Treatise on Prudence

Question 47: Prudence in itself

Question 48: The parts of prudence in general

Question 49: The quasi-integral parts of prudence

Question 50: The subjective parts of prudence

Question 51: The potential parts of prudence

Question 52: The gift of counsel

  • Question 47: Prudence in itself
    • 47,1-3: Prudence has the intellect as its subject, though it is moved by the will as intending the end. For prudence involves foresight and comparison. Prudence directly involves counsel and indirectly involves choice (an act of the will), given the intimate connection between counsel and choice. So St. Thomas says that prudence directs choice by means of counsel. What's more, prudence involves the application of counsel, i.e., command or precept, which results in use. And so prudence is more than a merely intellectual virtue.
    • Further, prudence is a habit of the practical, rather than speculative, intellect and is properly called wisdom with respect to human activities.

      Finally, prudence extends to singulars as well as universals. So practical reasoning will involve both (i) general or universal rules and experiential facts and (ii) particular premises that can be applied to particular situations. The prudent person differs from others in assessing just which such universal and particular premises are the appropriate ones to consider and act on in any given situation.

    • 47,4-7: We can think of the first three articles as having illuminated the nature of practical reasoning in general. In the remainder of the question we will be looking at prudence as a virtue that effects morally correct or appropriate practical reasoning. The first set of topics, discussed in arts. 4-7, concern the role of prudence as a habit effecting good practical reasoning in guiding action.
    • Prudence is more properly a virtue than other intellectual virtues, e.g., scientia and art, because it presupposes rectitude of appetite and seeks to apply right reason to the enactment of means to morally appropriate ends.

      Art. 5 is important for delineating the distinctions among the virtues in general and the distinction of prudence from the moral virtues. Starting from the premise that habits are distinguished by their objects, St. Thomas notes that the objects have a formal as well as a material aspect. It is the material aspect of its object (things to be done well) that distinguishes prudence from both speculative intellectual habits and arts. On the other hand, it is its formal aspect, i.e., the application of right reason to a given matter, that distinguishes prudence as an intellectual virtue from the appetitive moral virtues.

      So the fact that prudence issues in, say, acts that are also the object of the virtue of temperance with respect to food or drink does not in itself show that prudence is a merely general condition found in all such acts of temperance. The fact is that the moral virtues, seated in appetite, need prudence as a special intellectual virtue in order to participate in reason, where such participation is necessary for their status as moral virtues. (Otherwise, the passions would be essentially extra-rational or 'blind', as with Hume.) So even though the moral virtues are habits in their own right with their own distinct subjects, they can operate as virtues only insofar as they are guided by rectified practical reason, the habit with respect to which is prudence. So the very same objects, considered materially, are (i) the object of the moral virtues insofar as those objects are considered as appetible goods and (ii) the object of prudence insofar as those objects are true, i.e., conformed to right reason. (Note: Speculative truth involves the correspondence of mind to thing, whereas practical truth involves the correspondence of thing to mind.)

      Prudence concerns the means to the ends that the moral virtues tend to as guided by synderesis, which is the intellectual habit by which we know practical first principles.

      Prudence guides the moral virtues to the mean that they intend by their essence. Since this mean varies according to circumstances, the guidance of reason measuring those circumstances is required if the moral virtues are to attain the mean in particular cases.

    • 47,8-9: Having talked about the role of prudence, St. Thomas delves a bit deeper into the precise nature of prudence. This is a topic that will be explored more deeply in Question 49. Here St. Thomas notes the basic fact that the practical reasoning characteristic of prudence involves three main elements: (i) counsel [inquiry, discovery, deliberation]; (ii) judgment [corresponding to consent and choice]; and command [corresponding to use or application]. The first two of these are as far as speculative reason goes and as far, perhaps surprisingly, as art goes, too--at least with respect to its essence. (See the second paragraph of the response. It follows that the execution involved in making a thing is not, strictly speaking, a part of an art; rather, it is a part of prudence as directing the art.) It is the third element, viz., command, that is distinctive to prudence and so is called its 'principal act'.
    • Further, prudence involves solicitude, which itself involves shrewdness and alertness.

    • 47,10-12: The next three articles are concerned with the range of prudence. This is a topic that will be explored more deeply in Question 50. St. Thomas insists that prudence concerns not only the governance of oneself but also the governance of many toward the common good. So there have to be different species (subjective parts) of prudence corresponding to the different communities one belongs to and to the different roles one plays insofar as those roles involve one's acting for the good of the community.
    • 47,13-14: The next two articles discuss sinners and saints and invite us to ponder the difference between natural (acquired) prudence and supernatural (infused) prudence. In answering the question whether sinners have prudence, St. Thomas distinguishes false prudence (effective reasoning with respect to the means to evil ends), which is in sinners alone; limited prudence (effective reasoning with respect to some domain other than the end, or, alternatively, good judgment without command) which is in both the good and the wicked; and true and perfect prudence, which is in the saints. (What about the great moral middle? Keep this in mind as we go on.) On the other hand, everyone in the state of grace has infused prudence, though this does not guarantee acquired prudence to any great degree of perfection.
    • 47,15-16: Prudence is not in us by nature, though some might be more disposed for it by nature than others, depending on their experience and upbringing and docility. Further, prudence cannot be lost directly through forgetfulness. It is rather directly diminished by the passions. Still, to the extent that it involves knowledge and memory, it can be diminished by loss of these.

  • Question 48: The parts of prudence in general
    • 48, unica: St. Thomas distinguishes three sorts of "parts" of the cardinal virtues by analogy with the sorts of parts he posits in metaphysics:

      1. integral parts: These powers or habits are related to the cardinal virtue in question as the roof, the foundation, and the walls are related to a building. The integral parts are such that they must all be present for any complete or perfect act of the virtue. In the case of prudence St. Thomas lists eight integral parts, which he will discuss one by one in Question 49: (i) memory, (ii) understanding of first principles (intelligentia), (iii) docility with respect to the advice of others, (iv) shrewdness or quick-wittedness (solertia), (v) discursive reasoning (ratio), (vi) foresight (providentia), (vii) circumspection, and (viii) caution. The first five belong to prudence as a cognitive virtue, the first four having to do with inquiry and the last with judgment, while the last three belong to prudence as preceptive or commanding, i.e., insofar as it applies cognition to action.

      2. subjective parts: These are related to the cardinal virtue in question as the species of a genus are related to the genus. That is, they fully satisfy the formal definition of the cardinal virtue and differ from one another in being ordered toward distinct ends or goods. In the case of prudence, the main subjective parts or genera are (i) prudence with respect to oneself and (ii) prudence with respect to a multitude. The latter is further divided into the following species: (a) domestic prudence, (b) military prudence, (c) regnative prudence, and (d) political prudence.

      3. potential parts: The cardinal virtue in question is related to these parts in the way that the rational soul is related to the operations of its own vegetative and sentient powers, i.e., the form of the whole is the principal of operation for the potential parts, but those operations in some way fall short of the operations of the principal form. So the potential parts of a cardinal virtue are virtues that share something in common with the cardinal virtue but fall short of fully satisfying its formal definition. For instance, the potential parts of justice (e.g., religion, filial piety, truthfulness, gratitude, affability, etc.) all involve, as does justice, our relations with others. But whereas justice, strictly speaking, is the rendering of what is legally due to one's equals, the potential parts are concerned with relations between unequals and/or with demands that are moral rather than strictly legal. In the case of prudence, the potential parts are (i) good deliberation (euboulia) and (ii) good judgment, the latter both in (a) matters that conform to ordinary rules (synesis) and (b) matters that call for exceptions to ordinary rules (gnome). For inquiry and judgment fall short of the principal act of prudence, which is to command or give precepts for action. In general, then, potential parts are virtues which "are adjoined to the cardinal virtue and are ordered toward certain secondary acts or subject matters; they do not have the full power, as it were, of the principal virtue."

  • Question 49: The quasi-integral parts of prudence
    • 49,1: Memory: memory is the essential aspect of experience, and there are various ways, noted in the reply to obj. 2, in which we can perfect and improve our memory. They include the use of sensible mnemonic devices, ordering of things to be remembered, taking positive steps not to forget important things, and constant reflection on what needs to be remembered. Pieper points out how easy it is for us, through wilful misremembering, to corrupt our deliberation.

    • 49,2: Understanding of first principles: Prudence presupposes the cognition of practical first principles, known as synderesis. Further--and this is what is especially relevant here--it involves the sort of insight into particular ends that delivers up possible singular premises for pieces of practical reasoning with respect to a particular end.

    • 49,3: Docility: Docility is our openness to the advice and teaching of others, especially regarding the demonstrated and undemonstrated assertions and opinions of the wise regarding both the universal and the particular principles of practical reasoning.

    • 49,4: Shrewdness (solertia): If docility involves our willingness to listen to others, shrewdness involves the ability to size up a situation quickly on one's own and to see which of the possibly relevant practical syllogisms is the most appropriate. Aristotle identifies shrewdness (eustochia) as the ability to identify quickly the most appropriate middle term. Once again, this trait presupposes a good dose of moral rectitude to begin with if it is to operate accurately.

    • 49,5: Discursive reasoning: This is the ability to research and compare alternative possibilities and to reason well from premises to conclusions in practical matters.

