JMC : Four-Square / by Joseph Rickaby, S.J.


Prudence is right reason applied to practice in view of the final end of life. Prudence is apt to give advice on points that appertain to the whole life of man and his last end; while in any given art there is the office of advising on points that appertain to the proper end of the said art. Hence some persons, as being apt to give advice on matters of war or seamanship, are called prudent commanders, or prudent navigators, but not prudent absolutely; but they alone are prudent absolutely who give good advice for the main conduct of life.

An imprudent person is one who goes the wrong way about getting what he wants, and in consequence does not get what he wants. He has no practical discernment of the bearing of given means on a given end. That is exactly what prudence does discern. Prudence is concerned with means to ends, not with ends in themselves. Prudence supposes the end, and that a good end, namely, as has been said, the final end of human life, which is in fact man's chief good. To take means cunningly to a bad end is not the virtue of prudence; it is called in Scriptural language the prudence of the flesh. St. Paul says: The prudence of the flesh is death (Rom. viii, 6); and the author of Proverbs warns us: There is no prudence against the Lord (Prov. xxi, 30). The most imprudent thing for man is to do anything that involves the loss of his soul, though by it he gain kingdoms. Hence the instruction with which a Retreat usually opens, on the end and purpose for which man was created, is really a lesson in prudence.

Prudence may be called an intellectual virtue, inasmuch as it has its seat in the understanding: but inasmuch as it directs the understanding to a practical purpose, it is a moral virtue. Art also resides in the understanding, and directs it to a practical purpose; but art is concerned with production, prudence with conduct or behaviour. Prudence, then, is not mere speculation. He who sees the right way to take, but takes it not, can not be called a prudent person. He may be a philosopher, or a critic, but he is not prudent. Nor does prudence merely lay down general principles, but it directs their application to a particular case: for prudence is a practical virtue, and all practise is in particulars. In that it is like conscience. In fact, prudence may be called a well-enlightened conscience, in so far as conscience has to do with the future.

None of the other three cardinal virtues can work without prudence. Prudence must enlighten them in their action, pointing out the measure of temperance, the bounds of fortitude, the path of justice, everywhere indicating the golden mean, which other virtues aim at, but which prudence alone discerns. Without prudence virtue would go ablundering and aslumbering in the dark; true virtue walks with eyes open, knowing what it is about, what it wants and why: now the open eye of virtue is prudence. On the other hand, prudence itself perishes in the absence of temperance, fortitude, and justice. For prudence is a guide only to a good end practically desired. But the soul unendowed with habits of temperance, fortitude, and justice, readily fixes its desires on evil ends -- on base and immoderate pleasures, on fraudulent gains, or hair-brained enterprises, or cowardly escapes; and in reference to all such ends, as we have seen, there is no prudence, though there may be considerable cunning.

There is imprudence in every sin, inasmuch as every sin is an aberration and a swerving from our last end. But the name of imprudence is specially reserved for sins more obviously characterized by recklessness, folly, and want of thought, such as many of the excesses of youth. It was a saying of the old philosophers that "passion mars the judgment of prudence." Indeed we need no philosophers to tell us that; it is matter of daily experience. Under excitement we lose our heads. This shows how prudence differs from mere knowledge, and from the critical faculty whereby we judge of the conduct of others. In their cooler moments men commonly discern well enough the ways of wisdom from the ways of folly, and coolly mark and stigmatize an acquaintance who is treading the latter path. A much rarer gift is the keeping of knowledge before our eyes in time of action, so as to judge rightly, and act rightly, and not be borne away by a blind impulse. That habit of having your knowledge available in action is the virtue of prudence. In doing wrong a man does not act according to his knowledge, he looks the wrong way; like a perverse scholar, he raises his eyes from his book and cites his text incorrectly. The land is made desolate because there is none that thinketh in his heart (Jerem. xii, 11).

The matters in which a young man most needs the restraint of prudence are (1) the care of his health, (2) the use of his time, (3) the spending of his money, (4) the choice of his books, (5) the making of friends, (6) the giving away of his heart, affections and love, (7) the election of a state of life. There is such a thing as being what is called "hipped" (hypochondriacal), absurdly anxious about one's health. This weakness in a young man is pitiful, happily also rare. Many a young man conducts himself, as the Greeks said, "like an immortal," as though nothing could possibly impair his strength, and disease were for him forever out of the question. Some are thus reckless in giving themselves to work, but far more in the pursuit of pleasure. Late hours, strong drink, excessive tobacco, mad excitement, are undermining their strength, shortening their days, storing disease in their system, while they heed it not. And worse things still are befalling their immortal souls. Prudence is flung to the winds, and every other virtue thrown after it. Many who avoid these grosser excesses overeat themselves; some neglect exercise, a neglect for which they must pay dearly in later life; some, an increasing number perhaps, overdo their exercise, put so much into muscle that the brain languishes and mental labour becomes impossible. And some overstrain heart and arteries. Bodily exercise profiteth but little, wrote St. Paul (I Tim. iv, 8), in an age and country of athletes. Ask yourself: "Am I going to be a professional?" "No; a lawyer, doctor, engineer." Then train accordingly. In middle age, to look no further, the training of an athlete will profit you little, if it has ousted all other training. Stiffening limbs and a stagnant. mind make a sad contemplation for one's fiftieth birthday. Even in this world the mind should outlive the body.

