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The First Among Virtues: Prudence

January 13, 2015 by  
Filed under Book Club, Cardinal Virtues, Sarah Reinhard

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The Four Cardinal Virtues (Week 2 of 12)
The First Among Virtues: Prudence

I'll be honest with you, faithful reader, my first thought, after reading this chapter for a second time, was, “OK, Reinhard, it's time to admit it: you're in WAY OVER YOUR HEAD.”

I laughed when I read Vicki's introduction last week, because I so related with it. This book sounds…dry. And maybe it is. (Or maybe that's just the scholarly typeface.)

But it's also important, which is why it was (a) easy to pick back up after I put it down after failing at my “reading ahead” initiative during our book club break and (b) chosen for this book club.

Virtue is good, right? But it's also something that's pretty hard to explain to, say, my ten-year-old unless I have a pretty good handle on it myself.

Pieper kicks things off with the Virtue of Virtues (I imagine there should be some sort of trumpet blast to go with that), prudence. Which, as it turns out, I had no idea about. (This is going to be a recurring theme. My apologies for how tiresome it's about to become for those of you who have a clue.)

To the contemporary mind, prudence seems less a prerequisite to goodness than an evasion of it. The statement that it is prudence which makes an action good strikes us as well-nigh ridiculous. Should we hear it said, we tend to misunderstand the phrase, and take it as a tribute to undisguised utilitarianism. For we think of prudence as far more akin to the idea of mere utility, the bonum utile, than to the ideal of nobility, the bonum honestum. In colloquial use, prudence always carries the connotation of timorous, small-minded self-preservation, of a rather selfish concern about oneself. Neither of these traits is compatible with nobility; both are unworthy of the noble man.

~ Prudence, Chapter 1, Paragraph 5

So we have to shatter this modern notion of prudence because we obviously misunderstand it. Pieper states just a few paragraphs later that “man can be prudent and good only simultaneously … prudence is part and parcel of the definition of goodness” and he continues with the rather bold statement: “all virtue is necessarily prudent” (paragraph 9).

I have never studied philosophy. Or theology. But I don't think you have to have studied those things for this to ring true to common experience, to the reality of lived life.

If prudence, by its definition, is “the cause of the other virtues' being virtues at all” (paragraph 12), then we've made something upside down in our modern usage of prudence. I don't need to look further than the dictionary on my computer, which lists cautiousness as the one-word definition for prudence.

Pieper challenges us, instead, to see prudence as the seed from which the other virtues sprout and grow. We're planting a garden, and prudence is the seed. The tall oak tree comes from a small acorn: the acorn can't possibly contain the tree, and yet the potential for the tree is within the acorn all along.

To use another analogy, prudence is the foundation, forming the solid base from which the other virtues rely and rest. The foundation of a building is usually drab and dull to look at, but if it's done only halfway, or with inattention, the whole structure could collapse.

Prudence is, we read, “cause, root, mother, measure, precept, guide, and prototype of all ethical virtues; it acts in all of them, perfecting them to their true nature; all participate in it, and by virtue of this participation they are virtues” (paragraph 16).

From this chapter, then, we get the clear understanding that prudence is critical. Next week, we'll have the chance to discuss it in more detail to better understand just what it is.

Reading Assignment:

Prudence, Chapter 2

Discussion Questions:

1. How did this chapter change or influence how you understood prudence?

2. What do you hope to gain from this study of prudence in the first section of the book?

Feel free to comment on anything from our assignment this past week!

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About Sarah Reinhard

Sarah Reinhard continues to delight ”and be challenged by” her vocations of Catholic wife and mother. She's online at and is the author of a number of books for families.

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  • Andy

    I really struggle to keep the real definition of prudence in my head. My brain keeps wanting to drift toward the modern meaning/usage of the word. As I read this chapter (a second time), I had to consciously think about the real meaning of prudence each time I read the word. This slowed me down, but it also helped me to think deeply about the concepts in the book. We should build virtue and do good because it’s what God made us for. This is wise in the practical sense because God’s will is good, and what He wants for us is what’s best for us even if we don’t recognize this all the time. I’m quite interested in seeing where Pieper goes from here.

    • Donna Sullivan

      For me, the phrase “(prudence) . . . is the perfected ability to make good decisions” clarifies the whole concept. Also the definition from my unabridged dictionary: “. . . cautious, practical wisdom; good judgement; careful forethought”. Joseph Pieper is a challenging read – looking forward to reading and discussing this book with you.

  • AnthonyofPadua

    I have found often that I am challenged by the way Catholics use and define words and the way that culturally these words are used and this chapter began to touch on this for prudence. Love for example – for Catholics involves choice and sacrifice, whereas it is frequently used to refer to an emotion; compassion is another example – for Catholics we may think of suffering (passion) with another, whereas in conversations we hear it used as avoiding suffering). I’ve enjoyed looking at the origin of words and how they are used in different circles and the definitions that these bring as this has deepened my understanding over the years. I hope that this book will do the same with these virtues.

  • Donna Ruth

    I have to admit I was anxious for Jospeh Pieper to quickly lay it out and offer three good clear examples, but it seems he wants us to go deeper. Yes, I, too, am eager to see where Joseph Pieper is going with this. I have forced myself to stick to the reading schedule and look forward to taking the next chapters to the Adoration Chapel tonight. Further, with a definition, “the perfected ability to make good decisions,” the concept of “virtue of virtues,” and the reminder that prudence is the “cause of the other virtues,” I found myself automatically applying it to the horrific events in Paris last week. In terrorists who were eager to take offence, and journalists eager to goad and pour oil on raging fires, there was a disastrous absence of true prudence.

  • Ellana leCroy

    I love the practicality of prudence. The perfected ability to make good decisions. A seed planted. The acorn becomes the mighty oak…oh yeah…LOVE THAT! The acorn having all it needs to become the mighty oak. Just like the zygote has all it needs to become a splendid human being! A much deeper and broader meaning than I had known before!

    • LizEst

      Actually, that zygote is already a human being. Life begins at the moment of conception.

  • Julia Liesveld Price

    Definitely a challenging read. I had to stop and check a couple of definitions for clarity in order to breakdown some of his thoughts into more manageable bites. Near the end of chap 1 he seems to jump from prudence to truth to reality and I’m just starting to wrap my brain around it all.

  • jmjgo

    My basic understanding of prudence has been that it is about
    good decision making, but not in the impersonal way Pieper says is most common, on the contrary – that each decision we personally make sends ripples through our lives, the lives of those around us and even into history… for better or for worse, hence the gravity of ‘being’ prudent. Not that ‘knowing about’ and ‘doing’ are easily achieved!

    In our RCIA class we are studying the Commandments; an inquisitor brought up questions about political personages (who profess our faith) and/or historical people’s imprudent actions and I found that paragraph 15 fit that conversation perfectly. Pieper says the Commandments are the ‘executio prudentiae’, or execution/practice of prudence- and the confusion in society that he refers to, is the perfect expression “of our lack of understanding of this virtue”, and the idea that, “Everyone who sins is imprudent.” Struck a chord! We truly see/read this in the news daily and in society as a whole (constant urging of “Just Do It”, “Let it Go”, etc., and personally, do not need to cast a far glance to see it up close… Love the analogy of planting a garden… Looking forward to learning more!

  • MGW

    I do not have the book, but I am trying to get the lessons by reading the articles and the comments, which have been especially helpful. So with that said, I try to think of what prudence means to me, and how I have applied it in my life. Before my true conversion, …my conversion of heart…I made very bad decisions in my life, for which I am paying for right now. Looking back now with my mind on Christ and with the guidance of Mother Church, I would NEVER had made those decisions, because they were not Christ centered, they were “me centered”. So maybe the Pieper meaning of Prudence…The Catholic meaning”. would be that now I try to make my decisions based on God’s Will, being mindful of that, I am being prudent, I am in a sense, automatically using the virtue of Prudence merely by my desire to do God’s will in my now Christ cenetered life. Does that make sense?

    • LizEst

      Hi MGW – if you would like to have a pdf copy of this book, send me a message at with the subject “Pieper Book” and I will send you the pdf.

      • Odile-Lyllian Crenshaw

        Dear Ms LizEst:
        I just noticed that the Book Club theme is : ‘The 4 cardinal Virtues’ which I would like to take part in…Is it also possible for me to have the pdf book so I could read and follow along? I would really appreciate this… Thank you and God Bless

        • LizEst

          Yes, send me a message at with the subject line “Book Club – Virtues”. I will send it to you.
          Love your name. I had an holy aunt Odilia! May God bless you!

          • Odile-Lyllian Crenshaw

            thank you very much:
            I am a convert baptised at 16, taking the Christian name Odile 🙂 Feast Day Dec. 13th or 14th … God Bless your Aunt Odilia

  • MGW

    ok! Thanks a million!😃

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