Is prudence a virtue?

Prudence-by-Piero-del-Pollaiuolo

Is prudence a Biblical virtue?

In a previous post I argued that the notion of Christian virtue is a lost but powerful component of the Church’s call to “make disciples”, to help members of our churches to move from the early stages of faith towards maturity. This seems crucial both to fulfil the Great Commission in making disciples, not just converts, and in forming Christians who will “wear God” by clothing themselves in virtues which, unlike theological truths, the world around can see.

Cultivating virtue matters both to discipleship and evangelism in a post -Christian world.

Before we look at the key virtues of faith, hope and love, I want to explore whether Augustine and Thomas were right to claim for faith the four Greek “cardinal” virtues of prudence, self-control, courage and justice, especially prudence, which Aristotle saw as the key to all moral virtue.

Prudence (Latin prudentia , Greek phronesis or sophia, Hebrew hokmah or da’at) is not simply, despite its adoption in at least one insurance company name, caution with money. Prudence may save for a rainy day because it knows this is wise, and it may drive carefully because it is encouraged by French road signs (“soyez prudent!”) but it can equally be bold and take risks when needed. It learns from the past and plans for the future (symbolised in the classic image above by Piero del Pollaiuolo with looking glass and serpent-on-pole).

Prudence in Aristotle resembles the practical “wisdom” of Proverbs and James in the Scriptures. It is shrewdness in the tasks and decisions of life, what we might call common sense, and what Paul and Peter call “insight”. Jesus speaks of the “wisdom” of the shrewd manager in Luke 16:8, who uses material resources to insure against imminent punishment.

For Aristotle, prudence is key – each moral virtue relies upon prudence (you cannot be courageous until you are also prudent, for instance), and prudence demands each virtue:

“It is not possible to be good without prudence, or prudent without being good.” (Nichomachean Ethics VI 13).

The Biblical picture of “wisdom” or “prudence” goes deeper than Aristotle’s, however. It comes from knowing God, and is a gift of God (supremely granted to Solomon, 1 Kings 3:5-14). It links closely to knowledge of the Law in Proverbs (see eg 8:1-13; 9:10) just as its opposite, folly, goes along with a godless life. Hence Gabriel promises that John the Baptist will prepare people for the Messiah by “turning the hearts of many to the wisdom (phronesis) of the righteous” (Luke 1:17) – prudence is connected to righteous life. The boy Jesus astonishes the Nazerenes with his “wisdom” (sophia, Mark 6:2), and Luke 2 twice emphasises how Jesus grew in “wisdom” in his youth (40, 47).

Although his use of the word is rare, Jesus describes the man who builds his house on the rock as “wise” in a context which is clearly not just about common sense but spiritual insight and kingdom loyalty (Matthew 7:24). The same is true of the “wise” virgins and stewards of Matthew 24. Prudence in gospel terms is about radical decision to follow Christ.

Paul importantly critiques worldly “wisdom” for its pride, and argues that true knowledge lies in Christ, and in the “right thinking” (phronesis) of humility (Romans 12:3, Philippians 2:3). So prudence is about spiritual discernment, applying our minds to think about what is best or “virtuous” (Philippians 4:8, the only place where Paul uses the word arete or “virtue”). It is in this sense that prudence/wisdom is a key virtue in exercising others – it enables the person to know the best thing to do and to choose it. James urges his readers to pray for wisdom (1:5), and identifies true wisdom as the root of moral virtue (purity, peace, submissiveness, mercy, justice and sincerity, 3:17-18).

How does the gospel redefine “prudence”?

So on one hand, the gospel agrees that prudence is the key cardinal virtue because it enables us to learn and show the other virtues through discernment, working out what is best. One the other, the gospel radically transforms even the cardinal virtues such as prudence, by connecting them ruthlessly to God (the author of wisdom), to Christ (whose wisdom makes us all see ourselves in humility as we truly are), and to Christian faith, hope, and love (the theological virtues through which alone cardinal virtues are truly expressed).

Aquinas follows Scripture and agrees with Aristotle, that all moral virtues depend upon prudence and vice versa (Summa Theologica I-II, q.58, aa 4-5).

“All the virtues of the appetitive part of man, which are called the moral virtues, in so far as they are virtues are caused by prudence.” (Questiones disputatis de virtutibus in communi 6)

“Without prudence there cannot be discipline, or moderation, or any moral virtue.” (Quaestiones disputatae de veritate 14, 6)

He also takes the view that the cardinal virtues are “natural” and do not require faith or grace for a person to display them. This makes for an interesting debate about why, then, Paul and Peter both included “self-control” and “perseverance” in their lists of virtues to add to faith: for them, these are the fruit of the Spirit and grace, not of nature and humanity – did Aquinas get this wrong? Is wisdom/prudence  natural, nurtured, or supernatural?

Aquinas, however, disagrees with Aristotle that all humans have the capacity for moral virtue in the same way, regardless of belief. For Aquinas (from his reading of Scripture), unless directed to God through love, all moral virtues, including prudence, fall short. Perhaps this is the answer to the above question: for the Scriptural authors, prudence as “common sense” is possible for all people, but in the deeper and true sense, prudence as “wisdom” is only possible through faith in God.

“Prudence considers the ways by which we arrive at happiness; but wisdom considers the very object of happiness.” (Summa Theologica I-II 66, 5 ad 2)

So it is a consistent claim of Scripture that knowledge of God brings wisdom, and the reverse, “The fool says in his heart, “There is no god”.

How does a person cultivate prudence and wisdom today?

  • Pray for it – if Solomon did, and James tells us to, I’d be a “fool” not to
  • Study for it – knowledge of the will of God in Scripture brings the wisdom of God
  • Search for it – all wisdom is found in knowing Christ, so find Him, and you find prudence
  • Practise it – the habit of “thinking” about goodness, purity and beauty trains me to know and choose what is best
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