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Prudence

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Texts : Essays: First Series : PRUDENCE
A selection of Ralph Waldo Emerson's writings for searching and browsing

Prudence

from Essays: First Series (1841)

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Theme no poet gladly sung,
Fair to old and foul to young,
Scorn not thou the love of parts,
And the articles of arts.
Grandeur of the perfect sphere
Thanks the atoms that cohere.

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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