The Cardinal Virtue of Prudence (And What It Means)

Doing What's Good and Avoiding What's Evil

Statue of allegory of Prudence by Gaetano Fusali on the church of Santa Maria del Rosario (Venice)
Statue of allegory of Prudence by Gaetano Fusali on the church of Santa Maria del Rosario (Venice). Wolfgang Moroder/Wikimedia Commons

Prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues. Like the other three, it is a virtue that can be practiced by anyone; unlike the theological virtues, the cardinal virtues are not, in themselves, the gifts of God through grace but the outgrowth of habit. However, Christians can grow in the cardinal virtues through sanctifying grace, and thus prudence can take on a supernatural dimension as well as a natural one.

What Prudence Is Not

Many Catholics think prudence simply refers to the practical application of moral principles. They speak, for instance, of the decision to go to war as a "prudential judgment," suggesting that reasonable people can disagree in such situations on the application of moral principles and, therefore, such judgments can be questioned but never absolutely declared wrong. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of prudence, which, as Fr. John A. Hardon notes in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, is "Correct knowledge about things to be done or, more broadly, the knowledge of things that ought to be done and of things that ought to be avoided."

"Right Reason Applied to Practice"

As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, Aristotle defined prudence as recta ratio agibilium, "right reason applied to practice." The emphasis on "right" is important. We cannot simply make a decision and then describe it as a "prudential judgment." Prudence requires us to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong. Thus, as Father Hardon writes, "It is the intellectual virtue whereby a human being recognizes in any matter at hand what is good and what is evil." If we mistake the evil for the good, we are not exercising prudence—in fact, we are showing our lack of it.

Prudence in Everyday Life

So how do we know when we're exercising prudence and when we're simply giving in to our own desires? Father Hardon notes three stages of an act of prudence:

  • "to take counsel carefully with oneself and from others"
  • "to judge correctly on the basis of the evidence at hand"
  • "to direct the rest of one's activity according to the norms determined after a prudent judgment has been made."

Disregarding the advice or warnings of others whose judgment does not coincide with ours is a sign of imprudence. It is possible that we are right and others wrong; but the opposite may be true, especially if we find ourselves disagreeing with those whose moral judgment is generally sound.

Some Final Thoughts on Prudence

Since prudence can take on a supernatural dimension through the gift of grace, we should carefully evaluate the counsel we receive from others with that in mind. When, for instance, the popes express their judgment on the justice of a particular war, we should value that more highly than the advice of, say, someone who stands to profit monetarily from the war.

And we must always keep in mind that the definition of prudence requires us to judge correctly. If our judgment is proved after the fact to have been incorrect, then we did not make a "prudential judgment" but an imprudent one, for which we may need to make amends.