One almost hesitates to preach prudence in the spending of money, lest one should seem to recommend avarice, that love of money which the Apostle pronounces to be the root of all evil (I Tim. vi, 10). But avarice is not characteristic of youth. The not buying too many attractive things for yourself, the occasional going without something that you would like and might very well have, is an excellent formation in the way of prudence. More especially excellent is it if a poor neighbour and not yourself reaps the pecuniary profit of your saving. Almsgiving, in fact, is a practical method of hitting upon the golden mean between extravagance and miserliness. I once heard a dispute in a railway carriage as to the nature of charity, or almsgiving. One man would have it that charity consisted in giving away what you did not want. The other contended that the only true charity was giving away what you did want. At least there can be no doubt which of these two charities is more like the charity of Christ, who for us gave away His life-blood.

He has not a prudent care of his health who eats any and all things, and that without stint or measure. Not more prudent -- nay, even less prudent, erring in a graver matter -- is he who devours every book, magazine or paper that he finds at a railway book stall, or even in less reputable places. Surely it is a good rule neither to eat trash nor to read it. A well-fed man perhaps may venture on a little trashy food-stuff now and again; but what becomes of him whose staple diet is trash? Ask your doctor. And if a Catholic reads promiscuously socialist tracts, sickening love stories, sensational murders, divorce cases, blasphemies against the Bible or against the goodness of God, but never a book of devotion or of Catholic instruction, scarce even a Catholic newspaper except for politics, will he not soon become a spiritual dyspetic? The poison of all this bad nutriment gets into his blood: on the smallest irritation the sore breaks out, he dies to God and to His Church, and is a Catholic no longer. To warrant your reading a book it is not enough that everyone is talking about it. Books come and go like songs, nay, they do not stay so long. Who will be talking about this favorite flashy production this time next year? Read rather what promises to be of permanent value to heart and mind. A venerable Vicar Apostolic was once dining at the table of a great lady. She asked him whether he had read a certain book, which was making a great stir at the time. He answered drily: "No, madam, I durst not." On the other side you will find people who dare not read Catholic books, nor listen to the reproaches of their own conscience. They think it imprudent to be very conscientious, or to hear a message from Rome.

When not coerced, a man is ruled by his first principles and by his friends. By an act of free will he may break away from either, when he thinks it worth his while to deliberate and make up his mind anew; but he will not ordinarily do so. It is matter, therefore, of the highest prudence what first principles, or maxims of conduct, we admit, and what friends we choose. We need eminently good principles and good friends. Destitute of principles, or having none but bad ones, a man is called "unprincipled." Destitute of friends, a man is "friendless"; he, too, is in a bad way, however rich and powerful he may otherwise be. If friendship be not exactly a virtue, at least it is a means to the better exercise of all the virtues; everything is done better by being done in concert. You should have friends, if you can find them. Friends are not to be found like blackberries, growing in every hedge. They have to be sought and picked with care; and in some forlorn situations good friends are not to be found at all: one has to fall back upon God alone, like Daniel among the lions. The first stage of friendship is acquaintanceship; it is often impossible, often undesirable, to pass beyond that stage. An acquaintance passes into a friend, when we not only know him but lead him, and in turn are led by him. I am not defining friendship, but this mutual leading and being led is at least part of its essence. He is not your friend, who will never alter his course one point at your suggestion. A pair of friends are not often of equal power. Usually, one on the whole leads, and the other on the whole is led, though under protest. It is a responsibility to lead; it is a risk to be led. Responsibility and risk should both be taken up with prudence. Therefore, be prudent in making friends. And what shall I say of prudence in making love? Not to make it to one who never can be your wife, or who, you are resolved, never shall be your wife, is a point of prudence and one or two other virtues besides. The Catholic Church dislikes mixed marriages; yet they often become a necessity. It is prudent to hold off from such necessity while you may, while the matter is only in its first stages: later on it will be too late. Antecedently to any definite engagement, a Catholic man should desire a Catholic wife; and this desire should be a true wish and preference. On this whole matter there is a homely proverb to bear in mind, "Marry in haste and repent at leisure."

Yet prudence does not always hesitate and hold back. Cases occur in which it is the highest prudence to venture all. Cases occur in which it is a mistake to dwell on restraining considerations -- at a charity sermon, for example. It is prudent not to rely on one's own prudence exclusively. We must consult God in prayer, and that earnestly and at some length in important matters. We must take advice in novel situations and under difficulties and temptations never experienced before. Our blessed Saviour in the cruel surprises of His agony in the garden -- the surprise of human sin all laid at His door -- received in humility the comforting words of the angel, and thrice went to His disciples to seek support from them. He prayed and sought counsel. He condescended for our imitation. On the eve of conflict He was prudent.

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