The Precedence of Prudence
Prudentia, or prudence, takes precedence in Pieper’s approach to the Virtues. That is because “goodness is the standard of reality,” and “whatever is good ascertained by prudence.” Goodness and prudence dwell together and no one is really good who is not also prudent. Modern men disagree. One might claim that telling the truth in certain situations might be good, but not prudent. Following the classical and Christian tradition, Pieper says that man is “prudent and good only together.” Moreover, prudence is that discerning motion of the human being that apprehends what is good and particularizes in one’s experience. Pieper’s metaphor is helpful:
“The man who does good follows the lines of an architectural plan that has not been devised by himself or even totally understood by himself in all its components. This plan is revealed to him moment by moment only through a narrow cleft and a tiny gap; in his transient condition, he never perceives the specific plan for himself in its global and specific form.”
That’s putting a finger on it exactly. Reflecting on nearly 50 years of my own life, I certainly did not know “the plan.” And by the way, the plan did not entail where I would go to school, who I would marry, or what vocation I would pursue. The plan entailed the good, and is therefore moral at bottom. A person actualizes God’s highest intentions step by step in the “work” of pursuing and doing what is good. To put it another way, a person grows into self-realization and fulfillment through moral deeds because those deeds cohere with the world as God made it. Again, goodness is the standard of reality, and being morally good is bound up in the individual’s response to reality.
The opposite of prudence is covetousness, a disordered affection we normally associate with the love of money or possessions. Pieper invites us to think of it more broadly than that. Covetousness is the “immoderate desire” toward self-preservation by all means, and bent on personal security and our own self-assurances. Its direction is inward, self-blinding and cuts across the grain of reality. Attaining the good means setting aside personal interest for a higher love – God himself – an emptying of our own selfish aspirations. The direction of prudence is the “prodigal renunciation of the conditions of anxious self-preservation and of all selfish interest in mere self-confirmation.” Without the constant readiness to disregard oneself, prudence is impossible. Where prudence fails, the highest good cannot be discerned.