Commentary Magazine


Prudence, the Charioteer of the Virtues

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin sought out the opinion of people to analyze the meaning and importance of character in politics. Her postings on what she calls the “character primary” can be found here, here and here.

When asked what aspects of character are most essential in political leaders, I mentioned qualities like courage, perseverance, loyalty and fidelity to principles all matter. But different circumstances may demand different attributes. And if I had to settle on one quality above the others, it would be prudence, which encompasses practical wisdom, insight, and knowledge. Prudence is, Aquinas wrote, “right reason in action.” In its classical understanding, prudence embraces moral purposes, though always with an eye toward what is achievable in the world as it is. It plays a vital role in terms of guiding and regulating all the other virtues. For example, courage in the pursuit of a foolish policy can lead to a catastrophe. For these reasons, prudence is, in my estimation, the charioteer of the virtues.

The Lincoln biographer Allen Guelzo has pointed out that Lincoln insisted he “regarded prudence in all respects as one of the cardinal virtues,” and he hoped, as president, “it will appear that we have practiced prudence” in the management of public affairs.” Even in the midst of the Civil War, Guelzo says, Lincoln promised that the war would be carried forward “consistently with the prudence…which ought always to regulate the public service,” and without allowing it to degenerate “into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle.””

Arguably we invest too much importance on the policy boxes candidates check (e.g., should we build a fence across the entire Southwest border or only across parts of it?) and too little importance on their public character, including their equanimity and sense of proportion, their capacity to adjust to shifting fortunes, foresight, and the discernment to choose among several competing (and persuasive) options.

No presidency unfolds exactly as the person taking office expects, and often events dramatically shift the landscape. Lincoln never imagined the Civil War would be as bloody and destructive as it was. FDR could never have anticipated Pearl Harbor and the Second World War. JFK couldn’t have known that the Soviet Union would begin deploying offensive missiles in Cuba. George W. Bush assumed his presidency would be dominated by domestic affairs, not by terrorism and war.

Presidents above all can say the twisting kaleidoscope moves us all in turn. When it does, it helps to have at the helm a chief executive in whom we can invest our trust, whose judgments rest on pillars that are (to cite Lincoln’s words once again) “hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason.”