Jacques Maritain Center : Elements of Moral Theology



§ 1. Prudence.

What is prudence?

It is a virtuous habit of the practical reason by which one judges rightly of the future from the past and the present. The prudent man considers what is to come as aiding or impeding what is immediately to be done. Prudence judges of the means for the end which is sought. Reason gives this counsel; on it follows the choice of the will.

There may be an application of practical judgment to some special end, making a man prudent in that special way; but prudence, taken simply, is the habit of right practical judgment respecting a good life. It is not wisdom, for that looks to the ultimate and highest cause -- i.e., God; but it is wisdom in a lower sense, wisdom in human affairs as human.

To prudence pertains not merely rational consideration, but its application to action. And since action is concerned with particulars, it is necessary that the prudent man know both the universal principles of reason, and those particulars in which he is to act. Those particulars may be infinite in number, but experience reduces them to a limited number of general rules applicable to most cases which occur.

This is not a question merely of observation by acute senses, but of memory and experience, which furnish the materials which practical reason uses in its prudent judgments.

Is prudence a virtue?

Recall the definition, "virtue is what makes him that has it good, and renders his work good." But the good may be viewed either as that which in itself simply is so, or as that which the agent so regards. The good viewed as such is the object of the desires. Therefore, if there are any habits which give a correct rational view, without relation to rectitude of desire, they have less of the nature of virtue, ordaining to what is materially good but not under the notion of good. But those habits which imply rectitude of desire have more of the idea of virtue in them, because they regard the good as good. Now prudence is the application of right reason to action, which is not done without right desire. Therefore prudence is not only a virtue in the sense in which the other intellectual virtues are so, but it is a moral virtue also, and numbered among them.

It is a special virtue clearly distinguished from others by its object.

As an intellectual virtue it is distinguished from the others, since wisdom, knowledge, and understanding concern necessary things; but this regards solely contingent things. So, indeed, does art; but that concerns external things to be made, as a house or a picture, while prudence is concerned with the agent and what he has to do. But it is distinguished from the moral virtues by its belonging to another power of the soul, the intellectual, not the appetitive.

Prudence does not prescribe their end to the moral virtues.

That belongs to the moral judgment, "synderesis;" but it is the office of the former to judge what are suitable means for the attaining of those ends. In the government of the passions by moral virtues, it judges of the means by which the rational and happy mean may be attained which constitutes those virtues (INic. Ethics).

Its first act is deliberative, taking counsel, inquiring what means and circumstances are suitable for the end in view.

Speculative reason may form a theoretical judgment of what should be done, along with its attendant circumstances; but practical reason goes further, in prescribing and applying to operation what has been counselled and judged. This is the principal act of prudence.

Care and vigilance follow as part of the same virtue, not only for the private good of one, but for the good of the whole community.

Can sinners have prudence?

There are three sorts of prudence.

(1) Since the prudent man is he who well arranges what is to be done for the attainment of some good end, he who skilfully fits his means to some bad end has a kind of false prudence. Thus, we may speak of a prudent thief, who skilfully manages his plans for stealing and for escape from being found out.

(2) There is another sort of prudence which fits the means to a good end, but it is imperfect; first, because the good which it takes for an end is not the common end of all human life. Such is the prudence of a merchant or a ship-captain. This is the prudence of the children of this world, who, in their way, may be "wiser than the children of light." It may be deficient in another way, when one rightly counsels and rightly judges respecting what pertains to the whole life, but does not efficaciously prescribe action to himself.

(3) But the third kind of prudence is true and perfect, which rightly takes counsel, judges, and prescribes how to attain the good end of the whole life. This sinners can not have. But the second, imperfect on account of its particular aim, is common to good and bad.

Is prudence possessed by all who are in a state of grace?

All such have charity, and with it come all other Christian virtues; and so it is necessary that prudence be in them. For no one has grace, unless he is virtuous. But no one can be virtuous unless he have prudence. For if the other virtues act not prudently in what they seek after, they are not entitled to the name of virtues.

(1) Yet such may seem to lack that diligent carefulness by which they provide well for what is to be done. Yes; but understand that we are speaking now of that prudence which concerns what is necessary to salvation, of which S. John said (1 Ep. ii. 27), "His anointing teacheth you concerning all things."

(2) But many, you say, who have grace need to be guided by others' counsel. Yet they, in this very thing at least, know how to counsel well for themselves, in that they seek others' counsel, and distinguish the good from the bad.

(3) Again, it may be objected that many young people are in a state of grace, and yet the young are not prudent. Acquired prudence, indeed, is caused by repeated action, and needs experience and time. And so the young cannot have it, either as a habit or actually. But the prudence of grace is an infused virtue, given even to baptized infants as a habit, though not in actual use. But in those who have the use of reason, it is actual so far as concerns what is essential to salvation; and through exercise of it as of the other virtues, increase is merited until the perfect virtue is gained.

