From the September, 2001 issue of Touchstone

The Cardinal Virtue of Prudence by Thomas S. Buchanan

The Cardinal Virtue of Prudence

The simple acquire folly, but the prudent are crowned with knowledge.
—Proverbs 14:18

Although most people have heard of the seven deadly sins, fewer people are familiar with that other list: the seven great virtues. The virtues can be divided into two groups: the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity) and the four cardinal virtues (justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude). Although the list of the seven virtues is first found among the writings of Ambrose and Augustine, the list of the cardinal virtues wasn’t their creation; it was mentioned centuries before by Aristotle and Plato and represents the classical mind on what constitutes a virtuous man.

The cardinal virtues are not, I believe, what most Americans would think of if asked to define the four fundamental characteristics of a virtuous person. They are, in a sad sense, the antithesis of modern virtues. For example, consider the cardinal virtue of prudence.

Prudence is the wisdom to discern right from wrong. It is also “showing sound judgment in practical affairs” and being “sapient,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. One who is prudent is one who is wise and exercises that wisdom in day-to-day issues.

Though it lies at the heart of prudence, the ability to discriminate good from bad or good from mediocre or, better yet, good from very near good, is not much appreciated today as a great virtue. “Discrimination” is oftentimes condemned as a sin, even when used justly and with a noble purpose in mind. For example, the Boy Scouts are being condemned as discriminatory because they disapprove of homosexuality and uphold heterosexuality as the only acceptable norm. They think it imprudent to allow homosexual men around young boys. Or again, many would consider it discriminatory to point out that it might be imprudent to put men and women in close quarters on naval vessels. In our backwards world, that which is consistent with the execution of wisdom on day-to-day issues is discriminatory and, hence, wrong.

We live in the age of tolerance, not prudence. These can be diametrically opposed. This is exemplified by the main character in Evelyn Waugh’s short story, “Too Much Tolerance.” The hero of that story thought that everyone was a “jolly good fellow,” including the man who ran off with his wife, and another man who stole his inherited fortune. The hero (or more appropriately, the anti-hero) in this story had no ability to discern right from wrong, so he kindly chose to assume that everyone was good. As a result, he allowed every good thing that he had to be taken away and became a most pitiable fellow, estranged from his wife and son, reduced to selling sewing machines door-to-door in Africa. Tolerance, taken to extreme, is a lack of the cardinal virtue of prudence.

While it is true that the lack of tolerance, taken to extreme, is bigotry, it is often assumed by those at the left side of the forefront of the culture wars that any form of prudence is evil. Calling virtues “evil” is a part of the double-talk common to those antagonistic to the faith. Prudence is the wisdom that allows us to discern double-talk from truth. It is that by which we avoid folly and by which we are crowned with knowledge, according to Solomon. It is a virtue sorely needed today.

Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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