Chapter VIII The Rulings Of Conscience In The House Of The Body: Prudence

Imprudence is Selfishness.––"I, wisdom, dwell with prudence, and find out knowledge of witty inventions." Here is a saying worth pondering in an age when Prudence is not a popular grace. Young people confound rashness with generosity, and therefore hold Prudence in disfavour; when, of all cunning and injurious forms of selfishness, Imprudence is perhaps the most disastrous. Prudence is to be ranked among the K.C.s who instruct conscience concerning the affairs of the House of Body, because this virtue is exhibited for the most part in connection with material matters, and these all affect the body, directly or indirectly.

Prudence in Affairs.––We know the description of the virtuous woman; and, for virtuous, we might read prudent. It is Prudence who seeketh wool and flax and worketh diligently with her hands, who bringeth her food from afar. It is she who riseth early and giveth meat to her household, who considereth a field and buyeth it, who girdeth her loins with strength and strengtheneth her arms, who stretcheth out her hands to the poor, who is able to enrich her household, and to keep her place in the world with peace and honour.

Joseph was prudent. He looked ahead, and took measures for the advancement of his adopted country and the service of Pharaoh. Our own King Alfred was eminently prudent. Every great commander wins his battles as much through his prudence as his courage.

Prudence in the Choice of a Friend.––There was a time when Alcibiades1 was prudent. "From the first he was surrounded with pleasures, and a multitude of admirers determined to say nothing but what they thought would please, and to keep him from all admonition and reproof; yet, by his native penetration, he distinguished the value of Socrates, and attached himself to him, rejecting the rich and great who sued for his regard. With Socrates he soon entered into the closest intimacy; and finding that he did not, like the rest of the unmanly crew, want improper favours, but that he studied to correct the errors of his heart, and to cure him of his empty and foolish arrogance,––

     Then his crest fell, and all his pride was gone,
     He droop'd the conquered wing.

In fact, he considered the discipline of Socrates as a provision from heaven for the preservation and benefit of youth. Thus, despising himself, admiring his friend, adoring his wisdom, and revering his virtue, he insensibly formed in his heart the image of love, or rather came under the influence of that power, who, as Plato says, secures his votaries from vicious love." Here we have a fine example of prudence in the choice of a friend and mentor, and well had it been for Alcibiades had his constancy been equal to his prudence.

Prudence rejects Undue Influence.––Alexander2, in his heroic days, showed admirable prudence. He was able to distinguish between things that differ, that is, he understood the relative importance of the matters that came before him. "As for his mother, he made her many magnificent presents, but he would not suffer her busy genius to exert itself in state affairs, or in the least to control the proceedings of government. She complained of this as a hardship, and he bore her ill-humour with great mildness. Antipater once wrote him a long letter full of heavy complaints against her, and when he had read it he said, 'Antipater knows not that one tear of a mother can blot out a thousand such complaints."' Not even his mother might interfere with the duties of his office, and yet how tender was his love for her!

We know how a greater than Alexander said, "Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?" and it is eminently the part of Prudence to allow of no undue influence in any public capacity even from our nearest and dearest; because we are called upon to think, ourselves, for the good of all concerned, and not to be influenced by the private interests of any. There is something rotten in any state whose officers can be induced to act for the private good of themselves or their belongings.

Prudence chooses simplicity and eschews luxury, finds more honour in labours than in pleasures, trains the body to endure hardness. In all these respects we find in Alexander an example of gentle, heroic prudence.

Prudence Temperate in all Things.––"He found that his great officers set no bounds to their luxury, that they were most extravagantly delicate in their diet, and profuse in other respects; insomuch that Agnon of Teos wore silver nails in his shoes; Leonatus had many camel-loads of earth brought from Egypt to rub himself with when he went to the wrestling-ring; Philotas had hunting-nets that would enclose the space of a hundred furlongs; more made use of rich essences than oil after bathing, and had their grooms of the bath, as well as chamberlains who excelled in bed-making. This degeneracy he reproved with all the temper of a philosopher. He told them, 'It was very strange to him that, after having undergone so many glorious conflicts, they did not remember that those who come from labour and exercise always sleep more sweetly than the inactive and effeminate; and that, in comparing the Persian manners with the Macedonian, they did not perceive that nothing was more servile than the love of pleasure, or more princely than a life of toil. How will that man,' continued he, 'take care of his own horse, or furbish his lance and helmet, whose hands are too delicate to wait on his own dear person? Know you not that the end of conquest is, not to do what the conquered have done, but something greatly superior?2'"

