Prudence (Latin: prudentia, contracted from providentia meaning
"seeing ahead, sagacity") is the ability to govern and discipline
oneself by the use of reason. It is classically considered to be a
virtue, and in particular one of the four
Cardinal virtues (which are,
with the three theological virtues, part of the seven virtues).
Prudentia is an allegorical female personification of the virtue,
whose attributes are a mirror and snake, who is frequently depicted as
a pair with Justitia, the Roman goddess of Justice.
The word derives from the 14th-century
Old French word prudence,
which, in turn, derives from the Latin prudentia meaning "foresight,
sagacity". It is often associated with wisdom, insight, and knowledge.
In this case, the virtue is the ability to judge between virtuous and
vicious actions, not only in a general sense, but with regard to
appropriate actions at a given time and place. Although prudence
itself does not perform any actions, and is concerned solely with
knowledge, all virtues had to be regulated by it. Distinguishing when
acts are courageous, as opposed to reckless or cowardly, is an act of
prudence, and for this reason it is classified as a cardinal (pivotal)
In modern English, the word has become increasingly synonymous with
cautiousness. In this sense, prudence names a reluctance to take
risks, which remains a virtue with respect to unnecessary risks, but,
when unreasonably extended into over-cautiousness, can become the vice
In the Nicomachean Ethics,
Aristotle gives a lengthy account of the
virtue phronesis (Ancient Greek: ϕρονησιϛ), traditionally
translated as "prudence", although this has become increasingly
problematic as the word has fallen out of common usage. More recently
ϕρονησιϛ has been translated by such terms as "practical
wisdom", "practical judgment" or "rational choice".
1 As the "mother" of all virtues
2 Versus imprudence, cunning and false prudence
3 Integral parts
4 Prudential judgment
5 In rhetoric
6 In economics
7 In accounting
8 See also
10 External links
As the "mother" of all virtues
Allegory of Prudence
Allegory of Prudence on the tomb of Francis II, Duke of Brittany The
female face depicts Francis' daughter Anne of Brittany.
Prudence was considered by the ancient Greeks and later on by
Christian philosophers, most notably Thomas Aquinas, as the cause,
measure and form of all virtues. It is considered to be the auriga
virtutum or the charioteer of the virtues.
It is the cause in the sense that the virtues, which are defined to be
the "perfected ability" of man as a spiritual person (spiritual
personhood in the classical western understanding means having
intelligence and free will), achieve their "perfection" only when they
are founded upon prudence, that is to say upon the perfected ability
to make right decisions. For instance, a person can live temperance
when he has acquired the habit of deciding correctly the actions to
take in response to his instinctual cravings.
Its function is to point out which course of action is to be taken in
any concrete circumstances. It has nothing to do with directly willing
the good it discerns.
Prudence has a directive capacity with regard to
the other virtues. It lights the way and measures the arena for their
exercise. Without prudence, bravery becomes foolhardiness; mercy sinks
into weakness, and temperance into fanaticism. Its office is to
determine for each in practice those circumstances of time, place,
manner, etc. which should be observed, and which the Scholastics
comprise under the term "medium rationis". So it is that while it
qualifies the intellect and not the will, it is nevertheless rightly
styled a moral virtue.
Prudence is considered the measure of moral virtues since it provides
a model of ethically good actions. "The work of art is true and real
by its correspondence with the pattern of its prototype in the mind of
the artist. In similar fashion, the free activity of man is good by
its correspondence with the pattern of prudence." (Josef Pieper) For
instance, a stockbroker using his experience and all the data
available to him decides that it is beneficial to sell stock A at 2PM
tomorrow and buy stock B today. The content of the decision (e.g., the
stock, amount, time, and means) is the product of an act of prudence,
while the actual carrying out of the decision may involve other
virtues like fortitude (doing it in spite of fear of failure) and
justice (doing his job well out of justice to his company and his
family). The actual act's "goodness" is measured against that original
decision made through prudence.
In Greek and Scholastic philosophy, "form" is the specific
characteristic of a thing that makes it what it is. With this
language, prudence confers upon other virtues the form of its inner
essence; that is, its specific character as a virtue. For instance,
not all acts of telling the truth are considered good, considered as
done with the virtue of honesty. What makes telling the truth a virtue
is whether it is done with prudence.
Versus imprudence, cunning and false prudence
In Christian understanding, the difference between prudence and
cunning lies in the intent with which the decision of the context of
an action is made. The Christian understanding of the world includes
the existence of God, the natural law and moral implications of human
actions. In this context, prudence is different from cunning in that
it takes into account the supernatural good. For instance, the
decision of persecuted Christians to be martyred rather than deny
their faith is considered prudent.
According to Thomas Aquinas, judgments using reasons for evil ends or
using evil means are considered to be made through "cunning" and
"false prudence" and not through prudence. However "imprudence" was
not be considered a sin since it was not voluntary.
