives himself with a make-believe certainty.

The prudent man does not expect certainty where it can not exist, he is not deceived by false certainties. The decisions of prudence, however, and the intuition of providence (foresight) receive their practical assurance from several sources from the experience of life, the alertness of the instinctive capacity of evaluation, the daring and humble hope that the paths leading to his genuine end cannot be closed to him and from the rectitude of volition and ultimate intention. A prudent man is one who sees as it were from afar for his sight is keen, and he foresees the event of uncertainties.

Man can fail to meet the demands of prudence in two ways. First, as we have seen, by failing to fulfil the active prerequisites of prudence. This is the case of thoughtlessness and lack of decision, negligence and blindness to concrete realities, remissness in decision (procrastination). All these forms have something in common, that is, something is lacking in them. We are surprised, and yet we understand, when Aquinas points out that these imprudence have their origin in unchastity. We can say with Aristotle that love of pleasure greatly corrupts the judgement of prudence because its perfection or objectivity lies in the abstraction from the sensible universe. The will is primarily affected as the surrender to the goods of the sensual world splits the power of decision into two. The duplicity of spirit is the consequence of lust. It also blurs the power of reasoning. In Aristotle's own words: an angry man listens to reason but imperfectly. A lustful man does not listen at all.

There is, however, a second group of imprudences that St Thomas traces also to a common origin. These are the false prudences, which are as different from plain imprudence as the false yes is from the true no. He begins with the prudence of the flesh directed solely towards the goods of the body, instead of serving the true end of the whole human life. He then discusses cunning or astuteness. Cunning is the expression of the insidious and unobjective temperament of the intriguer, of the operator who has only regard for tactics. A man like this cannot see or act straightforwardly, he thrives in dissimulation, hypocrisy and deceit.

There can be false and crooked ways to achieve right goals. The virtue of prudence implies that both the end of human action and the means for its realization be in keeping with the truth of things. That is, the selfish interests of the subject should be silenced so that he may perceive the truth of real things and reality may guide him to the proper means. That he might ask himself; What is this? Not simply What is in this for me?


An old Chinese dictum, quoted by Guardini, says that the fewer interests a man has, the more powerful he is. Complete disinterestedness is the greatest power. The more we seek to gain our own ends, the more the other person will close and be put on the defensive. The power of persuasion of the person becomes stronger in proportion to the absence of interests. The meaning of cunning consists in this that the bias of the tactician, of the operator, obstructs the path of realization as it blocks it off from the truth of things. A good end should not be pursued by means that are false and counterfeit but by such as are true.

One can see here the affinity of prudence and the clear eyed virtue of magnanimity (of the person with a great soul). Insidiousness, guile, craft and lack of loyalty are the weapons of the small-minded person. Magnanimity, St. Thomas says, following Aristotle, likes to act openly. All these false prudences and super-prudences arise from covetousness and are akin to it. Thus, Aquinas unmasks the hidden source of cunning and throws new light upon the virtue of prudence and the fundamental human attitudes operating within that virtue. Prudence is especially opposed to covetousness. This implies more than the disorderly love of money and property. It includes the immoderate straining after all the possessions that man thinks are needed to ensure his own importance and status. Covelomness refers to the proverbial anguish of the old, born from a spasmodic instinct of self-preservation and an overriding concern for security.

This attitude is contrary to the fundamental bent of prudence, which is dependent upon the constant readiness to ignore the self real humility and objectivity. It appears now how closely prudence and justice are linked. Among all the moral virtues it is Justice wherein the use of right reason (prudence) appears chiefly. Therefore the use of reason appears mainly in the vices opposed to justice, the chief of which is covetousness

Whoever looks only at himself, does not allow the truth of things to have its way He cannot be just or brave or temperate, but above all he cannot be just. For the foremost requirement for the realization of justice is that man turns his eyes away from himself. It is not by chance that, in everyday language, lack of objectivity means almost the same as injustice.

Prudence at the North of my soul is like the intelligent prow that leads the whole vessel. It is the illumination of moral existence that Lao-Tse says is denied to the one who only looks at himself. There are bright and obscure decisions. Prudence is the brightness of the resoluteness of that man who acts truth, who lives by the truth (John 3:21). Subjectivism, on the contrary, places a screen between the self and the universe. Even within the person, it causes confusion about the relationship between mind and body. Consciousness is confused with feeling

Prudence lives behind in the heart like a layer of wisdom, the instinct of rightly guessing what is good and right. This is because it affects the whole of human activity and orders its actions to the good. Wisdom of the heart guides and governs many other virtues. Through prudence, a man learns to be daring without being rash. He will not make excuses (based on hidden motives of indolence) to avoid the effort involved in living wholeheartedly according to God's plans. The temperance of the prudent man is not insensitive or misanthropic, his justice is not harsh nor is his patience servile.

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