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    Prudence

    by Ralph Waldo Emerson
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    ESSAY VII Prudence

    What right have I to write ont of the negative sort? My
    prudence consists in avoiding and going without, not in the inventing
    of means and methods, not in adroit steering, not in gentle
    repairing. I have no skill to make money spend well, no genius in my
    economy, and whoever sees my garden discovers that I must have some
    other garden. Yet I love facts, and hate lubricity, and people
    without perception. Then I have the same title to write on prudence,
    that I have to write on poetry or holiness. We write from aspiration
    and antagonism, as well as from experience. We paint those qualities
    which we do not possess. The poet admires the man of energy and
    tactics; the merchant breeds his son for the church or the bar: and
    where a man is not vain and egotistic, you shall find what he has not
    by his praise. Moreover, it would be hardly honest in me not to
    balance these fine lyric words of Love and Friendship with words of
    coarser sound, and, whilst my debt to my senses is real and constant,
    not to own it in passing.

    Prudence is the virtue of the senses. It is the science of
    appearances. It is the outmost action of the inward life. It is God
    taking thought for oxen. It moves matter after the laws of matter.
    It is content to seek health of body by complying with physical
    conditions, and health of mind by the laws of the intellect.

    The world of the senses is a world of shows; it does not exist
    for itself, but has a symbolic character; and a true prudence or law
    of shows recognizes the copresence of other laws, and knows that its
    own office is subaltern; knows that it is surface and not centre
    where it works. Prudence is false when detached. It is legitimate
    when it is the Natural History of the soul incarnate; when it unfolds
    the beauty of laws within the narrow scope of the senses.

    There are all degrees of proficiency in knowledge of the world.
    It is sufficient, to our present purpose, to indicate three. One
    class live to the utility of the symbol; esteeming health and wealth
    a final good. Another class live above this mark to the beauty of
    the symbol; as the poet, and artist, and the naturalist, and man of
    science. A third class live above the beauty of the symbol to the
    beauty of the thing signified; these are wise men. The first class
    have common sense; the second, taste; and the third, spiritual
    perception. Once in a long time, a man traverses the whole scale,
    and sees and enjoys the symbol solidly; then also has a clear eye for
    its beauty, and, lastly, whilst he pitches his tent on this sacred
    volcanic isle of nature, does not offer to build houses and barns
    thereon, reverencing the splendor of the God which he sees bursting
    through each chink and cranny.

    The world is filled with the proverbs and acts and winkings of
    a base prudence, which is a devotion to matter, as if we possessed no
    other faculties than the palate, the nose, the touch, the eye and
    ear; a prudence which adores the Rule of Three, which never
    subscribes, which never gives, which seldom lends, and asks but one
    question of any project, — Will it bake bread? This is a disease
    like a thickening of the skin until the vital organs are destroyed.
    But culture, revealing the high origin of the apparent world, and
    aiming at the perfection of the man as the end, degrades every thing
    else, as health and bodily life, into means. It sees prudence not to
    be a several faculty, but a name for wisdom and virtue conversing
    with the body and its wants. Cultivated men always feel and speak
    so, as if a great fortune, the achievement of a civil or social
    measure, great personal influence, a graceful and commanding address,
    had their value as proofs of the energy of the spirit. If a man lose
    his balance, and immerse himself in any trades or pleasures for their
    own sake, he may be a good wheel or pin, but he is not a cultivated
    man.

    The spurious prudence, making the senses final, is the god of
    sots and cowards, and is the subject of all comedy. It is nature's
    joke, and therefore literature's. The true prudence limits this
    sensualism by admitting the knowledge of an internal and real world.
    This recognition once made, — the order of the world and the
    distribution of affairs and times being studied with the
    co-perception of their subordinate place, will reward any degree of
    attention. For our existence, thus apparently attached in nature to
    the sun and the returning moon and the periods which they mark, — so
    susceptible to climate and to country, so alive to social good and
    evil, so fond of splendor, and so tender to hunger and cold and debt,
    — reads all its primary lessons out of these books.

    Prudence does not go behind nature, and ask whence it is. It
    takes the laws of the world, whereby man's being is conditioned, as
    they are, and keeps these laws, that it may enjoy their proper good.
    It respects space and time, climate, want, sleep, the law of
    polarity, growth, and death. There revolve to give bound and period
    to his being, on all sides, the sun and moon, the great formalists in
    the sky: here lies stubborn matter, and will not swerve from its
    chemical routine. Here is a planted globe, pierced and belted with
    natural laws, and fenced and distributed externally with civil
    partitions and properties which impose new restraints on the young
    inhabitant.

