studies in the history of science and culture

© March 2005
revised 16 November 2008

prudentia (prudence, prudenza)

THE NOTION OF PRUDENCE — practical reasoning — as one of the primary intellectual and moral virtues dates to classical antiquity. Training in prudentia was part of formal education throughout the early-modern period, and has a rich pedagogical tradition, not only in the history of rhetoric, but in the more broad-based educational reform movements of the Renaissance and 17th century, as well.

Prudential reasoning and practice is still considered a rhetorical skill, with modern rhetoricians working at recovering the Ciceronian tradition for a democratic, modern society. To the Roman orator and statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE), the three faces of prudence combine the arts of memoria (past), intelligentia (present), and providentia (future).

The Ciceronian formula of memoria-intelligentia-providentia became a scholastic commonplace, typically symbolized by a trinity of human heads (related to, yet different from, the trinity of animal heads, long associated with the ancient mysteries of Serapis, which were used to symbolize phronesis).

As the early modern period advanced, the Ciceronian Three Faces of Prudence would reduce to the more conventional, two-faced visages popularized by emblem literature. Typically, the two faces appear as mirror images, or a single face is shown paired with a mirror (here functioning as a cosmographical glass, symbolic of active imagination and self-knowledge).

Unlike phronesis, a paralogic ability which requires the sort of wisdom internalized only with age and great experience, prudentia is an art developed by way of strenuous practice. Although “rarely practised by the young,” as Edgar Wind notes, it “is not necessarily beyond their reach.”


more images of Prudentia circunspecta in the GALLERY exhibit on the Athenian Society emblem

brief discussion of the Hobbesian notion of prudentia (and its gendering, as explained by Margaret Cavendish) in the LIBRARY monograph Time, Soul, Memory

a related discussion of the two-faced Janus (and prudential reasoning) on the Site Concept page

an IN BRIEF topic on phronesis (practical wisdom), the more pragmatic counterpart of prudentia

a bibliography on phronesis and prudentia


15th-century Florentine relief

The Three Faces of Prudence
(a symbol of triadic time, on the
human scale)

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