Prudence is not implanted in us by nature.

We have seen that it includes a knowledge of universal principles and of particular things to be done to which the prudent man applies those universal principles. The common principles of prudence, indeed, are connatural to man; but other principles of a practical kind are acquired by experience or instruction.

Again, as regards the particular cognition of those things which concern action, we must distinguish between what directly concerns the end, and what concerns the means to that end. For the right ends of human life are fixed and determined. Therefore, there can be a natural inclination towards those ends. Some have certain virtues by their natural disposition, by which they are inclined to right ends, and, consequently, have naturally right judgment respecting those ends. But in human affairs the means for the end are not determined, but are manifoldly diversified according to the diversity of persons and things. hence, since natural inclination is always to some determined thing, such knowledge cannot be in man by nature, although from natural disposition one may be more apt for discernment of these means than another is. Prudence, then, is not a natural virtue.

Brutes seem to have a sort of natural prudence, but they have determined ways of reaching the ends of their existence; and so all of one species act in the same way (even when the action has become useless as means to an end; thus a beaver or a squirrel in captivity goes through the usual operations of his instinctive prudence).

How is prudence lost?

Forgetfulness applies to knowledge only. Science and art may be forgotten. But prudence does not consist in knowledge only, but also in desire, since its principal act is to prescribe what is to be done; i.e., to apply knowledge to seeking and acting. Prudence, therefore, is rather corrupted by passions than taken away directly by forgetfulness. Yet this can impede the operation of the virtue, inasmuch as it prescribes what is to he done from some knowledge which may be lost through forgetfulness. "Integral" parts of prudence are such virtues as (a) teachableness, by which one carefully, frequently, and reverently applies his mind to the teachings of those who have gone before him, neither neglecting them through sloth, nor contemning them through pride; (6) foresight, circumspection, i.e., accurate consideration of the circumstances of action; and (c) caution, i.e., careful consideration of the attendant evils and impediments of action.

Corresponding to the virtue of prudence is the spiritual gift of counsel. For human reason cannot comprehend all the particular and contingent events which may occur (especially in connection with the Christian life); and therefore his prudence needs to be directed by God aiding and perfecting it.

The Decalogue contained no command respecting prudence, because it was concerned with the dictates of natural reason, and these chiefly concern the ends of human life, not the means for those ends. But subsequent documents of the Old Testament added the means to those ends, and the perfect Evangelical doctrine instructed man in all that pertains to rectitude of life. This, therefore, said (S. Matt. x. 16), "Be ye wise (prudent) as serpents."

§ 2. Vices opposed to prudence.

Imprudence: is it a sin?

The merely negative absence of prudence may exist without sin; but privatively, imprudence exists when one lacks the prudence which be is fitted to have and ought to have, and this is sin by reason of the negligence through which he does not use efforts to obtain this virtue.

And, again, imprudence is to be taken in contradictory signification, when reason is moved to acts contrary to prudence, as when right reason acts after taking counsel, and the imprudent spurns counsel. In this way imprudence is a sin according to the proper idea of prudence. For a man cannot act contrary to prudence except he turn away from those rules by which the prudent is guided aright. If this happen by aversion from Divine rules, it is mortal sin, as when one acts precipitately through contemning and repudiating the Holy Scriptures. But if the neglect of Divine rules is without contempt or detriment to those things which are necessary to salvation, it is venial sin.

(1) It may seem that imprudence is not voluntary, and therefore is not sin. And it is true that no one wills the deformity of imprudence; but yet he who wills to act rashly, wills the imprudent act.

(2) It is true that imprudence is born with man, and that the young are naturally imprudent. But this is the merely negative imprudence, which, however, is part of that lack of original righteousness which once perfected the whole soul, which deficiency is called original sin.

(3) By repentance is restored infused prudence, but not the habit acquired by experience. But the contrary act is removed in which properly consists the sin.

Various sins are contained under this, as rashness or temerity, inconsiderateness of judgment, inconstancy, and negligence.

(1) There are steps by which prudence advances, such as memory of the past, consideration of the present, sagacity in viewing the future, reflection comparing one thing with another, docility towards the judgments of elders. But rashness leaps over all these steps, acting under the impulse of will or passion. It is a special form of the sin of imprudence.

(2) Inconsiderateness is another special form of this sin, when one fails to judge rightly because he despises those things from which right judgment proceeds, or neglects to attend to them. The Lord (S. Matt. x. 19) forbade His disciples to be anxious how or what they should speak, trusting in the Divine counsel; but to neglect to do what we can, expecting Divine aid, seems to be tempting God.