    We eat of the bread which grows in the field. We live by the
    air which blows around us, and we are poisoned by the air that is too
    cold or too hot, too dry or too wet. Time, which shows so vacant,
    indivisible, and divine in its coming, is slit and peddled into
    trifles and tatters. A door is to be painted, a lock to be repaired.
    I want wood, or oil, or meal, or salt; the house smokes, or I have a
    headache; then the tax; and an affair to be transacted with a man
    without heart or brains; and the stinging recollection of an
    injurious or very awkward word, — these eat up the hours. Do what
    we can, summer will have its flies: if we walk in the woods, we must
    feed mosquitos: if we go a-fishing, we must expect a wet coat. Then
    climate is a great impediment to idle persons: we often resolve to
    give up the care of the weather, but still we regard the clouds and
    the rain.

    We are instructed by these petty experiences which usurp the
    hours and years. The hard soil and four months of snow make the
    inhabitant of the northern temperate zone wiser and abler than his
    fellow who enjoys the fixed smile of the tropics. The islander may
    ramble all day at will. At night, he may sleep on a mat under the
    moon, and wherever a wild date-tree grows, nature has, without a
    prayer even, spread a table for his morning meal. The northerner is
    perforce a householder. He must brew, bake, salt, and preserve his
    food, and pile wood and coal. But as it happens that not one stroke
    can labor lay to, without some new acquaintance with nature; and as
    nature is inexhaustibly significant, the inhabitants of these
    climates have always excelled the southerner in force. Such is the
    value of these matters, that a man who knows other things can never
    know too much of these. Let him have accurate perceptions. Let him,
    if he have hands, handle; if eyes, measure and discriminate; let him
    accept and hive every fact of chemistry, natural history, and
    economics; the more he has, the less is he willing to spare any one.
    Time is always bringing the occasions that disclose their value.
    Some wisdom comes out of every natural and innocent action. The
    domestic man, who loves no music so well as his kitchen clock, and
    the airs which the logs sing to him as they burn on the hearth, has
    solaces which others never dream of. The application of means to
    ends insures victory and the songs of victory, not less in a farm or
    a shop than in the tactics of party or of war. The good husband
    finds method as efficient in the packing of fire-wood in a shed, or
    in the harvesting of fruits in the cellar, as in Peninsular campaigns
    or the files of the Department of State. In the rainy day, he builds
    a work-bench, or gets his tool-box set in the corner of the
    barn-chamber, and stored with nails, gimlet, pincers, screwdriver,
    and chisel. Herein he tastes an old joy of youth and childhood, the
    cat-like love of garrets, presses, and corn-chambers, and of the
    conveniences of long housekeeping. His garden or his poultry-yard
    tells him many pleasant anecdotes. One might find argument for
    optimism in the abundant flow of this saccharine element of pleasure
    in every suburb and extremity of the good world. Let a man keep the
    law, — any law, — and his way will be strown with satisfactions.
    There is more difference in the quality of our pleasures than in the
    amount.

