Prudence: A forgotten virtue?

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Giovanni Cucci, SJ

 Giovanni Cucci, SJ / Theology / 19 August 2021


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A forgotten heritage

In today’s imagination prudence is mainly associated with careful, considered behavior (for example, driving a car slowly) or with a tendency to be indecisive so as to avoid risks, or worse, with a form of cowardice that prevents someone from taking a stand.[1] These views are largely associated with modern thought.

In antiquity, however, prudence was considered the highest virtue and the guide of all the others (auriga virtutum), because it allowed people to recognize the fundamental objective of life in a specific situation, and above all it identified the appropriate means to achieve it. The Greeks associated it with phronēsis (wisdom), a term that originally referred to the diaphragm (phrēn), the seat of breathing, feeling and the cognitive activity of the soul, the most intimate dimension of the human being.[2] The wise person exercises reason in a state of good health and therefore can govern the self.

For Aristotle, the task of wisdom is to educate for responsiveness, the indispensable energy for doing good (Topics, V, 8; 138 b 2-5): this is the essential task of practical reason (Nicomachean Ethics, VI, 5). For this reason, wisdom is the pivot of the moral life, because the purpose of this discipline, Aristotle adds, is not to know the good, but to be good. Cicero translates phronēsis as prudentia, defining it as “the science of things to be sought or avoided” (De officiis, I, 153).

As can be seen from this simple survey, not only wisdom-prudence, but also moral philosophy has characteristics that are quite different from the intellectualistic approach of the modern era, with its quest for rules and precise definitions, thereby emptying practical reason of the affective dimension. Significant in this regard is Kant’s position: reason and emotions are enemies. For this reason, in choosing the good, one must disregard every aspect of passion and the choice made on the basis of pure reason.

The explanation for this contrast is clear: “To be subject to emotions and passions is always a disease of the soul, because both exclude the dominion of reason.”[3] It is an antithetical position to that of Thomas Aquinas: “The mode of virtue, which consists in the perfect will, cannot be without passion, not because the will depends on the passion, but because a perfect will in a being subject to feelings necessarily entails passion” (De Veritate, q. 26, a. 7, ad 2; cf. a. 1).

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