Skip to Main Content


POL 499: Senior Seminar [Winston Churchill]: Prudence & Statemanship

Senior Seminar in Political Science

On Prudence

Prudence Online

According to Aristotle, prudence is “a state grasping the truth, involving reason, and concerned with action about human goods.” Aristotle’s development of the concept of prudence provides the foundation for all subsequent discussions of prudence in the Western philosophical tradition. In particular, Thomas Aquinas' subtle and powerful treatment of prudence is developed through his inheritance and critique of Aristotle's work. In this seminar, we will see how Aristotle and Aquinas’s conception of prudence unifies and structures their treatments of human action, practical reason, and ethics. Topics of special interest for our seminar will include: the relation between action and thought; the possibility of rational evildoing; and the social and political dimensions of prudence. The focus of our discussion will be a close reading of selected texts from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and the Second Part of Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae.  New School for Social Research: Aristotle & Acquinas on Prudence, Spring 2012

 Prudence Simplified

Imagine a boy is taking a test and is tempted to cheat by looking at his notes. He evaluates the situation: his notes are on the floor, and he could easily look at them without being caught. Plus, if he aces the test, he will finish the semester with an "A" rather than a "B" in the class. At the same time, he knows that cheating is wrong because it is a form of lying. So, he quickly overcomes his temptation, and decides not to cheat.            

The above account is an example of the virtue of prudence in action.

Without question, Aristotle's understanding of prudence has had the greatest influence on the Western tradition. By no means, though, is the idea of prudence unique to Aristotle. Some form of it is commended by just about every moral philosopher in both the West and the East. Plato and Plotinus, Cicero and Confucius, Boethius and Buddha: all either explicitly or implicitly advocate some form of prudence.

Prudence is often listed as one of the "four cardinal virtues," so named because they represent the "hinges" (cardines) of the other virtues. These virtues are first listed together in Plato's Protagoras.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defined prudence (phronesis) as "a state grasping the truth, involving reason, concerned with action about things that are good or bad for a human being." Basically, a prudent person knows the right thing to do in each situation and acts upon that knowledge. Prudence, then, is a form of wisdom about practical matters and actions, rather than a more general wisdom (sophia). It deals with what one should do in the here and now.

But the two forms of wisdom depend on one another: to prudently do the good we must know what is good--and vice versa, we more clearly know the good if we live good lives. The classic view of virtue is thus built on a strong link between knowledge and action that one does not often find today. In modern times, it is popular to value those who are "smart" or display "critical thinking skills." But, for Aristotle and other ancients, such knowledge is useless if not applied toward leading a good life.  

Like the other virtues, Aristotle believed prudence is learned through both example and experience. A person becomes prudent through being around a prudent person, observing him/her, and trying to do likewise. This means that it's crucial for young people to be exposed to good examples of prudent behavior, and avoid association with those who are imprudent. Ideally, parents provide an example of prudence to their children, but prudence can also be learned through other family members, teachers, mentors, bosses, peers, and close friends.

In addition, one becomes prudent through knowing and doing what's good in many different situations. As the saying goes, "Practice makes perfect!" Because prudence is gained through experience, then, Aristotle believed that one typically does not find young people who are prudent.

Sometimes we think of the "prudent" person as one who is very hesitant to act and does not take chances. We oppose the prudent person to the brave person who rushes headfirst into danger without getting stuck on pondering the consequences.

But that is not the case at all. When it comes to prudence, the maxim that "He who hesitates is lost" definitely applies. The prudent person, once he has deliberated and decided upon the right course of action (which oftentimes takes place almost instantaneously), must quickly act upon it. A person who does not act quickly after deliberation does not trust his reasoned judgment; there is a disconnect between his intellect and will. The person who hesitates too long, then, is "imprudent."

Prudence is also compatible with putting yourself in dangerous situations…sometimes. For instance, if there were people still alive in a burning building, it might be the prudent thing to charge in to try to save them. Even though it is dangerous, you would be acting on the principle that it is a good thing to save another person's life. But if you charged into a burning building that was about to collapse before you had any evidence that there were people inside, that would be an imprudent action.

The person who acts for motivations other than the good is also imprudent. Thus, the person whose actions are primarily motivated by money (whether he be rich or poor) is imprudent, since he places wealth above other goods. So also, the person primarily motivated by pleasure is imprudent, since, as Aristotle held, pleasure is a byproduct of doing the good, rather than something to be sought after itself.

