In today’s imagination prudence is mainly associated with careful, considered behavior (for example, driving a car slowly) or with a tendency to be indecisive so as to avoid risks, or worse, with a form of cowardice that prevents someone from taking a stand.[1] These views are largely associated with modern thought.

In antiquity, however, prudence was considered the highest virtue and the guide of all the others (auriga virtutum), because it allowed people to recognize the fundamental objective of life in a specific situation, and above all it identified the appropriate means to achieve it. The Greeks associated it with phron?sis (wisdom), a term that originally referred to the diaphragm (phr?n), the seat of breathing, feeling and the cognitive activity of the soul, the most intimate dimension of the human being.[2] The wise person exercises reason in a state of good health and therefore can govern the self.

For Aristotle, the task of wisdom is to educate for responsiveness, the indispensable energy for doing good (Topics, V, 8; 138 b 2-5): this is the essential task of practical reason (Nicomachean Ethics, VI, 5). For this reason, wisdom is the pivot of the moral life, because the purpose of this discipline, Aristotle adds, is not to know the good, but to be good. Cicero translates phron?sis as prudentia, defining it as “the science of things to be sought or avoided” (De officiis, I, 153).

As can be seen from this simple survey, not only wisdom-prudence, but also moral philosophy has characteristics that are quite different from the intellectualistic approach of the modern era, with its quest for rules and precise definitions, thereby emptying practical reason of the affective dimension. Significant in this regard is Kant’s position: reason and emotions are enemies. For this reason, in choosing the good, one must disregard every aspect of passion and the choice made on the basis of pure reason.

The explanation for this contrast is clear: “To be subject to emotions and passions is always a disease of the soul, because both exclude the dominion of reason.”[3] It is an antithetical position to that of Thomas Aquinas: “The mode of virtue, which consists in the perfect will, cannot be without passion, not because the will depends on the passion, but because a perfect will in a being subject to feelings necessarily entails passion” (De Veritate, q. 26, a. 7, ad 2; cf. a. 1).

Thomas, in the prologue to part two of the second part of the Summa Theologica, notes that “there is less use in speaking about moral matters in general, since actions are about particular things” (Sum. Theol. II-II, prol.). To live well, one must know how to act in specific circumstances and, above all, be sufficiently motivated to do so. For this reason, we cannot speak of morality without prudence.

What is prudence?

Thomas takes the etymology of the term from Isidore of Seville: prudence as porro videns, the ability to look ahead, far ahead, to foresee and provide, to see the possible point of arrival of a thought or a choice, through comparisons (collationes) with what has happened in the past (cf. Sum. Theol. II-II, q. 47, a. 1). This prospective meaning is confirmed by the fact that the Latin word prudens is the contracted form of providens (providence): the prudent individual is provident, the one who sees beforehand, looks beyond the particular situation.

The specific task of prudence is above all to foreshadow the proper path to the end. It does not establish the ultimate end, the good to be accomplished, which is not the object of deliberation (cf. Sum. Theol. I-II, q. 57, a. 5), but it prepares the means.

This explains the fundamental importance of prudence in the process of discernment in order to make important decisions for one’s life correctly.[4] Its link with providence also shows its religious dimension, a participation in divine wisdom, which provides light and strength to do good. Thomas points out that we can be helped in this difficult task by a precious gift of the Holy Spirit, counsel, which provides light to the intellect and strength to the will: “Prudence, which implies rightness of reason, is strengthened and helped insofar as it is regulated and moved by the Holy Spirit. And this task belongs to the gift of counsel. Therefore the gift of counsel corresponds to prudence, as its help and crowning glory” (Sum. Theol. II-II, q. 52, a. 2).

This docility frees one from the anxiety of believing that everything is left to one’s own strength, causing one to despair of improvement. Curiously, however, Thomas notes that this necessary completion for deliberation had already been clearly recognized by Aristotle: “The Philosopher himself says in the chapter On Good Fortune [Eudemian Ethics, 7, 14] that for those who are moved by divine prompting there is no need to take counsel according to human reason, but only to follow their inner promptings, since they are moved by a principle higher than human reason” (Sum. Theol. I-II, q. 68, a. 1).

