Cardinal Virtues: Prudence


Virtues are, by their nature, anti-ideological; the underlying foundations of virtue ethics is the concept of the ‘Golden Mean’, which has deep roots in Judaic and Greek thought.

Prudence is known as the ‘mother’ of the four Cardinal virtues. Defined as sagacity, foresight, wisdom and consideration, prudence is the virtue of correctly choosing or defining a course of action. If mercy and justice are to be applied appropriately then prudence is the virtue of making that choice with caution and wisdom. In English prudence generally refers to hesitation in judgement, but the Scholastic and Classical roots would readily see bold and courageous action as prudent, when performed correctly. Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics uses the Greek phronesis, which is a practical virtue of good judgement and character. As with temperance the aim of a virtue is to mould and shape the human – phronesis carves out a person who by habit and instinct makes sound and wise decisions. For Aristotle this was not a young man’s gift:

…Prudence includes a knowledge of particular facts, and this is derived from experience, which a young man does not possess; for experience is the fruit of years.


Experience provides the insight to begin to make sensible decisions. What a shame it is then that modernity seems so ungrateful to, and disgusted by, the elderly who live among us. Douglas Murray’s recent contribution to The Spectator decries the abuse heaped upon older Leave voters, as if being old should be an automatic exclusion from political life. Ancient Sparta was governed in part by a council of Elders who had to be over 60 years old to be admitted. Today we are considering allowing children of 16 to vote who themselves argue that they are more moral, more wise and more deserving of a voice than those four times their age. As ever we tear up the guidance of those who came before us.

Virtues are, by their nature, anti-ideological; the underlying foundations of virtue ethics is the concept of the ‘Golden Mean’, which has deep roots in Judaic and Greek thought. The Golden Mean is the path of moderation between extremes, extremes which are too easily slipped into. All things can be to excess, or too deficient. Societies veer between anarchy and autocracy, individuals balance gluttony and self-denial. Ideologies are a rigid and total view of how the world should be, virtues are a constant process of balance, moderation and growth, but with no utopia. A communist may apply prudence to their actions, both Lenin and Trotsky display this openly. But as Aquinas wrote, this prudence is in fact cunning, since the goal is wicked, therefore the decision is not a virtuous one. This is why prudence is not applied alone, but in service of other virtues.

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The Christian Scholastics considered prudence to require integral parts: memory, open-mindedness, reason, intelligence, shrewdness, wisdom, caution, circumspection and foresight. Together these are marshalled in service of good judgement to a moral end. Perhaps we today lack prudence in our lives because we have abandoned the very idea that humans have a moral purpose? If the pursuit of simple pleasure is the highest good then sound judgement is injured and relegated. The Christian conception that we as individuals, families, communities and even as a nation, have a higher purpose, then we can begin to determine the steps required. If we throw away the idea that there is a transcendental moral order then we need no wise counsel. In Russell Kirk’s ‘Ten Commandments of Conservatism” he outlines the conservative vision that:

First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.

Russell Kirk


He goes on to stress the fundamental importance of prudence in public policy, quoting John Randolph that: “Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries”. Liberal and radical notions of human nature, which change on a whim and require ever more novel laws and prohibitions, may be willed by the best of intentions. But this is not enough. Change needs slow and sober reflection, time for reasoned and careful debate, something we sadly lack in our day and age. Our statesmen should be cautious with what they govern, slow to alter our ancient constitution and recognise that private morality governed by families shapes society, not endless legislation. Perhaps the Gospels best sum up the principle of prudence, very aptly for our greedy times:

for what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

MT 16:26

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