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Why prudence is cool, actually

Prudence isn’t much in vogue these days, whether as a virtue, a principle of online engagement, a girls’ name, or a Beatles B-side.

When most people hear the word, they tend to think of moralistic scruples, or stuffy maiden aunts.

But, in reality, prudence is the practical guiding light of virtue — and as essential to our public discourse as it is to our private discernment. The Pillar’s Charlie Camosy spoke with Fr. Gregory Pine about this often misunderstood, and unfairly dismissed, virtue.

Church of the Beatitudes. Image credit: Godong / Alamy Stock Photo

Fr. Pine is a Dominican friar of the Province of Saint Joseph, a doctoral candidate in dogmatic theology at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland and the author of “Prudence: Choose Confidently, Live Boldly” and a regular contributor to the podcasts Pints with Aquinas and Godsplaining.

For some folks, references to 'prudence' can seem unclear. Can you give a precise definition of this virtue?

More than unclear, prudence sounds boring and stuffy to modern ears. If you want to ensure that a word becomes passé, all you have to do is name a Christian virtue after it, and let time (and nihilistic anti-rational culture) run its course. In this way, prudence has suffered the same fate as temperance and charity. People hear temperance and think militant anti-alcohol lobbying or charity and think do-gooding condescension.

When most folks hear prudence, they think of self-satisfied fiscal responsibility or a general hesitancy before the prospect of risky commitment. Alas, how far we've strayed.

Truth be told, prudence is just the virtue of practical wisdom. It's the virtue which empowers one to be the protagonist of his or her life. St. Thomas Aquinas defines prudence as right reason in things to be done. It is referred to in the tradition as the “charioteer of the virtues.” It marshals the moral energy of the appetites to direct us on a course towards integral human flourishing. It's something like savoir faire or clairvoyance. It's the characteristic virtue of those who have a knack for their own humanity.

Some try to use the virtue of prudence in a more 'squishy' way. Many have heard folks invoking 'prudential judgment', for instance, in areas of moral life which need clear norms.

How do you respond to this worry, especially with respect to current debates which also invoked the claims of conscience?

You're absolutely right, it can be used squishily (My first use of this adverb). You hear prudence and conscience trotted out by those who hold positions (often in matters of human sexuality and family life) contrary to Catholic teaching. As a result, appeal to prudence and conscience may put a bad taste in the mouths of those who desire clarity and rigor in moral teaching and consistent application thereof. But, irresponsible appeals to prudence and conscience don’t render them bad. Instead, those appeals make it more incumbent upon us to deploy prudence and conscience well.

Whenever we speak of following our conscience, we have to speak of forming our conscience. In the end, one can only do what appears to him as good. How reality appears to us is, in part, a fruit of our moral formation. Thus, we need to undertake a conscientious moral formation that draws on the Church's tradition and magisterial judgment. That includes the law--eternal and natural, divine and human.

So, while I am bound to follow my conscience, I am not simply excused by my conscience when it tends contrary to the law of God. It is not enough to seek to be sincere. One must seek to be good.

And there is no integral flourishing apart from reality, only the real bears grace. Thus, when St. Thomas speaks about prudence, he speaks first of two of its most essential features, namely memory (whereby one consults his experience of life honestly and profitably, not under the sway of preconception or ideology) and docility (whereby one submits to those who are wiser and better).

Readers of The Pillar don't need to be told about crises of leadership (both lay and clerical) in the Church. How might the virtue of prudence help here?

I am especially grateful for a kind of entrepreneurial spirit in the American Church of late. If someone has a good idea for a Catholic apostolate, he or she sets about it. You see this in journalism with things like The Pillar, in media with things like Ascension Presents, or in academic life with things like the Thomistic Institute.

And yet, despite the many gains that have been made in recent years, I think there is still a lingering sentiment of despair that gathers in the corners of our salons. We have the sneaking suspicion that our well-laid plans will be soon overturned. People speak hopefully about changes afoot, only to doubt whether the future will hold anything better. For while it takes so very long to build up something bold and beautiful, it takes only minutes to tear it down.

