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.

Smile, surf, sleep


Talking to my daughter about her friendship angst this morning, I advocated she try a welcoming smile. 

I told her about the nice lady at work who told me about the cold snap in Romania and how it’s threatening the cherry trees; people are tending fires to gently waft smoke through the branches to protect the cherries. We both wished them well.

This lovely encounter grew from simply smiling, on three occasions as she made me a latte; and the smile developed into an exchange and then a conversation. 

Let’s see how my eldest gets on – I suspect it might take me than a smile with this ‘friend’.


I’m reading a rather terrific book about letting go of anxiety and fear and tapping into your own energy. 

More of this anon, but one of the many useful reminders is nearly everything that happens to us, in truth, is outside of our control. This means there are only two options, try to resist, control or avoid life – or roll with it. 

This week (like so many) looked on Tuesday morning (after an enjoyable but tiring bank holiday) like wave after wave of bother, problems, egos, unreasonable demands, risks and stressors; culminating in large forum event – at which I would have to orchestrate, perform and keep the whole show together. 

So it was; but by (largely) surfing along on the top of it all and not fighting it (and myself) I got through it just fine. By saving the energy on worry, avoidance and fear – I got it all done quite happily. 

As King Canute amply showed, there’s little point trying to stop the waves; may as well get up on your board and ride ’em.


My old friend sleep. I need it so much, I never get enough of it and I never do enough to make sure I do. But I have improved in a few areas… to earplugs I’ve added eyepatches and from last week a booze curfew at 9pm. 

All the book and all the sage advice in them can’t help me when I’m tired. Without my sleep I’m hopeless; with it I’m smiling and surfing along.

Broken Wings


A great many birds with broken wings or ruffled plumage, have come to perch in my tree in recent weeks. Human beings are fragile and so easily damaged – usually by each other.

We all like to believe life is fair. So, in the end, very few people are able to cope well with anxiety or things going badly for them.

We were taking about this at home the other day, asking the question:

“Is it possible to communicate to other people you are stretched, stressed or tired yourself, without being pissy, shirty or sad with them?”

Probably not. Because ‘pissy’, ‘shirty’ and ‘sad’ are exactly the ways we communicate stress. To do it any other way just confuses people – or they simply don’t hear.

So for the various birds; small and large, young and old; who have come to unburden themselves on me, there are only really two ways to be:

1) ‘pissy’, ‘shirty’ or ‘sad’; and quickly break both their wings so they never come back to my tree again.

2) reach for patience, tolerance and kindness; give away some all-too-precious time, and hopefully help them a little, to fly onwards.

I’ve mostly managed the latter. Some are still chirruping in my branches. Some are permanently nested there; so they are to be lived with.

But at least a few have gently flapped away with splinted wings or smoothed feathers. And that’s a success of sorts. Kindness is always the best answer.



I found myself facing old demons this week – in a Ministers office with less than an hour’s notice and plenty at stake. But nearly everything gets easier with experience.

Nearly a decade on from this being my day job, I wasn’t rattled at all. When my time came to speak I was oddly calm, pretty fluent, affably persuasive and perfectly good-humoured.

Later as things were getting choppy, I instinctively waded in with a tide-turning point: ‘today’s good intentions risk tomorrow’s unintended consequences’; which helped keep some important foundations from being inundated. Then smiles, handshakes and off. Job done.

A quick summary letter, to nail the key points for posterity, and home for family and food.

So what made the difference? Experience; yes. Having the right arguments in my head; yes. But most of all keeping fear at bay: fear of ridicule, fear of being bullied, fear of failing, fear of humiliation and fear of consequences.

Just writing those fears makes my breathing shorten. But these days fears don’t prey on me half as much as they once did. Perhaps the greatest dividend from philosophy is a calmer and more ordered mind. It helps put many demons to rest.

Root Canal Work


Lots to reflect on after some time in China and Japan – not least how much I enjoyed it. Normally, in my past, being jetlagged and on display from morning till night would have seemed as much fun as the proverbial ‘root canal work’.

Facing myriad ‘state visits’, handshakes, speeches, staff talks and formal lunches and dinners, the curious discovery was – with few deep breaths and some positive thinking – it all went fine. And in fact, I really enjoyed it.

Talking to an interesting chap this week, he pointed out that, physiologically, the sensations of anxiety are pretty much indistinguishable from those of excitement. All that’s different is the mental picture.

Bungee jump = Excitement

Standing too close to a cliff edge = Anxiety.

I was back in the dentist’s chair for my actual root canal work yesterday. Injections, a clamp, a rubber sheet over my mouth, drills, cement, industrial disinfectant dribbling down my throat, UV, x-rays, smoke, fumes, thumbs, pins and screws.

The fear of pain put this in the ‘anxiety’ not the ‘excitement’ category. But every time I remembered to adjust my mental state, to breathe and to separate the physiological from the mental, it wasn’t half as bad.

Nobody wants a dull life. So realising anxiety and excitement are just two sides of the same physical coin is a good discovery – once again, the picture in the mind makes a very big difference to how it all feels.


