Lesson 8: Prudence Shapes Human Freedom

Lecture 4B

The forgoing account of prudence informs the teaching of the Church. Veritatis splendor teaches that "in every sphere of personal, family, social and political life, morality--founded upon truth and open in truth to authentic freedom--renders a primordial, indispensable and immensely valuable service not only for the individual person and his growth in the good, but also for society and its genuine development" (Veritatis splendor no 101, but see as well the preceding paragraphs in nos. 96-101). Aquinas comments on the various forms of prudence which correspond not only to the good of the individual, but also to that of the family and of the state; these are monastic or individual, domestic, and political respectively. In the Church, we see the ultimate realization of prudence when the members heed St Paul's exhortation: "In your minds you must be the same as Christ Jesus" (Phil 2: 5).

With few exceptions, modern moral philosophy follows one of two directions: first, schools of emotivism propose sincere feelings as the ultimate moral criterion, and second, schools of moral cognitivism propose a variety of ways for the intellect to dictate a course of action. Various factors in the history of moral philosophy account for the fact that few theories recognize two crucial truths: first, that rational principles no matter how well defined cannot adequately ensure that a particular human action really instantiates moral goodness; secondly, that the appetites in themselves lack the ability to develop a full moral measure, even though one may allow that they contain the germ of virtue. Authentic prudence cultivates an intelligence measured by moral knowledge and capable of shaping human behavior towards virtuous ends as these are grasped by a rectified appetite.

Prudence belongs to the development of the moral life. As an infused and an acquired virtue, it depends on both the revealed and rational sources of moral wisdom. Through prudence and the moral virtues, our activity corresponds to the authentic ends or goods of human nature--this is called conformity with the "thing" or res. Such conformity with the complete number of good human ends shapes the character of a virtuous person who, because of the psychological power contained in the habitus, easily and surely achieves the goals of human life. Unlike the good musician who may "learn" how to play a false note, the prudent person cannot voluntarily act imprudently. In other words, he can never act against his own good. Because prudence integrates moral knowledge and rectified appetites in order to provide concrete and particular norms for human behavior, prudence remains a key virtue for the formation of a person's moral character. All of the moral virtues require prudence because this moral virtue guarantees the production of a virtuous action in the practical order. Insofar as correct moral reasoning combines with rectified appetite for good ends, a virtuous action infallibly results. But this state of affairs defines the saint, whose prudence always remains genuine, not sham or motivated by carnal ends, general, not restricted to a limited field of human endeavor, and complete, not favoring one or another acts of prudence. Since prudence is synonymous with those who have done the will of God throughout the ages, then the saints best represent those people who have taken good counsel, made good judgments, and, above all, remained resolutely effective in commanding a virtuous life.

Reading Assignments

Avery Dulles, S.J., "The Truth about Freedom: A Theme from John Paul II," in Veritatis Splendor and the Renewal of Moral TheologyStudies by Ten Outstanding Scholars. Edited with J. A. DiNoia, O.P. (Chicago: Midwest Theological Forum, 1999).

Servais Pinckaers, "Conscience, Truth, and Prudence" and Ralph McInerny, "Conscience and the Object of the Moral Act" in Crisis of Conscience, ed. John M. Haas (Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996): 79-110.

For a discussion of how prudence influences even in exceptional circumstances, see my "Epieikeia and the Accomplishment of the Just" in Aquinas and Empowerment: Classical Ethics for Ordinary Lives, ed. G. Simon Harak (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1996): 170-205.


1) Read the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the virtues of the moral life, nos. 1803-1845. How would you explain the Christian life in terms of the virtues? How do the theological virtues relate to the moral virtues?

2) Specifically, how does prudence relate to all the virtues?

3) What does it mean to say that charity is the form of every good?


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