There may be no word in the English language more strongly attached to a certain time and place than “prudence” is to Victorian England. The very word conjures up images of prim women in drab, bustled dresses and large floral hats. It’s a word that just feels behind the times and out of step. If, as we saw a few months ago, self-regulation seems boring and prudish in our culture, prudence seems downright archaic. And yet, long before the days of Queen Victoria, prudence had been understood as the Mother of all Virtues, the one trait upon which all other good things in life depended. So, what are we to make of it? What is it and how might we reclaim it for our own today? (And why should we want to?)
We tend to think of prudence — like self-regulation — as something that holds us back, about what we don’t do. The VIA Institute on Character Strengths echoes this sentiment to some extent: “Prudence means being careful about your choices, stopping and thinking before acting. It is a strength of restraint.” Yet, there’s more to it than that: “If you are high in prudence, you are able to consider the long-term consequences of your actions.” This means that at heart, prudence is about forward thinking, about setting immediate concerns aside for the sake of long-term benefits.
Self-regulation may be what helps us say yes or no to our various desires and impulses, but prudence is what helps us determine whether we want to say yes or no to those desires. Prudence doesn’t hold us back as much as it pumps the brakes, giving us the time to decide between courses of action. As Niemietz and McGrath note, “Those who are prudent can certainly take risks and be spontaneous, but they will weigh the pros and cons of their actions, think things through prior to acting, and continue that process as more information becomes available” (The Power of Character Strengths, 203). Philosophers and psychologists often talk about the space in between stimulus and reaction; we might think of prudence as the muscle we exercise in that space. In this sense, it’s closely linked to discernment.
Far from the dour images the word brings up, research into prudence has found that it’s correlated with high intelligence and optimism, interpersonal warmth and assertiveness, improved physical and psychological health, and achievement at school, work, or at home (see Niemietz and McGrath, 204). The ancient idea of it being the Mother of Virtues comes to mind here: Prudence can be thought of as the system we use to deploy our other character strengths.
The Christian tradition has long prized the caution and care prudence entails. As systems of belief and practice that promote certain behaviours in adherents, Judaism and Christianity both strongly affirm this trait that helps us discern the way we truly want to act. The book of Deuteronomy is particularly known for advocating this kind of care and attention: “Be careful not to forget the covenant that the LORD your God made with you…” (4.23) or “Be careful to obey all these words that I command you today, so that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, because you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the LORD your God” (12.28).
The wisdom tradition echoes this concern in its own way. Proverbs states its goal as “to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young” (1.4). And the deuterocanonical book of Wisdom says that “nothing in life is more profitable for mortals” than “self-control [i.e., self regulation] and prudence, justice and courage [i.e., bravery]” (8.7).
In the New Testament, the role of prudence is perhaps best outlined in Ephesians 5.15ff: “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time…. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”
But to me, the idea of prudence in the Christian tradition is best reflected in the Greek term σωφροσυνη (sophrosyne). While it has often been translated as ‘chastity’, sophrosyne is really a form of wisdom, the practical wisdom of knowing how best to disburse one’s resources of time, money, and energy. As such, it truly is the Mother of all Virtues!
Like all of the character strengths we’ve explored in this series, prudence can go awry. A lack of prudence results in recklessness and carelessness. As fun as it is to live in the moment, without prudence we can’t work towards longterm goals, and can find ourselves in unnecessary peril. The opposite of prudence is a kind of sensation-seeking, intentionally putting oneself in risky situations for the thrill of it. Not only is this physically and psychologically dangerous (literally putting oneself in harm’s way), but it is also self-defeating. Our old friend hedonic adaptation (which has come up in previous posts on gratitude) comes into play, so we need more and more stimulus to get the same thrill. Yet an excess of prudence also has its shadow side. It can become risk-avoidance, which hinders achievement and opportunity. It also can live into its prudish stereotypes, descending into legalism or fundamentalism. More interesting to me, however, is that in an unhealthy excess, prudence can promote the “Don’t think of a pink elephant” problem of allowing what you are trying to avoid define your life, instead of what you are trying to achieve. So, while indispensable in its healthy form, prudence can become just as harmful as its absence when it is unhealthy or excessive.
So, how might we improve or increase our levels of prudence? Here are some simple ideas to try:
- Be intentional about taking advantage of the space between stimulus and reaction, especially in conversation. In that moment, pause and think of the consequences of what you are about to say.
- Conduct a cost-benefit analysis before taking a risk.
- At a busy intersection, watch what’s happening. How are the drivers, cyclists and pedestrians moving and interacting? Use what you’ve observed to be more cautious when driving, cycling, or walking.