Aristotle's Understanding of Prudence

Prudence is the intellectual virtue that guides the choice of means to achieve good ends. Also known as practical wisdom, it is the good habit of deliberation about which specific means are best with regard to things that are either good or bad for a person. Someone who is prudent demonstrates good character through consistently choosing praiseworthy means to attain worthy ends.

The Virtue of Prudence

Prudence is the fourth “cardinal virtue,” complementing the moral virtues of Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude. It helps an individual devise effective plans for acting justly, or acting temperately, or acting courageously. Prudence differs from mere cleverness which can be used to select means to achieve bad ends as well as good ones. Prudence is always associated with moral virtue because it is the disposition or habit of choosing the best methods for achieving good ends or goals and never bad ones.

To be prudent is to be careful, but not timid. Much is at stake in human actions. The ultimate human end on earth is happiness, and, as Aristotle argues, the moral virtues are necessary to achieve it (necessary but not sufficient because good fortune is also required for happiness over a whole lifetime).

Because happiness is everyone’s goal, everyone needs moral virtue to be successful. But with so many temptations and obstacles in life it is very hard to be good. Prudence helps people in their pursuit of happiness by enabling sound judgments about what the best means are to achieve good ends in any circumstance. Practical wisdom is necessary because the means chosen must be good as well, or the actions are spoiled even though the ends are good ones. Good ends cannot justify evil means.

Practical Wisdom in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle is one of the very few philosophers who probed deeply into the virtue of practical wisdom, or prudence. In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle distinguishes between “speculative wisdom” that is based on science or philosophy, and “practical wisdom” (prudence) that involves moral or political actions. Moral actions aim at happiness while political actions have the common good as their goal.

Prudence serves both individual and political ends by guiding the choice of good and effective means for achieving positive goals of the individual or for the common good of society at large.

Aristotle regarded the intellectual virtue of prudence and the moral virtues as interdependent. Prudence depends on the moral virtues aiming at the right ends so that it (prudence) can develop good means to reach them. For the moral virtues to achieve their good ends, prudence must be capable of selecting good and effective means of attaining those good ends.

How Prudence is Developed and Applied

Prudence (or practical wisdom) is developed through teaching, more importantly through example, and most importantly through experience. Aristotle and others believed that is was difficult for the young to be prudent because they lacked sufficient experience. But youths should still be schooled in prudence and shown how it operates through the example of others.

A person has developed the virtue (good habit) of prudence when he or she can deliberate successfully in complex circumstances and choose the best and right means to achieve a good and worthy end or purpose. A practical example might be in planning a party where alcohol will be available and teens would be in attendance. Courage (fortitude) is required to say no to teens who want to drink at a party and justice demands saying no to them.

Prudence would aid the host to anticipate difficulties and possibly plan activities for the teens that would be fun and healthy but which would make drinking on their part inadvisable. It would then be easier for the host to be courageous and just. And, of course, the host would need to personally exhibit temperance by drinking in moderation and monitor the drinking of adults at the party as well. Adult attendees could be told when invited that drinking in excess would make them not welcome, especially in view of the bad example it would set for the teens. People who lack prudence might never think of these precautions.

The moral virtues are the foundation of ethics. But ethical issues can be very complicated because particular, concrete cases often involve conflicting rights and obligations. Similarly, the precise application of prudence and the moral virtues of temperance, fortitude, and justice in human behavior is rarely simple. But we tend to know it when we see it.

Prudence Enables the Moral Virtues

The cardinal intellectual virtue of prudence is the good habit of rational, practical, and deliberative thought, effective in choosing the best means of attaining a morally good end. The three cardinal moral virtues of temperance, fortitude or courage, and justice depend upon prudence for selecting good paths to achieve their very worthy ends. Bad means would spoil the pursuit of good ends.


Nicomachean Ethics , Aristotle

Introduction to Realistic Philosophy, John Wild

The Great Ideas Syntopicon, Article on Prudence

Secrets of Leadership: Churchill -- Andrew Roberts

  Andrew Roberts is the author of Eminent Churchillians and Salisbury: Victorian Titan, winner of the Wolfson History Prize.

    Choosing Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill, two totally opposite leaders—both in what they stood for and in the way they appeared to lead—award-winning historian Andrew Roberts examines the subtleties of political and military leadership. Drawing intriguing parallels with leaders from other eras, and incisively examining those aspects of leadership that Hitler and Churchill had in common, Roberts arrives at a series of fascinating conclusions.          Andrew Roberts offers an outstanding example of a joint biography in this study of the actions and interactions of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, George Marshall and Alan Brooke. The president, the prime minister and their respective army chiefs of staff were the vital nexus of the Anglo-American alliance in WWII.