Teaching Prudence — and Not Teaching It

I recently wrote about the classical notion of prudence as the form of the other virtues.  Prudence is the virtue that allows us to apply the general principles of morality to concrete, particular situations.  On this view, for an act to be virtuous, it must result from a wise, prudent judgment.

So how do you teach prudence?  Do you teach students a host of rules and reasons for the rules?  Since prudence is the virtue by which we apply the rules to specific instances, teaching students the rules alone would be like teaching them the rules of basketball without putting them on the court to play the game. Not only are they likely to remain confused (try explaining “offsides” in soccer to someone watching their first game), they are also likely not to care.

I’ve had people try to explain cricket to me, but since I never watch it, I would be the first to admit I don’t really pay much attention or try to commit it to memory.

It’s not that students shouldn’t know and understand the rules; it’s just that rules alone will not produce prudent judgments or people who care about being moral.

Can prudence be taught?  Yes, but if so, it can’t be taught in a classroom by a professor.  Yes, I am a professor, and yes I teach moral theology.  So what do I think I’m doing?  Well, I remind my students all the time of something they already know – something I wish the people who put them into a single “ethics” class with a view of making them “moral” would understand.

“Moral theology classes do not make you a better person,” I tell them.  Indeed, many “ethics” classes, especially when done as “survey” courses, often result in reinforcing in students their predispositions toward moral skepticism and can actually make them worse.  “Ethics” classes often simply provide students with a host of intellectual evasions to allow them to do what their parental or religious upbringing told them they shouldn’t.

When classes in moral philosophy or theology are at their best – and this is rarely the case – then the best they can probably hope for is to make students more thoughtful, to allow them the occasion to say, “Hmm, maybe I should consider living like that.”  But making moral choices requires prudence, and we don’t teach that.

This is because prudence requires experience, often experience in a particular area, and I can’t teach my students to be prudent lawyers, doctors, and politicians because I do not have the relevant experience in any of those areas.

College professors are not generally known for their prudence (to put it mildly), although this is not entirely fair.  In my experience, professors tend to be prudent in the areas they know, such as research, teaching, and curriculum, but not very prudent in areas they don’t, like hiring or budgets.  Hence, professors can usually only teach prudence to those who themselves want to become professors.


As Thomas Aquinas points out, “the prudence whereby a man rules himself differs from the prudence whereby a man governs a multitude,” and differs too depending upon the kind of multitude and what they are gathered together for. Hence there is, says Thomas, “military prudence” which governs an army gathered together to fight, which is distinct from “domestic prudence,” whereby a home or family is governed.

The skills needed to lead an army are not necessarily those needed to run a family, a business, or a college.  Ruling a city or kingdom requires “regnative prudence,” says Thomas; the citizens need “political prudence.”  And so forth.

We might add “juridical prudence,” “commercial prudence,” and “ecclesiastical prudence” to Thomas’s list, but the point is, all are sadly lacking.  And yet students who want to do something other than teaching and research need to go out into the world and find wise and virtuous mentors in the area they want to work in.

There are, however, skills and abilities we might try to inculcate in our students to help them gain prudence after graduation.  Thomas Aquinas mentions


  • Intelligentia: the understanding of first principles;

  • Ratio: practical reasoning, including the ability to research and compare alternatives, and to take principles or lessons learned in one area and apply them in another;

  • Memoria: a good memory for relevant details and an ability to learn from experience;

  • Docilitas: an open-mindedness that recognizes variety and is able to seek out and make use of the experience and authority of others;

  • Providentia: the capacity to estimate whether particular actions will actually achieve the desired goals;

  • Circumspectio: the ability to all consider relevant circumstances

  • Cautio: the ability to estimate risk; and

  • Sollertia: the ability to evaluate a situation quickly and “think on one’s feet.”


Thomas calls these the “quasi-integral” parts of prudence.

There is another interesting distinction Thomas makes between synesis, which concerns judgments in ordinary affairs, and gnomē, which is what is needed in matters of exception to the law.

How much better bureaucracy would be if people understood that the skill which makes them effective in normal circumstances is definitely not the one needed in exceptional cases!  The first is something we can outsource to a robot.  The second is something no robot will ever be able to do.

Are we teaching these skills, preparing students to be prudent?  I have yet to see a course designed to teach or instill prudence.  If we don’t teach prudence, our fate will be endless squabbles between thoughtless legalists on one side versus lax loop-hole-creators on the other or an ill-fated combination of thoughtless rule-following bureaucrats across from increasingly skilled loop-hole finders in the world of modern bureaucracy and its sophisticated discontents.

Lacking prudence, we become a culture of crass, constantly complaining casuists who increasingly deal with others according to the rigid bureaucratic protocols for “cases” rather than understanding the particular problems of others in a communal spirit of fraternity.


*Image: Allegory of Prudence by Titian, c. 1570 [National Gallery, London] A barely visible inscription reads: EX PRAETERITO/PRAESENS PRUDENTER AGIT/NE FUTURA ACTIONẼ DETURPET (“From the experience of the past, the present acts prudently, lest it spoil future actions”). Historians suspect that the faces (three ages of man) are, left to right: Titian himself (Tiziano Vecelli) as the past; his son, Orazio, as the present; and a young cousin, Marco Vecelli, as the future. Likewise, the wolf repreents the past, the lion the present, and the dog the future.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.