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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Prudence, by Luca Giordano

Prudence is the exercise of sound judgment in practical affairs. 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).

The word comes from Old French prudence (13th century), from Latin prudentia (foresight, sagacity), a contraction of providentia, foresight. It is often associated with wisdom, insight, and knowledge. In this case, the virtue 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 had to be regulated by it. Distinguishing when acts are courageous, as opposed to reckless or cowardly, for instance, is an act of prudence, and for this reason it is classified as a cardinal (pivotal) virtue.

Although prudence would be applied to any such judgment, the more difficult tasks, which distinguish a person as prudent, are those in which various goods have to be weighed against each other, as when a person is determining what would be best to give charitable donations, or how to punish a child so as to prevent repeating an offense.

In modern English, however, 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 (i.e. over-cautiousness), can become the vice of cowardice.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle gives a lengthy account of the virtue phronesis (Greek: ϕρονησιϛ), which has traditionally been translated as "prudence", although this has become increasingly problematic as the word has fallen out of common usage. More recently ϕρονησιϛ has been translated by such terms as "practical wisdom," "practical judgment," or "rational choice."


Prudence as the "Father" of all virtues

Prudence was considered by the ancient Greeks and later on 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 the cause in the sense that the 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 temperance when he has acquired the habit of deciding correctly the actions to take in response to his instinctual cravings.

Prudence is considered the measure of moral virtues since it 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[1]) For instance, a stock broker using his experience and all the data available to him decides that it is beneficial to sell stock A at 2PM tomorrow and buy stock B today. The content of the decision (e.g., the stock, amount, time and means) is the product of an act of prudence, while the actual carrying out of the decision may involve other virtues like fortitude (doing it in spite of fear of failure) and justice (doing his job well out of justice to his company and his family). The actual act’s “goodness” is measured against that original decision made through prudence.

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 another 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, considered as done with the virtue of honesty. What makes telling the truth a virtue is whether it is done with prudence. Telling a competitor the professional secrets of your company is not prudent and therefore not considered good and virtuous.

Prudence versus cunning and false prudence

In the Christian understanding, the difference between prudence and cunning lies in the intent with which the decision of the context of an action 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. Pretending to deny their faith could be considered prudent from the point of view of a non-believer.

Judgments using reasons for evil ends or using evil means are considered to be made through “cunning” and “false prudence” and not through prudence.

Integral Parts of Prudence

"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:

  • Memoria — Accurate memory; that is, memory that is true to reality
  • Intelligentia — Understanding of first principles
  • Docilitas — The kind of open-mindedness that recognizes the true variety of things and situations to be experienced, and does not cage itself in any presumption of deceptive knowledge; the ability to make use of the experience and authority of others to make prudent decisions
  • Shrewdness or quick-wittedness (solertia) — sizing up a situation on one's own quickly
  • Discursive reasoning (ratio) — research and compare alternative possibilities
  • Foresight (providentia) — capacity to estimate whether a particular action will lead to the realization of our goal
  • Circumspection — ability to take all relevant circumstances into account
  • Caution — risk mitigation

Prudential judgments

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

For instance, in Just War theory, 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.

In another case, a patient who has a terminal illness with no conventional treatment may hear of an experimental treatment. To decide whether to take it 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 case.

Numerical Measure

In economics (especially in finance) literature, absolute prudence is defined as  -\frac{u^{'''}\left(x\right)}{u^{''}\left(x\right)} where u(.) is the utility function of the agent. Similarly, relative prudence can be defined. Prudence is related to the precautionary saving.

Rules of Prudence

Prudence, by Giotto di Bondone

Rules of Prudence are designed to serve self interest. "Do not drink the cleaning solution" would be a rule of prudence. This rule would not be considered a moral rule because while it is not morally wrong to drink cleaning solution, it does serve your best interest to avoid doing so.

Feminine Name

Prudence is also in use as a given name, usually feminine. The name is a Medieval form of Prudentia.


