“Habits for Happiness” Lenten Series on the Cardinal Virtues

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

By Stacy Trasancos

“Prudence” is a word that seems to have lost its meaning. Upon hearing the word, one may think of the prude, the prudish woman, who is obsessed with the proper expectations of society and has an excessive “prudent modesty” characterized by a fearful attitude towards human sexuality with perhaps a wrinkled nose and pinched lips. In a similarly pejorative sense, the practice of prudence has become akin to bookish subterfuge, as in the man who evades honesty so that he may avoid conflict, sensible but weak, conducting “prudent business” by invoking discretion to demur on matters that could require...too much effort. These connotations are not behaviors to be emulated.  

In the tradition of the Catholic Church, however, prudence is a much more intellectually heroic word, and the goal of this study is to restore for the reader the richness and wisdom of it. To begin, let’s put “prudence” into context and properly define it. The virtues are habits we gain from practice (ST.I-II.49.1), much like we practice playing compositions to be piano players or catching balls to be baseball players. We have the power to practice virtue to be more perfectly human. (See “The Power to Be Human.”) The cardinal virtues — prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance — are the natural virtues that any human can appreciate as worthy and good. They flow from the theological virtues — faith, hope, and love. Without the theological virtues, the cardinal virtues can become distorted because we need counsel from the Holy Spirit to guide us in the search for truth (ST.II-II.52). Prudence is the first cardinal virtue for a reason; it is the virtue that teaches us knowledge of reality. From prudence, we gain the ability to discern what is good in every circumstance and to choose the right actions. This is a concept so fundamental to being human that philosophers have long tried to articulate it. St. Thomas Aquinas (from the thirteenth century) quotes Aristotle (who lived more than three hundred years before Christ was born) that “prudence is right reason applied to action” (ST.II-II.47.2).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church covers the three theological and the four cardinal virtues as well. Of prudence, the catechism says that it is “not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation,” to refute the modern misconceptions mentioned above (CCC 1806). Instead, the catechism explains that those who are prudent have well formed consciences in truth and can apply moral principles correctly and be confident in the ability to choose what is good and avoid what is evil.

Since prudence guides the judgment of conscience to conform to knowledge of reality so we know what action is right in every circumstance, prudence guides the other virtues. Without prudence, one cannot understand what is just in order to practice justice, or what is courageous to practice fortitude, or what is moderation to practice temperance (all to be covered later). As Josef Pieper, an esteemed twentieth century Thomistic philosopher, put it in his book The Four Cardinal Virtues, “Prudence is the cause of the other virtues’ being virtues at all” (p. 6). For example, we naturally crave good food and naturally stop eating when we are full, even animals will do as much, but prudence transforms this natural inclination to a human virtue, the virtue of temperance. When we use our intellect and free will, we can not only refrain from overeating junk food, we can also make choices about what, when, where, how, and with whom we eat, and meals are transformed into opportunities for communion. In doing so, we pursue our perfection, our happiness. Likewise, we naturally tend toward fairness and courage, but we need the correct judgement of conscience to know what is actually just and when to fight or remain silent. The other three cardinal virtues are meaningless unless they are grounded in prudence. That’s why prudence is the principle cardinal virtue.

In turn, prudence depends on the higher theological virtues, faith, hope, and love, but namely love from which all virtue flows. To be authentically prudent, we must love truth, hope for a future good, and have faith in God, so the connection of the cardinal virtues to the theological virtues must be remembered when learning to practice virtue. (See “What is Virtue?”)

Prudence is not something we are born knowing how to practice though; we must be taught to recognize truth. St. Thomas says that prudence is not in us by nature, but by teaching and experience (ST.II-II.47.15). Being made in the image and likeness of God with the rational spiritual powers of intellect and free will, we are intrinsically good. We are made to search for truth. When we reason in truth, we shape our interior lives, that is, we form our consciences, so that when we make choices and follow through with action, we do the right thing. We see things correctly, as they really are. It’s not enough to know what’s what, however. Prudence is the process by which we ultimately figure out how to turn deliberations, judgments, and decisions into concrete actions. As such, prudence is not an end unto itself, but a means to all good ends (ST.II-II.47.6). This is easier said than done.

The Components of Prudence

St. Thomas lists the various components of practicing prudence to help us reason in truth (ST.II-II.49). There are eight, they go in order, and they are:

  • Memory
  • Understanding
  • Docility
  • Shrewdness
  • Reason
  • Foresight
  • Circumspection
  • Caution

Memory (memoria) does not merely refer to the neurological storage in our brains, but to the recollection of many experiences. Animals, which are beings with sensitive (sensing) souls have physiological brain memory, such as when dogs learn tricks. Humans are creatures with rational souls and can compile a set of events into a memory. To practice prudence, we must perfect our memory. To perfect the memory (i.e. conform it to reality), St. Thomas lists four steps within this first component.

