Prudence, Protests, and Pandemics

Greg Weiner

Current Issue

On April 10, during one of the manic news briefings that initially characterized the Trump administration's erratic response to the coronavirus pandemic, a reporter asked the president what "metrics" he would use to make decisions about re-opening the economy. "The metric's right here," Trump said, pointing to his head. "That's my metrics. That's all I can do. I can listen to 35 people. At the end, I've got to make a decision."

Ridicule erupted immediately. "Glad to see that the guy who wanted to nuke hurricanes, put a moat full of snakes and alligators at the border, and thought the coronavirus would magically go away in April 'with the heat' is on the job," one commentary on the Daily Kos website read. The Daily Beast described Trump's response as "bizarre," stamping its story with a graphic — "I'll consult myself" — that proclaimed the precise opposite of what Trump had said.

Trump's ruminations in these briefings — which have ranged from the false to the harebrained, from the confused to the dangerous — may encourage caustic reactions. But the remark about metrics ranks as one of the more sensible things he has said on the topic.

The point is demonstrable by asking what the opposite of his remark would have been — "I will do whatever the experts tell me," perhaps? Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has promised exactly that: "No President can promise to prevent future outbreaks. But I can promise you that when I'm President, we will prepare better, respond better, and recover better. We'll listen to the experts and heed their advice. And I will always tell you the truth." Which experts? Do they all agree?

Might Trump's statement have been better received had he said, instead: "I will base my decision on numbers"? Not all values are quantifiable. Arguably the most important ones — goodness and justice, beauty and truth — are not. Could there have been a moralistic alternative: "I value life above all else"? Biden said that too — he would not, he tweeted, sacrifice a single life to add a single point to the Dow. But human society is never reducible to 280 characters. Such absolutes are no more defensible than saying we must re-open our economy no matter what.

There is an excellent case that Trump's judgment is questionable. Certainly, he has derided any notion of expertise as well as the sources — such as experience, as opposed to impulse — from which it could meaningfully arise. His own decisions have been poorer as a result. But Trump's endorsement of judgment — seasoned, as one hopes it is, and as one must acknowledge the president's has not been, by experience, evenness of temperament, and due regard for expertise — as the means of making political decisions is not only correct; it is unavoidable.

Ironic as it might be in his case, Trump's remark gestured toward the indispensable political virtue: prudence. No crisis of the pandemic's complexity, with so many values to be calibrated against one another, can be resolved by isolated criteria distilled to mathematical precision. Aristotle teaches that prudence deals with things that could be otherwise. This is different from the capacity to choose right ends. In the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, if a society oriented toward the good and just is the end, prudence is necessary for choosing among the many paths available for attaining it.

In other words, prudence assumes imprecision. What Edmund Burke — the great modern theorist of prudence — counseled Parliament with respect to the American colonists holds true for pandemics too:

All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter. We balance inconveniences; we give and take; we remit some rights, that we may enjoy others; and we choose rather to be happy citizens, than subtle disputants.


In 1791's An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, Burke, seeking to reclaim his beloved party from the Jacobin sympathies overtaking it, enlarged on the point in a way that illustrates why we should not wish political life to be otherwise:

Nothing universal can be rationally affirmed on any moral or any political subject. Pure metaphysical abstraction does not belong to these matters. The lines of morality are not like the ideal lines of mathematics. They are broad and deep as well as long. They admit of exceptions; they demand modifications. These exceptions and modifications are not made by the process of logic, but by the rules of prudence. Prudence is not only the first in rank of the virtues political and moral, but she is the director, the regulator, the standard of them all. Metaphysics cannot live without definition; but Prudence is cautious how she defines.

Burke recognized the necessary imprecision of politics, imposed both by the empirical fact of social complexity and the moral fact of human limitation. His opposition to an abstract ideology of the rights of man applies to a scientistic response to pandemics as well. Both are attempts to reduce infinite complexity to pat formulas. A prudent response to the Covid-19 pandemic cannot be simplified to such slogans as "save all lives at all costs" — a standard by which we would not leave our homes or, for that matter, live in them, pandemic or not — or "give me liberty, or give me death!"

But Burke's insight about the necessity of prudence contains a deeper notion: the tendency of logical precision in political matters — or, rather, false pretensions to it — to become an instrument of tyranny. In Jacobinism, it played out with a double-edged sword that drew blood in both directions: One was either an opponent of the rights of man and did not deserve to live, or one stood in the way of the rights of man and could justly be sacrificed at the altar of metaphysical politics.

