Doug McManaman
Date: January, 2006 © 2005
Reproduced with Permission

The mould and mother of all the virtues is prudence. It is defined as the intellectual virtue which rightly directs particular human acts, through rectitude of the appetite, toward a good end. We have argued that emotional well-being comes about through a certain structuring of the entire network of human emotions, one that results from a proper disposing of the emotions by the virtues. If we are correct, then prudence is the mother of emotional health. For it is prudence that determines the mean of reason in all human actions and situations.

Prudence, however, is not merely an intellectual virtue; it is also a moral virtue. A moral virtue is a habit that makes its possessor good. One may be brilliant and learned without being morally good, but it is not possible to be prudent and not morally good. The prudent man is one who does the good, as opposed to one who merely knows the good. There are many moral philosophers and theologians around, but prudent persons are probably not as common. It is much easier to talk about virtue-including prudence-than it is to actually be virtuous. And one who does not behave well cannot be said to be prudent, even though he happens to be very learned. We will understand this better as we take a closer look at just what prudence is.

The more abstractly we think, the more certain we are of our conclusion. Thus, mathematics is a very certain science, more so than say biology. When was the last time we heard of a revised mathematical equation? But theories are normally revised in the physical sciences; for the objects of mathematics are more abstracted from matter than are the objects of the science of biology. Similarly, we enjoy a relatively high level of certainty when dealing with very general moral issues such as murder, euthanasia, lying, etc, but as we approach the level of the particular, that is, a more concrete level, we very often become less certain about what we ought to do, because the concrete level contains so many variables that render decision making much more complex; for there is much more to consider.

This does not mean that there is no truth on the concrete level of moral decision making, or that on this level the good is relative to what you feel. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, it means that a special virtue is required by which one might see and readily make one's way through these murky waters to the right end. Prudence is the application of universal principles to particular situations, and so an understanding of universal moral principles is absolutely necessary. But since prudence deals in particulars, in the here and now of real situations, a number of other intellectual qualities are also necessary if one is to choose rightly, qualities that one does not necessarily acquire in a classroom setting. St. Thomas refers to these as integral parts of prudence, without which there is no prudence, just as there is no house without a roof, walls, and a foundation.

Integral Parts of Prudence

Understanding of First Principles (Human Goods)

Prudence begins with an understanding of the first principles of practical reason, which St. Thomas calls synderesis. It is a natural habit by which we are inclined to a number of ends. Now the good is the object of desire. Hence, the object of these inclinations are goods. And since these goods are not outside the human person, but are aspects of the human person, they are called human goods. There are a number of human goods to which every human person is naturally inclined. These goods are not known by the senses, but by the intellect, and so they are desired not by the sense appetite, but primarily by the will (the rational appetite), thus they are not sensible goods, but intelligible goods. These intelligible human goods include human life, the knowledge of truth, the intellectual apprehension and enjoyment of beauty, leisure (play and art), sociability, religion, integrity, and marriage. Let us consider each one individually.

Life: The human person has a natural inclination to preserve his life; for he sees his life as basically good. Human existence is a rational animal kind of existence. It is basically good to be as a rational animal, created in the image and likeness of God, in the image of knowledge and love (intellect and will). Human life is specifically "cognitive" life, a life having the potential of self-expansion through knowledge and through love. Everything else in the physical universe exists to serve human life and is valued according to its ability to do just that. Thus, everything in the physical universe is instrumentally good, while human life alone is basically good (the human person alone was willed into existence by God for his own sake).

Truth: This human person, who is fundamentally, intelligibly, and intrinsically good, desires to know truth for its own sake. As Aristotle says in his Metaphysics: "All men by nature desire to know". Knowing is a mode of existing. In knowing anything, one becomes what one knows ("the intellect is in a way all things"). Knowledge is a kind of self-expansion. Man always desires to be more fully, and he exists most fully as a knower, as a see-er. As Aristotle clearly saw, man's ultimate purpose in life clearly has something to do with knowing, which is his highest activity and, according to Aquinas, "the highest mode of having".

Beauty: Man has, at the same time, a natural inclination to behold the beautiful, to see it, to intuit it, to contemplate it. And so he visits art museums, listens to beautiful music, gazes at the sunset or the beautiful face of a child, and he even contemplates the beauty of divine providence. Indeed, his ultimate purpose has something to do with intuition, especially the intuition of beauty, and this is something that Plato understood well (Cf. The Symposium, 210e-212b).

Leisure, Play, Art: Man is a maker. He brings all his sense and intellectual powers to bear upon the project of producing works of art, such as paintings, poetry, sculptures, buildings, monuments, etc., just for the sake of creating, or playing games just for the sake playing, such as golf, cards, chess, etc. Indeed, there is a permanent and underlying element of contemplation in all of this. It is man the knower who leisures. The person who plays has the cognitive power of complete self-reflection, and so he contemplates the marvel of his own skills and delights in the awareness of their gradual perfection. He contemplates his gifts and detects the giver underneath them. A good player is awed by the laws that he can detect behind an ordinary game of chess, for example, and the players delight in the intuition of the beauty of the execution of a well-planned strategy that resulted in a touchdown or a goal or a homerun. Even spectators contemplate and discuss these plays typically after the game. Contemplation permeates the leisure of play and art carried out for their own sake. If it did not, no one would leisure. What brute animal leisures?

