Dear Prudence

I can’t say I paid much attention to the idea of prudence, if any at all, until I read Tom Jones, back in 1967, by Henry Fielding.  I didn’t pay much attention to it then, but while I thought the book was mostly about getting laid, I was told that it “really” was about the search for Wisdom, Sophia being the name of the character pursued by Tom, and Sophia means Wisdom, in Greek I think.

But I did notice Fielding used the word Prudence a lot; indeed he writes:

Prudence and circumspection are necessary even to the best of men. They are indeed, as it were, a guard to Virtue, without which she can never be safe. It is not enough that your designs, nay, that your actions, are intrinsically good; you must take care they shall appear so. If your inside be never so beautiful, you must preserve a fair outside also.

Fielding makes Prudence sound like some Machiavellian duty; sure you may be good inside, but in addition, you must appear good, so be prudent.  Of course he was referring mostly to sexual matters—since the book was “really” about getting laid—so it was sort of a warning to young ladies to not only be but also appear chaste at all times.  And he does make a larger point:  prudence is the Guard to Virtue.  More than that Prudence, according to some, is the mother of all virtues.

 Prudence comes from a Latin word, or maybe it’s Greek, that means “foresight.”  That gets to the core of it.  You can’t just let your virtues guide you; certainly they are the principles that must regulate one’s actions.  But you can’t just expect to be virtuous and have everything come out A-OK.  You also have to exercise foresight.  I think the idea of Prudence may have something to do with Kant’s Practical Reason.  Because prudence is about the practice of virtue.

Prudence is not for the young and the reckless.  Or perhaps the young necessarily are reckless and they have to learn prudence by being reckless.  That’s what Fielding seems to be saying: sure, get laid, but be prudent about it.  People don’t expect children to be prudent.  Children have to get up to walk around, then they fall down and hurt themselves or stick their hands in the fire and learn to be prudent.  If children were born with prudence none of them would ever learn to walk because, getting up and walking around, is damn imprudent.

I was thinking about Prudence because I was pissed off.  We seem to live in an age of imprudence.  I am pretty sure parents don’t lecture their children on the value of Prudence.  Today we praise “risk takers.”  That’s a bunch of bull; in fact we praise imprudence.  And what we get is bankers who loan people money without doing a background check to see if they have any money at all.  And we have people going out and buying homes when they know damn well that they don’t have any money.  And just yesterday, the Fed lowered the interest rates so that there will be more money out there to be imprudent with.  Thus the idiotic, reckless, risk taking morons on Wall Street were overjoyed.

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