Prudence is often listed as the first of the virtues because it is intellectual. Prudence is a term reflective of discernment. It is a cousin of wisdom but not its twin. Sometimes wisdom is a broad category describing knowledge of all sorts, but in this vein of discussion we must be more specific. While wisdom (σοφία) looks upward to principles and ideals, prudence (φρόνησις) looks downward to the implementation of these values in human life. This fine distinction is rarely made, but at least once we can see it applied by Paul to the work of God which is both wise and prudent (Ephesians 1:8).
What Prudence Is Not
We begin exploring this term by identifying the associated vices of prudence.
The absence of prudence makes a person impetuous and rash. This person may or may not know what is good and right, but it does not matter. Without prudence he cannot carryout his agenda, whether for good or ill. He is, to put it bluntly, imprudent. Is it fair to call this a vice? Are we saying that those who lack expertise or intellect are sinners? Not at all. When we speak of prudence, we do not require any specific IQ or giftedness. A person becomes imprudent not because he cannot think, but because he does not think. “Fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7b). In the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures, the wise seek counsel and learn to apply their wisdom prudently. The fool knows neither what matters (wisdom) or how to practice it (prudence). It is a character flaw manifesting itself intellectually. The imprudent man is either too lazy or too proud to learn to do things better.
The excess of prudence makes a person paranoid or a perfectionist. In these cases the prudent mutates into the prudish. The paranoid man knows all the ways something could go wrong and so is paralyzed by his fears. The lazy man says, “There’s a lion in the road, a fierce lion roaming the streets” (Proverbs 26:13). His laziness and paranoia feed each other, allowing a possible danger to thwart a good work, like a servant who buries his talent in the earth (Matthew 25:14-30). Alternatively, the perfectionist knows all the ways something could go right and so is paralyzed by his indecision toward his options. I am reminded of the phrase, “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.” In the right hands this maxim teaches diligence. However, too often it is used to prevent diligence, preventing labor for fear of doing it less than perfectly. We forget that “if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have” (2 Corinthians 8:12). Or put another way, anything worth doing is worth doing wrong. The prudent build the temple even if it does not measure up to its former glory (Haggai 2:3-5).
What Prudence Is
Prudence is traditionally defined by Aristotle as recta ratio agibilium, “right reason applied to practice.” He argues that in the same way morality makes wisdom truly wise (instead of just sophism), prudence allows one to actually act wisely. The choices made according to the highest ideals without practical wisdom cannot be called wisdom in the true sense. Both Aristotle and Aquinas stress that prudence begins with a right reason.
Just as wisdom fails without prudence, prudence fails without wisdom. What Aquinas calls the wisdom of the flesh or the “prudence of the devil” are not to be confused with the virtue we call prudence.1 The virtue of prudence transcends mere pragmatism by maintaining goodness in its goals and means. Augustine, seeing all virtues as forms of love, says, “prudence is love discerning aright that which helps from that which hinders us in tending to God.”
Prudence demonstrates itself chiefly in three ways. First, prudence seeks counsel and correction. “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22). Unlike his wise and prudent father, Rehoboam ignored the counsel of the aged in favor of those who stroked his ego (1 Kings 12:6-11). He split a kingdom in his imprudence. Second, prudence makes practical judgments or discernment. Getting information is only a beginning. The more difficult next step is deciding what information is useful (Proverbs 18:17). Third, prudence acts. Prudence is not dithering or endless plotting. Either the Lord is God or Baal is God, and Elijah reminds the people that the time of choosing and acting is upon them (1 Kings 18:21).
Wise as Serpents
Jesus makes frequent reference to this concept of prudence and admonishes his disciples to find it. I suspect that we find these statements of Jesus to be some of his most difficult, because we confuse prudence with pragmatism, the idea that the end will justify the means. However, in the teachings of Jesus, prudence is combined with – not opposed to – wisdom and morality. As C.S. Lewis summarized, “he want’s a child’s heart, but a grown-up’s head.”2 Two particular passages come to mind.
First, in a direct command, Jesus tells his newly commissioned disciples to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). They are, after all, going out as sheep among wolves. Still, it is an odd wording, given the negative connotation of of serpents elsewhere in Scripture. We typically think of conniving as the work of Satan, whereas Christians are God’s beautiful idiots, naive to the ways of the world. Jesus instead articulates another category altogether. Imagine a sheep who could out fox the foxes, but did so for good rather than to take advantage.
Second, in a more subtle and obscure lesson, Jesus praises the shrewdness of a disreputable manager (Luke 16). The manager, already on his way to termination, uses the remainder of his influence and access to create for himself a “soft landing.” What he does is immoral, but fiendishly clever. Jesus points his disciples to this and concludes, “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8b). Expositors are flummoxed by this riddle because it seems to show Jesus advocating treachery and guile. Not so! He is commending shrewdness but directing it toward righteousness — the very definition of prudence. Rather than using our resourcefulness to serve self, what if the kingdom could show us how to use it in the service of the poor? Could you learn this lesson?
How cynical are we that the only purpose we can imagine for cleverness is taking advantage of another person. How corrupt of heart we must be to lack the ability to imagine a harmless application of cunning. Have we forgotten that our God made the serpent and outsmarted the Dragon? We serve a wise and prudent God.