The Ancient Greek term for prudence is synonymous with
“forethought". People, the Ancient Greeks believed, must have enough
prudence to prepare for worshiping the Olympian gods. Exceptional were
the foolish Bacchic cult, who lived an emotional and passionate
lifestyle. Believing the antisexual Olympian traditions to be
shameful, professors of the Bacchic cult celebrated the irrationality
that governed their religion.
Prudence window, Lindfield. Third window, south chapel,
All Saints Church, Lindfield, West Sussex. Made in or after 1906 by
Prudence is the application of universal principles to particular
situations. "Integral parts" of virtues, in Scholastic philosophy,
are the elements that must be present for any complete or perfect act
of the virtue. The following are the integral parts of prudence:
Memoria : accurate memory; that is, memory that is true to
reality; an ability to learn from experience;
Docilitas : an open-mindedness that recognizes variety and is
able to seek and make use of the experience and authority of
Intelligentia : the understanding of first principles;
Sollertia : shrewdness or quick-wittedness, i.e. the ability to
evaluate a situation quickly;
Ratio : Discursive reasoning and the ability to research and
Providentia : foresight – i.e. the capacity to estimate
whether particular actions can realize goals;
Circumspection : the ability to take all relevant circumstances
Caution : the ability to mitigate risk.
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Allegory of Prudence
Allegory of Prudence by Titian. To Titian, prudence was preparation,
foresight and judgement from experience and human history. The three
faces in the painting represent the passing of human generations, with
the young facing the light while the oldest fade into shadow; the
faint inscription above their heads may be translated as "From the
past, the present acts prudently, lest it spoils future action".
In ethics, a "prudential judgment" is one where the circumstances must
be weighed to determine the correct action. Generally, it applies to
situations where two people could weigh the circumstances differently
and ethically come to different conclusions.
For instance, in the theory of just war, the government of a nation
must weigh whether the harms they suffer are more than the harms that
would be produced by their going to war against another nation that is
harming them; the decision whether to go to war is therefore a
In another case, a patient who has a terminal illness with no
conventional treatment may hear of an experimental treatment. To
decide whether to take it would require weighing on one hand, the
cost, time, possible lack of benefit, and possible pain, disability,
and hastened death, and on the other hand, the possible benefit and
the benefit to others of what could be learned from his case.
Main gate of 18th-century Castellania portraying Lady
Justice and Lady
Phronesis, or practical wisdom, holds an important place in rhetorical
theory as a central aspect of judgment and practice. Aristotle's
notion of phronesis fits with his notes on rhetoric because neither,
in his estimation, could be reduced to an episteme or a techne, and
both deal with the ability to deliberate about contingent, variable,
or indeterminate matters.
Cicero defined prudentia as a rhetorical norm in De Oratore, De
officiis, De Inventione, and De re publica. He contrasts the term with
imprudens, young men failing to consider the consequences before they
act. The prudens, or those who had prudence, knew when to speak and
when to stay silent.
Cicero maintained that prudence was gained only
through experience, and while it was applied in everyday conversation,
in public discourse it was subordinated to the broader term for
In the contemporary era, rhetorical scholars have tried to recover a
robust meaning for the term. They have maintained consistency with the
ancient orators, contending that prudence is an embodied persuasive
resource. Although sets of principles or rules can be constructed
in a particular culture, scholars agree that prudence cannot be
derived from a set of timeless principles. Instead, through gauging
the situation and through reasoned deliberation, a speaker should
determine the set of values and morals by which to base his or her
actions. Furthermore, scholars suggest the capacity to take into
account the particularities of the situation as vital to prudential
practice. For example, as rhetorical scholar Lois Self explains, "both
rhetoric and phronesis are normative processes in that they involve
rational principles of choice-making; both have general applicability
but always require careful analysis of particulars in determining the
best response to each specific situation; both ideally take into
account the wholeness of human nature; and finally, both have social
utility and responsibility in that both treat matter of the public
good". Robert Hariman, in his examination of Malcolm X, adds that
"aesthetic sensibility, imitation of a performative ideal, and
improvisation upon conventions of presentation" are also components of
Small differences emerge between rhetorical scholars regarding
definitions of the term and methods of analysis. Hans-Georg Gadamer
asserted that prudence materializes through the application of
principles and can be evaluated accordingly. In his analysis of
Andrew Cuomo's speech to the Catholic Church of Notre Dame, James
Jasinski contends that prudence cannot be calculated by formal matters
like consequences[clarify] as it is not a episteme or techne; instead,
it is judged according to embodied rhetorical performance. Thus,
while Gadamer would judge prudence based on the execution of
contingent principles, Jasinski would examine the artistry of
communication in its cultural milieu between accommodation
(compromise) and audacity (courage).[clarification needed]
In his study of Machiavelli, examining the relationship between
prudence and moderation, rhetorician Eugene Garver holds that there is
a middle ground between "an ethics of principles, in which those
principles univocally dictate action" and "an ethics of consequences,
in which the successful result is all". His premise stems from
Aristotle's theory of virtue as an "intermediate", in which moderation
and compromise embody prudence. Yet, because valorizing moderation is
not an active response, prudence entails the "transformation of
moderation" into a fitting response, making it a flexible situational
norm. Garver also asserts that prudential reasoning differs from
"algorithmic" and "heuristic" reasoning because it is rooted in a
political community, the context in which common problems regarding
stability and innovation arise and call for prudential reasoning.
