A description of the soul's journey to full union with God

The Illuminative Way of Proficients


Ch 8 : Prudence and the Interior Life

"Be ye therefore wise as serpents and simple as doves." Matt. 10: 16

We shall discuss the moral virtues in the service of charity and in their relation to the interior life, showing how they ought to grow in the illuminative way and what their true place is in the spiritual edifice.

Whereas the theological virtues are concerned with the last end and lead us to believe in God, to hope in Him, to love Him above all, the moral virtues have to do with the means to be employed in order to obtain the last end. Among them we distinguish four, called the cardinal virtues, because they are, as we have seen, like the four hinges (cardines) of the door which gives access to the temple of the interior life. The two principal walls of this temple symbolize faith and hope, the dome is the symbol of charity, and the foundation is humility. The four cardinal virtues, to which are attached the other moral virtues, are, as moralists, even those of pagan antiquity, commonly teach: prudence, which directs the others; justice, which renders to each man his due; fortitude or courage, which keeps us from letting ourselves be cast down in an unreasonable manner in the face of danger; temperance, which causes the light of reason to descend into our sensibility especially under the forms of sobriety and of chastity. Other moral virtues, as we have said, such as patience and meekness, are manifestly attached to the cardinal virtues and are called connected virtues.

To understand clearly the teaching of St. Thomas on the most important of these virtues, we should recall that he admits a difference not only of degree, but of nature, in other words, a specific difference between the acquired moral virtues which were described by the pagan philosophers, and the infused moral virtues, which are received in baptism and grow in us with charity. It is of these virtues that the Gospel speaks.(1)

The difference separating these two orders of moral virtues is most profound; it is that which distinguishes the natural, or rational, order from that of grace. Here we have at the same time a different formal object, motive, and end.

The acquired moral virtues, which were well described by Aristotle, establish the rectitude of right reason in the will and sensibility. Under the direction of acquired prudence, justice gradually reigns in the will; rational fortitude and reasonable moderation prevail in the sensible appetites. The infused moral virtues, received in baptism, belong to a much higher order; they have not only a rational but a supernatural formal motive. Under the direction of infused faith, prudence and the Christian moral virtues cause the light of grace, or the divine rule of the children of God, to descend into the will and the sensible appetites.

Between the acquired prudence described by Aristotle and the infused prudence received in baptism, there is a measureless distance, far greater than that of an octave, which in music separates two notes of the same name at the two extremities of a complete scale. Thus a distinction is commonly made between the philosophical temperance of a Socrates and Christian temperance, or the philosophical poverty of a Crates and evangelical poverty, or again the rational measure to be observed in the passions and Christian mortification. For example, by itself acquired temperance directed by reason alone does not take into consideration the mysteries of faith, our elevation to the supernatural life, original sin, the infinite gravity of mortal sin as an offense against God, the value of charity or the divine friendship. Neither does it consider the elevation of our supernatural end: "To be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect," with a perfection of the same order as His, although unequal to His.

Infused temperance, on the contrary, which is directed by divine faith and Christian prudence, takes positively into account all these revealed mysteries; it is ordained to make us, not only truly reasonable beings, but to give us the supernaturalized sensible appetites of a child of God.

Thus we see that these two virtues which bear the same name of temperance are of very different metal: one is silver, the other gold. In spite of the measureless distance separating them, the infused virtue and the acquired virtue of the same name are exercised together in the Christian in the state of grace, somewhat like the art of the pianist, which is in his intellect, and the agility of his fingers which gives to his art an extrinsic facility.

Thus the acquired virtue should, in the Christian, be at the service of the infused virtue of the same name, just as the imagination and the memory of a learned man concur in the work of his intellect. Thereby the moral virtues are also at the service of charity, the highest of the infused virtues. We shall discuss the chief among these virtues, and first of all prudence.

