Prudence and Simplicity
1. Prudence is one of the cardinal virtues frequently recommended in the Sacred Scriptures. “If you receive my words and treasure my commands,” the Holy Spirit tells us in the Book of Proverbs, “turning your ear to wisdom, inclining your heart to understanding… if you seek her like silver, and like hidden treasures search her out: then you will understand the fear of the Lord: the knowledge of God you will find.” (Prov. 2:2-6) Then, He promises, God will counsel and protect you, “for wisdom will enter your heart, knowledge will please your soul, discretion will watch over you, understanding will guard you; saving you from the way of evil men.” (Cf. Prov. 2:2-12)
The word ‘prudence,’ as St. Thomas explains, is derived from the word ‘providence,’ and it consists in ordering everything correctly towards its proper end. (Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 49, a. 6) From that we can see how necessary this virtue is. A man who can order everything correctly towards its own end, does everything as it ought to be done. He will have achieved true wisdom, which is the foundation of sanctity.
To speak when we should speak; to be silent when we should be silent; never to leave unsaid what ought to be said, but to know when we should speak, and how much; to pay attention mainly to necessary things, that is, to God and to the supernatural; to avoid every thought which would separate us from God and endanger our salvation; to love God more than anything else and more than ourselves, because He is the supreme good and our supreme happiness; to love other things only in God and for Him solely; to direct all our actions proportionately towards God, towards our neighbour, and towards ourselves, and to avoid every act which would alienate us from God, which would be contrary to His precepts, or which would endanger our eternal salvation.
And this is true prudence, which is founded on divine wisdom and must be continually nourished by the grace of God and inspired by charity. Since this virtue pervades and embraces all the others, a man who achieves perfection in it has reached the peak of holiness.
But perhaps we are too preoccupied with worldly interests, and so stray from the straight path which leads to God and to sanctity.
2. Apart from the Christian virtue of prudence, there is also the prudence of the world and of the flesh. This, however, as St. Francis de Sales explains, is really duplicity and craft; it does not avoid dissimulation and falsehood; it seeks its own profit only and is prepared to obtain its end by any means. “I know nothing at all about the art of falsehood, dissimulation, and pretence,” St. Francis wrote to the Bishop of Belley, “which is the centre of political activity and the mainspring of human prudence. That which I have on my lips I have in my heart. I hate duplicity like death.” (Letters of St. Francis de Sales (Spirito), Bk. II, c. 24. Letter 178) Our prudence should likewise be united with rectitude, sincerity, and simplicity. We must speak the truth with charity and never lie or deceive. “For we can do nothing against the truth,” says St. Paul, “but only for the truth.” (2 Cor. 13:8) He advises the Ephesians “to practice the truth in love.” (Eph. 4:15) To the Romans he writes: “I would have you wise as to what is good, and guileless as to what is evil.” (Rom. 16:19) The virtue of Christian prudence, then, consists in complete exactitude in all that is good combined with a holy simplicity free from any taint of duplicity or evil.
3. “Be therefore wise as serpents,” Jesus directs us in the Gospel, “and guileless as doves.” (Mt. 10:16) We must be prudent, but also simple and straightforward.
St. Francis de Sales comments on these words of the Gospel: “A white dove is more pleasing than a serpent. Should we try to combine their gifts, we could not transfer the simplicity of the dove to the serpent, because he would still be a serpent; but it would be easier to bestow the prudence of the serpent on the dove, because in doing so the dove would not cease to be beautiful. Let us therefore embrace this holy simplicity, which is the sister of innocence and the daughter of charity.” (Letter 119)
Christian prudence must always be united with holy simplicity, which is an ornament of the soul.