The rationality of prudence: the ‘vis cogitativa’

The importance of prudence for ethics lies in the fact that it expresses a very special rationality, a synthesis of the sensory and intellectual dimensions, what Thomas calls vis cogitativa. In presenting it, he compares human knowledge with animal learning. Every puppy, for example, at birth possesses traits indispensable for living, such as being able to stretch out its mouth in search of its mother’s milk; or, as in the case of sheep, fleeing at the sight of the wolf, even if meeting one for the first time. This capacity, which is at the basis of what today we call “instinct,” is called by Thomas vis aestimativa. It has the function of giving an immediate evaluation of the particular situation, which is followed by a response in terms of attraction (as in the search for nourishment) or flight (as in the case of the sheep fearing the wolf; cf. Sum. Theol. I, q. 78, a. 4).

Thomas, taking up the analysis of Aristotle, notes that humans not only have the ability to know particular situations, but also to modify them, to rework at a different level what has been learned through the senses, thanks to that faculty called “imagination.”[5] In people, unlike in animals, sensitivity remains under the dominion of reason and will, thanks to the vis cogitativa: “The power which in other animals is called the natural estimative, in humans is called the cogitative, which by some sort of gathering together and comparison discovers these intentions. Therefore it is also called the ‘particular reason,’ to which physicians assign a particular organ, namely, the middle part of the head, for it gathers concrete cognitive data as intellectual reason gathers universal ones” (Sum. Theol. I, q. 78, a. 4).

Faced with a given situation people can react in many different ways: they can, for example, decide not to eat because of a greater good envisaged  or face a mortal danger to remain faithful to a value. This flexibility is at the basis of progress in knowledge and allows us to modify behavior by gathering the lessons of experience. Instincts, on the contrary, are extremely precise and regulated: when a bird builds a nest, it performs a series of very specific operations and does not seem to evaluate various possibilities in order to then choose; it is noted as a predisposition that guides the behavior. This is why instincts cannot be learned: a dog will never be able to learn how to build a bird’s nest.

An integrated anthropology

Unlike animals, humans take up and rework the sensory impressions, to create with the imagination objects that do not exist (such as the centaur, the hippogriff or a golden mountain). The vis cogitativa has the fundamental function of being a hinge between awareness and intellect, moving the will to act. It is the proof of the profound unity of human knowledge, a knowledge that arises from the particular and ends in the universal, in the value capable of embodying it. Like a building that has different foundations and floors but is integrated, such is the case with human knowledge. The senses are the starting point, the material that the intelligence works on (what the medievals called ghost) and develops a universal concept. In turn, the vis cogitativa influences the senses, giving rise to what Thomas calls the “passions of the soul.” [6]

Passions arise from sensitivity, but they are also a motion of the soul: they are the result of an evaluation involving the body (cf. Sum. Theol. I-II, q. 23, a. 2). Wrath is an example: one can decide to get angry, taking a stand regarding obvious injustices, for example, the anger of Jesus. When he sees the merchants in the Temple (cf. John 2:14-18) he prepares a whip out of cords and then gives vent to his anger. t It is an anger deliberately aroused by the will on the basis of what has become known.

Reason is called to listen to sensations, so as to order them, making them a valuable ally in the service of the good. In this regard, Saint Thomas takes up an observation of Aristotle: “The Philosopher [Politics, I, 2] says that reason imposes itself on the tendencies of desire and aggression not by means of a despotic power, like that of a master over a slave, but by means of a political or royal power, which is the way free people, who are not wholly subject to command are governed” (Sum. Theol. I-II, q. 17, a. 7).

The vis cogitativa can do this because, unlike speculative reason, it concerns particulars, the object of senses, and is therefore capable of moving to action. This is the reason for its efficacy, because the good is known by it not only as something true (as in speculative knowledge), but as desirable, as good, as that which moves the affections and facilitates its attainment.

The vis cogitativa presents a vision of ethics that is both concrete and objective. Its way of proceeding closely integrates the senses, intellect and will, so that they can achieve the desired good in an orderly way, that is, it is capable of promoting the person in his or her integrity. Without passion one would fall into the vice of insensitivity (cf. Sum. Theol. II-II, q. 142, a. 1), which makes one inhuman, incapable of pity, tenderness and mercy.

As we know, the contribution of these different faculties –the senses, intellect and will – to decision-making is one of the most complex and intriguing questions regarding human action.

