It’s unfortunate that “prudence” must be in quotation marks when used these days to describe what prudence really is. But the meaning of the term has changed somewhat from its meaning when used to denote the first of the cardinal virtues. In any event, here’s a perceptive student of Abraham Lincoln describing Lincoln’s prudence:
The mature Abraham Lincoln would exhibit, in an admirable way, a combination of the moral clarity and elevation of–what shall we say?–the prophet, with the “prudence,” the “responsibility” of a worthy politician. The latter characteristics he had already acquired in his early forties. The moral clarity was to come.
I use the two words above in quotation marks instead of some variant of the overworked American word “pragmatism,” because they imply a combination of practical wisdom with moral purpose, as “pragmatism” may not.
“Prudence” was once the name not only for a cardinal virtue but for the first of the cardinal virtues. Prudence as a virtue did not then exclude, as pragmatism tends to do, general moral ideals and larger moral patterns beyond the immediate situation. The term did not then mean, as it has shriveled to become in our modern vocabulary, a calculating, cautious self-regard: a prudent cat that does not step on a hot stove, a prudent driver who looks both ways before barreling out of the driveway, a prudent young person who puts away some money in a prudential life insurance company. The classical virtue did share with this modern shrunken usage, and with the ubiquitous modern language of pragmatism, this quality: a careful attention to the particular situation in which one acts. And it shares with utilitarianism in all its varieties a careful weighing of probable consequences of one’s actions in that real world, as Lincoln told Durley he should have done. One does not act simply out of one’s hopes, dreams, fantasies, or imaginings; one must look, and examine, and intelligently understand, the world out there, outside oneself, as it is in all its present particulars. A person imbued with the virtue of prudence must say to himself, or herself–to borrow from a source not available to Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and other interpreters of classical prudence, Jimmy Durante–“Dem’s da conditions dat exist.”
But the term did not originally imply that one should pay this scrupulous attention primarily or only because of the potential consequences for ourself, as our diminished usage now tends to do; nor did it disdain or ignore larger moral purposes and effects, as at least the popular use of the language of pragmatism tends to do, or reduce moral judgment to one future-oriented measurement, as utilitarianisms do.I am resuscitating this concept temporarily for my purpose here, just to indicate that there once was such a way of slicing moral understanding–and that it then could be applied to Lincoln. In the older usage–the one I suggest would have fit the maturing Lincoln–prudence was a virtue. That means it was a pattern or habit that should become ingrained. Prudence as a moral virtue made a bridge to the intellectual virtues, as they were called in the old schemes. That means it entailed a central role for cognition, for learning and knowing, in praiseworthy conduct. A prudent person in this older sense used his powers of observation and reasoning to take careful account of the real and concrete situation, the particular situation, not simply in order to protect his own skin, and not with the assumption that whatever “works” in that situation is what one ought to do, but in order continually to adapt the appropriate moral claims and purposes, also carefully considered, to the real world.
William Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography, 222-23 (2002).