    • 49,6: Foresight: Prudence is forward-looking and so essentially involves the ability to order means to ends that are to be realized in the future--which is foresight. Pieper calls this a capacity to estimate whether a particular action will lead to the realization of our goal. Hence, foresight is the principal integral part of prudence, to which the others are ordered and in the context of which they play their role.

    • 49,7: Circumspection: This is the ability to take all relevant circumstances into account, since otherwise what seem to be a good end and a good means can be vitiated by factors that have not been considered. Note St. Thomas's example: In a certain set of circumstances, showing signs of affection in order to better one's relation with another can produce the opposite effect of what one intends, not because of any defect in the end or means themselves, but because of circumstances that affect the way in which the signs of affection are taken by the other. So to be circumspect is to be on the lookout for ways in which a contemplated means to an end might turn out not to be a means to that end at all.

    • 49,8: Caution: Prudence requires that that we take care, when choosing good means to a good end, to avoid or to mitigate or at least to anticipate those evils that will likely result from a good act that we contemplate doing. So it is by caution that we take steps, if necessary, to avoid such evils. So to be cautious is to be on the lookout especially for the bad consequences of a contemplated action.

  • Question 50: The subjective parts of prudence
    • 50,1: Regnative prudence: This sort of prudence involves ruling and administering justice to political entities such as cities and states and has the good of such communities as its chief end.

    • 50,2: Political prudence: This is the prudence of subjects with respect to fulfilling their role as subjects within a political community, with the common good as its chief end. Such prudence thus applies to the political actions of subjects.

    • 50,3: Domestic prudence: This sort of prudence differs from regnative prudence in that it governs institutions, such as the family, that mediate between the individual and the political community. Thus it has the common good of the family or other mediating institution as its end.

    • 50,4: Military prudence: This sort of prudence has as its end the protection of the common good against threats to it, either internal or external.

  • Question 51: The potential parts of prudence
    • 51,1-2: Good deliberation or counsel (euboulia): This is the virtue of deliberating well so as to come to good conclusions in moral actions. It is distinct both from good judgment and good command (prudence), which can be separated from it. The end of good counsel is that which has to be done, whereas the end of good judgment is certitude or decisiveness with respect to that which has to be done.

    • 51,3: Good judgment in ordinary matters (synesis): This is the virtue of having good sense with result to judging what issues from deliberation in those matters that fall under common laws. (There is a speculative analogue here which shows up in some philosophers and not others.)

    • 51,:4 Good judgment in extraordinary matters (gnome): This is the virtue of being able to find and apply higher laws to matters that do not fall under the common or lower rules that normally guide action. In as sense, it is good judgment regarding possible exceptions to ordinary moral rules of thumb.

    • Note on the types of imprudence and false prudence (ques. 53-55)

      • The main types of imprudence (in the sense of faults that fall short of prudence through defect) are reducible to defects in the three potential parts of prudence:

        • precipitateness, which may arise from either (i) impulse (of will or passion) or (ii) contempt for a directing rule, is a lack of good counsel and involves a defect in the integral parts memory, docility, and discursive reasoning.

        • thoughtlessness (inconsideratio), which stems from contempt for or neglect of those things on which good judgment depends, is a lack of good judgment and involves a defect in the integral parts circumspection and caution.

        • negligence, which involves a lack of due solicitude stemming from a lack of a prompt will, and inconstancy (or irresoluteness), which involves withdrawal from a definite good purpose stemming from the passion of desire, are lacks of good command and involve a defect in the integral parts understanding, foresight, and shrewdness.

      • The vices positively opposed to prudence are:

        • false prudence (or prudence of the flesh) which is directed solely to goods of the body; and

        • cunning, which is deceptive practical reasoning in the service of a good end and involves guile and dishonesty.

      One might raise some questions here. St. Thomas has more to say about these four vices below. Interestingly, he attributes precipitateness, thoughtlessness, and inconstancy chiefly to lust and negligence and shrewdness chiefly to covetousness.

  • Question 52: The gift of counsel
    • 52,1-4: Counsel makes us amenable to the promptings of the Holy Spirit as we carry out the various cognitive operations associated with prudence from the perspective of a supernatural outlook. Thus with the gift of counsel we receive direction from God in the way that we receive the advice of others in reaching the determinations of prudence. (Note that the role of the gift of counsel might be to single out some advice we get from another as embodying God's will in this particular situation. Presumably, this is in part what lies behind the practice of spiritual direction.) Interestingly, St. Thomas associates the gift of counsel with the beatitude that promises mercy to the merciful. His claim is that counsel directs mercy in the proper way. (If you've ever run across cases of misguided mercy or compassion, you will perhaps have a greater appreciation of this claim.)