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Prudence is the virtue that most immediately helps us live our lives on target.
When we regret a decision, find ourselves in a sticky situation that was quite avoidable, or just sense our lives are not heading in the right direction, it is often because this foundational cardinal virtue was not at the forefront of our actions.
Called “the charioteer of the virtues”(Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1806), prudence directs all the other virtues, pointing them to their proper end. Without prudence, one’s life might look like a horse and chariot running away without a driver-a lot of energy, speed, and commotion, but not going in the right direction.
Prudence entails practical wisdom. It enables us “to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (Catechism, no. 1806). How well prudence is developed will affect every aspect of our lives. It takes prudence to buy a car or a house and to make a good financial investment. It takes prudence to raise children well, advance one’s career, or ask a girl on a date. Prudence is well-ordered reason applied to action, so that we not only know the right thing to do, but also how and when to do it.
There are three key aspects of prudence: counsel, judgment, and decisiveness. Each of these is necessary, but in this reflection, we focus on the first step for prudence: counsel.
Have you ever made a decision you wish you could take back? St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that prudent decisions require counsel, which is the “act of inquiry.” This is the first step, in which we gather the information necessary to make a good decision.
For example, when buying a car, it is not wise to show up at a car dealer and purchase the first auto one sees. The prudent man assesses how much money he can spend and what kind of car fits his needs and his budget. He may also test drive different cars, look at consumer reviews, or talk to friends who own the kinds of cars he is considering.
While this might seem like commonsense, many of us make poor decisions that we later regret because we failed to take this first necessary step. We rush into a decision without adequately considering the necessary data. We purchase something spontaneously and later realize we didn’t really need it and should have saved the money for something else. We commit our time to some activity and later kick ourselves for it because we should have known our plates were already quite full.
Aquinas calls this defect in counsel “precipitation,” which refers to bringing about an action prematurely or hastily. Just as rain and snow fall to the ground, so do we stumble and fall when we fail to take the necessary steps of counsel.
Shortly after we moved into our first home, I dreamed of having a piano for our children. But quickly after looking into piano prices, I knew we could not afford even a used one any time in the near future. Just then, a friend of mine who was moving told me his piano would not fit into his new home. It was an old standing grand piano-a little worn over the years, with one of the keys needing repair, but still in decent condition. He offered to give it to me for free if I helped him transport it out on moving day.
I was ecstatic. I told my 2-year-olddaughter Madeleine the good news, and she repeated “Piano! Piano!” with excitement that day. We got up early the next morning to make space in our living room, and I left to go pick it up. Madeleine waved tome from the window, anxiously awaiting there turn of Daddy and the new piano.
Aquinas mentions three weaknesses that cause precipitous action.
My friend and I recruited a few other men to help us load the piano onto a pickup truck. Despite the awkward shape of the standing grand, we got it out of the house and successfully lifted it upright into the truck. We were off to my home, just seven blocks away!
Of course, we drove slowly and carefully as we headed straight east on the first five blocks of our journey. Then, we made our first turn onto Fifth Street and my house came into view.
At that moment, I heard a sound I’ll never forget. The noise sounded like someone banging on the piano as we were halfway through the turn. My heart sank. I looked into the review mirror and saw the standing grand piano no longer standing upright. It was falling out of the truck, and there was nothing I could do. In the span of just two or three seconds-which seemed tome like a helpless eternity-I watched in the rear view mirror as the piano fell out of the truck upside down, bounced on the street, and broke into pieces.
In our concern to get the big, odd-sized piano out the front door and onto the truck, we did not think through the remaining steps: We forgot to tie down the piano to the truck! Because we failed to think through the whole process, our family’s dreams for a piano were shattered with the standing grand on Fifth Street that day. I came home to my daughter empty-handed, and for the next several weeks, whenever a visitor came to our home, she would walk them over to the spot in our living room where the piano was supposed to reside and say to them, “Piano broke. . . . Piano broke. . . .”
Defects in Counsel
Aquinas mentions three weaknesses that cause precipitous action. The first weakness is impulse. This is when a person gives little thought to a decision and runs with his initial reaction. He fails to think through his course of action. This may concern smaller matters, such as spending a lot more time on the Internet than planned on a given evening or buying a few extra items at the grocery store that were not on the list.
It may affect bigger issues, such as accumulating a lot of debt for things one could not truly afford. The average credit card debt among all American households recently hit $8,400. Many families find themselves enslaved for years struggling to pay off not only credit cards, but cars, homes, and other items, as they were trying to live beyond their means. Thinking through one’s finances and expenses more carefully can save a lot of grief, just as foresight with the piano move would have prevented much heartache in our home.
A second cause of rushed decisions is what Aquinas calls passion — being carried away by our emotions. When we’re angry, for example, we say things we later regret. When we’re impatient with our kids, we may lose our temper and make things worse. When we’re afraid, we often overact to problems and make unwise moves. When a young person falls in love, she may idealize her beloved and not see serious faults that will come back to haunt her.
Are you someone who has a difficult time saying no to others when they ask for something? When we’re afraid to say no, various emotions might be at work: We don’t want to let other people down, we don’t want others to think less of us, we like being the one people turn to for help, we will feel guilty if we turn down certain family members or friends, etc. In our pride, vanity, insecurity, or greed, we have difficulty refusing other people when they come to us with a request, even though saying no may be the most prudent thing for us to do. Heeding others’ requests may flow from generosity, but in some cases, it may be the result of disordered emotions dominating our decision-making process, leading us to make poor choices.
Men and Directions
A third cause of poorly-thought-out choices is stubbornness. This fault is not simply forgetting to think things through or making a decision based on one’s emotions. The stubborn person deliberately refuses to gather information or take time to weigh a decision. My father, for example, was notorious in our family for getting lost when driving. We now joke about the family vacations when he was lost and did not like admitting so. Like many men, my dad did not want to stop at a gas station to ask for directions. He would rather keep driving than admit defeat, even though the rest of us pleaded for him to turn around or look at a map!
Counsel is the crucial first aspect of prudence. But no matter how much one gathers information and thinks through a decision, unless he makes a good judgment and acts on it, he does not have the virtue of prudence.
We can be stubborn not only in driving a car, but also in the way we steer our lives. Some choleric, “type-A” personalities are afraid to ask for help when things are not going well. They do not want to appear as if they do not know what they are doing. So rather than humbly seeking help, they plow ahead and give the appearance they have everything in control.
Some people, when making a big, life changing decision or facing a certain moral dilemma, are afraid to seek God’s will in the matter. They might say some prayers about it, but they are not truly open to all the options and to whatever God might want them to do, say, or give up. In these moments of discernment, we might even avoid certain people’s counsel because we are afraid of what that person may say. So instead of talking to a particular friend or priest, we seek advice only from the people we think will agree with the direction we want to go.
Counsel is the crucial first aspect of prudence. But no matter how much one gathers information and thinks through a decision, unless he makes a good judgment and acts on it, he does not have the virtue of prudence. In our next reflection, we will consider the next two aspects of prudence: judgment and decisiveness.
Edward P. Sri. “The Art of Living: The First Step of Prudence.” Lay Witness (May/June 2009).
This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine.
Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.