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Wisdom often feels like a vague, shadowy concept—something we all want but do not really understand. Sometimes we equate wisdom with intelligence, but it certainly is not guaranteed by a high IQ. Sometimes we talk about wisdom as if it were a synonym for inner peace or an automatic characteristic gained from old age or life experience. But wisdom is not really any of those things.

After more than a decade in Christian higher education, I’m not convinced those of us who claim to be in the “business” of wisdom-seeking and wisdom-formation are all that much clearer about what we mean by wisdom, either. When I was first applying for jobs out of graduate school, I sprinkled “wisdom” liberally in my application materials, but when pressed, I probably wouldn’t have been able to define it much beyond humbly making good decisions. Wisdom may be our shared motive and our mission, our intended outcome and aim, but when asked what wisdom actually means, and how we might go about pursuing and acquiring it, my hunch is that administrators, professors, and students might not share the same vision.

But thanks to the Christian tradition, we can share the same vision of wisdom. In fact, we can look at her face with our own eyes.

Meet Lady Prudence.1 A quick glance at Lady Prudence might make you think she is not only vain but downright duplicitous. She carries a mirror with her everywhere and seems to hang around with snakes. Then there’s that tiny issue of her literally having two faces: a young woman’s face and an old, bearded man’s face. She also holds a compass and wears a rope around her waist.

But Prudence is the opposite of duplicitous. She’s here to identify truth, to help us see more clearly, and to guide us on the best course of action. Prudence means practical wisdom and is traditionally considered the leader of the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, courage, and temperance.2

Aquinas provides a simple definition of prudence: right reason in action.3 But what sounds simple is actually quite complex and challenging. How do we know we have right reason? What kind of actions are required, and how do we ensure they align with our right reason? How can we be sure those actions will cause the effects we intended?

Prudence’s multiple faces are here to help. Two personifications of Prudence—a painting by Piero del Pollaiolo and a sculpture by Michel Colombe—show us what it means to be wise.

Gisant de François II, cathédrale de Nantes (France) shows The Two Faces of Prudence. (Photo Links to Source)

Prudence painting by Piero del Pollaiolo. (Photo taken by author)

When Prudence gazes into her reflection, she isn’t checking to make sure her mascara hasn’t run. Rather, the mirror is a reminder to “know thyself.” Wisdom begins with self-reflection. Knowing our own tendencies, strengths, and struggles is a crucial starting point. Without self-reflection, all the study in the world won’t make us wise. The wisdom of self-reflection means that no matter how much I might want to become a rock star, I know myself well enough to admit that I am tone-deaf, and therefore should stay away from the stage.

Self-reflection teaches us when we are most likely to make poor decisions, and once we know that we can take steps to prevent it. When I got married, the most common piece of advice I received was not to go to bed angry, but self-reflection quickly taught me that doesn’t work for me. When I’m tired, I act more rashly and impatiently and tend to make things worse. If I go to bed angry, I wake up much less angry and much more able to handle a situation calmly and rationally. Others may have different reactions. The fact that what may be wise for one person may not be wise for another demonstrates the beautiful dynamism of the virtue of prudence. It is not a one-size-fits-all code; it adapts to people and circumstances.

Self-reflection involves consulting our memory and learning from our experiences. The old, bearded face in Colombe’s sculpture represents “Old Man Memory,” or, more simply, the past. Prudence reminds us of what we have tried before. “Remember,” she prods, “you did poorly the last three times you saved studying for an exam for the night before. Perhaps you ought to learn from that experience and try something different this time.”

But the past is not limited to our personal memories. We would know very little if we relied only on what we discover for ourselves. If we look at our own past and memories, we will see with our own eyes and our perspective. But if we can draw on the collective experiences and wisdom of those who have come before us, we suddenly see with thousands of eyes, rather than just with our own. The quality of docility—being open-minded and willing to admit we don’t have all the answers—is a fundamental part of prudence. To seek outside wisdom requires humbly acknowledging that others may know better—and more—than we do. Looking backward with the eyes of Old Man Memory vastly widens our field of vision.

The past provides us with guidance and rich resources for weighing today’s decisions, but just because something worked well in the past doesn’t mean it will work the same way now. Prudence’s caliper, or compass, reminds us to consider an issue from multiple angles. Prudence must not only look backward; she must also look forward. Looking to what may happen tomorrow—that is, tracing the arc of the compass—helps us consider the wider impacts of what we choose right now.

The compass’s circle tells us to consider context and circumstances. Many well-intentioned decisions can result in tragedy when we fail to understand the people, culture, or wider circumstances involved. Prudence’s compass traces the arc of today’s decisions, weighing how they might impact not only us but also future generations. Will today’s “good idea” still be good five, ten, or fifty years in the future? Selling beverages in disposable plastic bottles might seem like quite a good idea in the present: it’s cheap and very convenient both for beverage companies and for consumers, which can mean more people enjoying more beverages and, therefore, higher profits for the companies. But when we weigh the present conveniences of using disposable plastic bottles against its future impact, the decision becomes less clear. Plastic does not decompose like other materials, creates waste, damages the air quality if burned, and is entering our oceans at such a high rate that plastics outnumber fish in some of our waters. In what ways might “easy” decisions now lead to very difficult decisions later?

We tend to associate serpents with evil, but Prudence’s snake refers to Matthew 10:16, which tells us to be as “shrewd as snakes.” Prudence requires creativity, wit, and wiles. Sometimes we do not need to pick only between path A and path B, but we must forge our own secret path C. Prudence requires shrewd creativity to see what others might not be able to envision.

The snake’s ability to strike quickly also reminds us that we need right thinking and right action at the right time. If we spend all our time consulting Old Man Memory, we may fail to take the necessary action until it’s too late. Acting too slowly, even if the decision is a good one, is not prudent.

