The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 21, 2018

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Last Things: Prudence
James V. Schall, S.J. - 08/05/09
aristotle _fcksavedurl= I.

Some argument exists about whether prudence or justice is the most important of the practical virtues, to the things we do that can be otherwise. Such an argument cannot be settled if we do not know the difference between these two moral virtues, both of which, of course, are needed, each of which is the “highest” virtue under different aspects. Justice is higher because it relates to others; prudence is higher because it relates to intelligence. I cannot be “prudent” if I am not at the same time “just.” And I cannot be “just” if I am not at the same time and in the same act “prudent.”

Indeed, I cannot be “good” if I do not have all the virtues, including justice and prudence. Justice is not prudence, nor is prudence justice. Each virtue refers to a different aspect of that same reality that takes place in our souls when we do something that reveals what we are in our chosen actions. In real life, no virtue of any sort—justice, courage, temperance, generosity—can be what it is without prudence and justice being present within it. Every act, in other words, is what it is—a courageous act or a generous act—and at the same time, it is potentially at least related to others.

Prudence is the right order of things to be done. This order “of things to be done” is why, sometimes, prudence is called a “foreseeing.” We strive to see in this situation and in these circumstances just what is the right thing to put into effect, a thing that we can also choose not to do if we wish. If we could not be aware that our acts are under our own power such that we could make them otherwise than they are, we could not, properly speaking, be human beings responsible for our deeds and words, beings who merit reward and punishment, praise and blame for our acts and words identifying those acts.

Justice, in its intelligibility, is to render to each his due. It deals with how we “stand” not to ourselves but to others in what we owe them or what they owe us. Justice is “other” oriented. It connects us with the world outside of ourselves. Prudence, on the other hand, looks primarily at the end of all of our actions, that which ultimately causes us to do all that we do and which gives intelligibility to all our deeds done in its pursuit. Prudence has to do with the means that we choose to reach our end, both as to whether what we choose reaches this end and as to how we do reach it.

Choosing the end that decides all our acts is not itself prudence. We can give reasons why we choose this or that end—say, wealth, honor, or pleasure. The end once chosen, even if only implicitly, is not variable as are the means available to achieve it. The choosing of the end depends on an intellectual act under the control of our wills. The end itself, however, is based on what is. It is always some good, whether “the” good or some partial good. We in fact cannot choose what is evil directly. We always choose any evil because we see the good in which all evil must exist. We can in this sense seek an “end” that is not that for which our human being is given to us. This is why our ultimate destiny relates to that end which illuminates each of our particular actions that are designed to achieve it.

This possibility of selecting an unworthy end of our lives is why Aristotle persists in telling us that “Politics does not make man to be man, but, taking him from nature as already man, enables him to be good man.” What it is to be a human being is not something man makes, but discovers. What is implied here is both that the polity does not make man to be man, hence it is limited by what man is, and that man’s relation to others suggests that he lives in an order of others in which the basics of justice and its legal foundations are carried out. He is a political and social animal in all of his deeds, even those that directly deal with himself. Likewise, he cannot be completely what he ought to be if he has no others about him with whom he can act.

Prudence is an intellectual virtue. It is, as I like to call it, the intellectual virtue of the practical or moral virtues. What does this practicalness mean? Basically, it means that any act of mine, to be mine, has to have the stamp of my own reason on it. Otherwise, it is not mine. If I am going to be just, not only do I have to know what justice is as opposed to other human acts, but I also have to make this act that I am doing here and now just so that the act’s very intelligibility is my application of what is just to this act of mine. That is, I pay back exactly what I owe, when it is due, and because it is “right” to do so. What defines the human act as to what it is, we learn, is the reason why this act is put into existence. Every act put into existence might have been otherwise before it was put into effect. Every act, when put into existence, will, in its particularity, be either a good or bad act because of what it is.

All acts of prudence, moreover, are particular acts, singular, unique. They are, if you will, the application of universal standards or truths (or falsities) to a particular act that is put into the world through our own choice and act here and now. No single act will ever be the same act again. This is why I am practically defined by my own acts. Time, place, circumstances, understandings, wills in each case will be somewhat different. The human world, in other words, is full of acts that exist because, and only because, we exist. Each of these acts could have been different. Each act, up until the actual moment of its doing, can be “otherwise.” Once it is enacted, however, it forever remains what it is. It is a free act having been put in effect by a human being making it to be this, not that, kind of an act.

This fact is the root of the enormous variability of both good and bad human free acts. At bottom, it is why the human world is far more complicated and intricate than anything in the micro- or macro-cosmos. In this sense, it is a mistake to think that our supposedly insignificant existence on an obscure planet in an out-of-the-way galaxy is not necessarily the center of the universe itself. Better the world itself exists that our free and intelligent acts can take place within it. The world is also full of those immensely varied acts that are not in fact good acts.


