June 20, 2018

Worldly prudence and supernatural prudence

By Alice von Hildebrand *
Saint Francis de Sales giving Saint Jeanne de Chantal the rule of the order of the Visitation / Credit Noël Hallé via public domain.
Saint Francis de Sales giving Saint Jeanne de Chantal the rule of the order of the Visitation / Credit Noël Hallé via public domain.

I am sure that, like most people, you have often been tempted to confuse the prudence practiced by “children of the world,” and the type of prudence advocated in the gospel: “Be prudent like the serpent.” In both cases, a person carefully steers clear of what is rash, unwise, and impulsive; every decision is carefully gauges, and examined from every angle. Therefore, the similarity is striking.

But there is a chasm separating the first from the second, still the first can copy the second so well that we need to sharpen our attention in order to be able to distinguish between them.

The gentle Saint Francis of Sales used to say that he had scant sympathy for the virtue of prudence, “this poor virtue which he had such difficulty loving,” and when he managed to love it, “It was out of pure necessity” (L’espirt de St. Francis of Sales, Msgr. Camus, p. 246).  Commenting upon the gospel urging us to be prudent like serpents and simple like doves, he remarked that the proportion between “the serpent” and the “dove” should be ten to one. To keep them in equal balance is bound to have a harmful consequence, namely that the serpent will devour the dove; the dove on the other hand, cannot be a threat to the serpent. This gentle saint was clearly referring to the fact that the virtue of prudence can easily degenerate into “worldly prudence” (which he detested); we must therefore be constantly on the watch to avoid this dangerous pitfall.

He relates that after the success enjoyed by his introduction to the devout life, his “prudent’ friends advised him never to write another book: “It would be difficult for the sequel to match your masterpiece, and consequently any further publication would tarnish your now well-established reputation as an outstanding writer!”

Saint Francis of Sales’ answer was that if his first book had been acclaimed because it had pleased God that it should gain recognition, he saw no reason why his majesty could not do the same for the second work. His treatise on the love of God turned out to be another masterpiece.

What is worldly prudence? While claiming to be “a virtue,” it is in fact nothing but disguised self-interest; it is a clever gauging of one’s own advantage, so that whichever way the tide goes, one will be on the winning side. In every situation, the “prudent” man calculates whether a particular action, or spoken word, will cater to his interest, both immediate and future. The one thing that he is concerned with is to avoid anything which might have adverse consequences for him.

The man who navigates by the laws of worldly prudence seems to have a radar warning him whether an event might run counter to his personal safety. He then steers clear of it with a remarkable adroitness and alacrity.

Politicians major in worldly prudence, for to win in the political arena, (Or even to remain alive); one must learn to survive under any foreseeable or unforeseeable contingency. They often practice to perfection the principles on which any successful insurance company is based: whatever happens, it will remain the winner. Clever politicians will carefully cater to the powers that be, while keeping in mind that this power might not last; consequently, they should draw as much advantage from this present situation as possible while carefully avoiding compromising themselves, should the wind change direction. They can be compared to hounds whose instinct unfailingly leads them to the prey they want to catch. These people know when to speak and when to remain silent; when to seem to approve, when to seem to disapprove, when to be frank and when to equivocate, but in such a fashion that if the situation changed, they could never be accused of having been on the wrong side of the fence.

Some politicians practice this art to perfection; this is why we see that many ex-communists in the eastern bloc, are now heads of state in several of the countries liberated from the communistic yoke; they only needed to change their outfits; now they wear the democratic vest; but basically they remain the very same individuals whose only concern is their personal interest.

Because man is a fallen creature, he can easily lie to himself and persuade himself that he is in fact supernaturally prudent, while in fact the subtle poison of worldly prudence is corroding his actions.

Supernatural prudence is, of course, at the antipodes of these calculating maneuvers. But it is a virtue which is very difficult to attain because of man’s craftiness; to be truly supernatural it must be free from any worldly alloy. Holy prudence is basically both a mistrust of our own fallen nature, coupled with a wise and recollected concern with God’s glory. The truly prudent man puts all his talents at God’s service: using his mind and his heart to discover how the divine master is best served. His leitmotif is how best to be instrumental in serving God’s glory: either by word, by action, by patient waiting, or by silence and prayer. This inner attitude eliminates temperamental haste, impatience, impure motives; it is essentially receptive to the rhythm. The prudent man will always be on his guard, fully aware how tricky his nature is, and how easily man can lie to himself. Holy prudence means essentially to hold fast to God’s hand, and never rely on one’s own strength.

Footnote: We do not thereby deny that there are cases in “prudence” which is not supernaturally motivated, and legitimate: for example, when a father prudently provides for his children’s education.

Alice von Hildebrand is a lecturer and an author, whose works include: The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) and The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (2000), a biography of her late husband. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory by Pope Francis in 2013.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.