David Servan-Schreiber wrote about the power of breathing in his book ‘Healing without Freud or Prozac’. Basically if you can breathe at 6 breaths a minute you automatically convince your body and mind that all is well. Your ‘limbic system’ selects neutral and goes into a state of relaxation – and quietly puts into gear your immune system to do routine maintenance. Your head convinces itself that all is in good order too.

So steady breathing is clearly a good thing to do. It fixes your limbic, tunes up your endocrine and settles your cognitive systems. But what’s interesting about breathing 6 times a minute, is that it’s very hard to do. If you are agitatated, active or at all anxious you can’t do it.

I was reminded how hard it is watching ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. The film is slow, often majestic but but frequently claustrophobic and disquieting. And nowhere is it more claustrophobic then when you are virtually ‘in’ the spacesuit with Dr. David Bowman, breathing steadily, but strenuously as he prepares for and makes his lonely space walk in the sequence I’ve just watched.

The astronauts set out to fix a malfunction set up by the rogue on-board computer HAL. They surreptitiously discuss the potential need to disconnect HAL’s higher ‘brain’ functions to enable them to use his basic systems to run the space ship. Bowman wonders momentarily what HAL might ‘think’ of that – HAL’s single red ‘eye’ compulsively scans their mouths to lipread. We conclude HAL might not like that.

The combination of Kubrick’s perfectionism and Arthur C Clarke’s imagination is still a powerful one. I challenge anyone to watch this sequence and calmly breathe at 6 breaths a minute. Breathing both signals and drives the state of our nervous system. Even if the head says it’s fiction, finding yourself alone with HAL 9000 listening to the strenuous breathing of Dr Bowman makes the nervous system very nervous indeed.


I went to hospital on Monday to see a consultant to check up on the moles I’ve been worrying about. Here’s what I tapped out on my iPhone as I sat waiting to go in:


It scares the living sh1t out of me. Just walking here brings deep anxiety to the surface. My heart rate is up, I’m conscious of my chest.

We don’t see illness and death unless we go looking for it these days, but here it all is. Everyone you look at you don’t know if they’re losing their life or here to save them. Especially the older people.

The NHS is fantastic, but support staff sometimes look right through you. Two members of staff are currently hailing each other down the length of a corridor in front of me, while I sit here with several others wondering whether fate has something lethal, painful or banal in store.

I will likely end my life in one of these places. And in this very hospital we witnessed the start of life too – my son was born here. But this hospital despite its cleanliness and modernity reeks more of entropy, human decline and infirmity than life.

It brings back my melanoma which is why I am here. I don’t want to die here, but maybe I will.

It turned out to be banal. That’s the weird thing about health. Like life, you take it for granted for much of your life, although you know you shouldn’t. But also, like life, you have to take it for granted – to some extent – otherwise you don’t make the best of it.

In the space of five minutes lethal turns to banal and in the space of five days fear to insouciance. I’m glad it’s this way round. But the useful goad to action, which having melanoma on my mind has been, is something I now need to find from a happier more positive place.

Reading my old friend Aristotle again sat on a tube ride yesterday – and talking to half a dozen different really thought-provoking people this week – I have some emerging ideas…


I was talking today to a nice person who cares a lot about the organisation I work for about how we are doing. We face some big challenges in the next few months, but I’m pretty confident we know what we need to do and we’ll be stronger for it.

She was anxious that we might not seize the opportunity, and that people and personalities might get in the way. I said after a good break in the summer I realised there are somethings you can’t fix or tackle until the moment comes and rather than worrying sometimes it’s best to save your energy and trust yourself to perform ‘in the moment’ and do what is needed when it’s needed. She looked at me with some empathy, but I suspect was also wondering ‘is he ducking some stuff here’.

I then said to her that since my excellent summer holidays with the family I’ve found myself caring a little less about my work. I still care, and I still work hard, but it’s a bit less all-consuming. I don’t think about things so much, worry about them or try to arrange and fix things – especially around people. I’ve started saying what my gut tells me, not worrying so much about being right, asking for help and admitting to uncertainty and irrationality. It’s working a treat.

She said she sometimes realises she’s guilty of curling – the game with the stones on ice where you polish and polish and polish the ice furiously with what looks like a garden brush to get your stone to the target. I said to her I’d felt she’d been really effective in a meeting with us recently when she ‘bowled’ and said exactly what she thought and cleaned out all the skittles or smacked clear the blocking bowls depending on your type of bowling.

The conclusion was sometimes by caring a bit less at work you can be a lot more effective, more spontaneous, less anxious, more authoritative, and more able to seize the moment. I find I also have a lot more mental energy left for me and my loved ones at the end of the day.

Here’s my quick list tapped out on the iPhone of problems I’m not currently suffering by caring a little less about my work:

Gripping too tightly
Being anxious
Focusing on what I might lose not what I could gain
Driving not attracting
Running down my batteries
Sweating the detail
Been seen to meddle
Taking the responsibility away from where it lies
Confusing people
Strobing (rapid jerky interventions with no linking narrative)
Appearing tricksy or political
Guessing not asking
Not seizing the moment

Best of all though I simply feel better and that’s reason enough.