We can speak of different kinds of prudence—political, economic, military, administrative, judicial, familial, or personal prudence. What a legislature is, in this sense, is simply an arena wherein prudential laws for a common good can be proposed and decided on as to their particular. Every organization or life will thus be faced with the making of prudential acts. All prudential acts exist that the highest prudential act in the universe can be attained. That would be that each person, since his being is not limited to this world, achieve the transcendent happiness that he is offered. What is clear, however, is that this final status is not achieved apart from the actions that the person places into the world of others. Someone cited Einstein as saying that we are given time in order that all of our actions be not taken at once. Time allows us not only to see what we do but also to seek to account for and repair what we do that is misdone.

I have called prudence the “intellectual” of the moral virtues. It is worthwhile to spell this notion out a bit. In principle, every “human” act that is ours shows the impress of our mind on its form, on what it is. Whatever it is we set out to do can usually be done in many differing ways, or not done at all. Many things in fact we can do but should not do. We can thus talk of the shrewdness or prudence of the killer or the adulterer. We mean by this that he carefully plotted down to the last detail just what he would do. In this sense, the more intelligent the sinner, the more “prudent” he must be to get what he wants. At the same time, this very shrewdness is a sign both of intelligence and of disorder of soul. He is, in other words, by habit “imprudent,” not prudent.

To understand prudence better, we need to distinguish a theoretical from a practical virtue. Prudence is a practical virtue. It deals with things that can be “otherwise” in their very coming to be. A theoretical virtue is one that deals with things that cannot be otherwise. This distinction is why Aristotle considered the theoretical virtues to be higher than the practical virtues. The things that cannot be “otherwise” are the divine things, to which our minds are also open to some degree. They are the “forms” of things that tell us what they are. We have minds to discover the intelligibility in things. We have minds to ask why things exist at all, why this thing is not that thing.

What is the relation of the theoretic intellect to the practical intellect, especially to prudence, the intellectual of the moral virtues? It is quite clear that the human mind, while capable of knowing all things, is not a divine mind. It knows things and knows them for certain. But it does not know everything about anything, even when what it knows is true. What is even more curious is the subtle relation between the practical and theoretical intellects even within the same person. In some sense, the theoretical intellect, the mind that knows what is, needs the practical intellect to be well ordered before it can be well ordered to its own object of knowing what is. The moral virtues and the political life, in this sense, are needed so that theoretical truth can be known for itself.

What does this presence of prudence mean? Since it is the power that judges the relation of means to final and all intermediate ends, it can easily deflect us from what is true, that on which we should build our moral lives. We seek our own ends so that we use our intellects not to know what is, but to plot means that enable us to obtain what we want, whether it be our true end or not. In other words, generally speaking, to be lacking in virtue will result in lack of openness to the truth. In this sense, we can say that prudence, the practical virtue, enables us to know the truth with our theoretical intellect. Moreover, we can know with our practical intellect that we are not telling ourselves the whole truth about the end of our own lives. We do not allow ourselves to examine what we do lest we have to change our ways.

We do not have “two” intellects, of course, one in one side of our brain called theoretical and the other side called practical. We have one single mind whose function as such is always to know what is true. What is true in practical actions is the truth of what we ought to do in these here-and-now circumstances that could be otherwise, either for better or for worse. When we use our intellects practically, we are trying to make or do something, some particular thing, that falls under our own powers. The doing of such an act indicates what sort of person we are, good or bad, as manifested in our actions. When we use our theoretical intellects, we best be sure that our moral lives are not distracting us and diverting us from what in fact is our highest end that governs all of our words and deeds.

The most stubborn errors of truth are located not in the theoretical intellect but in our moral lives, in the way we live. We are beings whose minds see and foresee the consequences of truth. If we do not want to live according to what is true, we almost invariably produce an explanation of reality that allows us to do something other than what truth would indicate. We proceed to put into the world acts that lack what ought to be there. Other persons who run into our acts, as it were, recognize that something is not right in our deeds. They sense something is missing. We sense it ourselves, but do everything we can to avoid asking ourselves honestly about the truth we do not want to see.

Prudence, in any case, stands at the gateway to reality, both of practical things and of theoretical things. We want to see the truth of what it is we put into the world, in acts that might be otherwise but that ought to bear the mark of a reason that understands what we are. We are beings who do not make ourselves, but find ourselves already what we are. In this sense, the whole moral order is not directed to itself. It does not bring us to the highest reality, but it enables us to confront it with minds unclouded by our own vices and blindnesses which we have constructed in our souls to allow us to do what we want, not what we ought.

Prudence, in short, is the greatest of the practical virtues when we consider that it is the virtue that makes our actions our actions and relates them to the end that we understand to be what constitutes our happiness, a happiness that ultimately is given to us in its own terms, not something we create. The great mystery of the human condition is really why we are given to be more than we are in such a way that to be what we are we have first to receive it as a gift.

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