What is Prudence? The word “Prudence” comes from the same root as “provident”: to foresee. Prudence is the habit whereby we try to act as if we can see the future.
There are three steps in trying to act as if we know the future. First, you investigate the circumstances, try to know all possible means at your disposal, all the pros and cons associated with your options. Second, you judge the means to your end using the knowledge you gained in the first step. Third, you put your decision into action.
Prudence encompasses all three steps. The prudent man is the one who takes time to know the present, chooses which option will affect the future most favorably, and then follows through on that choice. Prudence is an important virtue for anyone, but especially anyone with power over others.
True prudence, however, will also know its limits.
We must learn to catch ourselves. We are beings stuck in time; we cannot know the future. To use the future to steer the present puts us in the way of many vices.
Secretiveness, distrust, manipulation, self-pity, despair. These infect the strongest and the wisest, the proud. In relying so much on themselves, they grow less human. They forget who they are and are blind to their blindness.
Such a strong one was Denethor, son of Echthelion, Ruling Steward of Gondor in J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. Gandalf says of him: “He has long sight. He can perceive, if he bends his will thither, much of what is passing in the minds of men, even of those that dwell far off. It is difficult to deceive him, and dangerous to try.”
Yet he is deceived. If Denethor knows the minds of men, his enemy Sauron knows their weaknesses. Sauron allows Denethor to see visions, and Denethor’s wisdom tells him they are true. His reliance on that wisdom, however, leaves no room for other, stronger truths, such as grace and mercy.