First, form a picture in your mind of the series of events. The picture should not simply be one that is pleasing and familiar. Rather, it should be “somewhat unwonted,” meaning strange, as if you are seeing the memory through someone else’s eyes for the first time—a childlike recollection. Pictures in the mind are called imaginations. When we imagine events, we remember them more clearly. This much, even animals can do. Second, make mental notes of the order of events. This will help retain the correct memory. Third, be anxious and earnest about the things you wish to remember. Yes, be anxious. Anxiety is not always a bad thing. Anxiety is the body’s way of informing us that we need to think more about something in earnest. If a memory is making you anxious, you need to confront it. The first step to confronting it honestly is to remember the events correctly. Fourth, reflect on the set of memories you retain. The purpose for unwonted or anxious memories is not usually apparent at first. Make mental notes of past events you need to process. By following these four steps, we learn to organize our memory. Then we are ready to understand.

Understanding refers to the “right estimate” about something that has happened, literally to “stand under” the objective truth and look up at it to grasp it with our intellect. Since prudence is right reason applied to action, we must be able to form conclusions about the memories we have retained and are processing. We understand universal principles, meaning we can place our own memories into a systematic whole of reality around us. Our lives occur in the context of other lives; therefore, our memories are affected by and affect others. Understanding is also a gift of the Holy Spirit, so with an interior light (clarity) we assess our experiences. To try to understand reality without the light of faith (a theological virtue) is like trying to see in the dark.

Docility refers to our inability to know everything. Humans are both body and rational soul. We take in data about the world around us through our senses and process it intellectually with our minds. Thus our intelligence has limits. We need to be taught some things by others, especially those who are older and wiser than us. Our elders have insight because they have collected and assessed more memories. The one who is docile is ready and willing to be taught. Docility is sometimes misunderstood as a term of weakness or submissiveness, but it means readiness to receive instruction, a virtuous submissiveness. Even if you do not agree with something someone teaches you, the willingness to hear others out is intellectually virtuous. The goal is ultimately to be able to recognize and adopt a right opinion, but it is admirable to admit when you are still in the process of forming an opinion.

Shrewdness is another word that is often misused. It means to be able to form both a correct and a quick opinion. This is done by developing the mental insight to read between the lines or finding the middle term in a demonstration. The Latin is solertia, which means to have a clear-sighted objectivity, even a dispassionate observance of situations. The one who is shrewd is agile and quick-witted, able to put the pieces together, both from memory and from learning, into the big picture.

Reason refers not to the power of reason per se but to its use. Notice how the steps have progressed from animal sensory input to the abstraction of universals (a class of things) and speculation. Humans, being both body and rational soul, are neither animals nor angels. Animals do not have rational souls. Angels do, but they do not have bodies; they are spirits without bodies. Angels do not need to reason because they know all that they are created to know at once, kind of like when we recollect past events. (We can think in an instant of a past that may have lasted for years.) Humans think in the present along a time continuum, so we need to reason as a process. If we reason correctly, based on the steps listed, we are able to form accurate conclusions about the present, and we are better able to predict what might happen in the future.

Foresight, then, is the ability to see into the future and direct actions toward an end. The Latin word is providentia. The past can be studied, but it is fixed and cannot be undone. Even the present is fixed because as soon as we think of it, it already belongs to the past. Foresight allows us to rightly order present actions to a good end, knowing that we can never fully predict the future.

Having analyzed the past honestly, acted in the present to the best of our abilities with insight into future directions, we then must practice the ability to constantly reassess new data as we take it in. We must practice circumspection and look around at our surroundings. The practice of prudence forms a cycle. You might think of the Scientific Method taught in science classes and practiced by scientists. The method follows the steps of prudence we are outlining. A scientist must observe reality, hypothesize about why things happen the way they do, design experiments to test the hypotheses, analyze data to form conclusions, observe what happens, and begin the process again, continuously. Large sets of hypotheses that are demonstrated with experiments and data are elevated to theories. This appreciation for the thought process and for the laws and order in nature are one reason modern science was born in the Christian West.

Finally, we must practice caution. We are not perfect, and even though we may practice our whole lives, we will never get every choice and action right. We will make bad choices even when we are trying hard to make good choices. The last step reminds us that real prudence means to continually be willing to adjust. A prudent person makes corrections when he discovers he erred, and he learns from it. A prudent person also prepares for the unexpected, knowing that she lives in a world full of creatures who are also, in varying degrees of prudence or the lack thereof, making choices and actions through life.

To transform this true knowledge into prudent actions, the discovery and judgement process listed above in the eight components of prudence must go one step further (ST.II-II.47.8). Prudence is “right reason applied to action,” therefore, after the process of discovery and judgement (the “right reason” part) the knowledge must be turned into action (command). To plunge into action without discovery and judgment is to be thoughtless or hasty. To incessantly deliberate and judge in the eight-fold process, but fail to make a decision and act, is to be irresolute or ineffective. To act without thinking or think without acting are both forms of imprudence. We need to do both; imprudence can be sinful.

Prudence in Action

The goal of studying virtue is to put it into real life. To do this, simply think of any decision you are trying to make. There are so many even in a single day, from deciding how long to take a shower, how much to spend on college, or when to confront a conflict with a family member.