Christ spoke of prudence on several different occasions in the Gospel, particularly when He said to the apostles: "I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves: Be ye therefore wise as serpents and simple as doves." (2) Later on He also says: "Who, thinkest thou, is a faithful and wise servant? . . . Blessed is that servant. . . . Amen I say to you, he shall place him over all his goods." (3)

Prudence, which is requisite for every man that he may conduct himself well, is especially fitting for those who must counsel and direct others. We must have a correct idea of this virtue if we are not to confound it with defects which sometimes resemble it, and if we are to distinguish clearly between acquired prudence, good as it is in its own order, and infused prudence. For this reason we shall first discuss defects to be avoided, then acquired prudence, and finally infused prudence and the gift of counsel, which often comes to the aid of the virtue in difficult cases.


The value of the virtue is better seen by considering the disadvantages of the contrary defects, which are often quite manifest. Therefore Scripture, the more strongly to recommend prudence to us, shows us the dangers and the results of lack of consideration.

It contrasts for us the prudent and the foolish virgins.(4) St. Peter and St. Paul praise the prudence of the aged, especially of those who are charged with watching over the first Christian communities,(5) adding: "Be not wise in your own conceits," (6) and declaring that God "will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the prudence of the prudent," (7) who rely chiefly on their suavity. And Christ says: "I confess to Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because Thou hast hid these things [the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven] from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them to little ones." (8)

Consequently there are two mutually contradictory defects to be avoided: on the one hand, imprudence, lack of consideration, negligence in considering what one should, rash haste in judgment; and on the other hand, false prudence, or "the wisdom of the flesh," (9) often called slyness or even cunning, which pursues only a lower, quite earthly end. It seeks, not the honest good, the object of virtue, but the useful good such as money, and it displays much craft or trickery to procure this good for itself. Cunning is the cleverness of rogues; it will not help them to enter the kingdom of heaven. This false prudence is foolishness and a delusion, as St. Paul often says.(10)

Imprudence, or lack of consideration, greatly retards spiritual progress, and often it retards it by trying to hasten it. This is the case with those who skim the road, who wish to reach divine union immediately without passing humbly through the indispensable lower degrees, as if a bird were to try to fly before having wings, or an architect to construct the spires of a church before laying its foundations. For example, these imprudent souls read mystical books too soon and too rapidly, with avidity and in a superficial way, without applying themselves to the serious practice of virtue. They examine superficially the most beautiful aspects of the spiritual life and will perhaps never nourish their souls with them. It is as if they gathered from a fruit tree the flowers which should give the fruit, unaware that by so doing they hinder the fruit from forming. Later, when they should read the great spiritual writers with profit, they will perhaps say that it is useless to do so since they have already read them and know them; when as a matter of fact they have only a lamentably superficial knowledge of them. Theirs is the imprudence of the foolish virgins, the lack of discretion in the spiritual life.

To avoid the mutually contradictory defects of imprudence and false prudence, it is important to consider what infused or Christian prudence should be and likewise what should characterize acquired prudence, which is at the service of infused prudence, as the imagination and memory are at the service of the intellect. To follow an ascending course, we shall first discuss acquired prudence, then infused prudence, and finally the gift of counsel.


Acquired prudence, which has for its object honest good, is a
true virtue distinct from false prudence, or the wisdom of the flesh, which St. Paul speaks of. Acquired prudence is defined as recta ratio agibilium, right reason which directs our acts. It is called auriga virtutum, the driver of the moral virtues; in reality, it directs the acts of justice, fortitude, temperance, and the annexed virtues.(11) It determines the measure to be observed or the rational happy mean, which is also a summit, in the midst of and above every deviation
that may be unreasonable through defect or excess. Thus prudence determines the happy mean of fortitude above cowardliness and temerity, which would lead us to expose our life without a reasonable motive. Aristotle spoke of mesotes (the happy mean) and aerates (the summit).(12)

