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The crowned Prudencia, carrying scales, allegorically rides a wagon to Heaven. Concordia puts the finishing touches on the wagon. Upon entry Prudencia rides alone, on one horse, towards the Empyrean of the Christian God. On the lower left corner, Prudencia, with a book, addresses eight young women seated upon the ground. On the lower right corner, Prudencia enthroned speaks to eleven young seated women.
Prudentia, detail from the 1514 monument of King Louis XII in St Denis, Paris
Prudentia on the tomb of Pope Clement II in the Bamberg Cathedral

Prudence (Latin: prudentia, contracted from providentia meaning "seeing ahead, sagacity") is the ability to govern and discipline oneself by the use of reason.[1] It is classically considered to be a virtue, and in particular one of the four cardinal virtues (which are, with the three theological virtues, part of the seven virtues). Prudentia is an allegorical female personification of the virtue, whose attributes are a mirror and snake, and who is frequently depicted as a pair with Justitia, the Roman goddess of Justice.

The word derives from the 14th-century Old French word prudence, which, in turn, derives from the Latin prudentia meaning "foresight, sagacity". It is often associated with wisdom, insight, and knowledge. The virtue of prudence is the ability to judge between virtuous and vicious actions, not only in a general sense, but with regard to appropriate actions at a given time and place. Although prudence itself does not perform any actions, and is concerned solely with knowledge, all virtues are regulated by it. For example, distinguishing when acts are courageous, as opposed to reckless or cowardly, is an act of prudence.

In modern English, the word has become increasingly synonymous with cautiousness. In this sense, prudence names a reluctance to take risks, which remains a virtue with respect to unnecessary risks, but, when unreasonably extended into over-cautiousness, can become the vice of cowardice.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle gives a lengthy account of the virtue phronesis (Ancient Greek: ϕρόνησις)—traditionally translated as "prudence", although this has become problematic as the modern usage of that word has changed. More recently Ancient Greek: ϕρόνησις has been translated by such terms as "practical wisdom", "practical judgment", or "rational choice".

As the "mother" of all virtues[edit]

Allegory of Prudence on the tomb of Francis II, Duke of Brittany The female face depicts Francis' daughter Anne of Brittany.

Prudence was considered by the ancient Greeks and later by Christian philosophers, most notably Thomas Aquinas, as the cause, measure, and form of all virtues. It is considered to be the auriga virtutum or the charioteer of the virtues. It is mentioned in the fifth of the Principal Doctrines of Epicurus, and in his Letter to Menoeceus, where he says: "Prudence is the foundation of all these things and is the greatest good. Thus it is more valuable than philosophy and is the source of every other excellence."[2]

Prudence is the cause of virtues in the sense that virtues—which are defined to be the "perfected ability" of man as a spiritual person (spiritual personhood in the classical western understanding means having intelligence and free will)—achieve their "perfection" only when they are founded upon prudence, that is to say upon the perfected ability to make right decisions. For instance, a person can live temperately when he has acquired the habit of deciding correctly the actions to take in response to his instinctual cravings.

Prudence points out which course of action is to be taken in any concrete circumstances. It does not will the good that it discerns. Prudence has a directive capacity with regard to the other virtues. It lights the way and measures the arena for their exercise. Without prudence, bravery becomes foolhardiness, mercy sinks into weakness, free self-expression and kindness into censure, humility into degradation and arrogance, selflessness into corruption, and temperance into fanaticism. Its office is to determine for each in practice those circumstances of time, place, manner, etc. which should be observed, and which the Scholastics comprise under the term "medium rationis". So while it qualifies the intellect and not the will, it is nevertheless a moral virtue.[3]

Prudence provides a model of ethically good actions. "The work of art is true and real by its correspondence with the pattern of its prototype in the mind of the artist. In similar fashion, the free activity of man is good by its correspondence with the pattern of prudence." (Josef Pieper)[full citation needed]

In Greek and Scholastic philosophy, "form" is the specific characteristic of a thing that makes it what it is. With this language, prudence confers upon other virtues the form of its inner essence; that is, its specific character as a virtue. For instance, not all acts of telling the truth are considered good, in the sense of having been done in a way that characterizes the virtue of honesty. What makes telling the truth a virtue is whether it is done with prudence.

Versus imprudence, cunning and false prudence[edit]

In Christian understanding, the difference between prudence and cunning lies in the intent with which a decision to act is made. The Christian understanding of the world includes the existence of God, the natural law, and moral implications of human actions. In this context, prudence is different from cunning in that it takes into account the supernatural good. For instance, the decision of persecuted Christians to be martyred rather than deny their faith is considered prudent.