(3) Inconstancy denotes a withdrawal from some proposed good which had been resolved upon. Such withdrawal has its beginning, indeed, in the desires, for no one changes his purpose except on account of something which inordinately pleases him. But this withdrawal is consummated by defect in reason, which repudiates what it had rightly accepted. If reason does not resist the impulse of passions when it can do so, the fault is due to its weakness, not holding firmly to the proposed good which it has conceived. Therefore the cornsummation of inconstancy pertains to defect of reason; i.e., to imprudence. These three vices are the daughters of lust ("luxuria"), because sensual pleasure absorbs the mind and extinguishes the judgment of reason.

Negligence: is it a special sin?

It implies the lack of due care and watchfulness. But every defect of due acts us sin. And as that careful vigilance is a special virtue, so its opposite is a special sin (especially in those things which pertain to our salvation). The matter about which the diligence or the negligence is concerned may be any moiral question, but the want of the special act of reason which is due constitutes the latter a special sin over and above any other which may be present a]so.

Sins of omission pertain to the outward acts which are due, and such omission is the effect of negligence, the inward sin which pertains to imprudence.

Can negligence be a mortal sin?

Holy Scripture seems to answer that question for us when it says (Prov. xix. 116), "He that is careless of his ways shall die." Negligence comes from remissness of will which is not anxious to prescribe what it ought and in the way it ought. This can be mortal sin in two ways; first, as respects that which is omitted through negligence; for if this be necessary to salvation, whether it be an act or a circumstance of the act, there will be mortal sin. And again, if the will is so remiss regarding what belongs to God that it totally loses charity, such negligence is mortal sin, and this happens especially when the negligence follows from contempt. Otherwise, if the negligence consist in the omission of some act or circumstance which is not necessary to salvation, and if this be not done through contempt, but from lack of fervour which is sometimes impeded by some venial sin, then the negligence is not mortal but is venial.

Craftiness: is it a special sin?

S. Paul says (2 Cor. iv. 2), "We have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness." That answers the question. Sin against prudence may have some resemblance to the virtue in two ways: either the efforts of reason may be directed to some end which is not truly good, but only apparent good; or one in seeking some end, whether good or bad, may use, not the true paths, but feigned and seeming right. This is craftiness.

(1) This is not the "subtlety" offered to the simple by the Proverbs of Solomon (Prov. i. 4).

(2) A good end does not sanctify the bad means.

Guile ("dolus")

pertains to the carrying out of crafty designs, chiefly indeed by words, but also sometimes by actions. He that meditates evil, tries to find the way to fulfil his purpose, and usually the guileful way is an easier one than open violence.


also pertains to the carrying out of crafty designs, but if we make any distinction between it and guile, it may be that fraud proper has to do with actions.

Is it lawful to have solicitude respecting temporal things?

The Lord said (S. Matt. vi. 31), "Be not anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?" Solicitude leads to anxious endeavour to obtain something. Where there is fear of failing, there is more zealous endeavour; but where there is security respecting the end, there is less solicitude. So, then, this anxiety about temporal things may in three ways be unlawful: (1) On the side of what we are anxious about, if we seek temporal things as our end; (2) on the side of the anxiety, if it be such as to withdraw a man from those spiritual things which he ought chiefly to follow; "the care of the world chokes the word" (S. Matt. xiii. 22); (3) on the side of the needless fear, when one fears lest necessaries fail him through doing what he ought to do. This fear the Lord excludes by three arguments addressed to his timid disciple: first, that greater benefits, without any anxiety of his, are Divinely conferred, viz., on soul and body; next, that God provides for beast and plant without human labour; and lastly, that it is ignorance of Divine Providence which makes an infidel, an atheist, or a heathen man anxious about this world's goods.

(1) Man, by Divine ordinance, has the use of this world, but not that he may make it the end of his life.

(2) Man must work in order to live; but this is moderated care, not superfluous anxiety.

May one be anxious for the future?

The Lord answers (S. Matt. vi. 34), "Be not anxious for the morrow." No work can be virtuous unless it be clothed with due circumstances, among which is the fit time. "There is a time to every purpose which is under the heaven." Each day brings with it its own proper care, the time to plant or the time to reap. If in the time of planting one is anxious about the harvest, that may be the superfluous care which the Lord prohibited. "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof;" i.e., the trouble and care.

This does not prohibit prudence with respect to the future, providing what is needed for the future, since Christ Himself taught us that by His example (S. John xii. 6).

These vices of craftiness, guile, fraud, and inordinate anxiety are especially the daughters of avarice.

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