The Cardinal Virtues: The Queenship of Prudence

The moral life has been hampered greatly by the prevalence of both nominalism (a system based on opposition) and a system of morality based on obligation over charity. For the first 1500 years of the Church, the moral life was seen as the movement of grace within the individual who then strives to live the virtues both supernatural and human. The supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity drive the individual to conform their lives to the good who is God. The human virtues, or cardinal virtues, are those lived daily through habitual action and choices. Thus morality is seen as a movement towards love and the New Law of Christ rather than a system of external obligation. The Decalogue and other moral teachings are inherent parts of the Christian life, but they are lived more fruitfully through charity and a life of virtue, rather than as an external force dictating each of our actions. The first cardinal virtue we will examine is prudence.

The foundation and highest of the cardinal virtues is prudence.[1] Joseph Pieper begins his chapter on prudence in his book The Four Cardinal Virtues by pointing out the strangeness most people experience in learning that prudence must come before the other virtues.

No dictum in traditional Christian doctrine strikes such a note of strangeness to the ears of contemporaries, even contemporary Christians, as this one: that the virtue of prudence is the mold and “mother” of all the other cardinal virtues of justice, fortitude, and temperance. In other words, none but the prudent man can be just, brave, and temperate, and the good man is good in so far as he is prudent.[2]

Most people assume the cardinal virtues are separate and belong to no set order, which is why the idea of prudence being primary is so foreign to most people, including many moral theologians.

Prudence in its contemporary usage has become confused from its original meaning and understanding. In the contemporary psyche it is confused with a form of utilitarianism rather than as a grounding force to the other virtues. Pieper points out that most people think of prudence as that which “always carries the connotation of timorous, self-minded preservation, of a rather selfish concern about oneself.”[3] This idea of prudence forgets the human drive for goodness, truth, and nobility. One who is selfish is not concerned with virtue, rather they have turned inward away from truth. The prudent person desires to live according to truth.

Prudence is inextricably linked with choices. It is to choose the good in each moment of the day. One cannot be just, courageous, or temperate if their choices are not ordered to the good. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines prudence as: “…the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; “the prudent man looks where he is going”…Prudence is “right reason in action”, writes Saint Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle (CCC 1806).” This means “prudence is the “measure” of justice, of fortitude, of temperance.”[4] It is through prudence where emotions and passions are tempered by reason in order for good decisions to be made. A person who is not ruled by reason easily falls into error and sin. Prudence’s primary concern is truth and how best to achieve and conform to that truth. This conformity to the truth propels the man or woman into action.

All of the virtues have at their heart an action in response to truth. The intellect processes the information presented to examine whether or not it conforms to the ontological need for goodness and the will chooses an action in conformity to this truth.[5] The truth can be blocked by the individual’s will, but in the formation of prudence the individual comes to choose the good more and more frequently. The Catechism explains, “The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid (CCC 1806).” In a proper examination of prudence, it is clear why the other cardinal virtues rest on this virtue. A man cannot be just if he is not conformed to the truth, nor can a person be willing to die a martyr’s death through fortitude without the aspiration to live truth, or temper bodily desires if the need for balance is not rightly understood.

[1] Joseph Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, Kindle Edition (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1965), 88.

[2] Ibid, 88.

[3] Ibid, 108.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Thomas Aquinas, On Human Nature, ed. Thomas S. Hibbs, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999), 133-34.

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