    On the other hand, nature punishes any neglect of prudence. If
    you think the senses final, obey their law. If you believe in the
    soul, do not clutch at sensual sweetness before it is ripe on the
    slow tree of cause and effect. It is vinegar to the eyes, to deal
    with men of loose and imperfect perception. Dr. Johnson is reported
    to have said, — "If the child says he looked out of this window,
    when he looked out of that, — whip him." Our American character is
    marked by a more than average delight in accurate perception, which
    is shown by the currency of the byword, "No mistake." But the
    discomfort of unpunctuality, of confusion of thought about facts, of
    inattention to the wants of to-morrow, is of no nation. The
    beautiful laws of time and space, once dislocated by our inaptitude,
    are holes and dens. If the hive be disturbed by rash and stupid
    hands, instead of honey, it will yield us bees. Our words and
    actions to be fair must be timely. A gay and pleasant sound is the
    whetting of the scythe in the mornings of June; yet what is more
    lonesome and sad than the sound of a whetstone or mower's rifle, when
    it is too late in the season to make hay? Scatter-brained and
    "afternoon men" spoil much more than their own affair, in spoiling
    the temper of those who deal with them. I have seen a criticism on
    some paintings, of which I am reminded when I see the shiftless and
    unhappy men who are not true to their senses. The last Grand Duke of
    Weimar, a man of superior understanding, said: — "I have sometimes
    remarked in the presence of great works of art, and just now
    especially, in Dresden, how much a certain property contributes to
    the effect which gives life to the figures, and to the life an
    irresistible truth. This property is the hitting, in all the figures
    we draw, the right centre of gravity. I mean, the placing the
    figures firm upon their feet, making the hands grasp, and fastening
    the eyes on the spot where they should look. Even lifeless figures,
    as vessels and stools, — let them be drawn ever so correctly, —
    lose all effect so soon as they lack the resting upon their centre of
    gravity, and have a certain swimming and oscillating appearance. The
    Raphael, in the Dresden gallery, (the only greatly affecting picture
    which I have seen,) is the quietest and most passionless piece you
    can imagine; a couple of saints who worship the Virgin and Child.
    Nevertheless, it awakens a deeper impression than the contortions of
    ten crucified martyrs. For, beside all the resistless beauty of
    form, it possesses in the highest degree the property of the
    perpendicularity of all the figures." This perpendicularity we demand
    of all the figures in this picture of life. Let them stand on their
    feet, and not float and swing. Let us know where to find them. Let
    them discriminate between what they remember and what they dreamed,
    call a spade a spade, give us facts, and honor their own senses with
    trust.

    But what man shall dare tax another with imprudence? Who is
    prudent? The men we call greatest are least in this kingdom. There
    is a certain fatal dislocation in our relation to nature, distorting
    our modes of living, and making every law our enemy, which seems at
    last to have aroused all the wit and virtue in the world to ponder
    the question of Reform. We must call the highest prudence to
    counsel, and ask why health and beauty and genius should now be the
    exception, rather than the rule, of human nature? We do not know the
    properties of plants and animals and the laws of nature through our
    sympathy with the same; but this remains the dream of poets. Poetry
    and prudence should be coincident. Poets should be lawgivers; that
    is, the boldest lyric inspiration should not chide and insult, but
    should announce and lead, the civil code, and the day's work. But
    now the two things seem irreconcilably parted. We have violated law
    upon law, until we stand amidst ruins, and when by chance we espy a
    coincidence between reason and the phenomena, we are surprised.
    Beauty should be the dowry of every man and woman, as invariably as
    sensation; but it is rare. Health or sound organization should be
    universal. Genius should be the child of genius, and every child
    should be inspired; but now it is not to be predicted of any child,
    and nowhere is it pure. We call partial half-lights, by courtesy,
    genius; talent which converts itself to money; talent which glitters
    to-day, that it may dine and sleep well to-morrow; and society is
    officered by _men of parts_, as they are properly called, and not by
    divine men. These use their gifts to refine luxury, not to abolish
    it. Genius is always ascetic; and piety and love. Appetite shows to
    the finer souls as a disease, and they find beauty in rites and
    bounds that resist it.

    We have found out fine names to cover our sensuality withal,
    but no gifts can raise intemperance. The man of talent affects to
    call his transgressions of the laws of the senses trivial, and to
    count them nothing considered with his devotion to his art. His art
    never taught him lewdness, nor the love of wine, nor the wish to reap
    where he had not sowed. His art is less for every deduction from his
    holiness, and less for every defect of common sense. On him who
    scorned the world, as he said, the scorned world wreaks its revenge.
    He that despiseth small things will perish by little and little.
    Goethe's Tasso is very likely to be a pretty fair historical
    portrait, and that is true tragedy. It does not seem to me so
    genuine grief when some tyrannous Richard the Third oppresses and
    slays a score of innocent persons, as when Antonio and Tasso, both
    apparently right, wrong each other. One living after the maxims of
    this world, and consistent and true to them, the other fired with all
    divine sentiments, yet grasping also at the pleasures of sense,
    without submitting to their law. That is a grief we all feel, a knot
    we cannot untie. Tasso's is no infrequent case in modern biography.
    A man of genius, of an ardent temperament, reckless of physical laws,
    self-indulgent, becomes presently unfortunate, querulous, a
    "discomfortable cousin," a thorn to himself and to others.