It is also interesting to note how this notion, which had fallen into disuse in philosophy, has been taken up by the human sciences, in particular by clinical psychology – from Gestalt to neurosurgery – not in its materiality, but in its essential meaning: in fact, these disciplines note the cognitive contribution of emotions and their influence on reasoning and decision-making processes, starting from what Aristotle called “common sense,” the unifying faculty of sensibility.[7]

‘Vis cogitativa’ and prudence

The vis cogitativa is not identical to prudence, but it is the faculty that makes it possible; its repeated exercise makes it a virtue, a habitus, literally something that one has, that belongs to the prudent person in a stable way, like a second nature. Thomas gives  a succinct definition of virtue: “Virtue is a quality that makes those who possess it good, as well as the actions they perform” (Sum. Theol. II-II, q. 47, a. 4). Knowing the concrete situation is an indispensable preliminary step, but it is not the same as being prudent, that is, capable of doing the good that must be done (cf. De Virtutibus in communi, a. 6, ad 1).

Prudence presupposes, first of all,  that the desire is morally licit (rectitudo appetitus), because it is there that the operative evaluation is played out. Its peculiar characteristic is to be both an  intellectual virtue and a moral virtue: it is right reason at work, to which Thomas applies the famous definition of recta ratio agibilium (Sum. Theol. II-II, q. 47 a. 2 s.c.; I-II, q. 58, a. 3). It judges the goodness of a thing under the aspect of good, that is, of something desirable, a goal toward which one moves to achieve it: “The moral life, without prudence, could present itself as an irrational orientation toward given ends, without the active and committed guidance of reason in the executive order.”[8]

The prudential procedure

Practical reason proceeds in three stages. First of all it investigates, it gathers information, then it judges what to do, on the basis of the first principles of good and evil, by means of the faculty that Thomas calls synderesis (a notion also taken up in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, concerning the Rules for the Discernment of Spirits[9]), and finally it decides. For the action to be good, it is required that all three steps be good.

It is above all the third moment, the imperium, the command, the peculiar act of prudence, that distinguishes it from the other intellectual virtues, but also from a practical virtue such as art, aimed at the production of external works, where expertise and skill are essential. And indeed, while in art a deliberate error, which  contravenes the rule, is less serious than an error made out of ignorance of the rule; in prudence exactly the opposite happens.  This is so because in art the preponderant faculty is the accuracy of judgment, while the specific nature of moral action is the command, the rectitude of the will (cf. Sum. Theol. II-II, q. 47, a. 8). Only when the command intervenes can we speak of moral life.

Hence the complexity of this virtue. To act well requires, first of all, to deliberate well, based on a reason in harmony with sensitivity (the vis cogitativa). But this is not enough. Once one knows what it is good to do, one must act promptly. Aristotle and Thomas agree that the prudent person deliberates for a long time, but decides in a short time and executes the decision promptly.

Prudence, therefore, is by no means synonymous with indefinite procrastination or the ability never to take a position, as is widely believed today. On the contrary, for Thomas its essential characteristic is solicitude (literally, following Isidore again, to be sollers et citus, quick and lively): once reason has deliberated, action must follow quickly, because prudence provides, in addition to knowledge, the ability to do good.[10]

This speed is indispensable, because at the moment of making a decision, emotional impediments such as fear and anxiety can arise, which risk calling into question the good decision for no reason. Prudence confers sufficient moral certainty, but it cannot have the rigor and evidence of speculative knowledge. Those who, like the over scrupulous, seek total, infallible verification, or feel that time and strength are not enough, will never reach a conclusion. One of the dramas of our society is the search for total certainty about the choices to be made, which has the effect of increasing the role of uncertainty and anxiety.[11]

Slow deliberation and fast decision-making: these are the indispensable pillars of prudence, a virtue that proceeds at two speeds. But if there is not enough certainty in the first two stages then one must wait, because the indispensable elements of reference are missing.

The enemies of prudence

Thomas points out that prudence does not fail because of a defect of memory, or because of a lack of knowledge of the norm (as Socratic intellectualism claimed), but because of disordered passions (cf. Sum. Theol. II-II, q. 47, a. 16). The bad choice arises from a lack of harmony between intellect and sensibility (what Ignatius calls the “disordered affections”: cf. Spiritual Exercises, No. 1), and the person thus becomes incapable of recognizing the good in its concreteness, disregarding essential life values.

Attitudes specifically contrary to prudence are scruples, as already mentioned, or, on the contrary, a decision taken too hastily, in the grip of the excitement of the moment, without adequate deliberation. This is another form of imprudence, incapable of going through the steps necessary for a good choice: memory of the past, intelligence, reason, diligence and above all docility (cf. Sum. Theol. II-II, q. 53, a. 3).