In addition to tyranny, such a condition of certainty would also be an agent of desiccation in human life. Humans are naturally tempted to seek certainty and to impose order and predictability on a world that is necessarily characterized by deficits of both. What the pandemic may have exposed, or at least emphasized, is that crises least prone to certainty whet the appetite for even more of it. But what would human life be like if all problems were solvable and all solutions were known?

One answer is that it would be Edenic. Another is that it would be hellish. They may be the same. In Book XII of John Milton's Paradise Lost, the Archangel Michael tells Adam that the fall from Eden — the "fortunate fall," as this description has been called — enabled grace and therefore a higher elevation: "for then the earth/Shall all be Paradise, far happier place/Than this of Eden, and far happier days." Adam rejoices in his realization of what his sin has enabled: "Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring." Without the fall, there is not only no grace; there is no virtue. There is no struggle. There is nothing that gives human life meaning.

There is an analog to the fortunate fall in political life: A life in which the good and just are wholly known would not be political. The essence of politics is the pursuit and application of these questions. The nobility of political life is inextricably linked with the inherent limits of our knowledge. Prudence is the political import of the fortunate fall.

The need for prudence gives to politics much of its richness and nobility. If answers about the just and the beautiful — and, from there, how to attain them — could be generated by algorithms, we would be reduced from human beings to automatons. The need for prudence is a condition of human limitation — our ability to see only through a glass darkly. That does not mean there is no truth beyond the glass; it means our perception of it is necessarily dim.

Suppose it were otherwise — that we knew with objective certainty what justice was in its entirety, both in essence and in application. Leo Strauss said such a condition would "act as dynamite for civil society." It would also be a powerful mechanism of tyranny. Perversely, it might make tyranny itself just, for surely such a standard, once known, would have to be enforced. Those who disagreed with it would not be merely wrong; they would be evil.

Change "justice" to "problem-solving" and "evil" to "irrational," and we have both the opposite of prudence and the essence of the ideology of Progress: government by experts imposed on the unenlightened.


In this sense, the antithesis of prudence is the ideology of Progress. The central tenet of that ideology is not the inevitability of forward motion but rather the claim that progress is objectively definable and that science — in all its forms, from the laboratory to legislation — powers it. In the progressive ethos, there are no debates about values, only about technique. In his 1932 Commonwealth Club Address, Franklin Roosevelt, an early progressive, declared in effect the end of politics. He wanted "to speak not of politics but of government." Politics was about values and subject to dispute. Administration was about solutions identifiable by scientific means:

Our task now is not discovery or exploitation of natural resources, or necessarily producing more goods. It is the soberer, less dramatic business of administering resources and plants already in hand, of seeking to reestablish foreign markets for our surplus production, of meeting the problem of under consumption, of adjusting production to consumption, of distributing wealth and products more equitably, of adapting existing economic organizations to the service of the people. The day of enlightened administration has come.

That "enlightened" is ominous. It prophesies a politics in which there is neither compromise nor moderation, not out of righteousness but rather out of what may be even more oppressive: rationalism. This aspiration to solve political problems scientifically is perhaps the driving idea of progressivism, and its tyrannical implications were evident at the outset. In his 1897 book Dynamic Sociology, Lester Frank Ward called on elected representatives to "legislate according to the scientific method." That required "transform[ing] the character of legislatures." The "difficult and complicated" problem, Ward allowed, was that legislators occupied a middle ground between their ignorant constituents and "the few progressive individuals by whose dynamic actions social progress is secured." Then came the punch line:

The question, therefore, arises whether the legislators may not find means, as a work of supererogation, to place their constituents upon the highway to a condition of intelligence which, when attained, will in turn work out the problem of inaugurating a scientific legislature and a system of scientific legislation.

Burke would have recognized this as what it was, and what it remains: Jacobinism. Its implicit rejection of prudence leaves only two choices: intelligence and irrationality. The certitude of the former leaves no room for moderation because compromising with irrationality is itself irrational. In this regard, one wonders why the early progressives were so enamored of legislatures, whose essential function — as Woodrow Wilson complained in 1885's Congressional Government — is defined by compromise. By the time he assumed the presidency, Wilson had played out the logic of progressive theory and realized that its nature was to compress authority to a single point.

Wilson's aggrandized self-regard combined the worst of both worlds. He thought of himself as both an expert and a politician. Biden's promise to heed the experts was more honest — and portentous — in bifurcating the two. A prudent politician will listen to experts; a rapidly spreading pandemic may elevate their role. But the politician cannot surrender the responsibility of judgment. The experts can say (and let us suppose they could do so with a unified voice, which no one who has attended a faculty meeting would for a moment believe possible), "this is how to achieve that." They cannot say "that is worthwhile," still less can they say "this is more or less worthwhile than that," and least of all can they calibrate values to decide how much of each to seek.

