St. Basil the Great once said: “Prudence must precede every action that we undertake; for if prudence be wanting, there is nothing, however good it may seem, which is not turned into evil.” But these strong words from this great saint don’t really reflect how we think of prudence today. We often think of being prudent as being cautious and avoiding risk, but it is actually this virtue (or our lack of it) that plays a large role in the actions we take every day.
Fr. Tom Wilson recently stopped by The Inner Life® to explain the virtue of prudence, why it is important, and why we could use more prudence in our world today.
“Prudence often goes misunderstood or, if we’re honest with ourselves, it might even get set aside,” Fr. Wilson said. “Because prudence is really about our ability to apply what we know, apply what we understand, to the particular circumstances that we are facing. St. Thomas Aquinas calls it wisdom concerning human affairs. And I think we can also extend it to spiritual affairs as well.”
Prudence involves taking our knowledge, reason, experience, and understanding, and using that to inform the decisions that we make. A prudent person makes decisions based on wisdom, whereas a person without prudence makes rash decisions. Both live with the consequences of their decisions, but which one would you prefer to be?
Using an analogy to illustrate how prudence works, Fr. Wilson explained that if you want to repair a car you don’t just dive in with a wrench. You need to understand cars, know how they work, and how the various mechanisms of the vehicle work together. Then you can apply that knowledge toward fixing the car.
“The same thing is true with our spiritual life and our moral life,” he said. “As we learn, as we study, as we understand the teachings of the Church, what we gain from Scripture and the power of the Holy Spirit, as we know those things we are then able to apply them to our particular circumstances and situations in life.”
Fr. Wilson pointed out that prudence may get a bad rap these days because our modern culture often prefers to go with our gut (or the social media mob) rather than taking the time to make a prudent decision.
“When we go into the area of conscience, conscience is something that needs to be formed, needs to be developed, and it has to be correct,” he said. “Unfortunately, in the world today and in our culture that has been set aside to say that anything I believe is right is my conscience. Well, that’s not prudence.”
If you tend to make rash decisions (and have found yourself suffering the consequences of them) you can add more happiness and order to your life by focusing on growing in the virtue of prudence. But if it takes some time, don’t get discouraged.
Fr. Wilson acknowledged, “Like all the cardinal virtues, they’re not necessarily there in their fullness right away. We learn and we grow. We grow in knowledge, we grow in awareness, and we grow also in our ability to apply those things that we have learned to particular situations. We are human beings, and there is some trial and error in it.”
If you look back at your life and regret imprudent decisions that you made in your youth, there is a bright side. You can use those errors as a teaching moment, and those experiences as a way to grow in prudence. In fact, Fr. Wilson pointed out that the more experiences (whether good or bad) we have, the more we can learn from them, and the more we can grow in this important virtue. Virtues must be practiced, and prudence is a virtue you can practice and grow in each and every day.
“The more we act correctly, the more we go through the process of learning, praying, and applying the better we will get. I would say in general I think most of us probably grow in prudence as we grow in age and experience and hopefully wisdom. So the more experience we have the more likely we are to be able to be prudent in our actions.”
Listen to the full discussion below: