Prudence is a word, I think, that calls to mind its synonyms. I believe that most people when asked to define the word would say it’s related to wisdom, or perhaps tied to caution. Certainly when your mother tells you to be prudent, what she’s really saying is to be careful. When the four classical virtues are mentioned the first and most important is sometimes listed as Wisdom. The problem with this is that, especially in a modern context, wisdom is seen as something you have or you don’t. When our culture speaks of the Wise Man, instructions are lacking as to how to become this person. Suggesting someone be prudent is easier to swallow than telling them to be wise. It is partially for this reason that the original texts and teachings of stoicism tell us the prime virtue is prudentia. Prudence.
According to the Greeks, prudence is a combination of memory, intelligence, open-mindedness, shrewdness, research, foresight, circumspection and caution. That’s a lot to try to keep in mind, but I find it works well to summarize all of this in to the twin ravens of Thought and Memory. If you imagine prudence as a goal for every conscious decision we can imagine the instant of decision as a point on a time line. Memory is everything that leads up to this. Wise decisions are formed based on how well we remember the past. Experiences, successes and mistakes all work to show us the best path forward. It doesn’t necessarily have to be your own experiences, either. I personally feel one of the greatest uses of communication is to say, “don’t do what I just did. It was stupid.”
Memory is, of course, useless without the ability to analyze it. In the strictest of stoic terms one would never hear the the phrase, “I keep making the same mistakes.” Great difficulty lies in applying thought to memory. It is a challenging thing to be always prudent. First when making choices in life we must recognize the wise course and then proceed to act on this. Once again, memory and thought are key. Or to put it another way, draw upon past experience to pursue reasoned action.
Prudence, as with any of the four stoic virtues, can and should be practiced. And if it can be practiced, it can be trained. How cool is it to think that wisdom can be trained? I believe it can. Not through monasticism or meditation or somehow communicating with some grand mystic force, but by practicing making prudent decisions. Naturally the other three virtues of Temperance, Fortitude and Justice all play a part in knowing what Prudence is. Those virtues are for another day, though.