    The scholar shames us by his bifold life. Whilst something
    higher than prudence is active, he is admirable; when common sense is
    wanted, he is an encumbrance. Yesterday, Caesar was not so great;
    to-day, the felon at the gallows' foot is not more miserable.
    Yesterday, radiant with the light of an ideal world, in which he
    lives, the first of men; and now oppressed by wants and by sickness,
    for which he must thank himself. He resembles the pitiful
    drivellers, whom travellers describe as frequenting the bazaars of
    Constantinople, who skulk about all day, yellow, emaciated, ragged,
    sneaking; and at evening, when the bazaars are open, slink to the
    opium-shop, swallow their morsel, and become tranquil and glorified
    seers. And who has not seen the tragedy of imprudent genius,
    struggling for years with paltry pecuniary difficulties, at last
    sinking, chilled, exhausted, and fruitless, like a giant slaughtered
    by pins?

    Is it not better that a man should accept the first pains and
    mortifications of this sort, which nature is not slack in sending
    him, as hints that he must expect no other good than the just fruit
    of his own labor and self-denial? Health, bread, climate, social
    position, have their importance, and he will give them their due.
    Let him esteem Nature a perpetual counsellor, and her perfections the
    exact measure of our deviations. Let him make the night night, and
    the day day. Let him control the habit of expense. Let him see that
    as much wisdom may be expended on a private economy as on an empire,
    and as much wisdom may be drawn from it. The laws of the world are
    written out for him on every piece of money in his hand. There is
    nothing he will not be the better for knowing, were it only the
    wisdom of Poor Richard; or the State-Street prudence of buying by the
    acre to sell by the foot; or the thrift of the agriculturist, to
    stick a tree between whiles, because it will grow whilst he sleeps;
    or the prudence which consists in husbanding little strokes of the
    tool, little portions of time, particles of stock, and small gains.
    The eye of prudence may never shut. Iron, if kept at the
    ironmonger's, will rust; beer, if not brewed in the right state of
    the atmosphere, will sour; timber of ships will rot at sea, or, if
    laid up high and dry, will strain, warp, and dry-rot; money, if kept
    by us, yields no rent, and is liable to loss; if invested, is liable
    to depreciation of the particular kind of stock. Strike, says the
    smith, the iron is white; keep the rake, says the haymaker, as nigh
    the scythe as you can, and the cart as nigh the rake. Our Yankee
    trade is reputed to be very much on the extreme of this prudence. It
    takes bank-notes, — good, bad, clean, ragged, — and saves itself by
    the speed with which it passes them off. Iron cannot rust, nor beer
    sour, nor timber rot, nor calicoes go out of fashion, nor money
    stocks depreciate, in the few swift moments in which the Yankee
    suffers any one of them to remain in his possession. In skating over
    thin ice, our safety is in our speed.

    Let him learn a prudence of a higher strain. Let him learn
    that every thing in nature, even motes and feathers, go by law and
    not by luck, and that what he sows he reaps. By diligence and
    self-command, let him put the bread he eats at his own disposal, that
    he may not stand in bitter and false relations to other men; for the
    best good of wealth is freedom. Let him practise the minor virtues.
    How much of human life is lost in waiting! let him not make his
    fellow-creatures wait. How many words and promises are promises of
    conversation! let his be words of fate. When he sees a folded and
    sealed scrap of paper float round the globe in a pine ship, and come
    safe to the eye for which it was written, amidst a swarming
    population, let him likewise feel the admonition to integrate his
    being across all these distracting forces, and keep a slender human
    word among the storms, distances, and accidents that drive us hither
    and thither, and, by persistency, make the paltry force of one man
    reappear to redeem its pledge, after months and years, in the most
    distant climates.

    We must not try to write the laws of any one virtue, looking at
    that only. Human nature loves no contradictions, but is symmetrical.
    The prudence which secures an outward well-being is not to be studied
    by one set of men, whilst heroism and holiness are studied by
    another, but they are reconcilable. Prudence concerns the present
    time, persons, property, and existing forms. But as every fact hath
    its roots in the soul, and, if the soul were changed, would cease to
    be, or would become some other thing, the proper administration of
    outward things will always rest on a just apprehension of their cause
    and origin, that is, the good man will be the wise man, and the
    single-hearted, the politic man. Every violation of truth is not
    only a sort of suicide in the liar, but is a stab at the health of
    human society. On the most profitable lie, the course of events
    presently lays a destructive tax; whilst frankness invites frankness,
    puts the parties on a convenient footing, and makes their business a
    friendship. Trust men, and they will be true to you; treat them
    greatly, and they will show themselves great, though they make an
    exception in your favor to all their rules of trade.

