In The Four Cardinal Virtues, Josef Pieper writes, “That is prudent which is in keeping with reality.” Moral principles and good intentions amount to little if pursued blindly. Action on behalf of the good requires accurate perception of concrete situations and circumstances.
Drawing upon St. Thomas Aquinas, Pieper identifies two causes of imprudence. One is thoughtlessness. Sometimes thoughtlessness arises from indifference or impatience, but it can also follow from a cocksure mentality that presumes to know in advance what to do. How many times have we seen someone say something true but unkind? It’s easy to imagine a justification that appeals to principle: “We have an obligation to speak the truth!” Prudence does not contradict this principle, but it knows when and how to say hard truths. The prudent man says the right thing in the best way or holds his tongue.
Another cause of imprudence is irresoluteness. We often face situations that require us to act quickly. Irresoluteness can take the guise of moral rectitude. A seminar-room mentality of ongoing debate can be morally debilitating. We may be tempted to weigh the circumstances, get advice, and consult experts so that we can reassure ourselves that our actions are irreproachable. We cover our indecision with the garb of moral seriousness: “It would be irresponsible to act without further inquiry and consultation.” Prudence operates differently. The prudent man knows he cannot enjoy the luxury of certainty. The virtue of prudence draws on powers of judgment, not on proofs.
We develop prudence by exercising moral perception. Real life presents endless opportunities for this kind of workout. The Catholic tradition (supported by natural reason) insists that some acts are intrinsically evil. They must never be done. But the list is short, and so most of life requires prudential judgment.
Rich as life is with lessons, it would be unwise—indeed, imprudent—to make life our only tutor. Thucydides wrote his history of the Peloponnesian War in order to invite readers into the fateful decisions that shaped the course of those events. Novels make a similar invitation, within the more modest ambit of individual lives. History and fiction thus populate our imaginations with realistic situations. This helps reveal the fine texture of human reality with more accuracy and nuance. There is no guarantee that books will make a man prudent. Many learned scholars are morally incompetent. But under the right circumstances, a humanistic education cultivates the virtue of prudence.
In the classical and Christian schemes, prudence is the first of the cardinal virtues. Without it, the others—justice, fortitude, and temperance—lack proper direction. Don Quixote is comical, not brave, because he lacks an accurate grasp of reality. A person with an eating disorder is not temperate. The restraints on appetite that might in other circumstances be meritorious are in this situation self-destructive. The moral philosopher whose theory of justice is sound may be able to teach a good class on the subject, but insofar as he lacks prudence he cannot act justly.
The fundamental role of prudence in the exercise of all the virtues explains why St. Augustine said that the virtues of the pagan Romans were but glorious vices. Christ reveals the actual shape of human reality. Without this knowledge, we can be cagey, perhaps even wise in a worldly sense. Yet without revelation, we cannot be truly prudent. In Christ we see clearly that the principalities and powers rule this world and must be opposed. But the prudent man can never act as though sin and death had the final word. Christian martyrs are not rash. They exhibit a perfect prudence. Their loyalty to Christ and insouciance toward death accord with reality. As many preachers have observed, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
Prudence in Public Life
As editor of a magazine of religion and public life, I often wonder about the role of virtue in political affairs. I was struck, therefore, by Pieper’s observation, following Aristotle and St. Thomas, that a good sovereign or ruler needs prudence (and justice) first and foremost. Fair enough, but what is political prudence? And what are the forms of political imprudence in our time?
Political prudence, like prudence more broadly, requires attention to reality, in this case knowledge of the body politic. Good governance is not measured by principle alone. Laws and policies are good only insofar as they befit a particular people. Thus, the prudent leader has a keen sense of his nation’s strengths. He is aware of the sources of civic vitality. He’s also alive to his nation’s weaknesses, its tendency toward factionalism, and the characteristic vices of its people. Above all, he must know its most immediate and threatening diseases.
This kind of knowledge can be gained, in part, from a regular reading of history. The present is a child of the past. A prudent political leader recognizes the power of civic memorials and myths. He knows the architecture of his nation’s imagination. Abraham Lincoln was a master in this regard, as was Martin Luther King Jr. Knowledge of civic reality also comes from direct acquaintance with a wide range of one’s fellow citizens. The prudent leader need not be a “man of the people,” but good leaders need contact with those whom they lead. This is a discipline of imagination—not a literal being among the people, which can be nearly impossible for those in high office.
Today we lack prudent leaders. I don’t gainsay the good intentions of our elites, but they have made a mess of things over the last few decades. The vital signs of our polity are not positive: declining life expectancy, rising inequality, and increasing polarization. The reasons for our elites’ failure are many and complex. But a cult of expertise and cultural arrogance contributes.