According to Thomas Aquinas, judgments that take a reasonable form, but are aimed at evil ends or that use evil means, are considered to be examples of "cunning" and "false prudence" and not true prudence.[3]

The Ancient Greek term for prudence is synonymous with "forethought". People, the Ancient Greeks believed, must have enough prudence to prepare for worshiping the Olympian gods.[citation needed]

Integral parts[edit]

Justice and Prudence window, Lindfield. Third window, south chapel, All Saints Church, Lindfield, West Sussex. Made in or after 1906 by Christopher Whall.

Prudence is the application of universal principles to particular situations.[4] "Integral parts" of virtues, in Scholastic philosophy, are the elements that must be present for any complete or perfect act of the virtue. The following are the integral parts of prudence:

accurate memory; that is, memory that is true to reality; an ability to learn from experience[4]
an open-mindedness that recognizes variety and is able to seek and make use of the experience and authority of others[4]
the understanding of first principles
shrewdness or quick-wittedness, the ability to evaluate a situation quickly
discursive reasoning and the ability to research and compare alternatives
foresight—the capacity to estimate whether particular actions can realize goals
the ability to take all relevant circumstances into account
the ability to mitigate risk

Prudential judgment[edit]

Allegory of Prudence by Titian. To Titian, prudence was preparation, foresight and judgement from experience and human history. The three faces in the painting represent the passing of human generations, with the young facing the light while the oldest fade into shadow; the faint inscription above their heads may be translated as "From the past, the present acts prudently, lest it spoils future action".[5]

In ethics, a "prudential judgment" is one where the circumstances must be weighed to determine the correct action.[6] This applies to situations in which two people could weigh the circumstances differently and ethically come to different conclusions.

For instance, in the theory of just war, the government of a nation must weigh whether the harms they suffer are more than the harms that would be produced by their going to war against another nation that is harming them; the decision whether to go to war is therefore a prudential judgment.

As another example, a patient who has a terminal illness with no conventional treatment may hear of an experimental treatment. To decide whether to undergo that treatment would require weighing, on one hand, the cost, time, possible lack of benefit, and possible pain, disability, and hastened death, and on the other hand, the possible benefit and the benefit to others of what could be learned from his or her case.

In rhetoric[edit]

Main gate of 18th-century Castellania portraying Lady Justice and Lady Prudentia above

Phronesis, or practical wisdom, holds an important place in rhetorical theory as a central aspect of judgment and practice. Aristotle's notion of phronesis fits with his treatise on rhetoric because neither, in his estimation, could be reduced to an episteme or a techne, and both deal with the ability to deliberate about contingent, variable, or indeterminate matters.[7]

Cicero defined prudentia as a rhetorical norm in De Oratore, De officiis, De Inventione, and De re publica. He contrasts the term with imprudens, young men failing to consider the consequences before they act. The prudens, or those who had prudence, knew when to speak and when to stay silent. Cicero maintained that prudence was gained only through experience, and while it was applied in everyday conversation, in public discourse it was subordinated to the broader term for wisdom, sapientia.[8]

In the modern era, rhetorical scholars have tried to recover a robust meaning for the term. They have maintained consistency with the ancient orators, contending that prudence is an embodied persuasive resource.[9] Although sets of principles or rules can be constructed in a particular culture, prudence cannot be derived from a set of timeless principles. Instead, through gauging the situation and through reasoned deliberation, a speaker should determine the set of values and morals by which to base his or her actions. The capacity to take into account the particularities of the situation is vital to prudential practice. For example, as rhetorical scholar Lois Self explains, "both rhetoric and phronesis are normative processes in that they involve rational principles of choice-making; both have general applicability but always require careful analysis of particulars in determining the best response to each specific situation; both ideally take into account the wholeness of human nature; and finally, both have social utility and responsibility in that both treat matter of the public good".[10] Robert Hariman, in his examination of Malcolm X, adds that "aesthetic sensibility, imitation of a performative ideal, and improvisation upon conventions of presentation" are also components of practical reasoning.[11]

Rhetorical scholars differ on definitions of the term and methods of analysis. Hans-Georg Gadamer asserted that prudence materializes through the application of principles and can be evaluated accordingly.[12] In his analysis of Andrew Cuomo's speech to the Catholic Church of Notre Dame, James Jasinski contends that prudence cannot be calculated by formal matters like consequences[clarification needed] as it is not an episteme or techne; instead, it is judged according to embodied rhetorical performance.[9] Thus, while Gadamer would judge prudence based on the execution of contingent principles, Jasinski would examine the artistry of communication in its cultural milieu between accommodation (compromise) and audacity (courage).[clarification needed]