    So, in regard to disagreeable and formidable things, prudence
    does not consist in evasion, or in flight, but in courage. He who
    wishes to walk in the most peaceful parts of life with any serenity
    must screw himself up to resolution. Let him front the object of his
    worst apprehension, and his stoutness will commonly make his fear
    groundless. The Latin proverb says, that "in battles the eye is
    first overcome." Entire self-possession may make a battle very little
    more dangerous to life than a match at foils or at football.
    Examples are cited by soldiers, of men who have seen the cannon
    pointed, and the fire given to it, and who have stepped aside from
    the path of the ball. The terrors of the storm are chiefly confined
    to the parlour and the cabin. The drover, the sailor, buffets it all
    day, and his health renews itself at as vigorous a pulse under the
    sleet, as under the sun of June.

    In the occurrence of unpleasant things among neighbours, fear
    comes readily to heart, and magnifies the consequence of the other
    party; but it is a bad counsellor. Every man is actually weak, and
    apparently strong. To himself, he seems weak; to others, formidable.
    You are afraid of Grim; but Grim also is afraid of you. You are
    solicitous of the good-will of the meanest person, uneasy at his
    ill-will. But the sturdiest offender of your peace and of the
    neighbourhood, if you rip up _his_ claims, is as thin and timid as
    any; and the peace of society is often kept, because, as children
    say, one is afraid, and the other dares not. Far off, men swell,
    bully, and threaten; bring them hand to hand, and they are a feeble
    folk.

    It is a proverb, that 'courtesy costs nothing'; but calculation
    might come to value love for its profit. Love is fabled to be blind;
    but kindness is necessary to perception; love is not a hood, but an
    eye-water. If you meet a sectary, or a hostile partisan, never
    recognize the dividing lines; but meet on what common ground remains,
    — if only that the sun shines, and the rain rains for both; the area
    will widen very fast, and ere you know it the boundary mountains, on
    which the eye had fastened, have melted into air. If they set out to
    contend, Saint Paul will lie, and Saint John will hate. What low,
    poor, paltry, hypocritical people an argument on religion will make
    of the pure and chosen souls! They will shuffle, and crow, crook,
    and hide, feign to confess here, only that they may brag and conquer
    there, and not a thought has enriched either party, and not an
    emotion of bravery, modesty, or hope. So neither should you put
    yourself in a false position with your contemporaries, by indulging a
    vein of hostility and bitterness. Though your views are in straight
    antagonism to theirs, assume an identity of sentiment, assume that
    you are saying precisely that which all think, and in the flow of wit
    and love roll out your paradoxes in solid column, with not the
    infirmity of a doubt. So at least shall you get an adequate
    deliverance. The natural motions of the soul are so much better than
    the voluntary ones, that you will never do yourself justice in
    dispute. The thought is not then taken hold of by the right handle,
    does not show itself proportioned, and in its true bearings, but
    bears extorted, hoarse, and half witness. But assume a consent, and
    it shall presently be granted, since, really, and underneath their
    external diversities, all men are of one heart and mind.

    Wisdom will never let us stand with any man or men on an
    unfriendly footing. We refuse sympathy and intimacy with people, as
    if we waited for some better sympathy and intimacy to come. But
    whence and when? To-morrow will be like to-day. Life wastes itself
    whilst we are preparing to live. Our friends and fellow-workers die
    off from us. Scarcely can we say, we see new men, new women,
    approaching us. We are too old to regard fashion, too old to expect
    patronage of any greater or more powerful. Let us suck the sweetness
    of those affections and consuetudes that grow near us. These old
    shoes are easy to the feet. Undoubtedly, we can easily pick faults
    in our company, can easily whisper names prouder, and that tickle the
    fancy more. Every man's imagination hath its friends; and life would
    be dearer with such companions. But, if you cannot have them on good
    mutual terms, you cannot have them. If not the Deity, but our
    ambition, hews and shapes the new relations, their virtue escapes, as
    strawberries lose their flavor in garden-beds.

    Thus truth, frankness, courage, love, humility, and all the
    virtues, range themselves on the side of prudence, or the art of
    securing a present well-being. I do not know if all matter will be
    found to be made of one element, as oxygen or hydrogen, at last, but
    the world of manners and actions is wrought of one stuff, and, begin
    where we will, we are pretty sure in a short space to be mumbling our
    ten commandments.
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