Fictional characters

  • Prudence, a character from the movie Across the Universe (2007).
  • Prudence Bates, a 29 year old spinster who works for a "vague cultural organisation" and keeps in touch with her best friend from Oxford, vicar's wife Jane Cleveland: together the heroines of Barbara Pym's eponymous novel Jane and Prudence (published 1953).
  • Prudence Halliwell known mainly as Prue was one of the lead characters on the TV show Charmed until her death at the end of the third season. She was portrayed by Shannen Doherty.
  • Prudence Harbinger, a fictional character created by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran. She is the new (United Kingdom) Prime Minister's Director of Media Liaison. Her diary is serialised in the Sunday Telegraph, the first episode appearing on 10 May 2007.
  • Prudence King is the main character of Love Lessons, a novel by Children's Laureate, Jacqueline Wilson.
  • Prudence McLeod, the mother of the main character Claire McLeod on the TV show McLeod's Daughters.
  • Prudence is the name of Ryusuke Minami's first guitar in the English-language version of the anime series BECK.
  • Prudence is the name of a Disney character who appears in Cinderella II, Cinderella III: A Twist in Time, and Twice Charmed, as well as other Disney continuations of the Cinderella story. She is the majordomo of Cinderella's castle, as well as the love interest of the Grand Duke. She is voiced by Holland Taylor.
  • Prudence Duncan is the middle sister in the Matchmaker triad of books by Jane Feather.
  • Prudence, a bullying toddler on the Rugrats episode "Show Down At Teeter-Totter Gulch."
  • Prudence Bell was the name of the female lead in Rome Adventure a 1960's love story with Troy Donahue and Suzanne Pleshette and Troy boton acted to be an rock star to start the sport soccer


External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Prudence is the exercise of sound judgment in practical affairs. 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). The word comes from Old French prudence (13th century), from Latin prudentia (foresight, sagacity), a contraction of providentia, foresight. It is often associated with wisdom, insight, and knowledge. In this case, the virtue 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.


  • You will hear every day the maxims of a low prudence. You will hear, that the first duty is to get land and money, place and name. "What is this Truth you seek? What is this Beauty?" men will ask, with derision. If, nevertheless, God have called any of you to explore truth and beauty, be bold, be firm, be true. When you shall say, "As others do, so will I. I renounce, I am sorry for it, my early visions; I must eat the good of the land, and let learning and romantic expectations go, until a more convenient season." — then dies the man in you; then once more perish the buds of art, and poetry, and science, as they have died already in a thousand thousand men. The hour of that choice is the crisis of your history; and see that you hold yourself fast by the intellect.
    • Ralph Waldo Emerson in "Literary Ethics" an address to the Literary Societes of Dartmouth College (24 July 1838)
  • The last explanation remains to be made about prudence;
    Little and large alike drop quietly aside from the prudence that suits immortality.
    • Walt Whitman, in Leaves of Grass, "Manhattan Streets I Saunter’d, Pondering"; originally published as "Poem of the Last Explanation of Prudence" (1856)

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Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

Hymn IV. Prudence
by Christopher Smart
From the Hymns for the Amusement of Children (1771).



O best oeconomist of life,
      Tho' all the passions were at strife;
Yet thou, fair Prudence, could'st assuage
      The storm, and moderate its rage.

5With Dove and Serpent at thy call,
      As caution'd by the Lord of all,
Thou art in Christ full well aware,
      Of open force or secret snare.

To check thy thoughts divinely meek,
      10To weigh thy words before you speak,
To make the day's demand secure,
      To be the treas'rer of the poor:

All these, Prudentia, these are thine,
      And God thro' Christ shall make them mine;
15To do my best till life shall end,
      Then on futurity depend.



PD-icon.svg This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

See also prudence


Proper noun




  1. A female given name, one of the Puritan virtue names.

Related terms


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