“None but the prudent man can be just, brave, and temperate, and the good man is good in so far as he is prudent.” Prudence is the chief virtue. But what is prudence? Prudence is perfected practical reason and is applied to specific situations. Conscience is related to prudence and is usually interchangeable with prudence. It is akin to making a wise decision while weighing the situation. Prudence is not cleverness in solving a problem with the best research, know-how, good intention. Prudence is a serious understanding of knowing the good decision for each situation presented. For instance, one who plunges into a decision without much thought or judgment of the situation is being imprudent and thoughtless. But what prudence requires is decision, most of the time a quick decision.
How does one become prudent? This has a practical and theological answer. In baptism the Christian receives along with “new life of friendship with God,” an infused prudence. But prudence, Aquinas says, is also a grace acquired from experience in making provision for him and others. The gift of counsel from a prudent man begets prudence. The prudent man receives this good conscience from the good enacted by the Holy Spirit and comes as prudence.
No man is self-sufficient in matters of prudence. “Open-mindedness, which recognizes the true variety of things and situations and does not cage itself in presumption of deceptive knowledge” is a quality of prudence. In other words, a know-it-all who does not consider all options will not come to the truth of a situation and be able to act upon it in prudence. If one is imprudent, they would make a random decision and hope for the best. A prudent man weighs the situation and responds accordingly from past experience, what other prudent men have done in the past, glean from scripture, and finally recognizing the truth by the prompting of the conscience by the Holy Spirit.
Some very practical ways to be prudent are physical exercise, which keeps the mind and body alert to make prudent decisions, mental exercise, keeping abreast of situations and prudent responses to them (not clever responses); spiritual exercise, keeping up in prayer, study and meditation on scripture. All of these will prepare one to respond accordingly to each situation presented. “Prudence means the studied seriousness and…the brave boldness to make final decisions. It means purity, straightforwardness, candor, and simplicity of character; it means the standing superior to the utilitarian complexities of mere tactics.” The perfection of prudence comes from “the grace of direct and mediated divine guidance.” Prudence is acting truth.
Man’s free and responsible actions derive their form from the light. Prudence derives from reason. In every situation man must be brave, temperate, and just. Truth given by God is enacted by decision and our will to reason in the light of Christ. A prudent friend will help shape one’s decision because he substitutes the friend’s problem as his own. Likewise, Christ has taken every situation and substituted as his own. We follow the friendship of Christ to man. We take on our neighbor’s problem and counsel him in light of Christ. The closer we move to the good, the closer to Christ—perfection. Prudence is moving toward and doing good in the construct previously mentioned. God is; man is finding out more who he is. The movement toward the good helps us understand who we are—this is the volition of prudence—to become more like Christ: loving God, ourselves (in the right manner not pure selfishness), and our neighbor. As C.S. Lewis said we are on the narrow knife blade of becoming more like an angel or more like a demon.
To be prudent is to be mature in the Christian life. Without maturity moral life and action are not possible. The good comes from God and because we are made in the image of God, we have the potential to do good. The love of God molds prudence. Love and prudence are gifts given to us by God that we move in them. Prudence and love are rooted in God and are required in action toward God, self, and others. Anything but Agape is less than the good. Acts of Eros, Philia, and family love (Storge) can be selfish and even arrogant. But Agape is God’s love. When we act in Agape, we do God’s work. The Holy Spirit enables love which then is enacted in prudence which then moves into temperance, fortitude, and justice. How can we be virtuous apart from God’s love? A work without love is dead or meaningless or detrimental. In the friendship of God, as Pieper says, we see deeper dimensions of reality. We see as God sees the world. The more prudently we follow God, the more we will be able to be prudent to our neighbor and ourselves (this is true with all other virtues). Virtue starts with love from God given to us.
The truth of a situation is found out by being prudent. By starting with the love of God, we learn to be prudent by counsel from other prudent Christians, study, the Holy Spirit telling us in our conscience—this is truth. The Holy Spirit guides and teaches us through others and through experience and observation and acting in situations. To be prudent is to understand in a deeper level the way God sees every human and every situation in human life. We cannot be prudent in idleness. We must act, but timely, not randomly, not hastily or haphazardly. The Holy Spirit will remind us to seek counsel or read something or remember something in order to act in the right manner and in the right time. It starts with focus on Christ—his goodness—and relationship with God. He counsels us and guides as we move about this world. We must be diligent, alert, and acting and aware of subtleties within each situation—to be patient or quick and deliberate, not cunning or clever or arrogant.