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Prudence: The Knowledge of Reality and the Realization of the Good


The good man is prudent- that is, he does not allow his view of reality to be blurred by the yes or no of his will, but he makes the yes or no of his will depend upon the truth of things. The Latin followers of Aristotle translated his phronesis as prudence, prudentia Ross renders it as practical wisdom, meaning wisdom in acting, in practice. It is an intellectual virtue since it is supposed to render judgement, but in contrast to the other four intellectual virtues, it is also a moral virtue. This is important because Aristotle, unlike Socrates, does not reduce prudence to science. For prudence does not reside in the intellect alone, it resides in the intellect, but as inclined by a virtuous heart. Pascal, although not an Aristotelian, came close to guessing the nature of prudence. He wrote in fact about the reasons of the heart, of which, according to him, reason knows nothing He implies that intellectual and affective knowledge are poles apart. This is not Aristotle's position. For him, prudence is what brings the heart and the reason together.


The virtue of prudence or practical wisdom is the first among all cardinal virtues. Moreover, it is not only first among other virtues equal in category, it controls and commands all moral virtues. This affirmation of the supremacy of prudence, whose scope we hardly understand nowadays, entails more than just a casual order among the virtues. It expresses the basic conception of reality applied to the field of morality, of human behaviour, the good presupposes the true and the true presupposes being. To put it more explicitly, a virtuous man acts the way he does, not because he is helpless but because he wants to act that way. Moreover, he knows exactly what he is doing

In fact, the whole structure of both the classical and the Christian view of man rests upon the pre-eminence of prudence. Not only is prudence the first, the eldest or the most beautiful of all her sisters, prudence is the mother. This is precisely what St Thomas calls her “Mother of the virtues (genitrix virtutum)”. That is, prudence gives birth to the other virtues. In other words, only the prudent man alone it is who can be just, brave and temperate. The good man is good in as far as he is prudent, as he has practical wisdom.

We are here confronted with a statement that sounds strange and alien to our ears. We do not understand the need for the order and rank of some spiritual and abstract qualities, which are to us little more than just allegories. So we would like to dismiss the whole exercise as the theoretical game of ancient or medieval philosophers who had little else to do. Yet, the fact that not only the doctrine of the virtues, but their very rank and sequence, constantly recurs throughout the span of time from the Greeks and beyond to the great masters of Christian thought, gives evidence to the perennial truth contained in it.

Our incomprehension, when confronted with this statement about the pre-eminence of prudence, shows how far we have gone away from the classical view of man and of Christian thought regarding the nature of reality, the way we are and what things really are. On the contrary, according to average linguistic usage, prudence is the skill in avoiding or shirking what is morally good. The statement that prudence is what makes an action good strikes us as ridiculous. If anything, it describes a selfish utilitarianism; we think of prudence as closer to the ideal of utility than to that of nobility. Rather than to presuppose the good, prudence seems to go around it. A prudent man would then be someone who can "wangle" things in life and draw the greatest profit from it" what a Nigerian would call a guy man.

The Sociology of Language has drawn our attention to the fact that the linguistic expressions describing normative ideas of ethical character risk often the loss of their original meaning. At times this gets worn out and even changes into its opposite. To the contemporary mind, the idea of the good excludes, rather than includes, prudence. Modern man cannot conceive a good act which might not be imprudent, nor a bad act which might not be prudent. He will often call lies and cowardice prudent, truthfulness and courageous sacrifice imprudent. One should recall, however, the proper meaning of the pre-eminence of prudence namely, that an action is just and courageous or simply good, for that matter, only when it agrees with the truth of real things. This truth is clearly manifested in the virtue of practical wisdom.

The practical consequences of this doctrine are enormous, for instance, in education. It also offers the only possibility to conquer the contrary phenomenon of moralism, a sample of which may be seen in Kant's statement that the basis of obligation must not be sought in human nature or in the circumstances of the world in which man is placed but in the laws which are a priority to him as a rational being

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Practical wisdom, on the other hand, says the good is what is in accordance to reality. The objective foundation of the classical doctrine of prudence may be summed up in the simple but magnificent dictum of the early Middle Ages. A wise man is one who savours all things as they really are, it is not just a coincidence that truthfulness is also called objectivity in most languages.

Sincerity, on the other hand, is simply what is true for the subject - what each man tends to believe is right. Yet, were we to confuse truth and sincerity, there would be as many truths as there are men. Nowadays, we often call true what each man considers right, we call moral what each does without shame. The honour of the philosophers and the sages consists in placing truth above sincerity.

The foundation for any effective moral effort is therefore the acceptance of what is. By this Guardini means the acceptance of reality; your own and that of the people around you and of the time in which you live. This may sound perhaps too theoretical yet, it is not only correct but deserves special attention, for it is not self-evident that we accept what is, receive it interiorly and with a ready heart. In contrast, Hannah Arendt said that ideologies are never interested in the miracle of being.



The classical writers used a wide range of images and ideas to establish the place of prudence. This shows that the ordering of the virtues was not something accidental. They thought in fact they were dealing with a fundamental problem of meaning and hierarchy. The pre-eminence of prudence above all other virtues means that the realization of the good presupposes the knowledge of reality. He alone can do good who knows what things are like. So-called good intentions or meaning well are not enough. Our actions must be appropriate to the concrete situation, that is, we must take this concrete reality with clear-eyed objectivity.

Prudent decisions which shape our free actions proceed from two sources. The prudent man needs to know both, the universal principles of reason and the particular things where ethical action is found. The universal principles of the practical reason are revealed to man through the synderesis or primordial conscience. Its precept, that the good must be loved and made a reality, expresses the common goal of all human action. This practical basic principle governs the whole sphere of the practical, just as the law of identity governs the whole sphere of theoretical thinking. The law of identity is based upon the idea of being, the voice of the primordial conscience is based upon the idea of the good

Practical reason, however, is not directly concerned as such with the last ends: natural or supernatural of human life, but only with the means to those ends. The special nature of prudence is its concern with ways and means, that is, with down-to-earth realities. The living unity of both synderesis and prudence synderesis moves prudence; it is nothing less than what we call conscience. Conscience and prudence are thus ultimately related and interchangeable.

As the right disposition of practical reason, prudence looks in two ways. It is cognitive and imperative or deciding. It knows and decides. However, the cognitive aspect comes first and sets a standard. The decision that sets a standard for volition and action, receives its measure from cognition. The decree of prudence, in the words of St. Thomas, is therefore a directing cognition. It makes operative the preceding knowledge of the truth. This dimension is confirmed by the direct meaning of the Latin term conscientia, which includes scientia, knowledge. Conscience and prudence, as I said, mean, in a certain sense, the same thing. The two sources of prudent decision are therefore established; the first is synderesis or primordial conscience (conscience of principles). Prudence, properly speaking, comes second as the art of considering, deciding and commanding rightly (situation Conscience).

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