Prudence has acquired something of a bad name these days. It is easily associated with words like “prune”, “prude” and “George Bush” (“Wouldn’t be prudent.”). People think it is a synonym for “timidity”.
But for St. Thomas, Prudence means something more like common sense. The prudent person is the one who is able to realistically assess what is going on and do what needs to be done. Thus, an Alexander the Great who sees a weakness in the lines of an overwhelmingly superior enemy force and audaciously charges into battle is prudent while the cautious servant hiding his talent in the ground out of fear of failure is extremely imprudent.
Many are surprised to hear that Prudence is the basis of all the other virtues, thinking other candidates like “tolerance”, “humility”, or “love” are that basis. But tolerance without Prudence can lead us to tolerate everything from Nazism to child abuse, while humility without Prudence can lead to a doormat mentality. And love is not the basis of virtue but its crown.
Prudence requires Memory, Teachableness, and Agility. None of these are prized in our What’s Happening Now/Truth is What’s True for You culture that is chained to categories like Left, Right, Conservative, Liberal, Republican, Democrat. So what do Memory, Teachableness, and Agility mean?
Santayana summed up Memory by noting that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Memory is the capacity to look at our experience and see it for what it was, not for what we wish it had been. It is to look squarely, not only at “the good times”, but at our errors and sins, and to learn.
Teachableness is the willingness to recognize some people are smarter than we, have a wider experience of the world than we, and that we can benefit us if we will listen to them. This is something we all know as children (hence Jesus’ counsel to become like little children). But adult obsession with “equality” (as Envy often disguises itself) can blind us to such things. Teachableness delights in having betters from whom we can learn and to whom we are in debt.
The third element of Prudence is Agility, the capacity to act wisely and decisively in a given situation. If we learn from experience and receive teaching from those who know more, but cannot act in response, we are crippled. Without Agility, Prudence would be a sort of Cassandra Complex, able to foresee but powerless to change what is coming. Agility characterizes those who can quickly size up a situation accurately and formulate a nimble, intelligent response (like, for instance, Jesus’ response when the Pharisees tried to trap him by asking whether or not taxes should be paid to Caesar).
In addition to these three qualities of Prudence there is a final thing worth mentioning. The Catholic belief in Prudence is based on the fact that reality is 1) objective (not merely a clever dance of deconstructable words and opinions), 2) knowable (not “my personal truth of the moment”), and good (not a mere mask on the face of power). That is because the Faith takes seriously the truth that reality is the Creation of a good God who wills our good. Therefore, a Catholic view of Prudence always leaves room for Providence and for the idea that God works all things together for the good of those who trust him. In short, at the heart of Prudence is a hope that is a million miles away from the contemporary emphasis on feelings, atomized individualism, subjectivism, and the sentimental counsel of popular media to just close your eyes, “follow your heart” and lunge. Prudence takes seriously the hope both that God aims to make things turn out all right and that we can be intelligent participants in His work. It is a measure of our contemporary confusion that this simple teaching of the Catholic philosophical tradition is news. But it is a sign of hope that it is news that people are still glad to hear.