Over the last generation, elite education has emphasized technocratic management and sidelined American political history. Literature and the humanities have become marginal. As a consequence, our ruling class echoes social-scientific truisms of the sort popularized by Malcolm Gladwell and other journalists, while it lacks nuanced knowledge of our national character. The extent to which well-positioned Americans are now thinly educated in history and literature goes a long way toward explaining why things have gone sour. Technocrats see theories and models rather than a nation. A prudent leader might be wise to consult the technocrats, but he must make his own judgments about how to tailor their expertise to reality, which is never reducible to theory, nor fully captured by models.
The technocratic cast of mind befits the cultural isolation of the top end of our society. As Charles Murray has documented, today’s ruling class has sealed itself off almost entirely from contact with the rest of the country. Residential patterns are segregated by social class. In educational institutions, the paradox of meritocracy is that book-smart young people congregate in colleges and universities filled with other book-smart young people. Well-to-do parents, anxious to secure advantages for their kids, start the sorting earlier and earlier by choosing where to live on the basis of school quality. Kids from elite homes undertake special projects and take internships during summers. They do not get jobs in kitchens or on work crews. Vanishingly few serve in the military, another place where the children of the ruling class once had to reckon with the kinds of people who make up the majority. Professional employment, too, contributes to the isolation. In the 1950s and 1960s, the top business school graduates took management positions with manufacturing firms and other mainstays of the industrial economy. They had to deal with the men on the shop floor, who often were far more competent in the core business of making things than was the managerial class. Today, the elite-educated seek jobs in consulting, finance, and technology, or with NGOs and activist organizations. These sectors of the post-industrial economy do not have blue-collar workforces. Offices need to be vacuumed and toilets cleaned, but these tasks are performed at night. Manual labor is invisible to our elites.
The leaders produced by this system are not stupid. They have good intentions, for the most part. But they haven’t got a clue—which is to say, they suffer from the vice of thoughtlessness. A friend who worked on Mitt Romney’s campaign described an evening when the candidate returned from a fundraiser in Los Angeles. The event had been held in a magnificent mansion in the hills overlooking the L.A. basin. Romney marveled to his staff: “The guy who owns the house came up from nothing!” It was an understandable sentiment, very much a part of our Horatio Alger tradition. But my friend’s heart sank. In 2012, just four years after a financial crisis had hit the American middle class while leaving the owners of L.A. mansions untouched, Romney could not see the limits of the myth of the self-made man.
Such thoughtlessness remains widespread. At a time of unprecedented addiction and drug overdose death, only a leader blind to reality could support the legalization of marijuana. Meanwhile, as the economic foundations of middle-class life erode, the power elite of the Democratic party—the supposed party of the common man—insists on transgender rights and censures anyone who speaks of the common man.
Our leadership class is prone to irresoluteness as well. President Obama recognized the dangers posed by China’s increasing economic power, and he proclaimed a “pivot to Asia.” Yet little of substance happened during his administration. One can imagine the policy debates in the White House: “Supply chains are now global, and the net of economic interrelation is finely woven. There is peril to domestic prosperity if America acts too forcefully.” To this day the editors of the Wall Street Journal express these concerns, arguing that trade war is imprudent. But it is likewise imprudent to continue on the present trajectory, as doing so will require more painful and disruptive action in the future.
There is no formula for delivering political leaders from hard decisions, and no doubt the question of what to do about China is hard to answer. One could say the same about middle-class wage stagnation. The problem has many levels, and the solutions are not obvious. Free-market principles provide powerful arguments against government-initiated industrial policy and other proposals. High levels of illegal immigration present another complex challenge; the divisions stoked by identity politics, yet another. I’m not sure in my own mind what the best course of action is. But of this I am sure: Those who wait for expert consensus or govern “on principle” are in danger of acting imprudently. Prudent leaders can’t wait for committees or experts to find perfect solutions, any more than generals on a battlefield can.
China, the erosion of the middle class, illegal immigration, identity politics: Until only recently very few people in positions of power addressed or even acknowledged these problems. This is a failure of leadership, for, as Pieper observes, without prudence those in authority cannot well serve the body politic.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ New York Times deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman was recently demoted over criticism of his tweets. One tweet said that Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota were not “from the Midwest”—on the assumption, apparently, that being “from the Midwest” means being white.
One feels for senior editors at the New York Times. In truth, one feels for editors everywhere. Weisman’s effusions are mere leavings in the vast sludge of Twitterdom, but they point to a dynamic that is changing journalism. Twitter is seen by journalists as a way to “build their brand.” Writers have an incentive to use their tweets to gain attention, which means entering into the mud-wrestling ethos of that medium. This, in turn, pulls the publications they write for into the slime, for the writer’s professional affiliation is also part of his “brand.” I don’t see any easy solutions for editors. We want “branded” authors, which means we tacitly endorse the Twitter free-for-all, even as we are anxious about its excesses. Many have noted that social media destroys the financial underpinnings of mainstream media by vacuuming up advertising revenue that once went to print publications and proprietary websites. The “creative” destruction is also eroding their cultural authority by allowing so many writers (and editors) to expose their rankest prejudices and worst political passions.
