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The Cardinal Virtues — Prudence

September 15, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


In beginning our consideration of the virtues last week, we saw that the word virtue, in general, can be defined as “a firm and habitual disposition to do good. It allows a person not only to perform good actions,” explains Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, “but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his bodily and spiritual powers. He pursues and chooses this good in concrete actions of daily life” (The Faith, p. 161).
A person who lacks virtue will, at best, do good only sporadically. Conversely, through the habitual practice of virtue, a person will progressively improve not only what he does but who he is.
German philosopher Dr. Josef Pieper (1904-1997), a renowned Thomist theologian and expert on the subject of virtue, provides an insightful explanation:
“The doctrine of virtue…has things to say about [the] human person; it speaks both of the kind of being which is his when he enters the world, as a consequence of his createdness, and the kind of being he ought to strive toward and attain to — by being prudent, just, brave, and temperate. The doctrine of virtue . . . is one form of the doctrine of obligation, but one by nature free of regimentation and restriction. On the contrary, its aim is to clear a trail, to open a way” (The Four Cardinal Virtues, p. xii).
As described last week and alluded to above by Dr. Pieper, there are four cardinal virtues — prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance — upon which all the other moral virtues are grounded. These key virtues, as one might surmise from the meaning of the Latin root “cardo” from which cardinal is derived, are the “hinge” virtues on which the others depend, “as a door depends on its hinges” (Msgr. Paul J. Glenn, A Tour of the Summa, p. 143).
Before examining each cardinal virtue individually, it would be instructive to develop more fully a topic that was mentioned briefly in closing last week’s column, namely, the difference between the natural acquired virtues and the supernatural infused virtues. The former are acquired through repeated effort on our part to do what is right; the latter are infused directly by God (along with sanctifying grace and the theological virtues) at Baptism.
“The acquired moral virtues,” explains Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP, in volume one of The Three Ages of the Interior Life (AIL), “have an object accessible to natural reason; the infused moral virtues have an essentially supernatural object commensurate with our supernatural end, an object which would be inaccessible without the infused light of faith” (p. 57).
Fr. Paul A. Duffner, OP, by way of contrast, demonstrates the differences between natural and supernatural virtues:
1) Natural virtues are acquired and strengthened by repeated acts while supernatural virtues are infused into the soul by God along with sanctifying grace and also grow with sanctifying grace; 2) acquired virtues dispose the faculties to follow the dictates of reason while infused virtues dispose the faculties to follow reason illuminated by faith; 3) natural virtues are lost by non-use and/or repeated contrary acts while supernatural virtues are lost (along with sanctifying grace) by mortal sin, but can be restored through sacramental absolution; and 4) acquired virtues increase the ease with which good actions are performed whereas infused virtues give the supernatural capacity to perform actions meritorious of Heaven (cf. The Rosary Light & Life [RLL] — volume 46, n. 3, May-June, 1993).
Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange points out that “true acquired moral virtues may exist even in a man in the state of mortal sin” (AIL, p. 58). For example, a man may practice sobriety, pay his debts, and teach his children good principles so as to live reasonably in the temporal sphere.
However, “as long as [he] is in a state of mortal sin, his will is habitually turned away from God . . . with the consequent result that he shows great weakness in accomplishing moral good, even of the natural order” (ibid.).
Therefore, as Fr. Duffner states unequivocally: “No matter how much we have advanced in natural acquired virtues, they bring no supernatural benefit without the infused virtues to make their acts meritorious” (RLL, ibid.).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) now devotes a single but substantial paragraph to each of the four cardinal virtues beginning with prudence, which it defines it as “the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (CCC, n. 1804). The etymology of “prudence” comes directly from the Latin prudentia (“a foreseeing, foresight, sagacity, practical judgment”).
In his Summa Theologiae (STh), St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, defines it as “right reason applied to action” (STh II-II, Q47, art. 2). Similarly, the crucial importance of prudence in making wise practical judgments is underscored in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs: “The simple [man] believes everything, but the prudent [man] looks where he is going” (Prov. 14:15).
Prudence, or practical wisdom, is the habit of right reason by which we order means to ends, by which we make choices and judgments. On the natural level, it is the “queen of virtues” in that it leads the other virtues by guiding the reasoning or deliberation process. Classical philosophers portray prudence as the “charioteer of the other virtues” (auriga virtutum) because it directs them: “It guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure” (CCC, n. 1806).
Prudence is an intellectual virtue because it perfects reason; it is also a moral virtue in the sense that it is intimately tied to the will and appetites. One cannot perform a morally good action without being prudent, without it being in accord with right reason in the particular situation. For example, it would not be a truly virtuous act to fast at the joyous occasion of a wedding reception; it would, in fact, be both imprudent and intemperate under the circumstances.
All the virtues have to grow and work together; in other words, you cannot have one without the others. Prudence, however, is unique in that it leads the other moral virtues in the sense that it directs and balances them. Another important point regarding the virtue of prudence is that it can never be used badly; it can never be associated with vices.
In today’s society, the word “prudent” is often used in reference to sensible management of financial matters or other worldly affairs, a mere practical, calculating cleverness or worldly prudence where the end sought is a particular temporal good (e.g., the wise use of money). True prudence aims for something infinitely higher — it refers to the prudence of a person who chooses wisely and responsibly with regard to his final end, that of eternal beatitude.
If prudence as a virtue referred simply to practical cleverness, people blessed with the natural gift of superior intelligence would have a significant advantage — not everyone can be prudent in that sense. However, we all have the ability, if we cooperate with God’s grace, to exercise prudence in the sense of making good choices for our final end.
Very simple and humble people are often, in fact, far more prudent than those who have been endowed with great natural gifts. This is seen throughout history in the actions of government leaders, philosophers, scientists, and other intellectually gifted individuals who perpetrated great evil.
As is true for each of the cardinal virtues, there are two types of prudence: natural and supernatural. Natural prudence guides man toward his natural end and is strengthened by repeated acts of prudence — it is the work of a lifetime. Supernatural prudence, on the other hand, is elevated from natural acquired prudence in that it guides one toward his supernatural end.
As noted earlier, it is infused into one’s soul by God at Baptism — everyone in the state of sanctifying grace possesses supernatural prudence to some degree (as well as the theological virtues, the other supernatural moral virtues, and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit).
In his Modern Catholic Dictionary (MCD), Fr. Hardon identifies three stages of mental operation that should take place in exercising the virtue of prudence: 1) take counsel carefully with oneself and from trusted others; 2) judge correctly on the basis of all the evidence at hand; and 3) direct subsequent activity according to the norms determined after a prudent judgment has been made (cf. MCD, p. 448). Furthermore, and not surprisingly, the gift of the Holy Spirit most closely connected to this cardinal virtue is that of counsel, which perfects prudence (see volume 149, n. 9; March 3, 2016 for a fuller treatment).

Detachment And

Let us close by prayerfully reflecting on the words of Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, OCD, on the importance of guarding against influences of the world and the flesh in exercising prudence:
“In order that our judgments and may be prudent, we must know how to free them from elements which are too subjective, such as our personal attractions and interests, our likes and dislikes. Sometimes we can deceive ourselves into thinking that we are judging a situation or deciding to do something solely for the glory of God or for the good of our neighbor, when, in fact, if we examined ourselves thoroughly, we would perhaps see that the motives which prevailed in our judgment or in our deliberations were egoistic and dictated by our own personal interests.
“Hence, even prudence requires that we cleanse our hearts from all these human motives, and that we practice detachment and renunciation” (Divine Intimacy, n. 174 § 1).

+ + +

(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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