In this setting, prudence-centered discourse is especially important. Prudence directs our attention to what is most urgent. Prudence concerns itself, à la St. Teresa of Calcutta, with being faithful rather than with merely being successful.

Mind you, the prudent person does strive for a certain success, but he knows that the consequences of action are just one aspect of agency (a circumstance, in fact), and a secondary one at that (by comparison to the object and intention). Within the broad sweep of God's providential plans, the prudent man sets out to grow in virtue--personally, socially, politically, and ecclesially. He sets out to do things well and to become good. He is conscious that his activity is but a small piece of salvation history writ large and therefore isn't so much tempted to immanentize the eschaton.

Prudence helps us to realize that, in the end, practically everything will fail--all but the universal Church (we have that on good authority). But, the prudent man is not vanquished as a result, for his goals were never limited to this world.

Can the virtue of prudence help with respect to the culture wars?

Yes, it can. Prudence is a virtue of calibration. For too long, that calibration has been interpreted under the aspect of reining in. But, we have to recover the aspect of spurring on. The image of “the charioteer” is pertinent. The charioteer aims to win the race. Though he doesn't want to get into an accident, this isn't his primary aim. In the course of the race, he has to call upon all of his moral energy in pursuit of the end. And so, he must spur on the appetites. For the sake of order, he may have to rein in this or that desire at times, but his first task is to get after it.

The culture wars can be depressing and discouraging. Prudence spurs us on in our pursuit of genuine vision, fruitful debate, and positive change. Prudence governs how we argue, how we post, and how we rebut. Most basically, though, it governs how we keep showing up and getting after it.

You'll hear a lot of people say that it wouldn't be prudent to this or that in the culture wars since it might mean setbacks. Maybe they are right in certain instances. In many cases though, we find these folks gradually retreating to the rear of the skirmish, only to be swallowed by silence or converted to the contrary. You may get to choose the hill you die on. You may not. But, a "die another day" mentality can't become a settled policy.

Perpetual fear in these debates is corrosive and this type of false prudence (only rein, never spur) is just fear masquerading as virtue. We probably won't win (whatever that means) this side of eternity. Everything that we salvage will have to be dragged from the wreck of modernity at great cost. Outcomes assessments and strategic planning and whatever else can be used profitably inform our reasoning, but ultimately prudence is there to send us into the fray.

Finally, I love your claims about confidence and boldness. Can you say more about how prudence relates here as well?

Many people struggle with uncertainty in decision-making. Do I do this or that? Do I do it now or later? What if something bad happens . . . can I revisit the decision at a later point? Prudence moves us beyond this analysis paralysis.

Endless deliberation is decidedly not the goal. Truth be told, it doesn't matter that one has thought a lot about a thing. It matters that one has thought well about a thing, and then seen it through.

There's one part of prudence that brings this into focus for me in a helpful way. St. Thomas names one of the parts of prudence shrewdness. (That's solertia in Latin for those who have made it this far.) St. Thomas describes it as a perfection which effectuates sound snap judgments.

Say you're driving down Fourth Street, and you witness a car accident. Everyone in the vicinity gazes at the wreck in shocked silence. Then, someone jumps to help. He gets both drivers out of their smoking vehicles, orders a passerby to call 9-1-1, establishes their next-of-kin and religious needs, and starts calming everyone down--all in a matter of minutes.

When we try to pin down what that person did right, we're tempted to say that it's luck or temperament or professional expertise. Those factors may be present, but there is also a virtue at work. That virtue is prudence. And, what is more, we are all called to exhibit just such prudence.

Our lives are meant to tend in the direction of this kind of at-the-ready-ness. Too often we envision life as something that just happens to us as we are swept along feeling overwhelmed or overburdened. Such is not the case, though. We can actually grow in our capacity to engage with our humanity and our surroundings.

Prudence plays a leading role in this maturation. In light of this fact, then, we seek ever more to “choose confidently” and “live boldly” because it's to precisely this purpose that we have been created.

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