Sociability: The human person inclines to harmony between himself and others. He is a social and political animal. He is born into a family and discovers himself through others, such as his parents and siblings. He tends to establish friendships. He is glad to "see" his friends, to "hear" their voices. Ultimately, he wills to share the good that has come to him. Above all, he desires to share what he "sees" or knows with others. And others desire to share with him all that they have been gratuitously given, especially what they possess in knowledge (for knowledge is the highest mode of possessing anything). These others enable him to see what he was unable to see before. The perspectives they bring to him enlarge him, and they likewise are enlarged by what he brings them. His friendships are not merely utilitarian. Rather, the highest kind of friendship he seeks is benevolent friendship (EN 8. 3, 1156b6). He has only a few genuine friends with whom he can share himself on such a profound level. But he inclines towards them, because goodness is self-diffusive, and the more he is given, the more he wills to share what he has been given, and this is above all the case with what he "sees" or beholds, that is, what he knows, what he intuits or contemplates. Delighting in the presence of friends is nothing less than seeing. It is a form of contemplation.

Religion: Man aspires after what is higher than himself because he is aware of a desire in him for perfect happiness. He beholds his own finitude and the finitude of creation. He aspires to what is beyond the temporal to the eternal, yet he cannot transcend the limits of his nature. But he dreams about it (as we see in Plato). He seeks to know the giver behind the gift of his existence, that is, behind the gift that is creation. As a spiritual nature, he is open to the whole of reality, the whole of being (universal being). He seeks to know the "whole of reality", that is, to possess the bonum universale. We know from revelation that he is not going to attain it on his own. He might think, as Plato did, that death will free him from the temporal in order to enter into the realm of the "really real" so as to contemplate subsistent beauty. And that might very well be the case. But revelation tells us that this can only happen through God's initiative. He cannot, through his own natural faculties, attain God. If he is to attain the bonum universale, it can only be through another gratuitous giving (distinct from creation). He depends upon the divine initiative. In fact, even his own natural happiness is dependent upon the gratuitous self-giving of others; for he cannot force people to be his friends. And so this dependency upon the divine initiative is not out of place at all, for man knows already that an element of his own happiness is the feeling of having a debt that cannot be paid.

Marriage: Man is inclined to marry, to give himself completely to another, to belong to another exclusively in one flesh union. Even a marriage consummated by sexual union is a kind of knowing. Mary says to the angel Gabriel: "I do not know man" (Lk 1, 35). The giving of oneself in the marital act is a revealing of oneself to the other. One allows oneself to be known, and one gives oneself in order to be known by the other in a way that is exclusive and thus closed off to others. Marriage is a special kind of knowledge of persons. Love wills that the other see or behold what it knows, especially conjugal love. And both husband and wife will to beget human life, because goodness is effusive, and their unique conjugal relationship is good. They desire that a new life, the fruit of their love, share in what they know, namely the relationship they have with one another (as well as with others, with creation, and with God).

Integrity: Man is inclined to seek integration within himself, an integration of the complex elements of himself. This is because he seeks to be most fully, and one (along with good, beauty, and true) is a property of being. He is inclined to bring about a more intense unity within himself, namely harmony between his actions and his character as well as his will and his passions. Bringing order to the passions (cultivating temperance and fortitude) is a means to an end. A person aims to be temperate and brave for the sake of possessing the highest good, the possession of which is threatened by excessive sensuality and emotional disorder.

These are the primary principles of practical reason. They are the starting points of human action, the motivating principles behind every genuinely human action that we choose to perform. Now the very first principle of morality is self-evident and is presupposed in every human action. That principle is: good is to be done, evil is to be avoided.

Secondary Precepts

It is from this principle that more specific precepts are derived. A specifically human act is one that is motivated by one or more of these intelligible human goods. Scratching an itch is not a specifically human action, for even dogs and cats scratch themselves when itchy. But asking a question is a specifically human action, for behind it is a will to know and possess truth, which is an intelligible human good. So too, stopping the car in order to behold a beautiful landscape or the majestic beauty of the Rockies is a specifically human and humanly good action.

Now evil is a privation, a lack of something that should be there. It is a deficiency or lack of wholeness. Thus, an evil will is one that is deficient, whereas a good will is whole and complete. Thus, a morally good action is one that involves a will open to the entire spectrum of intelligible human goods, whereas a morally evil action involves a deficient willing, a will not open to the full spectrum of human goods. A person is good if he wills the good, not merely his own good, for "human goods" are not limited to this individual instance which is himself. Nor is it limited to one's immediate family or relatives, etc. If a person is good willed,he wills the good wherever there is an instance of it.

From these principles, more specific or secondary moral precepts can be derived and, moreover, are naturally known to some degree or another by every human person. For example, everyone (more or less mentally sound) throughout the world and throughout history understands that justice is good and ought to be done. As precepts become more specific, however, and as they are applied to specific situations, disagreements begin to arise.

