Is There a Trump Doctrine?

Donald Trump attends the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Danang, Vietnam, November 11, 2017. Reuters/Jorge Silva

When it comes to Trump’s behavior, perhaps it is too easy to get carried away with the idea that we are in uncharted territory, somehow without historical precedent.

January-February 2018

The origins of prudence can be traced to the Athenian understanding of politics, as it developed in the aftermath of defeat in the Peloponnesian Wars. Aristotle distinguished between three “virtues of thought”: episteme (scientific knowledge), techne (craft knowledge) and phronesis (prudence, or practical wisdom). As he explained in the Nicomachean Ethics, phronesis derived from experience. It was “concerned with particulars as well as universals, and particulars become known from experience.” Its main business was “to determine not ends but means to ends, i.e., what is most useful to do.” More than that, however, phronesis also demanded powers of advocacy and rhetorical skill to persuade citizens of the most expedient course of action. The Latin word prudentia is one possible translation of phronesis, and conveys its journey from Athens to Rome. For Roman political thinkers and statesmen like Cicero, concerned with the res publica (the public thing), it was the virtue most important for senators engaged in governing the civitas.

In the hands of the Christian ethicists, the Western understanding of prudence evolved further still, as a situational ethic as well as a guide to reason. For St. Thomas Aquinas,

“Rightness of choice necessarily involves two factors, namely a due end and something suitably ordained to that due end. . . . Consequently, an intellectual virtue is needed in [a man’s] reason to complement it and make it well adjusted to these things. This virtue is prudence.”

Aquinas’s Secunda Secundae of the Summa Theologica was in part devoted to finding a synthesis of classical and Christian thinking on prudence. Following Aristotle, he considered prudence a form of practical reason, based on experience and shrewdness. It was intimately concerned with euboulia (deliberating well), and synesis (judging well). Doing God’s will on earth remained the priority of a cloistered thinker like Aquinas. But he understood that political prudence also implied scenarios in which “even as false is found with true, so is evil mingled with good.” In this spirit, as the Anglo-Australian political philosopher Kenneth Minogue later observed, “prudence is a joker in the moral pack, and its business, on occasions, is to trump its fellow virtues.”

It was partly in response to the excesses of religious enthusiasm in early modern Europe that prudence moved from the domain of individual ethics to assuming a greater role in the affairs of the state. It was this that encouraged the emergence of the practice of “prudent counsel.” A wise prince would make use of experienced counselors, learned in history but promising insight into how the maxims of practical reasoning might apply to the contingent circumstances of the present. With politique raison d’état, writers and counselors as varied as Machiavelli, Jean Bodin and the Dutch humanist Justus Lipsius sought to offer more than abstract moral injunctions when it came to questions of war and governance. Instead, they offered a distinctive counsel of prudence, or practical morality. This was based on their reading of historical, usually classical precedents, informed by a neo-Stoic ataraxia that valued calmness of mind as the antidote to zealotry.

Titian’s 1565 Allegory of Time Governed by Prudence graphically captured this evolving understanding of political wisdom. The painting depicts a man with three faces: a mature adult faces the viewer, flanked on one side by the wizened profile of an old man and on the other by the callow features of a youth. Beneath the three-faced figure sits a three-faced beast—a lion facing the viewer, profiled by a wolf on one side and a dog on the other. Across the top of the painting runs the maxim EX PRAETERITO PRAESENS PRUDENTER AGIT, NI FUTUREM ACTIONEM DETURPET: “From the experience of the past, the present acts prudently, lest it spoil future actions.” The painting may be read both as a depiction of the three ages of man and, symbolically, of a wolf devouring the memory of the past, a lion depicting the fortitude necessary in the present and a dog bounding into the future. True prudence deployed the wisdom of the past as a guide to the present, with an awareness of the need to prepare for the future.

IN RECOGNIZING the many faces of knowledge and experience, prudence ground up against the rationalism associated with the later Enlightenment, which sought to apply abstract universal rules and scientific methods to the political domain. Contra rationalism, prudential skepticism stressed the role of experience, custom and tradition. It also demanded a deeper appreciation of contingency and circumstance, and the importance of self-understanding as a guide to decisionmaking.

Edmund Burke’s political writings, in particular, demonstrate the challenges of adapting prudential reasoning to the revolutionary age, when rationalist thinking was at the height of its political influence. In his 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke considered Jacobinism and scientific theories of government an affront to the practice of prudence. “Political reasoning is a computing principle,” he wrote, “adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, morally and not metaphysically or mathematically, true moral denominations.”