Dr. Robert Hickson 16 December 2019
Saint Eusebius of Vercelli, Martyr (d. 371)
“Virtue is the utmost of what a man can be; it is the realization of the human capacity for being.” (Josef Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart (1991 in English at Ignatius Press, page 9; first published in 1988 in the original German as Kleines Lesebuch von den Tugenden des menschlichen Herzens).
“The Latin word virtus means manliness. The German word for virtue, Tugend, comes from taugen, to be fit; and related to the English word doughty, now obsolete except in humor, but originally meaning able. Virtue makes a man fit and able to be what his Creator intends, and to do what his Creator wills. (Josef Pieper What Catholics Believe (1951), page 65—my bold emphasis added; italics in original))
“While prudence is the cornerstone of the cardinal virtues, justice is their peak and culmination. A good man is above all a just man.” (Josef Pieper, What Catholics Believe (1951), page 75.)
“If thy eye is single [Latin “simplex,” i.e., “sine dolo,” “without guile,” and thus without duplicity, without hypocritical cunning], the whole of thy body will be lit up [full of light].” (Gospel of Matthew 6:22—and the Epigraph of Josef Pieper’s own 1959 book on Prudence: The First Cardinal Virtue)
In 1951, Josef Pieper published in the United States his lucidly written and lucidly translated book, What Catholics Believe (Christenfibel in the original German).1 A portion of this deeply moving and refreshingly trustworthy book I now propose to consider more fully in this brief essay. It hopes to present Dr. Pieper’s compact understanding of the Christian virtue of prudence, and how and why virtuous prudence has a fitting consequence upon a well-formed conscience that is sincere.
Those who might find this brief consideration of sufficient worth in itself may also want to read and savor Josef Pieper’s later 1959 book for a fuller treatment—it is entitled Prudence: The First Cardinal Virtue 2 and published by the same excellent publisher, Pantheon Books.
Before addressing the specific virtue of prudence (rooted practical wisdom), he presents his view of the concept and reality of virtue in general:
The fact that the word virtue has in our time [as of 1951] taken on the tinge of something unmanly and even ridiculous imposes two obligations upon the Christian. He must beware of any falsely pious abuse of the word and the concept, and he must come to recognize its healthy and genuine sense [of virtue], which it is his duty to embody, regardless of any human respect. (65—my bold emphasis added; italics in original)
Dr. Pieper soon proceeds to examine more closely the concept and reality of virtue, as well as the contrast of what true virtue is not:
Thus virtue is not good surface behavior and orderly deportment. A good man is more of a man that a bad one, in the sense that he is making more of his humanity. He is in every respect more fit. Thus a man’s virtue shows that he is putting his ability into practice; here and now he is making actual what would otherwise remain merely possible [potential] within him. This means that he does good—and that he does it not because he has to, but because he wills to. He wants to, and he can. Through sin, the willful turning away from God, a man of his own free will becomes unfit to be and to do what he is intended to be and to do.
The highest and truest fitness of the Christian is to be able to lead the life of a child of God, in close relationship with God, by the power of the Holy Spirit. His most abysmal unfitness consists in losing this power and this life through his own fault.
The most important Christian virtues are the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and the four cardinal virtues of wisdom [sic—prudentia], justice, fortitude, and moderation [sic—temperantia]. (65-66—my bold emphasis added; italics in original)
Josef Pieper now helpfully gives us two more framing, doctrinal paragraphs of substance in order to prepare us, even better, to focus specifically on the virtue of prudence: “The Theological Virtues and Sanctifying Grace”; and “The Four Cardinal Virtues,” as such (72-73):
All three theological virtues have their roots in sanctifying grace. Their seeds are implanted in us together with grace as new potentialities which would otherwise be beyond our reach. In the order of their nature, faith comes before hope, hope before charity. And sin destroys them in reverse order—charity first, faith last. The faith of a man living in mortal sin is indeed incomplete, but the spark from which the flame of his supernatural life can be lit again to become full, warm, and bright.
