Prudence, First Of All Virtues
Prudence has forever been the guiding star of conservative thought, for the conservative is first and foremost a steward of today to prepare for tomorrow.
Two weeks ago, for this newsletter, I wrote about the seeming demise of the gentleman in modern life. I proffered a first step on the road to resurrecting chivalry:
“Reminding men of their duties and opportunities—reminding them that their liberty requires tempering—is the first step towards resurrecting the gentleman. One hopes this is a task we are up to.”
The process of restoring to men their sense of duty as men—in restoring to them the, “honor, justice, culture that make liberty invaluable,” as James Russell Lowell reminds us, begins with a recognition of the virtues that undergird the gentleman. Of all the great virtues to which the modern gentleman is the inheritor, the first and most important of them is prudence.
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According to the Oxford Dictionary, the definition of prudent is “acting with or showing care and thought for the future.” Prudence is, at root, the understanding that the choices we make today have reverberations far beyond what we can see.
Prudence has forever been the guiding star of conservative thinkers, and for good reason. Proper conservation requires the stewards of today to prepare for tomorrow. Edmund Burke, forefather of all conservatives, reminds us that prudence is “the first of all the virtues” and “is not only the first in rank of the virtues political and moral, but she is the director, the regulator, the standard of them all.”
Without a prudent approach to the world at large and to politics in general, good leaders cannot be good stewards. The same holds true for men in all their life. The first charge of a good man is to preserve for posterity, and any good gentleman upholds this virtue as high as possible.
Just as men can be educated in prudence, they can have the opposite vices inculcated in them. Edmund Burke here, too, provides an apt example. In 1783, Edmund Burke spoke before the House of Commons on the troubles plaguing Britain’s governance of India. He lamented the moral effect of the assignments on the young Englishmen sent to govern:
“There is nothing in the boys we send to India worse, than in the boys whom we are whipping at school, or that we see trailing a pike, or bending over a desk at home. But as English youth in India drink the intoxicating draught of authority and dominion before their heads are able to bear it, and as they are full grown in fortune long before they are ripe in principle, neither nature nor reason have any opportunity to exert themselves for remedy of the excesses of their premature power.”
-Edmund Burke, Speech in Commons on India, 1783
These young men sent abroad without a proper education in the virtues of a gentleman ended up full of vice. They were taught to consume what they could, without any regard for the future, and in the course of this, they wreaked havoc on their souls.
The modern man faces these same pressures. As I wrote in National Review this summer:
“Young men have been devastated in their exploration of this frontier. Internet pornography usage is growing among my cohort, to the detriment of their physical and mental health. The online gambling boom is seen most acutely among American youth, a fact any college student can anecdotally attest to. The internet has bred new religions that seduce a disturbing number of young men, turning them away from the Christian virtues that undergird American society.”
The lack of prudence in modern times is evident everywhere and only growing in scope. But these problems are not insurmountable. The habits that inculcate prudence in gentlemen have not passed from the earth completely. If we are to resurrect prudence, as defined above by Oxford and described by C.S. Lewis as “practical common sense, taking the trouble to think out what you are doing and what is likely to come of it,” we must build habits for the modern young man better than those he currently experiences.
Scott Howard is an undergraduate student at the University of Florida. An alumnus intern of National Review, he is currently an Editor at Lone Conservative and volunteers as an Associate Editor for the Freemen News-Letter. @ConservaMuse
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