“Prudence, thou virtue of the mind, by which
We do consult of all that’s good or ill.”
Amongst the milder virtues which contribute to round out and perfect life is to be found Prudence. It is a mild and pleasing quality. It counsels moderation and guidance by wisdom. It is practical wisdom, and comes of the cultivated judgment. It has reference in all things to fitness, to propriety, judging wisely of the right thing to be done and the right way of doing it. It calculates the means, order, time, and method of doing. Prudence learns from experience quickened by knowledge. It seeks to keep the practical path rather than that which, indeed, promises brilliant results, but takes the traveler along dangerous precipices and through places where there is a risk of his losing all.
The most brilliant attainments are rendered nugatory for want of prudence, as the giant deprived of his eyes is only the more exposed by reason of his enormous strength and stature. Prudence is the perfection of reason, and a guide to us in all the duties of life. It is invariably found in men of good sound sense, and is, indeed, their most shining quality, giving value as it does to all the rest, sets them to work in their proper time and places, and turns them to the advantage of the person who is possessed of them. Without it learning is pedantry and wit impertinence; virtue itself looks like weakness. The best parts only qualify a man to be more sprightly in errors and active to his own principles. Prudence is a quality incompatible with vice, and can never be effectually enlisted in its cause, and he who deliberately gives himself over to the power of vice and evil habits can never be said to be acting according to the dictates of the highest reason, wherein prudence is always distinguished.
It is difficult to define wherein prudence doth consist, inasmuch as the rules of prudence in general, like the laws of the stone tablet, are for the most part prohibitive. “Thou shalt not,” is their characteristic formula. It is easier to state what is forbidden under certain circumstances than what is required. It is shown in practical every-day life by thoughtful actions on the thousand petty questions which are constantly claiming attention. It is hesitating and slow to believe what is not sanctioned by past experience, and prefers not to run any very great risks in testing new plans for gaining the great object of life, preferring the sure to the doubtful, even though the latter may seem to have many advantages. It recognizes that there is a necessity for a certain amount of caution in all the transactions of business; hence the old saying, “Prudent men lock up their motives, letting familiars have a key to their hearts as to their garden.” It weighs long and carefully the reasons for or against any proposed line of conduct, and calls upon the will to act only in accordance with the result of such reasoning.
In nothing does prudence display itself more than in relation to the little affairs of life. There are those who in the confidence of superior capacities or attainments neglect the common maxims of life. But this is a fatal delusion, as nothing will supply the want of prudence in the ordinary vocations of business, no matter how superior the other qualities. Negligence and irregularity long continued will make knowledge useless, wit ridiculous, and genius contemptible. The merchant may, indeed, win thousands by speculations; but the only sure way of attaining to fortune, place, or honor is by obedience to well-known laws of business prudence, which discountenance speculation unbased on substantial facts.
Such are the vicissitudes of human life that, whatever the calling may be, scarcely a day passes that does not call upon all to exercise this quality in some of the common every-day occurrences, as well as in the unexpected emergencies which fate is constantly presenting to us. The triumph of its long exercise is to be seen in those, moments when to come at a wrong decision means disastrous defeat, the fatal overthrow of the hopes of a life-time. It by degrees forms for itself a standard of duty and propriety, accumulates rules and maxims of conduct, and materials for reflection and meditation.
The tongue of prudence knows when to speak and when to be silent. It is not cowardly; it dares to say all that need be said, but it does not tell all that it knows. It is careful what it speaks, when it speaks, and to whom it speaks. When you have need of a needle you move your fingers delicately with a wise caution. Use the same prudence with the inevitable affairs of life; give attention, and keep yourself from undue precipitation, otherwise it will fare hardly with you.
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