Pieper on Prudence

Josef Pieper turns out to be my kind of ethicist: straightforward, practical and direct.

What he sets out on ‘prudence’ (aka Thomas Aquinas’s prudentia or ‘practical wisdom’) chimes entirely with what I think ‘good’ looks like in working life.

Here’s what Pieper has to say:

The first prerequisite for the perfection of “prudence” is providentia, foresight.

By this is meant the capacity to estimate, with a sure instinct for the future, whether a particular action will lead to the realization of the goal.

But foresight is often something you ‘feel’ and can be hard to explain to young idealists, literal-minded folk and powerful ideologues.

A reasonable sense of what will work (and won’t) is like a sixth sense. It’s not about ease or difficulty; it’s a ‘felt sense’ of a workable path through.

As Pieper points out:

At this point the element of uncertainty and risk in every moral decision comes to light.

In the decisions of which by their very nature prudence is concerned; with things concrete, contingent, and future (singularia, contingentia, futura) there cannot be that certainty which is possible in a theoretical conclusion.

Then he quotes Thomas Aquinas.

“Non potest certitudo prudentiae tanta esse quod omnino solicitudo tollatur.”

The certitude of prudence cannot be so great as completely to remove all anxiety.

As Pieper rightly says:

A profound statement, this!

He goes on:

Man, then, when he comes to a decision, cannot ever be sufficiently prescient nor can he wait until logic affords him absolute certainty.

If he waited for that, he would never come to a decision; he would remain in a state of inconclusiveness.

The combination of a ‘felt sense’, the difficulty of unpacking the many factors and years of experience which underpin it – and the inevitable risk it may not turn out to be right – is what prudentia feels like, I believe.

So what to do? Pieper concludes:

The prudent man does not expect certainty where it cannot exist, nor on the other hand does he deceive himself by false certainties.

And, after all, as a man of faith Pieper suggests hope springs eternal:

The decisions of prudence receive “practical” assurance and reinforcement from several sources:

  • from the experience of life as it has been lived;
  • from the alertness and healthiness of the instinctive capacity for evaluation;
  • and from the daring and humble hope that the paths to man’s genuine goals cannot be closed to him.

In sum, Pieper makes a strong case for: thought, listening to your instincts and to others, timely action, accepting anxiety – and the ‘daring and humble’ hopefulness of pursuing genuine goals.

Prudentia is not a bad guide for working and family life.

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