"Ironically the pragmatic meaning of prudence is exactly the opposite of its traditional meaning. Traditionally prudence was not considered contrary to virtue; it was the highest virtue: It meant the wisdom to practice all the virtues in the right time and circumstance."
20th Century and Contemporary Quotes on Prudence
"Prudence is the virtue of the senses. It is the science of appearances. It is the outmost action of the inward life. It is God taking thought for oxen. It moves matter after the laws of matter. It is content to seek health of body by complying with physical conditions, and health of mind by the laws of the intellect."
"Prudence does not go behind nature and ask whence it is. It takes the laws of the world whereby man's being is conditioned, as they are, and keeps these laws that it may enjoy their proper good. It respects space and time, climate, want, sleep, the law of polarity, growth and death."
"At this point it is possible only to indicate in a general way the interpretations that will be offered of prudence and altruism. Just as there are formal parallels between prudence and altruism, so there will be parallels between their interpretations. The principle of prudence is connected with a conception of one's present situation as merely a stage in a temporally extended life. It arises from the human capacity to view the present simultaneously as 'now' and as a particular time, tenselessly specifiable. The principle of altruism, on the other hand, is connected with the conception of oneself as merely one person among others. It arises from the capacity to view oneself simultaneously as 'I' and as someone—an impersonally specifiable individual."
"In discussing prudence, we shall be concerned with the element of practical foresight, rather than with any special association the notion may have with self-interest. This must be mentioned because in philosophical usage the term 'prudential' has come to mean approximately the same as 'self-interested', losing even its special connection with provision for the future. This has some foundation in ordinary usage, for we often identify the prudent course of action with that which is personally expedient, and oppose it to selfless as well as to risky alternatives. But I believe that in the most general sense we can perfectly well speak of prudence (or its absence) in cases where the interest of the agent is not in question. When parents concern themselves with the welfare of their children, for example, they may be imprudent not only as regards their own future interests, but also in relation to their children's interests. A person's conduct of an organization's affairs, or his management of another person's investments, may be assessed in the same way. Whatever the case, it is the weight accorded to future consequences which is essential; one is judged imprudent if one disregards them or allows them to be outweighed by insufficient present considerations."
"Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence. Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues. Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. As John Randolph of Roanoke put it, Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be efficacious. The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery."
"For a nation is no stronger than the numerous little communities of which it is composed. A central administration, or a corps of select managers and civil servants, however well intentioned and well trained, cannot confer justice and prosperity and tranquility upon a mass of men and women deprived of their old responsibilities. That experiment has been made before; and it has been disastrous. It is the performance of our duties in community that teaches us prudence and efficiency and charity."
"Say the word prudence to the ancients, and you would have named a virtue. Say it to the faculties of American colleges in the nineteenth century, and you would have described part of the philosophy curriculum. Say it today, and you’ve made a joke. Through much of American history, prudence was considered a desirable trait in public leaders—and the decay we have experienced in the word makes it difficult to understand the prime American example of prudence in political life: Abraham Lincoln."
"Prudence carries with it today the connotation of 'prude'-a person of overexaggerated caution, bland temperance, hesitation, a lack of imagination and will, fearfulness, and a bad case of mincing steps. This would have surprised the classical philosophers, who thought of prudence as one of the four cardinal virtues and who linked it to shrewdness, exceptionally good judgement, and the gift of coup d'oeil-the 'coup of the eye'-which could take in the whole of a situation at once and know almost automatically how to proceed."
"A liberally educated man learns from Plato and from Burke that in a statesman the highest virtue is prudence. The sort of high prudence required in great affairs of state has not frequently been encountered in Washington during the past several decades."
"Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; 'the prudent man looks where he is going.' 'Keep sane and sober for your prayers.' Prudence is 'right reason in action,' writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle. It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation. It is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues); it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid."
"Prudence to the modern mind suggests caution. The prudent man is the man who takes no risks. He is a conservative who will neither raise his head above the crowd nor stand out from it. If such prudence is associated with morality at all, it is with a kind of moral mediocrity. The prudent man never does anything very bad; neither does he do anything very good. Prudence of this stamp hinders rather than promotes perfection. If everybody practiced it, there would be no heroes because there would be no such thing as heroic virtue. In fact, a premium would be put on inactivity. The less a person did or said, the fewer mistakes he would make, and hence the more prudent he would be considered.
To some the word may suggest something more positive, but at most it connotes nothing more than a kind of secular virtue."
"A good intention is not sufficient for the practice of virtue. One must know how to realize that intention in the individual act. It is not enough, e.g., for one who wants to practice almsgiving to stand at a busy intersection and distribute money indiscriminately. One must determine beforehand to whom to give, what to give, how and when to give it. Otherwise he will have no assurance that he is actually relieving genuine need. It is the virtue of prudence which performs this function. It measures individual acts in relation to virtuous goals and selects those acts which best realize the goals. Since it has to do with measuring, St. Thomas places prudence in the intellect."
"There is, of course, a certain prudence which pertains to secular goals. A certain prudence is required, e.g., in the world of commerce and business. The man who can reduce business risk to a minimum, who can turn in a profit when his competitors are showing losses, is said to be a prudent business man. But this is only a very imperfect kind of prudence. It is not the virtue of prudence. A type of prudence may even be found in the world of sin. The difference between the virtue of prudence and these other prudences is in the will rather than in the intellect. In the virtue of prudence the will is aimed at a moral goal. In the other prudences the will is aimed at some secular goal or even at vice. Obviously such prudences have nothing to do with virtue."