The topic of virtue has not been a popular one in recent decades, nor one which is much discussed in many circles. It tends to be associated with old-fashioned, conservative, and out-of-date ways of thinking. And of all the virtues, the virtue of prudence feels particularly old-fashioned.
The notion of virtue has, however, seen something of a comeback in the academic field of ethics: so-called virtue-ethics. While many of the central figures of this renaissance of the old-fashioned concept of virtue are Catholic (e.g. Alasdair MacIntyre and Elizabeth Anscombe), the connection with Catholicism or Christianity, in general, is not a necessary one and, in fact, one of the founders of virtue ethics, Philippa Foot, was an atheist.
The central figure that all these modern virtue-ethicists return to is Aristotle and many to Saint Thomas Aquinas as well (thus the link with Catholicism) who was mainly concerned, during the Middle-Ages, with interpreting Aristotle from within a Christian framework. The subtle differences between these two philosophers are not important here, but what is important is that both regarded prudence (phronesis in the Greek of Aristotle and prudentia in the Latin of Aquinas) as the “mother” of all virtues; as what has also been called the auriga virtutum, the charioteer of the virtues, because without it none of the other virtues (e.g. courage, justice, temperance, etc.) can be attained.
This “mother” of the other virtues should, however, not be confused with what the term “prudence” has come to be associated with the English language. In English it has come to be associated with over-cautiousness and with an unwillingness to take risks – even with a certain degree of miserliness. It is often associated with how one runs one’s financial affairs. But this is certainly not its original meaning and is certainly not what Aristotle and Aquinas (nor modern virtue-ethicists) mean by it.
Broadly-speaking, prudence properly understood can be thought of in terms of balance and in terms of flexibility. Aristotle defined all the virtues in terms of the so-called via media (the middle-road). Each virtue is characterized as a middle-path between two extremes. Thus, for example, the virtue of temperance, when thought of in the context of the indulgence of the senses (eating, drinking, sex), lies between too much and too little. Help yourself and enjoy but don’t over-indulge. It is a regulated and reasonable middle-path. And prudence is exactly the same: in this case lying between the one extreme of cunning and the other extreme of foolishness (imprudence). It is, in other words, not about getting your own way at any and all costs; at the same time it is not about being careless, whether in relation to your health, your finances, your spiritual life, you name it.
But for me, the virtue of prudence gets really interesting when one explores its links to flexibility. Prudence is the ability to make the right (balanced) decision, in particular, unique circumstances. It is what has also been called practical wisdom – something to clearly distinguish from theoretical knowledge (e.g. mathematics). With theoretical knowledge we can lay down clear-cut rules for solving problems (e.g. the equations of physics): these do not change under different circumstances. One plus one always equals two. But practical wisdom (prudence) is something else; it is an ability to see what is right or good here and now. While we can (and should) draw on broad ethical guidelines (e.g. it is generally not right to kill another) we also need to be sensitive and alert to the demands of the particular situation that we find ourselves in. Being prudent requires a certain degree of flexibility and a willingness to break the rules in exceptional circumstances.
One needs to be careful here. This flexibility that is a built-in feature of prudence does not mean anything goes. Prudence does not equal moral relativity. But like with all the other virtues, it requires a balance (a middle-road) and in this case, it is the particularly tricky one between order and chaos: between recognizing the need for principles, guidelines, roadmaps, and long-term plans; but also recognizing that one has to be alert to the new and the surprising, so that one doesn’t miss out on the unexpected opportunities that come along now-and-again or, equally, that one is not insensitive to the unique ethical demands of the moment. This is a virtue that cannot be taught theoretically, but once one knows its worth, it is certainly a virtue one can (and should) practice and get better at.