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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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