The virtue of acquired prudence, which was well described by Aristotle, proceeds under the light of natural reason and moral knowledge, making this rational light descend into our sensibility, our will, and all our activity. But to determine the reasonable happy mean in the different moral virtues, prudence presupposes these virtues, as the coachman needs well-broken horses.(13) There is a mutual relationship between the directing virtue and the others; they grow together. Let us not forget that no one can have true acquired prudence, distinct from cunning and artifice, if he has not in a proportionate degree justice, fortitude, temperance, loyalty, and true modesty. Why is this? Because, as the ancients used to say: "Such as a man is, such does the end seem to him." (14) The ambitious man judges as good what flatters his pride, whereas the sincerely modest man loves to do good while remaining hidden. He who is dominated by ambition may have great cunning and subtlety; he cannot have true acquired prudence, nor, with even greater reason, infused prudence. Therefore St. Thomas says: "The truth of the practical intellect depends on conformity with a right appetite." (15) Moreover, prudence ought not only to judge well, but to command efficaciously the virtuous acts of justice, fortitude, and temperance, and it cannot command them in this way unless the will is upright and efficacious, rectified by these very virtues.(16) Thus there is truly a mutual relationship between prudence and the moral virtues which it directs; true acquired prudence cannot exist without the acquired virtues of justice, fortitude, and temperance. This rectitude of moral conduct is in itself something very beautiful.(17)

Consequently, in a man in the state of mortal sin, who sins seriously against justice, fortitude, temperance, or any other virtue, the virtue of acquired prudence can be only in the state of a slightly stable disposition (facile mobilis), for the will of this man is turned away from his last end.(18) That the acquired virtue of prudence exist in the state of a stable virtue (difficile mobilis) and be in truth firmly connected with the other moral virtues, we must have charity; we must efficaciously love God, our last end, more than ourselves.(19)

Acquired prudence counsels us about many things which natural reason can know by its own power. It will preserve us from impulsiveness, dominate our temperament, tell us not to follow the fancies of our imagination, the whims of our sensible appetites. It will remind us that we must submit to the judgment of those who are more enlightened and experienced, that we must obey those who have authority to command. It will guide us in our dealings with different people by taking their temperament and character into consideration. But however perfect acquired prudence may be, since it belongs to the natural or rational order, it cannot by itself judge as it should the supernatural conduct to be observed in Christian life. For that judgment, we need infused prudence, which is that recommended by the Gospel.


Infused prudence was given to us by baptism; it grows with charity, through merit, the sacraments, Communion. By itself it gives us an intrinsic facility to judge well and practically of the matters of Christian life, and its exercise is extrinsically facilitated by acquired prudence which is exercised at the same time. Infused prudence brings to the actions of our daily life the light of grace and of infused faith, as acquired prudence brings to them the light of right reason. In certain very sensible Christians, acquired prudence is especially prominent; in others, who are more supernatural, infused prudence is particularly manifest. Consequently, infused prudence is a great virtue, superior to all the moral virtues which it directs; it should evidently be found especially in those whose duty is to advise and direct others.

We are not concerned here, therefore, with that negative prudence which, to avoid difficulties and vexations, almost always advises against acting, against undertaking great things. This prudence, which has as its principle: "Undertake nothing," is that of cowardly souls. After saying: "The best is sometimes the enemy of the good," it ends by declaring: "The best is often the enemy of the good." Such negative prudence confounds the mediocre with the happy mean of the moral virtue, which is also a summit above contrary vices. Mediocrity itself is an unstable mean between good and evil; it is that with which tepidity contents itself, seeking always for pardon by speaking of moderation and stating its first principle: "Nothing must be exaggerated." Then follows forgetfulness of the fact that in the way of God, not to advance is to retrogress; not to ascend is to descend; for the law of the traveler is to advance, and not to fall asleep on the road. True Christian prudence is not a negative but a positive virtue, which leads a man to act as he should when he should, and which never loses sight of the elevation of our supernatural last end, nor of zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. It definitively rejects certain human maxims.

If acquired prudence presupposes the acquired moral virtues, Christian prudence presupposes the infused moral virtues which accompany charity. And if, in the first training, more insistence is placed on these virtues, especially on humility, chastity, and patience, than on prudence itself, it is because the humble, chaste, and patient man is inclined by these very virtues to judge well and practically (per modum inclinationis) of what relates to moral and spiritual life. But when the Christian, who is already more or less trained, must begin to direct himself, he should in many things, especially if he must counsel others, be particularly attentive to what true supernatural prudence demands, and avoid all lack of consideration and rash haste in judgment. Then he will become increasingly aware of the superiority of true Christian prudence, a virtue which ranks immediately below the theological virtues, that it may cause their radiation and vivifying influence to descend on the moral virtues which it directs.

