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The Integral Parts Of Prudence

September 22, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


Prudence, the first of the four cardinal virtues scrutinized by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), is defined in its Glossary as “the virtue which disposes a person to discern the good and choose the correct means to accomplish it.” It is designated as the charioteer of all the virtues in that “it guides [them] by setting rule and measure” (CCC, n. 1806).
As articulated by Fr. Jordan Aumann, OP, in Spiritual Theology (SpT), “Prudence is the most necessary of all the moral virtues because its function is precisely to point out and command the just mean or measure in regard to any and all human actions. It enables us to judge accurately what is the morally good thing to do under particular circumstances” (pp. 276-277).
There is, as we saw last week, a measureless difference between natural prudence, which is acquired by repeated acts and operates under the guidance of reason alone, and supernatural prudence, which is infused directly by God and operates under the guidance of reason enlightened by faith.
To illustrate the difference consider the following examples. While natural prudence might lead one to marriage and family life, supernatural prudence could dictate that a person forgo marriage for the sake of the priesthood or religious life. Likewise, whereas natural prudence might lead one to pretend to deny an article of faith to preserve earthly life, supernatural prudence would dictate the acceptance of martyrdom for the sake of the Kingdom.
As we also saw last week, three essential acts are required for the proper functioning of prudence: deliberation, judgment, and execution. First, one must consider different means that might be applied toward an end that is morally good in light of concrete circumstances. Seeking wise counsel may be an appropriate part of the deliberation process if one is dealing with a difficult or murky affair. Second, one must judge if the various means arrived at are morally acceptable and then choose the best course of action in accord with a well-formed conscience. Finally, one must command and direct the chosen action.
“This last step is the principal act of this virtue,” emphasizes Fr. Paul A. Duffner, OP. “True prudence commands that the decision be put into effect with courage and without needless delays and without being discouraged by any difficulties encountered” (The Rosary Light & Life — volume 51, n. 2, March-April, 1998).
It was stated earlier that an important function of the virtue of prudence is to establish the “rule and measure” for the other moral virtues. This is a direct allusion to an important philosophical principle, namely, that “virtue lies in the mean.”
In his Summa Theologiae (STh), St. Thomas Aquinas, following the thought of Aristotle, expresses this principle in the following way: “Moral virtue is a habit of choosing the mean” (STh I-II, Q. 64, art. 1).
One of the primary tasks of prudence, then, is to establish the right balance or “mean” between opposing extremes while taking into account the particular circumstances. The virtue of prudence guards against excess on the one hand and deficiency on the other.
For example, consider a soldier in the heat of battle where courage is required. The virtue of fortitude, as dictated by prudence, chooses the right mean between fear and daring. In decision-making, virtue lies in the mean between being too impulsive and too indecisive. In one’s prayer life, one extreme might be spending so much time in prayer so as to neglect the duties of one’s state in life; at the other is spending too much time in recreation and neglecting prayer altogether.
The Angelic Doctor devotes an extensive section of his Summa Theologiae to prudence (see STh II-II, QQ. 47-56), surely an indicator of the importance he assigns to this virtue in the living out of a truly Christian life. In Question 49, he considers, one by one, “eight integral parts [that] are required for the perfection of the virtue of prudence, five of which pertain to the speculative aspect and three to the practical aspect” (SpT, p. 277).
St. Thomas refers to these parts as being so integral to the virtue of prudence that without them there is no prudence, just as without a roof, walls, and foundation there is no building. The five parts assigned to the cognitive aspect of prudence are “memory, reasoning, understanding, docility, and shrewdness” and the three to the commanding aspect are “foresight, circumspection, and caution” (STh II-II, Q. 48, art. 1, resp.).
An excellent work by Deacon Douglas McManaman entitled A Treatise on the Four Cardinal Virtues (TFCV) will be drawn from extensively in this brief descriptive commentary on the eight integral parts of prudence.
Memory, which is considered first, is more than simply an ability to recall facts. In the sense used by St. Thomas, “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” (TFCV, p. 17). The Angelic Doctor enumerates four positive steps that can be taken to improve our memory so as to better recall from past experience what is to be done or avoided in particular circumstances that we may encounter in the here and now (see STh II-II, Q.49, art.1, ad 2).
The second part, understanding, is not to be taken in this context to mean a faculty of the intellect, but refers rather to a knowledgeable grasp and proper application of universal moral principles (e.g., one is to do good and avoid evil; the natural desire for truth) in particular situations. It is similar to the concept of synderesis, or the “perception of the principles of morality” (CCC, n. 1780), which was covered in more depth in an earlier installment when the topic of conscience was considered (see volume 150, n. 47; November 23, 2017).
Docility, the third part, is open-mindedness, a willingness to listen to others — it makes experience fruitful. It requires humility in that one must recognize his limitations and be ready to accept those limits. Wise is the counsel of St. Thomas who states: “In matters of prudence, man stands in very great need of being taught by others, especially by old folk who have acquired a sane understanding of the ends in practical matters” (STh II-II, Q. 49, art. 3, resp.).
The fourth integral part of prudence, shrewdness (solertia in Latin), is “the ability to quickly size up a situation on one’s own, and so it involves the ability to pick up small clues and run with them. The shrewd are highly intuitive, subtle, and discrete” (TFCV, p. 18).
As expressed by Msgr. Paul J. Glenn in A Tour of the Summa (ATS), shrewdness used in this sense is not “low craftiness, but the quick and ready estimate of what is suitable in the situation” (p. 218). Those who lack solertia are susceptible to mistaking the guile of another for a good motive, when in reality there lurks an evil motive; they miss clues that point to an ominous intent. As Jesus instructed His apostles, we must “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).
Reasoning, the fifth part, refers to the ability to research, scrutinize, and compare alternative possibilities and/or solutions and then to apply logical reasoning principles to reach a correct conclusion. As expressed by St. Thomas, “The work of prudence is to take good counsel, . . . .a research proceeding from certain things to others. But this is the work of reason. Wherefore, it is requisite for prudence that man should be an apt reasoner” (STh II-II, Q. 49, art. 5, resp.).
The sixth integral part of prudence, foresight, can be defined as “the clear view of how future contingencies may bear upon the present occasion, or may depend on how the present situation is met” (ATS, p. 218). An indicator of the importance of this aspect of the virtue is evident in the name itself, for the word prudence “is derived from the Latin providere, which means ‘foresight’” (TFCV, p. 22).
As articulated by the Angelic Doctor, “Future contingencies, in so far as they can be directed by man to the end of human life, are the matter of prudence” (STh II-II, Q. 49, art. 6, resp.).

The Mask Of Good

Circumspection, the seventh integral part of prudence, is “the ability to take into account all relevant circumstances” (TFCV, p. 23). In other words, it is often possible that an act that is good in itself may be inappropriate in the present situation.
For example, penitential fasting, in itself, is a good, virtuous act. But to fast at the joyous occasion of a wedding reception at the risk of offending the host would not be appropriate or prudent. Circumspection, then, means being on the lookout for ways in which considered means might have an unexpected result.
The eighth and final integral part of prudence as defined by St. Thomas, caution, “looks to avoid evil, especially evil that wears the mask of good” (ATS, p. 218).
At the same time, however, it would not be prudent to choose not to act simply because bad consequences are likely to ensue. For example, it would not be prudent for a priest to choose not to preach about an unjust or immoral piece of legislation because he anticipates that some parishioners will be offended and stop attending Mass on Sunday. His silence, in this situation, would be at the risk of causing harm to souls that would otherwise be ignorant of the truth (cf. TFCV, p. 23).

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(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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