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.

Relevant Complexity 5) Age


Talking to someone at work, she said she’d been surprised that a very experienced chap in his late 50s had come on a training course.

We concluded that age shouldn’t matter in deciding who gets training. I know plenty of pig-headed twenty and thirtysomethings who’d have got less and will give less as a result of that training course – it’s openness to new ideas that matters.

It dawned on me that nearly all the people I most enjoy conversation and contemplation with, are at least ten years older than me. And many much older. When it comes to thinking about things, you can’t beat the right sort of older person.

Contemporary society glorifies youth. But younger people haven’t always got much to say. Of course there’s freshness and simplicity but relevant complexity in people takes time to grow.

Openness, curiosity and the experience of age are key attributes of the Aristotelian ‘friend in contemplation’. Aquinas’s ‘prudentia’ – practical wisdom – is not innate, it is learned. Wisdom takes time. Forget youth, when comes to interesting people – the oldies are the goodies.

Pig Ignorant


Chugging my way through the 400th Anniversary Edition of the King James Bible, I discover the narrative pace slackens consideerrraaaabbbbbllllyyyy towards the end of Exodus and the beginning of Leviticus.

Having knocked together the world and all that ‘creepeth’ on it in a few pages of Genesis, the fine detail and multiple repetitions of exactly how a Tabernacle should be built, the intricacies of priestly vestments and the finer points of ‘burnt’, ‘sin’, ‘meat’ (which isn’t) ‘waving’ and ‘heaving’ sacrifices are inescapably precise. And the punishments for waving what you should be heaving are heavy indeed.

Phew. Much like the Greek myths which are from a similar period in history, one senses a good deal of tradition, mythology, symbolism and practical wisdom merged together. Eating the meaty remnants of your ‘sin offering’ for two days is fine, but chew on it on the third day and you might well feel ‘unclean’ in what are often warm lands.

It is sometimes said that the Old Testament God is a fierce one. Indeed He describes Himself as ‘A jealous God’ during the Ten Commandments. But the precision of his strictures and fear of his wroth explains to me something I encountered when we lived cheek by jowl with a very Orthodox Jewish community in North London.

I think I knew that anything which doesn’t have both cloven hooves and chews cud is ‘unclean’ – pigs failing on cud. I wasn’t so clear it includes anything with paws. Our old dog used to like a curious sniff at passers-by – especially those wearing long black silk coats.

I always used to pull him close, but I now understand why the Hasidic Jews of Stamford Hill used to skirt and look terrified of him. Physical contact could have demanded a shower and a change of clothes.

I feel rather guilty, looking back, that I wasn’t more aware. I might not have known ’em, but the Old Testament rules are crystal clear for those who choose to follow them. Paws are out. People do live in myriad different ways

In Praise of ‘Prudentia’


The virtue of ‘Prudentia’
In Aquinas’s teaching,
Is ‘practical wisdom’ in
Choice and decision.

It’s a Bayesian thing,
Not just logical stages.
Which a life of experience
And virtue engages.

Grounded in reason
But felt in the boots,
You can’t teach Pudentia,
We must find our own routes

Each person’s is different,
Our wisdom’s our own.
When we try to describe it
The words struggle to form.

But don’t deconstruct it,
The details mislead.
If you try to explain it,
Confidence bleeds.

Invest in Prudentia.
Your gut’s not often wrong.
Thought, experience, emotion
In symphony belong.

I’ve spoken in praise of ‘Prudentia’ twice today. The first time was inviting someone to really use their ‘practical reason’ in designing something. That meant acknowledging complexity, personalities and what we’re trying to do – and really, based on their experience and judgement, coming up with something that has a fighting chance of working.

The second was in acknowledging and appreciating a way forward I’d not thought of. On the face of it I had ruled it out, but on reflection it had a good deal to commend it.

Not everything in life is rational, simple or binary. As someone said to me yesterday, probability is rarely 0 or 1. ‘Prudentia’ is our Bayesian gift for dealing with complexity – practical wisdom.


At the core of Aristotle’s account of ethics and virtue is ‘Prohairesis’ – the central moral character.

I increasingly think of it like a copper sulphate crystal growing on a piece of thread. When you do the classic school experiment, knotted threads provide the core around which a copper sulphate crystal can form, from a saturated solution. But you often get several smaller crystals and imperfections in the main one.

In my thesis, the central moral character forms – like a copper sulphate crystal – when choice and actions start to cohere around a central narrative of who we are and what we stand for. The sub-crystals are alternate versions of ourselves and the imperfections are just that – out of character behaviours, foibles and failings.

Last week I gave a talk where I owned up to once having ‘presentational positions’ on most aspects of work. They were largely free floating from any common ethical foundation. I had ethics ‘in the mix’, but no core crystal.

Expedience, presentational benefit and plausible deniability were as likely to inform my public utterances as beliefs, values or virtue. Not these days. I have Prohairesis – a central moral character which, on my better days, informs and guides my choices.

But to meet Aquinas’s test of virtue I have one major challenge left – slowing down. Talking to a friend at the weekend it transpires that one of the strengths of ‘clever’ people is they are quick. This means they can quickly weigh options and decide on the best action. But the challenge to ‘capable’ people as they progress in life, and into more complicated situations, is to use this processing capability to judge more wisely – not more quickly.

Aquinas has it that a man can make ‘good’ or ‘bad’ moral choices without any guiding core moral character, but they cannot be truly ‘virtuous’ without ‘Prudentia’ – practical wisdom – as the unifying prism. As Herbert McCabe says deliberation should be long and considered, action sharp and decisive. Sometimes I am too quick to decide.

I have Prohairesis forming in a nice crystal on the thread of my life. I’m not bad on Prudentia these days either. But like copper sulphate crystals these things take time to grow, so I should take my time too.