The Virtue of Prudence and Contrary Vices

This short treatise is divided into two chapters : 1. the virtue of prudence ; 2. its contrary vices.


235. Definition. St. Thomas and Aristotle define prudence as correct knowledge concerning things to be done.

Others define prudence as the knowledge of things which ought to be desired and of those things which ought to be avoided ; or, the intellectual virtue whereby man recognises in any matter to hand what is good and what is evil. Prudence resides in the practical intellect and is either acquired by one’s own acts or infused at the same time as sanctifying grace.

The material objects of prudence are all human and moral acts (called by Aristotle “ agibilia ”). The motive of prudence is the property of practical truth and goodness which is discovered in human acts.

The acts of the virtue of prudence are three in number : to take counsel carefully, to judge correctly, to direct. These acts of direction are the principal and proper acts of the virtue.

236. The parts of prudence — as of any other cardinal virtue — are threefold : a) integral, b) subjective, c) potential.

a) The integral parts of any cardinal virtue are those things which are required for a perfect act of the virtue. For an act of prudence to be perfect St. Thomas lists the following eight prerequisites : —

1. memory, i.e. the recalling of the past ;

2. intellect, i.e. a clear knowledge of the present ;

3. docility, i.e. a readiness to learn ;

4. shrewdness, i.e. a quick conjecture regarding the means to be used ;

5. reason, i.e. a readiness to infer one thing from another ;

6 . providence, i.e. a consideration of future events ;

7. circumspection, i.e. a careful consideration of circumstances ;

8. caution, i.e. care in avoiding evil and obstacles.

b) The subjective parts of a cardinal virtue are the species of that general virtue. The chief species of prudence are : personal prudence whereby one guides oneself, and political prudence whereby one guides a multitude. Political prudence used to be further subdivided into military, economic, and legislative prudence, etc.

c) The potential parts of a cardinal virtue are annexed virtues which are concerned with secondary acts or secondary matters. The following represent the potential parts of prudence :

1. eubulia— the habit of seeking right counsel ;

2. synesis— the virtue of judging aright according to ordinary rules ;

3. gnome — the virtue of judging aright from the higher principles.

The act which proceeds from this virtue is epikeia in the interpretation of law.


217. Sins by defect against prudence are :

1. precipitancy, which acts before due consideration has been given ;

2. want of thought, which neglects to take due consideration of the circumstances ;

3. inconstancy, which changes resolutions too quickly ;

4. negligence, which does not take sufficient care of the operation of the intellect.

Sins by excess against prudence are :

1. prudence of the flesh which eagerly seeks means of living according to the flesh, viz. according to the corrupt nature of man ;

2. astuteness, deceit, fraud, which devise and use evil means to obtain their purpose ;

3 . solicitude for things of this world and for the future which prevent man from attaining to the true purpose of his life.

St. Thomas notes wisely that the vices opposed to prudence by defect usually arise from lust, those which are opposed to the virtue by excess usually take their origin from avarice.