Prudence has never been the most popular virtue. In grade school, we sat through long lectures on charity and chastity. Kindness and humility are among the earliest lessons our parents teach us. Films extol justice and fortitude. But prudence is a quiet virtue, not particularly heroic and, generally, not particularly noticeable. It’s hard to discern if someone is being prudent in a given situation, because by its nature the virtue is situational.
But for everything there is a season, and this is the season for prudence.
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?
In a normal year, the time between Thanksgiving and New Years would be packed with festivities. Visits with friends, company parties, and cross-country travel can pile up to the point that it’s stressful. But these are the rituals by which we mark the passage of time. This is how we make certain to reconnect with loved ones and how we build memories. One would think we would manage this without needing a time, place, and predetermined set of activities. But human beings are strange. We tend to allow the things most important to us to slide, while the mundane tasks of daily living fill our time. That’s why the holidays are so important. Without it, we would rarely get around to doing what matters most. Even when it is stressful and aggravating, it is there for us to hold on to.
This year, however, is different. The CDC is urging Americans not to travel for the holidays and not to visit our families. They are taking a hard line, even Kantian approach. No one. For any reason. This makes sense from the perspective of governance. From the perspective of millions of individual Americans, the situation is far more complex and requires careful judgement in every situation.
What is Prudence?
According to The Catechism of the Catholic Church, prudence is the auriga virtutum, or the charioteer of virtues, because it guides the practice of all other virtues. It is, simply, “right reason in action.” Prudence is the virtue by which you analyze a given situation, apply sound judgement, and then act in the manner that is most virtuous. For many of us this holiday season, prudence will require that we make the painful decision to stay home. For others, the most prudent thing will be to visit an isolated relative on Christmas Day. In my case, this is the last year my grandmother will know who I am, and likely her last Thanksgiving, with or without the virus. I will therefore travel to visit her, but I will not be staying with her. I will only meet outside and at a minimum of six feet away. It’s not the no contact that the CDC recommends, but it is prudent.
The holidays always bring conflict with them, but this year feels poised to be worse than ever. I’ve already had arguments with loved ones over the right thing to do. Some people simply aren’t taking this virus seriously. Some claim that doing anything other than staying home demonstrates that you hate your follow Americans. Others are simply agonizing over every decision. It’s easy, then, to become angry with one another.
Doing what I want, seeing who I want, because I want to is not prudence. It’s selfishness. We will all have to make sacrifices this holiday season. There will be events cancelled. Christmas will look very different for me than it did last year. There will be deeply unsatisfying zoom toasts. There will be loss. But it’s important to remind ourselves that prudence is an invisible virtue. There is often more to a given situation than what is visible on the surface. Prudence requires that we take a step back, breathe deeply, and use our reason before jumping to anger. The greatest virtue, after all, is love.