Aristotle had dealt with it in the famous “syllogism of the intemperate,” which neglects the rule, although known, to follow the suggestion of the moment.[12] He knows what is to be done, but in the concrete circumstance he prefers to ignore it and reject what reason suggests. Haste is a vice that proliferates in the era of the Web, where messages are easily posted without being thought out or evaluated calmly, giving expression to the most superficial side of the self.

A forgotten virtue

St. Thomas’ treatise on prudence remains to this day the most complete and articulate ever written. In modern times, as we have said, interest in the subject was  soon lost, even on the part of the exponents of  the second scholasticism. Tommaso de Vio – known as Cajetan (1469-1534) – in his famous commentary on the Summa allocated an extremely small space to the virtue of prudence; a century later, Giovanni di San Tommaso (1589-1644) did not mention it at all, insisting rather on the role of conscience in moral action.

It was with Francisco Suárez (1548-1617) that the real turning point came in the role attributed to prudence. The Doctor eximius, while taking his cue from Thomas, extended its meaning, accentuating the dimension of planning and legal and political precision that would characterize the modern age, finding its highest expression in Machiavelli.[13] For the Florentine thinker, prudence is above all what guides machinations to achieve power and the strategic cunning necessary to preserve it and triumph over one’s enemies; if necessary, it requires doing evil. In this sense, prudence has a completely different meaning from the earlier tradition, being reduced to mere cunning, detached from wisdom: “Good advice, from whatever it comes, must be born from the Prudence of the Prince; and not the Prudence of the Prince from good advice.”[14]

Even in theological circles it is difficult to find essays and studies on this decisive virtue of the moral life. For the most part, these are  found in commentaries on the text of Thomas (Pieper, McCabe, Cessario). Modern moralists tend to reduce the theme to a collection of maxims and very general proverbial reflections (Montaigne, La Bruyère, la Rochefoucauld), to a set of rigorous but abstract rules (Kant, Spinoza), to a mere subjective expression of emotion, renouncing a possible justification for it (Diderot, Hume, Stevenson), or they see it as a way of proceeding in the economic sphere (Zamagni, Yuengert). At most, the existential dimension of wisdom as “ the art of living” is resumed, opposing it to the alienating mentality of the technological era (Foucault, Heidegger, Arendt, Gadamer).

In these authors there is no longer any trace of the essential characteristics of prudence mentioned above, without which it is not possible to lead a life worthy of the name: “Prudence is a virtue most necessary for human life. For a good life consists in good deeds. Now in order to do good deeds, it matters not only what people do, but how they do it; that is, a person should do it from right choice and not merely from impulse or passion” (Sum. Theol. I-II, q. 57, a. 5).

Without the deliberation of prudence, the very edifice of moral philosophy is in danger of collapsing. This is the weakness of modern philosophy eloquently shown by Alasdair MacIntyre: “Kant’s appeal to reason was the heir and historical successor to Diderot’s and Hume’s appeals to desire and the passions. Kant’s project was a historical response to their failure just as Kierkegaard’s project was a historical response to Kant’s failure […]. Just as Hume seeks to found morality on the passions because his arguments have excluded the possibility of founding it on reason, so Kant founds it on reason because his arguments have excluded the possibility of founding it on the passions, and Kierkegaard on a criterionless fundamental choice because of what he takes to be the compelling nature of the considerations which exclude both reason and the passions.”[15]

Despite the many different attempts, the common outcome is surrender in the face of the disturbing presence of nihilism, which finds in Nietzsche its most successful expression.

Two obstacles in particular stand in the way of a possible re-evaluation of prudence. The first is the exclusion of a transcendent perspective, the main source of this knowledge that orients to beatitude, participation in the divine life and the proper end of human life (cf. Sum. Theol. I-II, qq. 1-4). The second major obstacle to prudence is anthropological dualism, which from Descartes onward remains an assumption that is never really questioned. By proposing the separation between reason and affect, as we have seen, the very foundation of moral discourse becomes impossible: this is the curious point of arrival of an era born under the banner of the exaltation of reason as the sole criterion of evaluating behavior.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 8 art. 9, 0821: 10.32009/22072446.0821.9

[1].      A thought from Nietzsche is typically lapidary: “An earthly virtue is what I love: little prudence is in her, and even less reasoning; Cowards are prudent! I have met more than one prudent man who veiled his face and muddied his water so that no one would see him inside” (F. Nietzsche, “Delle mosche del mercato”, in Id., Così parlò Zarathustra, Milan, Monanni, 1927, 96).