Government by experts is no more desirable than military policy resting solely in the hands of generals — and for many of the same reasons. The most important reason is that we remain a republic, not a technocracy. Military officers are experts at fighting wars, but the politicians who oversee them are better positioned to balance military goals against the wide array of a society's concerns. Expertise — which can become both too confident with itself and too obsessive about its own narrow competencies — is not the same as wisdom or judgment.

The military officer may be too prone or too reluctant to pursue a military objective no matter the costs. The policy expert, too, will often find it difficult to look beyond the depth and narrowness of a particular disciplinary proficiency to the broader sweep of social concerns. In fact, in the ethos of modern expertise, that proficiency cannot be disentangled from — is indeed assumed to be a product of — its endless subdivision into ever narrower fields of inquiry.


The Covid-19 pandemic has emphasized both the inescapability of judgment and the current paucity of the prudence that enables it. There is no element of the controversies it has spawned that does, or can, command universal assent. Even within each dimension of the crisis, there is no technical or final settlement. If the goal is health, one question is whether society should prioritize public-health measures or medical treatments. The calculation is further complicated by the public-health implications of massive economic dislocation.

None of these considerations, in turn, settles the question of how to balance values in unavoidable competition. There comes a time when — to say nothing of the prudential judgment entailed in choosing the right means to any one of these goals — we must balance the health of individuals, society, the economy, and more. There may be a moment when the social cost of hiding our faces from one another exceeds the health cost of containing the viruses we transmit when we are unmasked. These questions force us to balance the personal right, or perhaps desire, to work or go to school or visit the beach with the public obligation of the healthy not to imperil the vulnerable. These concerns will assume different levels of urgency at different times. In the immediacy of rapid contagion, when a pandemic threatens to overwhelm medical infrastructure, there may be a legitimate justification for an all-consuming focus on containment. As the pandemic either recedes or stabilizes into an enduring reality of life, other priorities may rise.

But even these complications do not capture the fullness of the statesman's challenge. He must not simply pick which is most important; the imperative of political prudence is to balance them amid events that are constantly shifting and all the more opaque for being so dynamic. Yet the lexicon of balance is a foreign language. We speak the language of absolutes, but do not mean what we say. We conceptualize problems in a futile effort to escape the need for fallible judgment. What Shirley Letwin called (in a book by that title) "the pursuit of certainty" is doomed in our mortal condition. In a condition of crisis, such as a pandemic, fallibility induces, or perhaps aggravates, a particular terror.

In early June, as massive gatherings — some interspersed with lawlessness — spread across the nation to protest the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, the chair of the New York City Council's Health Committee, Mark Levine, tweeted: "Let's be clear about something: if there is a spike in coronavirus cases in the next two weeks, don't blame the protesters. Blame racism."

This was, on any serious reading, nonsensical. Even if racism is anthropomorphized, it cannot be responsible for the contagion of a virus that spreads because people are jammed too closely together, whether during protests they choose to attend or in jails where authorities put them. Levine and public-health officials had spent weeks urging social distancing to impede the spread of the novel coronavirus. The central message of their guidelines was that people who ignored them risked spreading contagion to themselves or others.

What Levine actually meant, or at least what one hopes he meant, is what some other public-health officials more directly said: The urgency of the cause for which they were protesting was more important, in the balance of things, than the risk of spreading the coronavirus. Several governors have endorsed the same view, declining to enforce social distancing among protestors with the same force with which they have in other circumstances.

That is a debatable proposition, but it is a proposition. It is defensible and rebuttable. Why would Levine have resisted saying what he seems to have meant? One reason is that his simplistic framing elided prudential judgment. To say two worthy values are in tension and that, all things considered, one is more important than the other requires a capacity for nuance, as well as a civic atmosphere with room to process it. Put in another way, judgment requires distinctions — something is this and not that.

In this sense, political polarization reflects the decline of prudence. It is not merely polarization regarding policy, but rather universal and unthinking alignment behind partisan or ideological labels. In such modern Manicheanism, one stands on this side or that side. In the case of the protests, one stands against racism or for law and order. We seem incapable of holding in our minds the thought — which, as complicated concepts go, is a relatively simple one — that police brutality and lawless looting are both worthy of condemnation.

A calling card of prudence is the ability to understand that multiple ideas can be true at the same time while still being in tension with each other. More than anything, this capacity we have lost. The possibility of opposing lawlessness while still listening to the experiences of our fellow citizens who experience racism — or of opposing racial discrimination while sympathizing with bystanders whose property has been looted or burned during the protests — is similarly out of reach.