Lastly, if we take a closer look at Colombe’s sculpture, we see that Prudence’s belt is actually the reins for a horse. To talk about virtue, philosophers have often compared the soul to a horse-drawn chariot. Prudence, who is sometimes called “the charioteer of the virtues,”4 holds the reins to signify her role as orienteer and leader. She sets the course and pays vigilant attention to the road, assessing whether we are staying on the charted course to reach our intended destination or if we are at risk of veering off the path and losing our way. No matter how much courage we might have, or how much we may fight for justice, we need prudence to ensure we’re pursuing those virtues in the right way and heading in the right direction.

Lady Prudence, too, can be the charioteer for Christian universities, acting as the vision that guides how we equip students with the kind of practical wisdom that can carefully consult the past, assess the present, and prepare for the future. She and the other lady virtues can help us see the kind of people we want to become.

Granted, just putting up some images of Lady Prudence and the other lady virtues around our campuses won’t automatically make our students more virtuous. Personifications of the virtues are not enough on their own. To cultivate virtue requires virtue literacy, habitual practice, personal reflection, studying exemplars, understanding situational differences, being reminded, and developing friendships.5 But personifications, when intentionally engaged with, are a key starting place in virtue formation. They help develop virtue literacy by explaining the key parts of virtue through symbolism and act as a visual exemplar, but they can also be combined with other practices and methods to meet some of the other criteria for virtue cultivation. Personifications can be paired with exemplars from literature, history, and Scripture, adopted into practices inside and outside the classroom, serve as reminders of what we should be aspiring towards, and prompt self-reflection on its different parts.6

A personification, then, is like any vision: a starting place for something with potential that then requires extensive work and support. Education is not the task of a single person, but the work of a large community, and as I discovered when my students set out to be “kind” in their peer editing only to be unintentionally unkind by failing to help one another grow, shared work often needs to begin with a shared vision.

Today, we may not use the same terms of wax and seals to talk about formation, but we do still use branding, which is likewise not just about identification, but about making an impression (consider that branding for cattle, for instance, burned an image onto the skin). Universities recognize the power of symbols and images in helping to provide a vision: otherwise, they would not spend so much time and money on logos, merchandise, and mascots. Adapting personifications of the virtues might be one way to start casting a (literal) vision not just of our “brand,” but of who we are and who we are striving to become.


  1. Prudence (prudentia in Latin) is distinct from sophia, though both are forms of wisdom. Prudence tends to be more practical and associated with reason while sophia is a kind of transcendental wisdom. There is some dispute about whether humans can achieve sophia, which Christians associate with knowledge of the divine Logos; prudence, however, is something we can practically develop, and is typically a prerequisite for sophia.
  2. The cardinal virtues may not be named explicitly in Scripture as a set of four, but early Christian writers such as Origen, Clement, Augustine, and Ambrose adapted and expanded upon approaches to these four virtues they found in classical thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero.  Ambrose, for instance, connected these four virtues to biblical quartets, such as the four creatures in Revelation, the four rivers of Paradise, the four Gospels, and the four corners of the cross.  Ambrose also links each cardinal virtue with the four beatitudes in Luke. Ambrose, Commentary of Saint Ambrose on the Gospel according to Saint Luke A Brief Commentary on Luke, 5:65-68, trans. by Íde M. Ní Riain (Dublin, Ireland: Halcyon, 2001).The four cardinal virtues are often paired with the three theological virtues of love, faith, and hope.
  3. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II.47.2, trans. by Fathers of the English Dominican Province, rev. and ed. by Kevin Knight. Aquinas’s own definition is borrowed from Aristotle.
  4. Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 1806.
  5. Michael Lamb, Jonathan Brant, and Edward Brooks, “Seven Strategies for Cultivating Virtue in the University” in Cultivating Virtue in the University, ed. Jonathan Brant, Edward Brooks, and Michael Lamb, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022), 115–156.
  6. I’ve written previously about how the personification of prudence can extend into classroom practices, be paired with literary exemplars, and encourage self-reflection. See Lanta Davis, “Wisdom’s Guiding Compass: Lady Prudence as a Pedagogical Model,” Religions 11, no. 4: 153 (2020).

Lanta Davis

Indiana Wesleyan University
Lanta Davis is Professor of Humanities and Literature for the John Wesley Honors College at Indiana Wesleyan University.


  • Gordon Moulden says:

    “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
    The words of the Lord, recorded in Deuteronomy 8:3, reiterated by none other than Christ, as recorded in Matthew 4:4.

    “everyone who hears these words of Mine, and acts on them, will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of Mine, and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and its collapse was great.” (Words from Christ, as recorded in Matthew 7:24-27)

    Before we look to our sages and to our arts, I think need to look to Our Maker. He’s given us His word, which surely He intends us to live by first and foremost, for our own good.

  • Victoria Garrett says:

    Dear Professor Davis,
    I read with interest your thoughtful comments about wisdom, and Prudence.
    It has always been my desire to understand why someone strikes me as wise.
    One thing stands out – wisdom seems always to involve love.
    Someone may be extremely brilliant, but without the presence of love, which is woven into the fabric of all they know, they probably wouldn’t seem to me to be wise.
    Blessings as your studies continue,
    Victoria Garrett
    Bethel University Dept. Of Music – Voice

    • Gordon Moulden says:

      I can imagine it must really stir your soul when you experience a student playing an instrument, or singing, with love, and not simply skill. Certainly, as a student, I could be bored to tears and vastly disappointed with a teacher or professor who knew their discipline but taught it without love, and on the other hand, inspired by one who taught with passion for their subject and genuine interest in his or her students.