What is Prudence?


Caution is a good risk to take

What is PRUDENCE? To some, it is merely a woman’s name. To the Catholic Church, it is one of the four cardinal or seven heavenly virtues. To the Roman satirical poet Decimus Junius Juvenalis (65 ~ 128 AD), it is a shield that protects one from harm. And to the Persian poet Sadi (1184 ~ 1291), it is the ability to learn from the mistakes of others. In today’s parlance, it is best described by the precept, "Better safe than sorry."

Prudence is all about good judgement, weighing all the possibilities, considering the consequences of one’s actions, thinking before one acts, being thoughtful, using common sense, doing what’s best for oneself, using discretion, exercising caution, and conforming to reason and decency. It is the avoidance of thoughtless and reckless behavior. It is the ability to distinguish the difference between what is harmful and what is helpful and following the right course of action. Imagine how much misery would be eliminated if we all followed the dictum, "Look before you leap."

The Frenchman Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799) was a musician, man of letters, publisher, diplomat, inventor, businessman, free-thinker, and master of controversy. In his composition, The Barber of Seville, Beaumarchais has one of the characters in the opera say, "I would rather worry without need than live without heed." Living without heed is reckless and, therefore, imprudent. But worrying without need is equally imprudent. You see, part of being prudent is being balanced; it is imprudent to be otherwise. Because of the need for balance, prudence may direct us to hold our tongue on one occasion and to speak up on another.

There are two types of risks, those with bad payoffs and those with good payoffs. A prudent person doesn’t smoke because it is a health risk; it has a bad payoff. A poor man asking the rich woman he loves to marry him is risking rejection and humiliation. Yet, if she agrees, he will be rewarded with joy; his risk has a good payoff. So, prudent people avoid risks with poor payoffs, but have no problem taking risks that have good payoffs. After all, part of being prudent is valuing courage.

Some disasters are avoidable while others are unavoidable. The consequences of our actions are always unavoidable. But as long as they are governed by prudence, we will have nothing to fear. For as Shakespeare wrote, "Things done well and with a care, exempt themselves from fear." Prudence, then, is a protective shield. And the absence of caution is more harmful than the absence of knowledge. Prudence is also the foundation of other virtues (good habits). For example, bravery without prudence easily becomes foolhardiness.

The political leader and writer Critias (c.460 ~ 403 BC) was a relative of and respected by Plato. Critias recognized that people aren’t born lucky, but create their own luck by leading prudent lives. That’s why he wrote, "Fortune always fights on the side of the prudent." Despite Critias’ praise of prudence, some argue that too much caution immobilizes one with fear and prevents progress. Such a belief, however, is based on a misunderstanding. Actually, it is impossible to be ‘overly prudent’ because to be so would be imprudent. So, the very idea of being excessively prudent is an oxymoron, or a contradiction of terms.

In the thirteenth century, the Persian poet Sadi (also written ‘Saadi’) wrote, "Learn from the misfortunes of others, so others may not learn from you." That certainly is good advice. Besides learning from the mistakes of others, prudent people also learn from the accomplishments of others. Every person we meet is an example, one to be followed or one to be avoided.

Let’s consider some of the patterns of thinking shared by prudent people. First, they follow their inner voice and do what is right. The reward for their behavior is a life free of guilt, shame, regret, or stress. They also focus on the important issues because of their awareness of the brevity of life. They don’t waste time; they live it, experience it, relish it, and use it. They also realize that what is prudent for one, may not be for another. So, they respect the uniqueness of others and allow them to express themselves differently. They are not only aware of the weaknesses of others, but of their own weaknesses. That’s why they follow the advice of the German monk Thomas ã Kempis (1379 ~ 1471), who wrote, "Be not angry that you cannot make another what you wish them to be; since you cannot make yourself what you wish to be."

The prudent are so because of a conscious commitment they made. Whether they are aware of Caleb C. Colton (1780 ~ 1832) or not, they instinctively follow his suggestion: "Accustom yourself to submit on every occasion to a small present evil (inconvenience, effort, sacrifice), to obtain a greater good. This will give decision, tone, and energy to the mind, which, thus disciplined, will often reap victory from defeat, and honor from repulse." The prudent also instinctively heed the words of La Fontaine (1621 ~ 1695): "In everything consider the consequences."

The actions of the imprudent teach us what to avoid. They speak much and know little; spend much and have little; sleep much and do little; learn much and apply little. They also fear what will make them stronger and not what will make them weaker. When it comes to relationships, they often cut what could have been untied. They sever relationships that could have been mended, for they are intolerant and impatient.

Besides learning from the mistakes and good examples of others, we can learn from the wisdom of the ages, which is expressed in axioms, proverbs, sayings, maxims, precepts, mottos, aphorisms, dictums, and adages. In fact, let’s begin at once by considering a few proverbs. Which of the following should you and I embrace?

First things first.
Forewarned is forearmed.
Eat to live and not live to eat.
Do as you would be done by.
Actions speak louder than words.
You can’t tell a book by it’s cover.
Things are not always what they seem.
He who knows nothing, doubts nothing.
Knowledge is the mother of all virtue; all vice proceeds from ignorance.
A rainbow in the morning is a shepherd’s warning; a rainbow at night is the shepherd’s delight.

© Chuck Gallozzi
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