The logic is this: The protests arose to oppose the side of evil, so anything associated with them must be hallowed. The same plays out in reverse: Some people looted under the guise of protest, so every claim of the protests must be false.

This is an all-or-nothing weltanschauung in which America is either a racist country — whatever that would mean — or America is an unblemished land of opportunity. It was on full display in early June, when a mob put Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey — a civil-rights lawyer by training — through what amounted to a political perp walk, complete with shouts of "go home!" and "shame!" all because he declared, "I do not support the full abolition of the police." Full. Is he open to abolishing them partially?

The facile and fantasized ideology of the self-hating American engorged on the 1619 Project and seeking to abolish police departments — which will benefit whom, exactly? — drew some equally unsubtle rhetoric from conservatives. As one statement from the Claremont Institute put it:

As we see written in flames in these riots and hear in all the commentary on them, the great divide in America is between those who believe that America is evil and needs to be destroyed, and those who believe that America is good and needs to be preserved. A version of that question is what the 2016 elections were about, and what the elections in 2020 will be about. The nation has a party devoted to transforming the American way of life; it needs a party devoted to preserving the American way of life.

Both of these statements must be recognized as ideological positions that bear the stigma of all ideologies: a hostility to the inescapable complexity of life that bisects the world into good on one side and evil on the other. The idea that America could be good while being complicated — perhaps even good because it is complicated — increasingly exceeds our grasp. So does the idea that a given police department should be reformed rather than abolished.

But life is never as simple as either side in this false debate would have it. The human experience would be shallow and unbearable if it were. That is not a plea for relativism — quite the contrary. It is rather an observation about the inescapable — and salutary — moral depth of human life. The murder of George Floyd was categorically evil. This need not be qualified by rushing to declare that something else perceived to be paired with it somewhere on the other side, in a sort of political version of quantum entanglement, is also evil. We ought to be able to state what is simple and true.

But most of political life, including our response to pandemics, is not categorical; it is complicated. For that, we should be grateful. Manicheans who see the world in sharp contrasts between good and evil are, in the strictest sense, apolitical. They envision a world in which we are freed of the burdens and associated privileges of struggling with hard questions. It is also a world in which other people's answers are imposed on us. It is, finally, a world without prudence. And we are approaching it.


In his treatise On Duties, Cicero captures the essence of political prudence:

That is the mark of a great spirit; but this is the mark also of great intellectual talent: to anticipate the future by reflection, deciding somewhat beforehand how things could go in either direction, and what should be done in either event, never acting so that one will need to say, "I had not thought of that."

There is a temptation, and an unhelpful one, to see prudence as a mystical quality that some leaders possess and some do not. On this model, the prudent are touched with something like the gift of prophecy — so that Winston Churchill simply knew where Nazi re-armament would lead. Churchill was undoubtedly prudent, but to conceive of prudence in this way is no different than the ideal of a political Eden suffused by virtue for which no one has to strive. The reality is that Churchill was a student of history and a lifelong practitioner of politics. His prudence, like Cicero's, was the product of "reflection." It was not merely a quality; it was an activity.

Aquinas — for whom prudence was a moral virtue — says in the Summa Theologica that "providence" is "the principal part of prudence." He continues: "The other two parts of prudence, memory of the past and understanding of the present, are subordinate to it, helping us decide how to provide for the future."

Burke expressed much the same sentiment when he said that "a disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman." Burke's unique contribution to our understanding of prudence was to theorize its cautious dimension as rooted in what he called "a moral rather than a complexional timidity"; that is, a timidity arising from humility in the face of our limited ability to comprehend the infinite complexity of human, and particularly of social, affairs. As such, it does not make prudent statesmen timid in action — they are often very bold. But it makes them timid in the confidence they have regarding their own knowledge.

This is the moral core of prudence, the intersection between limitation and humility. It is based on what we do not, and often cannot, know. For Burke, it leads to the assumption that the aggregated wisdom of human experience as reflected through tradition is a surer guide than metaphysical abstraction at a single moment in time. Prudence is inseparable from the rivers of tradition on which we are all borne — swimming against them without endeavoring to understand them is simply flailing — and inseparable from their relationship to the future.