♦ Amazon has removed from its list of books for sale the work of Dr. Joseph Nicolosi. His crime? Writing about techniques of “conversion therapy,” designed to help those who do not wish to identify as homosexual. As Rod Dreher points out, Amazon sells Hitler’s Mein Kampf, apologias for Stalin’s crimes, books by the white supremacist David Duke, a translation of The SS Leadership Guide, and countless other rebarbative titles. But something that casts doubt on today’s sexual ideologies? That’s beyond the pale. Amazon’s action demonstrates the singular power of LGBT activists to “unperson” a person.
♦ Amazon exercises a powerful influence over the book market. Dreher observes that it’s impossible to get a book contract if Amazon has blacklisted you, a fact that empowers the e-company to function as a national censor. The monopolistic control enjoyed by just a few companies—Amazon, Google, Facebook—over the electronic public square poses a serious threat to our traditions of free speech. This threat needs to be addressed by our political leaders, who must either break up the monopolies or impose stringent review of their policies of censorship.
♦ A purge seems to be underway at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Rome. Eight faculty members have been dismissed by the Institute’s Grand Chancellor, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who was appointed by Pope Francis in 2017, apparently in order to bring it in line with this pontificate’s preferential option for permission. As I write, rumors suggest that Fr. Maurizio Chiodi will be appointed to the Institute. One of his notable declarations: “I would not exclude that, under certain conditions, a homosexual couple’s relationship is, for that subject, the most fruitful way to live good relationships, taking into account their symbolic meaning, which is at the same time personal, recreational and social.”
♦ Gillette ran the notorious “toxic masculinity” ad campaign last January. Apparently, its customers don’t like being attacked. Sales went down, and Gillette lost money. Parent company Procter & Gamble denies the ad campaign was at fault and blames instead currency fluctuation, new competition, and social norms that lead men to shave less often. Perhaps. But I can report that I tossed my Gillette razor early this year and signed up for Harry’s, an online supplier that doesn’t insult me.
♦ If you think woke capitalism responds to market pressure, think again. In May, Gillette ran an online ad campaign in which a father helps his transgender son shave for the first time.
♦ St. Francis of Assisi Church is one of the oldest Catholic parishes in Portland, Oregon. It has a reputation for being “progressive.” Parishioners regularly march in the Portland gay pride parades. They oppose “patriarchy.” Of late, a banner hung by the church’s entrance: “Immigrants & refugees welcome.” One could say of St. Francis that it fancied itself a community of multicultural inclusion—until a new priest was assigned in 2018, Fr. George Kuforiji. Fr. Kuforiji tossed the inclusive-language translations of the Bible and required the use of the common lectionary. He dropped the recitation of the “community commitment” that the parish had inserted after the Nicene Creed during the Mass. He disposed of the rainbow vestments and imposed a more dignified liturgical style. He took down the banner that welcomed immigrants and refugees. All this was too much for the “inclusive” members of the parish, who launched protests. They insisted that “real dialogue” with the new priest was impossible. The protesting Baby Boomers (and still older parishioners) anguished over the violations of their traditions of “radical and inclusive hospitality.” How could this interloper remove the banner announcing welcome to immigrants and refugees?
For the record, Fr. Kuforiji was born in Nigeria. Apparently, a “radical and inclusive hospitality” welcomes only those who welcome everybody—which turns out to be aging progressives who get really angry when their pieties are not slavishly obeyed.
♦ Cambridge University graduate student Rob Henderson, writing in the New York Post, observes that in a wealthy consumer society fancy brands can be bought by regular folks, a fact that decreases their value as status markers. “The upper classes have found a clever solution to this problem: luxury beliefs. These are ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.” Examples: “All family structures are equal”; “Monogamy is outdated”; “Religion is harmful”; and so forth. The costs of these luxury beliefs include a decline in marriage among working-class Americans, a rise in out-of-wedlock births, and the erosion of the social cohesion once provided by religious institutions. The ultimate luxury belief, Henderson points out, is confession of “white privilege.” But aren’t rich white people just setting themselves up for attack? Not really. “Upper-class whites gain status by talking about their high status. When laws are enacted to combat white privilege, it won’t be the privileged whites who are harmed. Poor whites will bear the brunt.”
♦ Tim Garberich is interested in forming a ROFTERS group in Seattle, Washington. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 206-525-0549. The Rev. Kelly O’Lear would like to form a group in the Quad Cities: email@example.com or 563-396-4433.