[2].       Cf. Homer, Iliad, VI, 447; Plato, Timaeus, 70a; Philebus, 26e; F. Sarri, Socrate e la nascita del concetto occidentale di anima, Milan, Vita e Pensiero, 1997, 62f.

[3]. I. Kant, Antropologia pragmatica, Rome – Bari, Laterza, 1993, § 73, 141. For this reason, prudence, as a mere set of technical-practical precepts, is excluded from moral philosophy (Id., Critica del giudizio, ibid., 1979, § 1, 10f).

[4].      “To conform to right reason is the proper end of every moral virtue […]. But to determine the way and the expedients for achieving the right means in acting is a matter for prudence. In fact, although reaching the right means is the goal of the moral virtues, this means can be found only through the right disposition of what is ordered to the goal” (Sum. Theol. II-II, q. 47, a. 7).

[5].       “Fantasy is always either rational or sensory. Other animals do not participate in this” (Aristotle, De Anima, III, 433 b 29-30). Cf. L. Mazzone, La natura e la dinamica conoscitiva della ragione particolare. La ‘vis cogitativa’ nell’antropologia di san Tommaso d’ Aquino, Benevento, Ed. Educational Passion, 2017.

[6].       “There is another mode (besides the knowledge of the particular) according to which the movement from the soul to things begins in the mind and goes on into the sensory part; therefore the mind governs the lower powers and so mixes with the particular things through the mediation of the particular reason, which is in a particular power, also called by the name of cogitative” (De Veritate, q. 10, a. 5).

[7].       See T. V. Moore, Cognitive Psychology, Chicago, J. B. Lippincott & Co, 1939; R. Allers, “La vis cogitativa e la valutazione”, in The New Scholasticism 15 (1941) 195-221; Id., “The Cognitive Aspect of Emotions”, in The Thomist: A Speculative Quarterly Review 4 (1942/4) 589-648; A. Damasio, L’errore di Cartesio, Milan, Adelphi, 1995; M. Nussbaum, L’intelligenza delle emozioni, Bologna, Mulino, 2008.

[8].      T. Centi, “La prudenza”, in Tommaso d’Aquino, La Somma Teologica, Florence, Salani, 1966, vol. XVI, 211. Cf. Sum. Theol. II-II, q. 47, a. 5.

[9].       Cf. Sum. Theol. I, q. 79, a. 12; Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, No. 314.

[10].    “St. Isidore explains that ‘solicitous sounds like solers citus (diligent, quick)’; for the reason that one by a certain solicitude of mind is quick in undertaking the things to be done. And this is proper to prudence, the principal act of which is to command actions that have been deliberated and judged beforehand. That is why the Philosopher wrote that ‘one must execute promptly what one has deliberated, while one must deliberate with slowness.’ For this reason solicitude properly belongs to prudence” (Sum. Theol. II-II, q. 47, a. 9).

[11].     Cf. G. Cucci, “I mille volti della paura”, in Id., La forza della debolezza. Aspetti psicologici della vita spirituale, Rome, AdP, 2011, 321-359.

[12].    “It is evident that he who acts intemperately does not think that one should act in this way before he is prey to passion” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, VII, 3, 1145 b 30-32). St. Thomas comments: “It is evident that the incontinent, before the passion intervenes, does not think of doing what he will later do through passion” (Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, No. 1341).

[13]. Suárez’s definition (“Prudence is the supreme rule of human actions”) is closer to Saint Thomas’ notion of law (“Law is the rule and measure of actions”) than to that of a cardinal virtue. Cintia Faraco notes in this regard: “By linking prudence to justice, the latter is not understood in its meaning of cardinal virtue, but in the much more earthly and worldly one of administering and rendering justice. Suárez, in essence, multiplies the fields of application of prudence, applying to it the practicality that Machiavelli had, in his works, described as the behavior of the prudent prince” (C. Faraco, “Tra saggezza e realismo politico: machiavellismi di Suárez”, in Heliopolis 12 [2014/2] 131; cf. F. Suárez, De volontario et involontario in genere, deque actibus volontariis in speciali, in Id., Opera Omnia, Paris, Vives, 1856, Tome IV, tract. I, disp. IV, sect. III, par. 29; Sum. Theol. I-II, q. 90, a. 1).

[14].    N. Machiavelli, The Prince, Oxford, Oxford World Classics, 2008, Ch. XXIII.

[15].    A. MacIntyre, After Virtue. A Study in Moral Theory, London, Duckworth, 1985, 49.