Therefore Christian prudence should grow with charity, and its supernatural views should increasingly prevail over the too human views of what St. Thomas, following the example of St. Augustine, calls the "lower reason." The lower reason judges everything from the temporal point of view; the higher reason, from the point of view of eternity.(20)

This lofty Christian prudence is exceedingly rare. Father Lallemant, S.]., even says: "The majority of religious, even of the good and virtuous, follow in their own conduct and in their direction of others only reason and common sense, in which some of them excel. This rule is good, but it does not suffice to attain Christian perfection. Such persons are ordinarily guided in their conduct by the common opinion of those with whom they live, and as the latter are imperfect, although their lives may not be dissolute, because the number of the perfect is very small, they never reach the sublime ways of the spirit. They live like the common run of people, and their manner of directing others is imperfect." (21) At certain times, for instance during persecutions, the inadequacy of such a way of acting becomes evident.

True prudence never loses sight of the elevation of the end toward which we should journey; it judges all our acts in relation to eternal life, and not only in relation to the customs or conventions of our environment. It repeatedly calls to mind "the one thing necessary." Aided by the special inspirations of the gift of counsel,(22) it becomes holy discretion which weighs all things according to God's measure.


St. Catherine of Siena offers an admirable treatise on discretion or spiritual discernment in her Dialogue. She tells us that Christian discretion, which indicates the measure between the contrary defects and is the source of a wise discernment, is based on the knowledge of God and of self. She states: "Discretion is the only child of self-knowledge and, wedding with charity, has indeed many other descendants, as a tree with many branches; but that which gives life to the tree, to its branches, and its fruit, is the ground of humility, in which it is planted, which humility is the foster-mother and nurse of charity, by whose means this tree remains in the perpetual calm of discretion." (23) This is a symbolical manner of expressing the connection of these virtues.

Holy discretion presupposes, therefore, a great spirit of faith. It lessens nothing; whereas practical naturalism sees only a limited aspect of great things, holy discretion sees the great aspect even of the little things in Christian life, of our daily duties in their relation to God.(24) It directs justice, which renders to God and to one's neighbor what is due them. As we read in The Dialogue (it is the Lord who speaks):

Discretion. . . renders to each one his due. Chiefly to Me in rendering praise and glory to My name, and in referring to Me the graces and the gifts which she sees and knows she has received from Me; (25) and rendering to herself that which she sees herself to have merited, knowing that she does not even exist of herself. . . . And she seems to herself
to be ungrateful for so many benefits, and negligent, in that she has not made the most of her time, and the graces she has received, and so seems to herself worthy of suffering; wherefore she becomes odious and displeasing to herself through her guilt. (26) And this founds the virtue of discretion on knowledge of self, that is, on true humility, for, were this humility not in the soul, the soul would be indiscreet; indiscretion being founded on pride, as discretion is on humility.

An indiscreet soul robs Me of the honor due to Me, and attributes it to herself through vainglory, and that which is really her own she imputes to Me, grieving and murmuring concerning My mysteries, with which I work in her soul and those of My other creatures; wherefore everything in Me and in her neighbor is cause of scandal to her. Contrariwise those who possess the virtue of discretion. For when they have rendered what is due to Me and to themselves, they proceed to render to their neighbor their principal debt of love and of humble and continuous prayer, which all should pay to each other and further, the debt of doctrine, and example of a holy and honorable life, counseling and helping others according to their needs for salvation.(27)

Holy discretion is thus the light which rules the virtues; it measures the acts of exterior penance and those of devotion to our neighbor, at the same time reminding us that our love of God should be without measure and should always grow here on earth.(28)

Far from being a negative virtue, holy discretion is, in the service of charity, the virtue which holds the reins of the moral life, directing justice, fortitude, and temperance, that we may persevere in good, that we may make God known and loved. Christian prudence thus preserves with charity the connection of all the virtues.

