Intellectual Virtues, Prudence

Fools lack wisdom, but how do you get wisdom?

One of the fundamental questions we should ask ourselves is this, “How can I get wisdom?” Wisdom can lead to riches, happiness, success, friendships, a good name, and so-on. Who wouldn’t want the riches of wisdom in their life? Few know this, but in more ancient times, the elements of wisdom were essentially agreed upon. If wisdom is a puzzle, the completion of which would make your life less anxious, wouldn’t you want to know what the pieces were?

Of the cardinal virtues, the virtue which most emphasizes the intellect is prudence. Since the other virtues rely upon the intellect to govern the emotions, passions, and appetites developing prudence is crucial to developing the other cardinal virtues.

My own definition of prudence, which is a distillation of the definitions of my favorite philosophers, is this:

Understanding the world as it is, discerning good from bad, and acting accordingly.[1]

In fight club, Tyler Durden laments that his father told him to go to college, get a job, and get married and never told him how to be happy. I think that the narrator’s life would have been far easier if his father had told him, “Get wisdom.”

The problem, of course, is that we don’t know how to get wisdom. Since one of the wisest ways to solve problems is to do it small chunks, we are very fortunate to have Thomas Aquinas’ work. In one of his books he synthesized the divisions of other writers and came up with eight parts of prudence[2]:

  1. Memory
    Memorizing in order to improve performance has fallen on hard times. This is perhaps because school curriculum has become too broad in scope or perhaps because digital technology has made memory seem passé. But the fact of the matter is that good reasoning requires reasoning from principles and facts toward consequences and conclusions. For practical wisdom, not everything in our lives is based on first principles, but instead things are based upon general impressions. But those impressions come from memory. To memorize things on purpose is a lost art among many, but it is absolutely central to learning wisdom and the fact is that if you don’t have some sort of brain pathology, a good memory is well within your grasp.
  1. Understanding
    Understanding is simple knowledge of first principles of reality and of any particular endeavor. Understanding, in terms of reasoning itself, would entail knowing the law of non-contradiction, the law of the excluded middle, and the law of identity. Understanding with respect to cooking would differ based on culture. Understanding with respect to chemistry would involve principles such as the data on the periodic table, etc.
  1. Reasoning/Science
    This aspect of prudence is not merely the ability to actually discover contradiction in argument and to reason forward from principles and data in order to act. It is the persistent use of that ability in day to day experience. One might call this metacognition. In order to improve at this you might need to work on some thought kata.

  2. Shrewdness
    Shrewdness is the habit of quickly discovering congruities. Many people confuse shrewdness for wisdom. They think quickly and have flashes of correct insight often. Thus they think of themselves as wise, but such people often cannot learn from tradition or from others. They are not wise, they are clever sillies. Shrewdness relies on reasoning ability. One who is shrew should also be able to say, “I came to this conclusion because of this evidence and this reasoning.” The shrewd man can determine when something is merely an intuition and when something is based on some form of reasoning. In fiction, Sherlock Holmes is the paragon of shrewdness. Hear him with regard to day to day reasoning: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”
  1. Docility
    Docility is being well disposed to acquire a right opinion from another person. Intellectual arrogance or a habitual inability to receive correction about an idea or action is a sign of lacking prudence. Docility puts us in the position of not having to navigate the universe with nothing but the grey matter between our own ears. You would gain docility by reading carefully as well as by asking for advice and then reasoning through whether or not it is good advice. Many people ask for advice in order to get approval. I recently asked a friend, who I was certain would approve of my idea, for advice about revenge. He said, “You’re just asking me because you know I have no restraint in matters of revenge. Don’t do that, you’ll ruin your reputation.” Btw, I followed his advice. But it’s important to illustrate what docility is not.
  1. Foresight
    Foresight is the habit of seeing what is coming based on what has come before. It is the application of reasoning, docility, understanding, and memory to circumstances in order to see what is likely in the future. One of the most important aspects of foresight is the recognition that all future events are contingencies and at any moment a Black Swan could throw everything out of whack. Foresight also is the habit of determining which means are best for some end. The danger of thinking you have foresight is the disappointment that can come when plans do not work out when you were certain that they would.
  1. Circumspection
    Circumspection is the habit of viewing conclusions, data, and ideas in their appropriate context. An important way to gain circumspection is to attempt to view something from different perspectives: economic, religious, kinship, and survival instincts. But it is not just these inanimate perspectives that matter. One can also attempt to view something from the perspective of other persons. If I were person X and had these goals, values, and experiences, what would I think of this? If I were Socrates, what question would I ask? If I were my parents, how would I feel about decision I’m making?
  1. Caution
    Caution is the habit of discerning what acts, deeds, circumstances, or habits might impede some good. The world is dangerous, our feelings are often shaped by advertising instead of reality, and our appetites are coddled by atypical comforts and so our habits often impede our goals and our goals themselves are often ill-formed or bad for us. Caution is the habit of applying the aspects of prudence to our decisions, circumstances, and thought processes to determine if they are useful or good.

Prudence is an all-important virtue. Daniel Russel argues that phronesis, which is self-reflective prudence, is central for the type of self-distance required to take responsibility for who you become and is capacity within the reach of normal people. It’s not just for the super-saints or the massively successful or the genetically gifted.[3] If you want to be able to change, I recommend a program of slowly adding these aspects of prudence to your life. Perhaps the place to start is docility. Find a good book and just read a small amount each day. Jeff Olson, the author of The Slight Edge, recommends reading just ten pages of a good book every day. In the future, I’ll have several posts on how to improve at each aspect of prudence.

[1] Good from bad does not necessarily mean moral from immoral. It could mean pleasant or unpleasant, practical or impractical, etc.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, n.d.), Questions XLVII-L. This section is a bit long but it is very clear and very helpful. His advice on developing the memory is very helpful. Do note that I did not share the elements in Aquinas’ order solely because the order in which I shared them makes more sense to me, not because I think that the order I used is intrinsically better.

[3] Daniel C Russell, Practical Intelligence and the Virtues (Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 2009), 413. Here is the conclusion to his book in full:

“The view that responsibility is ultimate responsibility looks for responsibility in the origins of character. This is not entirely surprising, since often what leaves one beyond the pale of responsibility is something that happened in one’s origins. But the real question is not who has done what. The real question is whether what has been done has left one in a position to take ownership of the character one has. Having a starting-point for which we are not responsible is no obstacle to becoming responsible. The obstacle could be only a starting-point which left us incapable of critical distance from ourselves.

Hard Virtue Theory takes the virtues to have psychological depth, in the sense that the virtues are forms of responsiveness to reasons that one correctly specifies and grasps through phronesis. Since such operations of phronesis construct much of a virtuous person’s practical identity, Hard Virtue  theory is committed to the notion of self-construction. I have argued that it is critical distance from one’s character that makes such self-construction possible, and that such critical distance both is attainable and can be widespread across one’s motivational framework. Virtues that are excellences of practically rational creatures require depth, but no more depth than normal human beings are capable of.”

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