In his study of Machiavelli, examining the relationship between prudence and moderation, rhetorician Eugene Garver holds that there is a middle ground between "an ethics of principles, in which those principles univocally dictate action" and "an ethics of consequences, in which the successful result is all".[13] His premise stems from Aristotle's theory of virtue as an "intermediate", in which moderation and compromise embody prudence. Yet, because valorizing moderation is not an active response, prudence entails the "transformation of moderation" into a fitting response, making it a flexible situational norm. Garver also asserts that prudential reasoning differs from "algorithmic" and "heuristic" reasoning because it is rooted in a political community, the context in which common problems regarding stability and innovation arise and call for prudential reasoning.[13]

In economics[edit]

Economists describe a consumer as "prudent" if he or she saves more when faced with riskier future income. This additional saving is called precautionary saving.

If a risk-averse consumer has a utility function over consumption , and if is differentiable, then the consumer is not prudent unless the third derivative of utility is positive, that is, .[14]

The strength of the precautionary saving motive can be measured by absolute prudence, which is defined as . Similarly, relative prudence is defined as absolute prudence, multiplied by the level of consumption. These measures are closely related to the concepts of absolute and relative risk aversion developed by Kenneth Arrow and John W. Pratt.[15]

In accounting[edit]

In accounting, prudence was long considered one of the "fundamental accounting concepts" in its[ambiguous] determination of the time for revenue recognition.[16] The rule of prudence means that gains should not be anticipated unless their realisation was highly probable. However, recent developments in Generally Accepted Accounting Principles have led academic critics to accuse the international standard-setting body IASB of abandoning prudence.[17] In the British reporting standard FRS 18, prudence, along with consistency, was relegated to a "desirable" quality of financial information rather than fundamental concept.[18] Prudence was rejected for IFRS because it was seen as compromising accounts' neutrality.[19]

In a 2011 report on the financial crisis of 2007–08, the British House of Lords bemoaned the demotion of prudence as a governing principle of accounting and audit. Their comments, however, were disputed by some leading[peacock prose] practitioners.[19]

See also[edit]

  • Phronesis – Ancient Greek word for a type of wisdom or intelligence
  • Prudence (given name) – female given name


  1. ^ "prudence". Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
  2. ^ Epicurus. "Epicurus to Menoeceus". In Laërtius, Diogenes (ed.). The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers.
  3. ^ a b Delany, Joseph (1911). "Prudence". The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  4. ^ a b c McManaman, Douglas (February 2006). "The Virtue of Prudence". Catholic Education Resource Center.
  5. ^ Summers, David (1987). The Judgment of Sense: Renaissance Naturalism and the Rise of Aesthetics. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-32675-9.).
  6. ^ Horn, Trent. "What is a Prudential Judgment?". Catholic Answers. Retrieved 12 October 2022.
  7. ^ Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. VI.7.
  8. ^ Hariman, Robert (2003). Prudence: classical virtue, postmodern practice. The Pennsylvania State University Press. p. 37.
  9. ^ a b Jasinski, James (2001). Sourcebook on Rhetoric. Sage Publications. p. 463.
  10. ^ Self, Lois (1979). "Rhetoric and Phronesis: The Aristotelian Ideal". Philosophy and Rhetoric. Penn State University Press. p. 14.
  11. ^ Hariman, Robert (1991). Theory without Modernity. p. 28.
  12. ^ Gadamer, Hans-George (1982). "Truth and Method". Crossroad: 7.
  13. ^ a b Garver, Eugene (1987). Machiavelli and the History of Prudence. University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0-299-11080-X.
  14. ^ Sandmo, A. (1970). "The Effect of Uncertainty on Saving Decisions". Review of Economic Studies. 37 (3): 353–360. doi:10.2307/2296725. JSTOR 2296725.
  15. ^ Kimball, Miles S. (1990). "Precautionary Saving in the Small and in the Large" (PDF). Econometrica. 58 (1): 53–73. doi:10.2307/2938334. JSTOR 2938334. S2CID 153558057.
  16. ^ "Tax and accountancy: concepts and pervasive principles". HMRC Business Income Manual.
  17. ^ Christodoulou, Mario (24 August 2010). "IASB has abandoned prudence, professor warns". Accountancy Age.
  18. ^ "Tax and accountancy: development of accountancy concepts and new objectives: FRS18". HMRC. Archived from the original on 5 October 2013. Retrieved 12 April 2011.
  19. ^ a b Orlik, Rose (4 April 2011). "Lords took a leap on international standards". Accountancy Age. Retrieved 12 April 2011.

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