Prudence

A few weeks ago I committed myself to a series, perhaps unwisely, on examining various aspects of virtue. To say the choice lacks wisdom is ironic since such a topic requires a great dose of wisdom in order to comprehend and write about it, even casually, with some sense of meaning.

The thought that I could do it was based on the use of a certain intellectual crutch by following a path of investigation already established by Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University. The crutch is her book, On Reading Well, which provides an analysis of twelve virtuous traits, identifying their classic definition and illustrating how we can experience them in literature instead of sitting at the feet of some modern day Socrates, Plato or Aristotle.

Chapter one deals with prudence, considered by many to be the queen of virtues. And here I need to stop long enough to make an editorial announcement about the use of gender specific terms in this series. The ancients portrayed virtue as female. Professor Prior retains that imagery. But anyone who needs to see the world as non-binary can do the reconstruction of my writing in their heads since I will, for the sake of ease, follow the good professor’s means of expression – to a point.  If I differ at all, it will be because I define things a little differently based on my own profession as an administrator of modest commercial success in a very competitive marketplace. For example:

Professor Prior writes: “Virtue requires judgment, and judgment requires prudence.” I am reluctant to use the word “judgment” since its fullest implication leads to condemnation, which leads to punishment. My revision of her sentence would simply substitute a word like “decisions” for “judgment” and then stress that an effective decision making ability requires prudence and courage (another virtue to be discussed in this series).

It’s not just the good professor with whom I respectfully disagree. She quotes the venerable Cicero, who defined prudence as “… the knowledge of things to be sought, and those to be shunned.” My own take on this is that prudence is mental action, reasoning, whereas Cicero seems to imply that prudence is simply a repository of acceptable behaviors. If so he reflects Solomon’s endless catalogue of proverbs to be recited at the appropriate moment to characterize a person or event.

We acquire knowledge throughout our lives. Prudence, to my way of thinking, is the ability to correctly apply that knowledge to the ever changing array of circumstances we encounter in order to choose the most favorable outcome. It is decision making on the fly.

I think this does bring me into harmony with the ancient belief that prudence is the application of practical wisdom as opposed to the more erudite concept of wisdom as the purveyor of sophisticated abstract reasoning, what the Greeks called sophia. Prudence, derived from the Latin word prudentia, which implies the ability to foresee outcomes, by comparison is a type of wisdom accessible to all despite the relative merits of our intellectual prowess.

The structure of Professor Prior’s book is to illustrate her concept of each virtue under consideration with a highly regarded work of literature. For the subject of prudence, she chose The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, by Henry Fielding. This puts me at a disadvantage since I have never read the book. So to compensate for my literary deficiency I consulted Wikipedia, the Cliff Notes of the internet, to learn more about the storyline and its characters. This, however, only added to my confusion about the choice of this book about a kind-hearted, well-meaning profligate to enhance our awareness of the virtue of prudence. It is well within the professor’s stated premise that we can learn virtue from others whose behavior is the opposite of the moral ideal. But I must confess that it works better for me to see a positive example of how life is to be lived than to parse the failings of a negative example, as represented in today’s anti-hero model.

Here, then, is my own literary offering for an example of prudence. It is to be found in a simple sentence from a story, whose popularity is based more on the amended movie version than the book.

“There were many bosques, or thickets, now and he detoured them.”

A tinhorn from the East would not understand the need to avoid a bosque in 1901 Texas just outside the border town of El Paso. Such a natural barrier forms a much favored place for a robber to hide intent on ambushing a road weary traveler. The “he” in this sentence, who is prudent enough to avoid these potential hazards, is J. B. Books, The Shootist of the eponymous novel written by Glendon Swarthout.

To be certain there is no morality here. Just survival. A prudent man uses his knowledge of the land and the times to avoid danger. But without a moral purpose, we tend to call his actions crafty or canny. There are other examples of Books’ prudence throughout the story along with a belated attempt at benevolence. But as in life even the most prudent among us cannot see all ends and his final altruistic plan is subverted by an unexpected villain. Prudence has its limits.

It is a given that when we address the twelve virtuous traits in Professor Prior’s book, we must do so with an acceptance that each trait produces a moral purpose, even if the story’s protagonist is not the exemplar of that virtue. But I am open to the possibility that all of these traits are amoral. Virtue resides within the individual, not the act.

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