Traktat über die Klugheit

Cover of Traktat über die Klugheit.

Josef Pieper on prudence as the most important of the cardinal virtues, following (as always) Thomas of Aquin.

I’m very meh on the whole concept, but it’s a beautiful illustration of why Christianity often seems (to me) too intellectual, insufficiently embodied, and somewhat dry and dead. Most of this book was theoretical, and all of it was noticeably old – it assumed that we can, and want, and SHOULD generally act based on reason and rationality. Notice how he doesn’t spend any amount of time or elaboration on the part where you need intuition and gut feelings for the whole thing to work? Yeah, that. At least he admits it, which is always nice to see.

Highlights imo:

  • Avarice as the opposite of prudence: on the one hand, it’s very “do not try to go above your station” – not exactly something to be endorsed. On the other hand, it puts emphasis on humility, and shines a light on grasping behaviour. It’s so close to pointing to an effortless elegance of confidence!
  • Insisting you cannot judge actions from the outside except through an exceedingly deep and loving understanding: true.
  • The difference between “making something” (actions to achieve a goal, where true mastery is skill/art) and “doing something” (actions to change and complete yourself, where true mastery is virtue)
  • Insisting on prudence as primary among the cardinal virtues means to empower people instead of diminishing their experience with long rule lists.


To Pieper, this is a foundational assumption of how Christianity understands humanity, and is slowly being lost: modern use of “prudence” does not exactly imply virtue, goodness, bravery: it seems to imply more of a cautious desire to be safe, while Christianity says that all virtue is necessarily prudent – and that behaviour only becomes virtuous when paired with prudence, that is, when it is a conscious decision.

So you need knowledge about reality to be virtuous/good – just meaning well is not enough, you have to know what you’re doing and then act with intent. Prudence is that which observes reality with honesty and without bias (ha!) and then makes decisions about consequences and makes you apply them [consideration – judgement – decision].

For the aspect of observation, you need a) true memory that does not change in hindsight (ha!, but he really means you need to invest a lot of effort here, tbf), b) to be teachable, aka have an open mind and be ready to accept input, and c) consummate skill, which allows you to act fast and nearly by reflex, even in unfamiliar circumstances. Yes, all of this reads like it could have been published on LessWrong, I know.

For the aspect of decisionmaking and actions, you mostly need foresight (~intuition). This one goes to the post-rats.

Failure comes from lack of chastity, which Pieper generously reads as “being too attached to sensuality”, or by being “prudent” (incorrectly so): called out for being sly and deceitful, and of course focused on satisfying the needs and wants of your body (ha! oh the christianity). Thomas ascribes the root of all of these wrongs to avarice, which is possibly the most interesting thing in this book.

You cannot judge or even completely understand somebody else’s decisions from the outside – except if you’re close friends (Freundschaftsliebe). This is a good point, and very well made.

Virtue does not serve to achieve a goal (“make something” – mastery is art), it serves to change and complete yourself (“do something”).

Insisting on prudence as primary among the cardinal virtues means to empower people instead of diminishing their experience with long rule lists.