Michael Oakeshott understood the rejection of history and habit in favor of reason that addresses all problems de novo to be the essence of what he called, and deliberately capitalized as, "Rationalism." For the Rationalist, politics was "a matter of solving problems, and in this no man can hope to be successful whose reason has become inflexible by surrender to habit or is clouded by the fumes of tradition." But this "assimilation of politics to engineering" was a chimera: "the myth of rationalist politics." Just as progressivism's tendency was to compress authority into a single office, Rationalism's was to compress time into a single moment: now. Problems exist now and must be solved, mechanically and scientifically. The result is Progress, which John Stuart Mill — whose On Liberty is misread as a libertarian rather than a progressive manifesto — foresaw:

As mankind improve, the number of doctrines which are no longer disputed or doubted will be constantly on the increase: and the well-being of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of the truths which have reached the point of being uncontested.

The suppressed, or perhaps evident, premise here is that all truths are knowable and that, by application of rational methods, they will in fact become known. This eliminates any space for mystery in human life. That conquest of the unknown and the concomitant suspicion of mystery — the conviction that disallows the notion that anything is in principle unknowable in full given human limitations — plays out in any number of ways. Economic markets, for example, are the product of trillions of diffuse choices whose aggregate effects do not square with abstract moral values or technical desires. This is an accurate observation, but the progressive conclusion from it — that markets must be re-arranged to do so — is not.

The comparable premise is that knowing what is good suffices for doing what is good. But knowing and doing are often very far apart. Oakeshott recognized that the most important human goods are not ones that can be drilled into the mind by rote or indoctrination. We do not need medical experts alone to guide us through Covid-19, nor only specialists in sociology or criminal justice or public policy to show the way to the other side of racial tensions. We need all these things. But to sort through them, to balance and arrange them, we need prudent statesmen and prudent citizens. And these must be cultivated by a society that values what they have to offer.


In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle notes that if saying the right things was sufficient to make people decent, then rhetoricians would be better compensated. But virtue is not the product of exhortation; it is rather the product of habituation. That is not to sever virtue entirely from education, but it is to say that education that aims to inculcate prudence must be genuinely liberal rather than solely technical.

A cultivation of prudence must begin with an appreciation of human finitude and social complexity. It must nourish habits of mind that welcome nuance and resist stark categories. One way to nurture this virtue in others might be to stand in front of a classroom and opine that human knowledge is finite and society is complicated, just as one way to oppose racism might be to deliver a lecture to students that denounces it as unjust.

But there are three problems with that approach. One is Aristotle's observation that anyone who could be so persuaded does not need to be. A second is that someone who does need to be persuaded of these things is often the likeliest to rebel against the perception that they are being forced upon him. Another — one more germane to liberal education — is that the only way to appreciate nuance as a permanent fact of human life is to encounter it and wrestle with it.

In the educational setting, that can occur in several ways. A literature program that focuses on great works of fiction, for example, is uniquely suited to draw out lessons about prudence and other virtues without indoctrination. Characters situated in the greatest works of fiction — like the disputants and interlocutors of Plato's dialogues — encounter subtlety and complexity. More to the point, their struggles illustrate these facts of life. The contemplation and active study of great works of art forces a similar confrontation with nuance and tension as elements of beauty.

The study of history, like the study of Shakespeare, does not teach prudence; it forces students to look for it, to learn from it, to see that in great souls, great virtues are almost always accompanied by great flaws. Similarly, an approach to the study of politics that is rooted in the tradition of liberal education will expose students to the great works of political thought as well as the great stories of political action. Taught well — indeed, taught in a genuine sense at all — these will not consist of monologues. Some content will be a predicate to meaningful exploration, of course. But the approach will largely involve conversations or, better put, the beginnings of conversations.

Theology is particularly essential to the appreciation of prudence, not only because prudence is a cardinal virtue, but also because it is inseparable from transcendence and from the beauty of mystery. Mathematics may illustrate that some things are simply and beautifully true, while physics can show that other things that appear simple on the surface are vastly more complex at the level on which they actually operate.

None of this is to disparage education that imparts technical knowledge. It is indispensable. Pursued for its own sake — as in the biological or physical sciences, among others — it is also liberal. A pandemic cannot be overcome without it. But in the eerily prescient 2018 afterword to his book on the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, John Barry suggests that the most important issues in the next pandemic — now upon us — will be as much political as technical, especially the willingness of leaders to tell the truth:

So the final lesson of 1918, a simple one yet one most difficult to execute, is that those who occupy positions of authority must lessen the panic that can alienate all within a society. Society cannot function if it is every man for himself. By definition, civilization cannot survive that.

By definition, political problems — whether pandemics or protests — also cannot be solved by technical means alone. They demand prudence. Civilization cannot survive without it.

Greg Weiner is provost and vice president for academic affairs and associate professor of political science at Assumption University, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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