Economists describe a consumer as "prudent" if he or she saves more
when faced with riskier future income. This additional saving is
called precautionary saving.
If a risk-averse consumer has a utility function
over consumption x, and if
is differentiable, then the consumer is not prudent unless the third
derivative of utility is positive, that is,
displaystyle u^ ''' left(xright)>0
The strength of the precautionary saving motive can be measured by
absolute prudence, which is defined as
displaystyle - frac u^ ''' left(xright) u^ '' left(xright)
. Similarly, relative prudence is defined as absolute prudence,
multiplied by the level of consumption. These measures are closely
related to the concepts of absolute and relative risk aversion
Kenneth Arrow and John W. Pratt.
In accounting, prudence was long considered one of the "fundamental
accounting concepts" in its determination of the time for revenue
recognition. The rule of prudence meant that gains should not be
anticipated unless their realisation was highly probable. However,
recent developments in Generally Accepted
Accounting Principles have
led academic critics to accuse the international standard-setting body
IASB of abandoning prudence. In the British reporting standard FRS
18, prudence, along with consistency, was relegated to a "desirable"
quality of financial information rather than fundamental concept.
Prudence was rejected for IFRS because it was seen as compromising
In a 2011 report on the financial crisis of 2007–08, the British
House of Lords
House of Lords bemoaned the demotion of prudence as a governing
principle of accounting and audit. Their comments, however, were
disputed by some leading practitioners.
Prudence (given name)
Prudence - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster
Dictionary. Merriam-webster.com (2012-08-31). Retrieved on 2013-07-19.
^ a b Delany, Joseph. "Prudence." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12.
New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 2 May 2014
Aristotle himself would have considered this way of making
money contemptible: "[T]hose who ply sordid trades...and those who
lend small sums and at high rates...take more than they ought and from
wrong sources. What is common to them is evidently sordid love of
gain...[A]ll such forms of taking are mean." (Nicomachean Ethics
Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica, Volume 3 (Part II, Second
Section) 1602065578 2013 - p 1409 "It would seem that imprudence is
not a sin. For every sin is voluntary, according to Augustine;*
whereas imprudence is not voluntary, since no man wishes to be
imprudent. Therefore imprudence is not a sin"
^ Russell, Bertrand. History of Western Philosophy.Routledge, 1996, p.
^ a b c McManaman, Douglas. "The
Virtue of Prudence", Catholic
Education Resource Center
^ David Summers (1987), The Judgment of Sense: Renaissance Naturalism
and the Rise of Aesthetics, Cambridge University Press
^ Hariman, Robert (2003). Prudence: classical virtue, postmodern
practice. The Pennsylvania State University Press. p. 37.
^ a b Jasinski, James (2001). Sourcebook on Rhetoric. Sage
Publications. p. 463.
^ Self, Lois (1979). "
Rhetoric and Phronesis: The Aristotelian Ideal".
Philosophy and Rhetoric. Penn State University Press.
^ Hariman, Robert (1991). Theory without Modernity. p. 28.
^ Gadamer, Hans-George (1982). "Truth and Method". Crossroad: 7.
^ a b Garver, Eugene (1987).
Machiavelli and the History of Prudence.
University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0-299-11080-X.
^ Sandmo, A. (1970). "The Effect of Uncertainty on
Review of Economic Studies. 37 (3): 353–360.
^ Kimball, M. (1990). "Precautionary
Saving in the Small and in the
Large". Econometrica. 58 (1): 53–73. JSTOR 2938334.
^ Tax and accountancy: 'fundamental accounting concepts', HMRC, UK.
IASB has abandoned prudence, professor warns, Accountancy Age, 24
^ Tax and accountancy: development of accountancy concepts and new
objectives: FRS18, HMRC. Retrieved 2011-04-12.
^ a b Rose Orlik, Lords took a leap on international standards,
Accountancy Age, 4 Apr 2011. Retrieved 2011-04-12..
Look up prudence in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Prudence.
Summa Theologica "Second Part of the Second Part" (Questions 47-56).
"Prudence" at the Catholic Encyclopedia.
The Seven Virtues in Christian ethics
Great Commandment; "All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two
commandments." – Matthew 22:35-40
Republic, Book IV
Augustine of Hippo
Sources: Paul the Apostle
1 Corinthians 13
Seven deadly sins
Source: Prudentius, Psychomachia
People: Evagrius Ponticus
Pope Gregory I
Critical thinking and
Parsimony (Occam's razor)
Theories of deduction