For most of us, prudence is an old-fashioned name for a woman but seldom considered a virtue. Yet, it is listed first among the four cardinal virtues of Greek philosophy.
Prudence is understood as the ability to discern the best and most appropriate action to take in any given situation, at any particular time. Consequently, prudence can never be reduced to a list of protocols or “best practices” simply because situations will differ in both circumstance, potential consequence, timing and other variables.
Prudence, therefore, is a virtue, not a formula. Prudence demands an honorable ethical system made up of an educated conscience, an archive of experience, a well-defined and proven moral grid, and most of all, an expertise in situational analysis able to foresee the consequences of one’s actions in varying circumstances.
To make our understanding of prudence easier we would just as well refer to this virtue as wisdom. Sadly, in our day it is common to see wisdom and knowledge as synonymous, even interchangeable. But words matter, and the distinction between them is both significant and important to our understanding of virtue.
Knowledge is the accumulation of truth, of facts that are the building blocks of ideas, standards, ethics and almost everything else in our world. Wisdom is the ability to apply those facts, those ideas, standards and ethical convictions to the ever-changing situations of the real world. Simply put, wisdom is the virtue of applying truth to life in the most appropriate, honorable and useful way.
For example, when I was in junior high, we had a class called metal shop. Back in those days, students could enroll in wood shop, or metal shop, or mechanical drawing, all of which were used to educate us in how to design things, make things and repair things.
One day in metal shop, I went to the tool steward and said, “I need an 8-inch crescent wrench please.”
The kid dispensing the tools that day said, “All I have is a 12-inch.”
I replied, “That’s OK. I’m gonna use it for a hammer anyway!”
OK, that’s a joke, but it could have happened! My point is this. You can use a large wrench to pound on something, but it won’t be prudent. It won’t be a display of wisdom. And actually, it will be really, really wrong despite the fact that it just might do the job.
As a cardinal Greek virtue, prudence was prized, not because imprudence was incapable of accomplishing some things, but because it was widely understood that a society that prizes and works to develop prudence among its citizens, especially its youths, will be much more elegant, much more honorable, and in the long run, much more efficient, just and successful in making life better for all. Today, prudence has given way to the pursuit of short-term success, personal convenience and immediate gratification. We really don’t care if the wrench isn’t supposed to be a hammer.
Prudence, which takes time and effort to develop, has been swapped out for the non-virtues of plausible deniability, shameless actions, blame-shifting, outright deceit, and the belief that the ends justify the means even if both are harmful to society.
Throughout human history, virtue has been highly prized, painstakingly defined and taught, and resolutely pursued from an early age by those who sought to be honorable men and women determined to make meaningful, noble contributions to their society.
And that’s the problem. All virtue has, as its purpose, the betterment of the community. History has long shouted “virtuous people create great societies!” But today, us-ism is being replaced by me-ism.
Today, the rise of the sovereign self, the ideological demands of identity politics, and the “woke” reimagining of truth and reality, have intentionally assassinated the idea of community. Too many of our people are preoccupied with individual rights and deserved rewards rather than the overall good of the nation.
This drastic turn from community to self has turned us into a society of competing individuals aligned in combative identity groups motivated only by the selfish desire to gain power and its perks. And sadly, the pursuit of virtue is no longer seen as necessary to the accomplishment of their goals since they are actively working to tear down community rather than strengthen the interdependence and mutual respect and care that have always described healthy societies.
It is this healthy interdependence and mutual respect and care that have always been the foundation of thriving communities, and virtue was the cement that held the foundation stones together.
But, it is not too late! Here’s the plan. First, pursue virtue, in this case the application of knowledge to the ever-changing situations of your life. Educate your conscience to recognize right from wrong, and prefer right. And pass that along to your kids, and everyone else in whose life you have influence. Start conversations about what is good and what is evil, and how to tell the difference. Set your heart to spread the influence of your virtue, your fortitude, your self-control, your kindness, and myriad other virtues to the world around you. Who knows?
Maybe together we can make a difference, and if so, we sure should try.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.