When this great Christian prudence is enlightened by the special inspirations of the gift of counsel, which corresponds to it, it is, as our Lord insists it should be, in accordance with "the simplicity of the dove," with perfect uprightness - not at all naivete - which keeps silence about what must not be said, but never speaks against the truth. A man must be master of his tongue and know how to cultivate his character.

The gift of counsel comes to the assistance of prudence especially in difficult and unforeseen circumstances, sometimes to unite in one and the same word or gesture seemingly contradictory virtues, as firmness and meekness, or again veracity and fidelity in keeping a secret.

According to St. Augustine and St. Thomas,(29) the gift of counsel corresponds to the beatitude of the merciful for two reasons: first of all, mercy is necessary for us to know how to give fitting salutary counsel to those who need it, counsel which truly carries, which does not rebuff souls but lifts them up again with strength and sweetness. In the second place, when prudence hesitates in difficult circumstances between the rigor of justice to be observed and mercy, which should not be forgotten, the gift of counsel generally inclines us toward mercy which will encourage the sinner and perhaps make him re-enter the order of justice. He will at times enter it with a sincere and profound contrition, thus repairing the order that he violated, far better than by bearing the punishment with less love. Consequently the loftiness of infused prudence is manifest; but we shall see it even more clearly in our discussion of Christian simplicity, which should always be united to prudence.

Even now we grasp the importance of Christ's words: "Who, thinkest thou, is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath appointed over his family, to give them meat in season? Blessed is that servant, whom when his lord shall come he shall find so doing. Amen I say to you, he shall place him over all his goods." (30) These words are applied to every faithful and prudent Christian, especially to those who must advise others, to heads of families, to pastors, to bishops, to great popes. They will receive a high reward, to which allusion is made in Ecclesiasticus,(31) where we read the praise of the wisdom and prudence of the patriarchs, and in the prophecy of Daniel where it is said: "But they that are learned [in the wisdom of God and faithful to His law] shall shine as the brightness of the firmament: and they that instruct many to justice, as stars for all eternity." (32) Let us remember that false prudence is tin, true acquired prudence is silver, infused prudence is gold, and the inspirations of the gift of counsel are diamonds, of the same order as the divine light. "He that followeth Me walketh not in darkness, but shall have the light of life." (33)



1. St. Thomas, Ia IIae, q.63, a.4.

2. Matt. 10: 16.

3. Matt. 24:45-47.

4. Matt. 25:4.

5. Cf. I Tim. 3:1; I Pet. 4:7.

6. Rom. 12:16.

7. See I Cor. 1: 19.

8 Matt. 11:25.

9 Rom. 8:6: "For the wisdom of the flesh is death. . . an enemy to God."

10. Cf. I Cor. 3: 19: "The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God."

11. Cf. A. Gardeil, O.P., La vraie vie chretienne (1935, 2nd part, I: pp. 99­206), "Personal and supernatural self-control," pp. 115 ff.: "The ancient philosophers compared prudence to the noble driver of a quadriga: auriga virtutum. With his gaze fixed on the road that he is to cover, the driver holds his coursers well in hand. He has an eye for everything, the unevenness of the road, the progress of his rivals, the slightest movements of his steeds, the special character of each of which he knows thoroughly. This one rears, that one shies, the other one kicks in the shafts. In the meantime he handles the reins, and with his voice, and if necessary with the whip, he moderates, regularizes, excites them, employing all his energies to meet the situation, knowing how to change his driving in the course of the race and, so to speak, shaping his interventions in accordance with the spirit of his team. We must transpose this manner of acting into the domain of supernatural conduct. . . ; and this by living experience and vigor of decision unceasingly renewed and nourished at the springs of the living love of God."

Thus the just man must direct and rule the movements of the sensible appetites; in like manner the director of works, his subordinates; the superior, his subjects; the bishop, his diocese; the supreme pastor, the entire Church.