When parents try to decide which school to send their kids to, they need to practice the components of prudence. If the parents are not honest in their memory of the schools and the child; if the parents are not willing to listen to others; if the parents are negligent in forming an opinion; or if the parents spend all their time researching and not acting; then they will not make a prudent decision for the best interest of the child. Furthermore, parents must remain open (circumspection and caution) to making changes in their educational plans if something is not working for the child or the family.

Or when a mother helps her preteen daughter figure out how to respond to a friend who didn’t invite her to a birthday party, the mother must help the child practice prudence. She must help her daughter honestly remember any conflicts that may have occurred without coloring the past in bias; she must help her daughter objectively assess the situation through the other girl’s eyes; she must pray with her daughter to ask for clarity from the Holy Spirit; she must remind her daughter to consider her group of friends and assess if the relationships are healthy; and she must help her daughter figure out how to stand up for herself while still giving the friend the benefit of the doubt. It is a life skill to learn how to manage friendships.

When a father helps a teenage son understand why drinking and driving are dangerous, he must teach the boy prudence. What can happen when people drink and drive? Why is it objectively risky? Why should teens heed the advice of mature adults? Why should the teen think about his future? Why should he consider the ramifications to his community? Why and how should he use caution?

When a couple faces marital difficulty, and both individuals discover they project past wounds onto the other spouse, the couple must help each other practice prudence through faith, hope, and love. When the elderly make decisions about health and finances at the end of life, prudence is just as necessary as it was in the beginning of life, except the person is much wiser with age.

Prudence is how we navigate the journey of our lives, and if our actions are directed towards Heaven as the ultimate end, we will always seek to do good. This is why prudence, the principle virtue among the cardinal virtues, must flow from the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. We need more than natural reason. We need the counsel of the Holy Spirit (ST.II-II.52).

Practicing prudence will improve our confidence in ourselves to make the right decision, even when life is hard, even when choices are not so clear, even when the stakes are high. We become confident because we learn to trust ourselves to keep trying until we get it right, and we have the tools to get there. Prudence allows us to no longer fear failure. Prudence places the possibility of success ever before us, until the very end when we fix our souls for all eternity, choosing good.

As much as the components and steps are formulated so strictly here, practicing prudence is actually not an exercise in following instructions and checking boxes on a list. These steps are meant to be guides. It is similar to the way a football coach uses chalk on a chalkboard to draw plays in a game. In two-dimensional space, a person can virtually block and tackle exactly as one plans. But in the real game with living, breathing defense and offense, the best laid plans will only get you so far. The playbook does not, in and of itself, guarantee a win. In ethics, adhering to the playbook is called casuistry, the science of reasoning to resolve cases of morality in particular instances. There is a place for thinking through difficult cases, but the plan sundered from real living is never enough. Actually practicing prudence in our lives can take us down a seemingly infinite number of paths, and it can be messy at times.

We never practice prudence in isolation. Everything God creates has a relationship to other things, even atoms. Much like atoms forming bonds, our personal spheres overlap in very complicated ways when we form relationships. Whereas atoms in the physical realm may bump around earth, forming precise bonds in precise ratios according to the laws of nature, it is not the same with humans who have free will. There are no strict rules. We share ourselves and form bonds, and in doing so we make ourselves vulnerable. We long to know and be known, to love and be loved. But we can get hurt. Or we find comfort. Or we find joy even amid suffering. We all want to belong to our families and communities. We are made for relationship.

Josef Pieper explains beautifully how prudence is practiced through the love of friendship (p. 29). We cannot practice prudence for another person. We cannot force another to be prudent. However, there is a way to influence right reasoning and good decision-making, a way of “grasping the concreteness of a man’s ethical decisions from outside.” Just as Catholics are taught to know God more so we can love and serve God more, a prudent friend must do the same for the other. He must get to know the other so that he can love the other more, and in doing so draw closer. Through this intimacy of friendship, one person can get so close to the center of the other that it is almost possible to turn around and look out at the world through the other’s eyes. Then, and only then, “by virtue of the oneness which love can establish” can we help another to practice prudence. We will never be completely one with another individual, for that perfection belongs to the Holy Trinity alone. But we can try, knowing unity is the goal in all of our relationships, even if sometimes the prudent action is to form boundaries to let safe people in and keep dangerous people out. There are so many treasures to mine in the Church’s teaching on prudence. Ultimately prudence allows us to form friendship with God and be able to see others as God sees them.

The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. Radiating from there, we live a life of hope, faith, and love. These theological virtues require us to practice prudence so that we may also bring about justice, fortitude, and temperance. In doing so, we develop habits — individually, in relationships, and in society — that lead us to be fully human and to find real happiness.

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Stacy A. Trasancos, PhD is the Executive Director of St. Philip Institute of Catechesis and Evangelization in the Diocese of Tyler. She is responsible for directing the team to fulfill the vision that Bishop Strickland set forth in his Constitution on Teaching the Catholic Faith.


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