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WEEK 24: Being prudent

See this cardinal meta-virtue in your life 


Home > #3- Practice > Week 24 – Being prudent

This is the last week in the practice stage, and also the last week of virtue literacy building in which we conclude with the first of the cardinal virtues: prudence. This week you should also meet with your character friend for your final scheduled meeting.

Habituation check

Before you engage with the content for this week, take a moment for a habituation check.

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Prudence: the ‘tool-belt’ virtue

It is appropriate to conclude your intensive practice stage with a capstone virtue: the virtue of prudence.

The virtue of prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues (the other 3 being temperance, courage and justice), but it also stands in a category of its own as a meta-virtue that governs all the rest. The virtue of prudence, however, is frequently not understood. After understanding what it is and seeing example of it, you will discuss with your character friend where prudence has had a place in your character in the last 12 weeks of practice.

So let’s start with some definitions.  The term ‘prudence’ depending on linguistic translations, is often misunderstood as the habit of ‘being careful’, for example in not taking unnecessary risks or in the wise administration of our money.  But this is not the true meaning of prudence, which is much broader.  The Latin term prudentia has to do with ‘looking ahead with wisdom’ whereas the original Greek term phronesis is even broader, encompassing wisdom, intelligence and good judgement in all things related to our actions, character and habits. Phronesis, by the way, is often depicted in ancient art as someone looking into a mirror, to see themselves as they truly are and as what they truly want to be in each circumstance.

So the virtue of prudence might best be described as the practical wisdom that helps you discern which virtues are necessary as you meet life’s unpredictable circumstances.

In other words, you are prudent if you have discernment in your choices, especially as they relate to virtue. If the virtues are like different tools that hang on a handyman’s belt, prudence is the virtue that allows us to deploy the right tool at the appropriate time. So, for example, prudence helps the soldier decide when it is time for courage and when it is time for patience. It helps the care-worker know when it is time for compassion and when it is time for truthfulness. It helps the leader feel when it is time for humility and when ambition is called for.

In the words of Ecclesiastes, prudence helps you discern when it is time to sow and when it is time to reap, when it is time to laugh and when to cry, when it is time to gather and when to scatter.

But prudence also allows us to discern how much, and what expression of each virtue is fitting for each circumstance. You see, the virtues are not simple mechanisms that you enact each time in the same way.  They are not like buttoning up your shirt that can be done mechanically and mindlessly.  If being virtuous is an art, the virtue of prudence helps us paint harmonious pictures.   So, for example, prudence helps helps us in situations of conflict to discern a good balance between expressions of justice and expressions of sell-control.  Or it can orient us in embracing a new enterprise with the right passion without going overboard and forfeiting diligence towards our existing duties.

Remember, all virtues can go wrong either by excess or by defect, and prudence helps us find the golden mean that is suitable for the given situtation.

Does this describe you? If so, well done, you are a prudent person.


The opposing vices

The vices that oppose prudence are cleverness, which gives the appearance of wisdom but has no substance; negligence, which gives up on seeking the best in every situation; stupidity, which always does the same things in every circumstance; and over-simplicity, which is happy for quick, superficial solutions based on hearsay or personal opinion.

But, of course, virtues never stand alone and so prudence needs to be found in your character with all the other virtues.  If, for example, you are only prudent but are not also compassionate and loving, your prudence will turn into the vice of cunning, which is finding ways to benefit only oneself.

Do any of these vices describe you?  If they do, and if your score in the Virtue Test was low in this virtue, then you may want to choose to work on the virtue of prudence in your character.


A story of prudence

In the bustling markets of ancient Baghdad, there lived a wealthy merchant named Ali. He was known far and wide for his shrewdness and cleverness in business dealings. However, Ali’s success also caught the eye of a notorious thief named Hassan, who harbored envy and greed in his heart.

One day, as Ali was returning from a successful trading journey, Hassan devised a plan to steal Ali’s wealth. Knowing that Ali always traveled with a large sum of money, Hassan waited for the opportune moment to strike.

As Ali made his way through the crowded market, Hassan approached him with a smile. “Greetings, esteemed merchant! I couldn’t help but notice your impressive wealth. Would you be interested in trading some of your goods with me?”

Ali, sensing the thief’s ulterior motives, played along with a knowing smile. “Certainly, my friend. But first, let us sit down and enjoy a cup of tea together.” Unaware of Ali’s intentions, Hassan eagerly agreed and followed him to a nearby tea shop. As they sat down, Ali subtly signaled to the tea shop owner, who was in on Ali’s plan.

“Please bring us your finest tea,” Ali requested, winking at the owner. As they sipped their tea, Ali engaged Hassan in conversation, subtly steering the discussion toward the topic of trust and honesty in business dealings. “In my experience, honesty and integrity are the cornerstones of a successful partnership,” Ali remarked casually. Hassan, feeling uneasy under Ali’s piercing gaze, attempted to change the subject. But Ali persisted, weaving tales of moral lessons and the importance of treating others with fairness and respect.

Unbeknownst to Hassan, the tea shop owner had discreetly signaled to the authorities, who arrived just in time to apprehend the thief.

Realizing that his plan had been foiled, Hassan begged for mercy, admitting his wrongdoing. Ali, demonstrating his characteristic wisdom and generosity, forgave Hassan but warned him against succumbing to greed and dishonesty in the future.

From that day on, Ali’s reputation as a wise and fair merchant only grew, while Hassan learned the valuable lesson that true wealth lies not in material possessions, but in integrity and virtuous conduct. And so, amidst the bustling markets of Baghdad, the tale of the clever merchant and the greedy thief became a cautionary reminder of the importance of honesty and integrity in all aspects of life (story courtesy of ChatGPT).

Ali gives us an example of prudence. As he navigates this circumstance we see him making several good character-related choices. Instead of fleeing from his enemy, he decides to exercise courage and face him.  Instead of being rash and immediately calling the police, he opts for patience and invites him for tea.  Instead of simply seeking to have Hassan arrested, he exercises love toward the thief and seeks to redeem him.  And when Hassan begs for forgiveness, Ali is ready to allow mercy to prevail over the virtue of justice.


Engage your character friend

This is the final meeting with your character friend. Here is a suggested outline for your time together:

  1. Give account of your habituation plan.
  2. Talk about the virtue of prudence that you have considered it this week and discuss examples of what this might look like in each other’s lives.   In particular, look back at the last 12 weeks of intensive practice and try to pinpoint exact instances in which you exercised prudence.  Or where you did not.
  3. Ask your character friend for general feedback on your character and whether/how you have grown in the last weeks.
  4. As this is the final meeting, assess your character friendship relationship and your regular meetings, and decide on whether you want to continue with something similar.

Additional resources


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