A brief essay on the Cardinal Virtue Prudence
|Prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues, that is, it is considered to be one of the most important for living a virtuous life. For the record, the others are Justice, Fortitude and Temperance.
The word is ultimately, (via Old French), Latin in origin, coming from providentia, which had the meaning of being able to see where one’s decisions and actions would lead, i.e. foresight.
In essence the virtue of prudence is concerned with living your life according to reason, developing foresight and thus wisdom or sagacity. It is about making the right decisions at the right time, using universal principles to correctly handle specific situations.
The importance of prudence is that it directs other virtues, for example prudence might lead one to an act of bravery, perhaps standing up to someone who is being a bully. A lack of prudence may result in an act of foolish bravado, such as racing a car across a rail crossing, even though a train is clearly coming.
Prudence can also be described as the measure of the other virtues. In trying to think of a way to explain this, the idea of the spirit and not the letter of the law came to mind. If we accept that the intention of a law is not to harm the innocent, and that a literal interpretation of the law might in some cases do so, then it would be an act of prudence to follow the spirit in those cases.
An allegorical personification of the virtue prudence took the form of Prudentia, a woman looking into a mirror, and holding a remora. Some depictions show her with a snake, but a book by Cesare Ripa in 1603 set out clear rules for the depictions of the virtues. These were based on his extensive research into ancient coins and medals. He clarified that Prudentia is in fact holding a remora or suckerfish.
In Latin ‘Remora’ meant delay, and this was a reference to the fish’s supposed ability to slow down ships. The significance to Prudentia is that prudence requires careful thought and not hasty decision. Prudence would also help you to decide when careful thought was straying into procrastination.
The mirror she holds and looks into refers to the Latin maxim Nosce te ipsum, or ‘Know thyself’. A knowledge of your personal strengths and weaknesses being a prerequisite of prudent action.
To be prudent requires several different elements
i. An accurate memory, and the ability to learn by experience.
ii. Open mindedness. The ability to research and compare a variety of alternatives and a willingness to learn from others who have relevant
knowledge and/or experience.
iii. The ability to quickly assess a situation.
iv. To be able to take into account everything relevant to a decision.
v. The ability to mitigate risk.