Prudence and Charity

In this third and last installment of my mini-series on Prudentia according to Josef Pieper, I will focus on one chapter from the fine book, The Four Cardinal Virtues, the title of which I borrow for this Ad Rem: “Prudence and Charity.” In this chapter, the good philosopher takes us to the summit of human prudence and explores its coalescence with the divine, where it interacts with the highest of the theological virtues.

He begins by presenting us with a philosophical conundrum. Saint Thomas Aquinas made two seemingly conflicting statements: “No moral virtue is possible without prudence,” said the Doctor Communis, but also, “Without the moral virtues, there is no prudence” (p. 32). How to handle this chicken-and-egg head-scratcher from the holy Dominican? After dismissing a couple of common explanations as inept, Dr. Pieper reaffirms that “the good most characteristic of the nature of man is ‘to be according to reason’ — that is, according to the reality which man himself is and which surrounds him” (p. 33). Given what has been said earlier, this clear affirmation situates prudence as the foundation of the other cardinal virtues, making “the conclusions of prudence [to be] directed solely toward the actual realization of justice, fortitude, and temperance” (p. 33). Our German teacher continues thus in resolving the apparent conflict:

This concrete realization, however, could not do justice to reality, and above all could not be satisfactorily consummated, if conscious affirmation of the goal of man did not precede the efforts of prudence. That is to say, there must precede the affirmation of justice, fortitude, and temperance as the fundamental inclinations of man toward the accomplishment of the ‘good characteristic of his nature,’ and of ‘being according to reason.’ Without desire for the good in general, all efforts to discover what is prudent and good here and now remain empty bustle and self-deception. The virtue of prudence presumes real seeking of the goal of man, the intentio finis. It therefore not only presupposes the voice of the natural conscience (‘synderesis’), as we have said several times, but also the response of the will to this imperative pronouncement: primal affirmation of the good as the aim of all of one’s actions. This primal affirmation, however, is nothing less than the fundamental attitude of the just, brave, and temperate man — that is to say, of the good man [p. 33].

My own poor-man’s summary of the above is this: If one does not truly desire and remain open to the goods of the moral virtues of justice, fortitude, and temperance, one cannot be prudent. Considering this conundrum more fully will lead us to see that this is one area where Saint Thomas Aquinas manifests his well-known idea of the primacy of the intellect, but also his less known and undervalued conviction that the will prompts the intellect to assent to the truth (cf. ST I-II, Q. 56, A. 3: “for the intellect is moved by the command of the will to assent to what is of faith”). Saint Thomas also holds,

For since prudence is the right reason of things to be done, it is a condition thereof that man be rightly disposed in regard to the principles of this reason of things to be done, that is in regard to their ends, to which man is rightly disposed by the rectitude of the will… (ST I-II, Q. 56, A. 3).

The general rectitude of the will, or the lack thereof, has (after grace) everything to do with whether one makes the assent to the truths of the true Faith, and also, whether one will be truly prudent. But without being in possession of actual prudence, the virtues themselves of justice, fortitude, and temperance are not possible. Or, as Pieper more simply states his case:

Moral virtue, in so far as it signifies that basic attitude of voluntary affirmation of the good, is the fundament and precondition of prudence. But prudence in turn is the prerequisite of the appropriate realization in the here and now of that same basic attitude; the prerequisite for its effectuality. Only one who previously and simultaneously loves and wants the good can be prudent; but only one who is previously prudent can do good. Since, however, love of the good in its turn grows by doing good, the foundations of prudence are sunk deeper and firmer to the extent that prudence bears fruit in action [bold mine, underlined Pieper’s emphasis; p. 34].

For Pieper as for Aquinas, “In concrete moral action cognition and will are interwoven into oneness” (p. 34). Pieper emphasizes here that reality (the “ipsa res”), remains the measure of all cognition and decision — and therefore of prudence — and that the willing of the good does not of itself make an action prudent. “But,” he goes on,

the authenticity of the desire for the goal clears the way for truth, so that truth can imprint upon will and action the seal of justness to the nature of things. An unjust will, on the other hand, prevents the truth of real things from determining the actions of man [p. 35].

Dr. Pieper’s subtle and nuanced explorations of the interdependence that exists between prudence and the moral virtues — and therefore between the faculties of intellect and will — are worth pondering much more, but my space does not permit it here. Those interested should read the book, which is full of material that can provide excellent kindling for mental prayer.

So far, I have not said a word about the theological virtue of charity for the simple reason that I am closely following Dr. Pieper’s line thought. But at this juncture, and fairly abruptly, he drops in two passages from Saint Thomas’ work, Disputed Questions on Truth, both of which are worth quoting in their entirety:

Human acts are good in that they correspond to the right standard of human action. Now there is a right standard proper to the human species and peculiar to man’s nature, namely right reason; and there is another, supreme and surpassing standard, which is God. Man attains right reason in prudence, which is right reason in the realm of action. But man attains to God in charity [p. 35-36].


Prudence is called the form of all the moral virtues. But the act of virtue thus established in the mean is, as it were, material in regard to the ordination to the last end. This order is conferred upon the act of virtue by the command of charity. In this sense charity is said to be the form of all the other virtues [including, of course, prudence itself —BAM; p. 36].

There are two “standards” for man, that which is strictly according to his nature as man (right reason), and that which is above his nature (God). Prudence makes us attain the former, while charity unites us to the Latter. But these virtues are not “partitioned off” in the life of grace; they are rather integrated in such a way that what is best in us by way of intellectual and moral virtue becomes the material (the “matter”) that the theological virtue of charity will inform and therefore elevate to the supernatural.

This elevation raises merely natural prudence to the sublime dignity of “Christian prudence,” a term Dr. Pieper himself uses when he says,

Christian prudence, however, means precisely the throwing open of [the] realm [of supernatural grace] and (in faith informed by love) the inclusion of new and invisible realities within the determinants of our decisions. … It need scarcely be said that … the highest and most fruitful achievements of Christian life depend upon the felicitous collaboration of prudence and charity [p. 37].

In other words, the “ipsa res” — reality itself — which is always the determinant of what constitutes a prudent decision, is now deepened, expanded, augmented, and elevated to include all the data of supernatural revelation and all the demands consequent upon our supernatural adoption as children of God. Said another way, supernaturally knowable reality, in addition to merely naturally knowable reality, now forms the determinant of the first of the cardinal virtues. Prudence, then, is not sidelined or rendered moot by charity, but, rather, it is dignified and raised to sublime heights by it.

For those possessed of sanctifying grace and charity — and in proportion as those habits are perfected in them — this supernaturalized prudence is itself greatly aided by the gift of counsel, a gift we can and should implore the Holy Ghost to give us, invoking also His Spouse whom we call “Mother of Good Counsel.”

Taking in the full panorama of reality as it does, Christian prudence is able to make judgments and commands that mere natural prudence cannot make: the martyrs, accounted fools by the world, were most prudent; Jesus nailed to the Cross was the King of Prudence; the sacrifices consequent upon living out our baptismal obligations are prudent, as were the extreme poverty of Saint Francis, the humble obedience of Saint Rita of Cascia, the celibate chastity of Saint Thomas Aquinas, along with the very counter-cultural penances, obscurities, humiliations, and other “excesses” of the saints. Properly understood, Christian “contempt of the world” — which Pieper considers in some detail — is sublimely prudent, for it looks at the world and all it contains in the light of eternity.

I will give the penultimate word to Dr. Pieper:

Even supreme supernatural prudence, however, can have only the following aim: to make the more deeply felt truth of the reality of God and the world the measure for will and action. Man can have no other standard and signpost than things as they are and the truth which makes manifest things as they are; and there can be no higher standard than the God who is and His truth.

And of the man who ‘acts truth’ the Holy Scriptures (John 3:21) tell us that he ‘comes to the light’ [p. 40].

In these days when madmen with their ideologies and agendas seem to have the upper hand in both Church and State, we must muster up all the moral and spiritual resources at our disposal. These include the grace-aided practice of prudence, the “form” of all the moral virtues, and charity, the “form” of all the virtues simply considered.

Virgin Most Prudent, pray for us!

Mother of Divine Love, pray for us!

Joseph Most Prudent, pray for us!