Last week we started thinking about the importance of the virtues as skills for the moral life, and forming who we are by training ourselves in the virtues. The question is, when we have to make a decision and act, which virtue applies now?
That’s where prudence comes in. Prudence does not mean (as it is so often used) being cautious. In ordinary life, we call someone prudent when they are careful with their money or when they take a long time to make decisions and rarely act quickly (if they act at all). Sometimes we call people prudent when they’re a bit dull and never take any risks. A virtuous person will have to take risks from time to time. The martyrs took risks. That doesn’t mean they were without prudence. So what exactly is this neglected virtue?
Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.
Prudence governs the other virtues. That’s why it’s so important. It’s the skill of knowing what virtues are called for here and now, in this given situation. And then, if we have the virtues we need, prudence sets them to work. Prudence is the control centre of the moral life. If you don’t have this virtue, no matter how much you grow in all the others, you won’t actually be able to put them to good use.
Because it is a skill — just like the other virtues — once we have obtained prudence, it works like an instinct, rather than a conscious decision. There’s no delay while we think about the moral choice before us. Prudence puts our other virtues into action straightaway.
We grow in prudence by learning to judge what is good and what will lead to that good outcome. Discerning our true good comes from knowing God’s laws, but most importantly, knowing him who is our ultimate good.
‘When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking,’ the Catechism tells us (CCC 1777). The prayerful examination of our actions each day gives us a chance to learn from our experience — both good and bad — so as to act more quickly in the future. Then we try again the next day. All that prayer and study has to be put into practice, by trying to act well in difficult situations. We probably don’t need to go searching for these — difficult choices are quite good at finding us by themselves. The important thing is not to be so scared of making a wrong decision that we don’t act at all, just as we can’t be scared to play a wrong note when we learn the piano or to miss the goal when we learn to play football. There are few skills in life that anyone ever obtained without making mistakes along the way. Even our mistakes help us to grow in prudence, if we learn from that past experience.
We should want to grow in prudence because it makes life easier for us. We gain the ability to make good decisions without thinking about them, and making those good decisions quickly, we will make the choice to escape all kinds of temptations before we’ve even noticed they are there.
Christ is the supreme example of all the virtues, and when we know what to look for, we see prudence at work in the Gospels. He often had difficult decisions to make, and little time to make them. He knew when to stand up to the pharisees, and he knew when to vanish into the crowd. He knew when to work a miracle in front of everyone, and when to let only his closest disciples see his power. Most importantly, he knew when it was time not to run away, and when to put obedience and fortitude and love for the men and women he had come to save before the preservation of his own life.
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