But let us consider some of the more intermediate precepts derived from the first principle of morality. Firstly, if good is to be done and evil is to be avoided, one ought not to willingly destroy an instance of an intelligible human good for the sake of some other instance. In other words, one ought not to do evil that good may come of it. Willingly destroying one instance of a human good, such as a child's life, as a means to some end, involves a deficient will, one not entirely good; for a good will does not willingly attack what is good.

Further, one ought not to treat another human person as a means to an end, that is, love a human person merely for the sake of what he can provide, for this is to treat a human being as if he were an instrumental good and fails to recognize his intrinsic dignity as a person to be loved for his own sake. Human persons are also essentially equal, that is, of the same nature. Thus, it is inconsistent with a good will to treat certain others with a preference, that is, in a way that fails to respect their status as equal in dignity to oneself. At times human goods demand that we treat certain others with a preference. In such cases, we do not fail to respect another's status as a person equal in dignity to ourselves or anyone else. For example, treating a patient who has just arrived at the hospital over one who has been waiting two hours is preferential treatment, but it is reasonable only because the former has suffered a heart attack, while the latter requires nothing more than a few stitches for a cut. A human good is at stake here, namely human life, and so preferential treatment is reasonable and demanded by a good will. Preferential treatment that is arbitrary and not grounded in intelligible human goods, but merely on feelings is what we mean by unfairness or partiality.

It is possible, moreover, to allow oneself to be moved feelings of one kind or another to act alone for intelligible human goods, when acting in community with others would better achieve the intended end. Some players will not pass the ball or puck, but will hog it and leave team-mates behind. A Student Council president might try to do everything herself when delegating certain tasks to others thus creating a division of labour would more effectively realize the goals that the Council intends to achieve for the whole school. Thus, it is reasonable that one ought not to willingly act alone and individualistically for human goods.

And since humanly good action is action motivated by intelligible human goods, as opposed to merely sensible goods, one ought not to act purely on the basis of emotion, either on the basis of fear, aversion, or desire. For example, a real threat to human goods, such as a charging pit bull, would give rise to fear, and it is reasonable to allow that emotion to move us in the direction to which it inclines us. We might evaluate the threat as somewhat surmountable, in which case we ought to run for our lives. Such behaviour is reasonable and motivated by the will to preserve our lives. But refusing to go to school because one finds new social situations uncomfortable is to choose to act on the basis of feelings of fear and anxiety (assuming, of course, that there is a choice, and that there is no serious phobia that prevents a person from making a free-choice). So too, refusing to walk to school because there is a dead skunk on the road that causes one feelings of aversion, or because one feels lethargic, are examples of behaviour not grounded in reason. Practical reason demands that good be done, but good is not being done because one values feeling good over intelligible human goods (the lower over the higher).

It is possible-in fact, quite common-to act on the basis of the emotion of desire without reference to intelligible human goods. Eating is a desirable action and it serves intelligible human goods, for example human life, family, and friendships. But to willingly eat merely for the taste of food is unreasonable and not fully human, it is gluttonous. For example, a person who is not at all hungry nor in need of nourishment and sees no reason to eat, but who grabs a can of icing and begins eating it for the sweet taste, is behaving in a way that is not specifically and fully human, but less than human. It is human behaviour insofar as it is willed, but it falls short insofar as it fails to realize intelligible human goods.

Engaging in a mood altering behaviour, such as drug use, in order to feel as if one's life is all together (integrity) when in fact it is not, is again to engage in behaviour that is not humanly good. Actually taking steps to bring order to one's life is the more human albeit difficult option.

If prudence is the proper application of universal principles to particular situations, then prudence demands that one continue to ponder the implications of the first principle of morality and the secondary precepts of natural law. Thus, it is reasonable to devote time to studying the great moral thinkers of the past and present, such as Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Alphonsus of Ligouri, and those of more recent time, such as Father Joseph Rickaby, John J. Elmendorf, John Oesterle, Jacques Maritain, Ralph McInerny, Donald DeMarco, Germain Grisez, Benedict Ashley, etc.


If prudence were merely the knowledge of universal moral principles, we could stop here. But it is much more than that. Prudence requires a sensitivity and attunement to the here and now of the real world of real people. It requires a great deal of experience. That is why Aquinas lists memory as in integral part of the virtue of prudence, for experience is the result of many memories.

There is more to memory than the simple recall of facts. Memory is more an ability to learn from experience. And so it involves an openness to reality, a willingness to allow oneself to be measured by what is real. This quality of openness is not as widespread as we might tend to believe at first. Some people just don't seem to learn from experience, that is, they don't seem to remember how this or that person reacted to their particular way of relating to them, for they continue to make the same mistakes in their way of relating to others. It is as if they have no memory of last week, or last month, or last year. They lack a "true to being" memory because they do not will to conform to what is real, but have made a stubborn decision to have reality conform to the way they want the world to be. That is why the study of history is so important for the development of political prudence; for how often have we heard the old adage that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat its mistakes?

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