Prudent Citizens the Wealth of the State.––The laws of Lycurgus3 were the outcome of a noble and generous prudence. If Sparta were to hold its own in the long conflict with Athens, it must be through the fitness of its individual citizens. Lycurgus recognised that each citizen possessed in himself the wealth most valuable to the state, in a body fit for toil and endurance, and a mind capable of seeing 'the proportion of things.

"Desirous to complete the conquest of luxury and exterminate the love of riches, he introduced a third institution which was wisely enough and ingeniously contrived. This was the use of public tables where all were to eat in common of the same meat, and such kinds of it as were appointed by law. At the same time, they were forbidden to eat at home upon expensive couches and tables, to call in the assistance of butchers and cooks, or to fatten like voracious animals in private. For so not only their manners would be corrupted, but their bodies disordered; abandoned to all manner of sensuality and dissoluteness, they would require long sleep, warm baths, and the same indulgence as in perpetual sickness . . . Another ordinance, levelled against magnificence and expense, directed that the ceilings of the houses should be wrought with no tool but the axe, and the doors with nothing but the saw. For as Epaminondas is reported to have said afterwards, of his table, Treason lurks not under such a dinner, so Lycurgus perceived, before him, that such a house admits of no luxury and needless splendour. Indeed, no man could be so absurd as to bring into a dwelling so homely and simple, bedsteads with silver feet, purple coverlets, golden cups, and a train of expense that follows these; but all would necessarily have the bed suitable to the room, the coverlet of the bed and the rest of their utensils and furniture to that."

There are many points in which a Christian commonwealth may not emulate the Spartan regimen; but wise men are feeling strongly that prudence requires of us, for the good of the state, to live simple lives, to avoid excesses, even if they come in the way of athletic or intellectual toils, and to eschew possessions more than are necessary for fit and simple living. Perhaps it is lawful for us to allow ourselves, in our furniture and implements, beauty of form and colour, and fitness for our uses; but it may be our duty not to accumulate unnecessary possessions, the care of which becomes a responsibility, and whose value lies in their costliness. These things interfere with that real wealth of a serviceable body and alert mind which we owe to the service of our country as well as that of our home.

"When the money was brought to Athens, Phocion [ asked the persons employed in that commission 'Why, among all the citizens of Athens, he should be singled out as the object of such bounty?' 'Because,' said they, 'Alexander looks upon you as the only honest and good man.' 'Then,' said Phocion, 'let him permit me always to retain that character, as well as really to be that man.' The envoys then went home with him, and, when they saw the frugality that reigned there, his wife baking bread, himself drawing water and afterwards washing his own feet, they urged him the more to receive the present. They told him, 'It gave them real uneasiness, and was indeed an intolerable thing, that the friend of so great a prince should live in such 'a wretched manner.' At that instant a poor old man happening to pass by, in a mean garment, Phocion asked the envoys, 'Whether they thought worse of him than of that man?' As they begged of him not to make such a comparison, he rejoined, 'Yet that man lives upon less than I do, and is contented. In one word, it will be to no purpose for me to have so much money if I do not use it; and if I was to live up to it, I should bring both myself and the king, your master, under the censure of the Athenians.' Thus the money was carried back from Athens, and the whole transaction was a good lesson to the Greeks, that the man who did not want such a sum of money was richer than he who could bestow it."

In the matter of Prudence, also, our Master shows us the better way. It was written of Christ, "My servant shall deal prudently"; and we should find great profit in studying the Gospel histories to see how our Lord dealt prudently with that possession of His personal life, the sole possession He allowed to Himself, and the sole possession of value to which any of us can attain. Thinking upon Christ, we shall walk soberly, and not run into any excess of riot. 


1Plutarch's Life of Alcibiades.
2Plutarch's Life of Alexander.
3Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus.
4Plutarch's Life of Phocion.