Thereby we see the elevation of the virtue of prudence, which is below the theological virtues, but above even the virtue of religion, whose acts it directs, like those of justice, fortitude, and temperance, which are like the coursers of the chariot.

12. Cf. Ethica, Bk. II, chap. 1; St. Thomas, Ia IIae, q.64, a. I.

13. Cf. Ia IIae, q.58, a.5.

14. Ethica, Bk. III, chap. 4.

15. See Ia IIae, q.57, a.5 ad 3um. Even if the prudent judgment is speculatively false because of an absolutely involuntary error, it remains practically true. Thus if we cannot know that the beverage presented to us is poisoned, it is not imprudent to judge that we may drink it.

16. The principal act of prudence is indeed the imperium, or command, which directs the execution of the virtuous act that must be placed here and now. Cf. IIa IIae, q.47, a.8.

17. This truth may be more clearly seen if one observes that the politics of states rarely rise above the economic or material interests of the people, above the tangible, useful good; they give little consideration to the rules of true morality or the honest good, the object of virtue. Then morality disappears in the relations of nations; states sometimes permit enormous collective crimes which they could and should hinder by defending the oppressed and the persecuted. Thereafter the nation must bear the punishment or the terrible results of these unpardonable imprudences and cowardly acts, which negate the moral law and right in order to maintain the primacy of power or of gold. To compensate for these faults there must be an intense interior life in certain souls who may be "the ten just" of whom the Scriptures speak and because of whom God shows mercy.

18. Because of mortal sin, the will is turned directly away from the supernatural last end, and indirectly from the natural last end, for the natural law itself obliges us to obey God, no matter what He may command. Thus every sin against the supernatural last end is indirectly a sin against the natural law.

19. Cf. Ia IIae, q.63, a.2 ad 2um: "Mortal sin is incompatible with divinely infused virtue, especially if this be considered in its perfect state. But actual sin, even mortal, is compatible with humanly acquired virtue; because the use of a habit in us is subject to our will (q.49, a. 3) . . . ; and one sinful act does not destroy a habit of acquired virtue." Ibid., q.65, a.2: "It is possible by means of human works to acquire moral virtues, in so far as they produce good works that are directed to an end not surpassing the natural power of man; and when they are acquired thus, they can be without charity, even as they were in many of the Gentiles." Ibid., ad 1um: "Virtue, in the words quoted, denotes imperfect virtue." On these texts consult the commentary of the Salmamicences and what we said in Part One of this work on the connection of the virtues.

20. Cf. Ia, q.79, a.9: "The higher reason is that which is intent on the contemplation and consultation of things eternal; . . . the lower reason is that which is intent on the disposal of temporal things." This is what St. Augustine says in De Trin., Bk. XII, chap. 7.

21. La Doctrine spirituelle, 4th principle, chap. 2, a.2. We have already quoted this passage, but there is no harm in quoting it a second time.

22. Cf. St. Thomas, De dono consilii, IIa IIae, q.52.

23. The Dialogue, chap. 9.

24 Luke 16: 10: "He that is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in that which is greater."

25. These acts are, in truth, acts of the virtue of religion, directed by prudence. Prudence does not, however, direct the acts of the theological virtues which are superior to it, but it points out when it is suitable, for example, to speak of matters of faith with given persons, and when it is fitting to perform a given act of charity. The theological virtues, which have God Himself for their immediate rule, do not consist in a happy mean determined by prudence, but their exercise is not independent of it. (Cf. Ia IIae, q. 64, a. 4.)

26. A sincere Christian, who was strolling through a large cemetery, saw on almost every tomb a eulogy of the deceased. He felt himself inspired to ask that the following inscription be placed on his tomb: "Here lies a great sinner, who, if he is saved, owes it to the great mercy of God." He began to glimpse what is from ourselves and what is from God in our lives. "Destruction is thy own, O Israel: thy help is only in Me" (Osee 13:9).

27. The Dialogue, chap. 9.

28. Ibid., chap. II.

29. Cf. IIa IIae, q.52, a.4.

30. Matt. 24:45-47.

31. Ecclus. 34: 1-16.

32. Dan. 12:3.

33. John 8: 12.