The cardinal virtues are natural perfections—human potentialities on the natural level. But as Christian virtues they have their roots in the supernatural soil of faith, hope, and charity; above all, in sanctifying grace. In a Christian, the infused moral virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance go far beyond their natural strength and nobility, to the fullness of the sanctity of a life centered in God. (72-73—my emphasis added)
Now at last we may more ably try to incorporate Dr. Pieper’s own incisive and lucid insights and gradually deepening understanding of “The Virtue of Prudence”:
The first of the four cardinal virtues, and the rule for the other three, is prudence. Now it goes against the grain of present-day thinking [as of 1951] to see in prudence a virtue, let alone the first of the four cardinal virtues. The reason for this is that we often have an entirely wrong idea of the virtue of prudence. Prudence as virtue has nothing to do with sharpness [cleverness] and guile, nor with the timorous attitude of undue caution [or at least, perhaps, a seeming cowardice]. Prudence is the quality of clearsightedness. The prudent man approaches each decision with his eyes open, in the full light of knowledge and faith. He discerns reality objectively, sizes up a factual situation for what it is, and weighs the real value of things. Only after careful consideration does the prudent man make his decision. Whoever follows the impulse of his will before appraising the facts and the circumstances of a situation accurately and objectively is imprudent and unwise. That man is prudent who directs the choice of his will according to his insight in a situation and in the true reality of things as God has created them, and who is able to apply the general principles of virtuous action to the concrete, immediate instance. (73—my emphasis added)
In only three more and vividly nuanced paragraphs, Josef Pieper will modestly and unassumingly attempt to convey to us many other facets of virtuous prudentia, such as in this situation:
If the prudent man feels that he is beyond his own powers of insight, he will rely on the insight of a more competent person. Hence, docility is a part of prudence—the ability to accept instruction and advice. Presumptuousness and lack of objective reflection are the contrary of prudence. The know-it-all and the man lacking objectivity are not humble enough to match their judgment with reality. This type of person believes that he can come to a decision impetuously and blindly. However, any decision not arrived at from a sober appraisal of reality is bound to be wrong [in part, like the generous Don Quixote himself!]. And if such a decision concerns a matter of morals, it cannot possibly be a good one. (74—my emphasis added)
Moreover, with all these things in mind, our beloved mentor Josef Pieper will now choose to come to some additional firm conclusions that are marks of his own practical wisdom:
The person that lacks objectivity and who is unable to keep still and [is unable] to allow the facts to speak, in order to gain a sound basis for his decisions, cannot possibly be a just man either. Justice and all the other cardinal virtues demand capacity for weighing facts, respect for objective reality, and ability to transform this theoretical knowledge into effective action [“from knowledge of reality to the realization of the good” as Pieper says elsewhere]. From all this, it becomes obvious that prudence is the first requirement for the other virtues. And that is why Saint Thomas call it their “mother” [i.e., “genitrix” in his own Latin].
Prudence is the art of deciding wisely. The prudent man acknowledges the obligations contained in objective reality. Not only does he know what is right, he also does what he knows to be right. The decisions based on prudence, therefore, are the verdict of our conscience. Conscientiousness and prudence are as closely related as effect and cause. Whoever works on the development of prudence in others and in himself also improves and perfects his conscience. (74—my emphasis added)
On the premise that one may (and could all too often) possibly have a sincere but erroneous conscience, one must thus be especially attentive to how one forms one’s conscience. We sincerely and competently ask ourselves: “on what grounds?” and “by what authority?” are we forming our Conscience reliably.
Having only an unformed and impulsive conscience is not sufficient, and may thus be an irresponsible laxity and slothfulness, even a culpability in our negligence.
Therefore, the cultivation of the Virtue of Prudence—as Josef Pieper presents it and understands it—will also improve and perfect one’s conscience to the extent that one is sincerely and potentially capable, and also capable of receiving grace: i.e., Gratiae Capax.
Dr. Pieper’s entire book on What Catholics Believe (1951), as well as his excellent and eloquent later book on Prudence: The First Cardinal Virtue (1959), will further help the reader to understand and to live out virtuously these various and interrelated matters of moment.
© 2019 Robert D. Hickson
1Josef Pieper and Heinz Raskop, What Catholics Believe (New York: Pantheon Books, 1951), 112 pages and translated by Christopher Huntington. As Dr. Pieper later told me in person in his home in Münster, Germany, he himself was especially attentive to those portions on “The Christian Virtues” (pages 65-79), the virtues being one of his own academic specialties, also as part of his larger studies in Philosophical Anthropology. All further references to this 1951 book will be placed above in parentheses in the main body of this brief essay.
2Josef Pieper, Prudence: The First Cardinal Virtue (New York: Pantheon Books, 1959), 96 pages—and translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston.