S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
Nay, it very often happens that prudence, which has always in it a great mixture of caution, hinders a man from being so fortunate as he might possibly have been without it. A person who only aims at what is likely to succeed, and follows closely the dictates of human prudence, never meets with those great and unforeseen successes, which are often the effect of a more sanguine temper or a more happy rashness; and this perhaps may be the reason that, according to the common observation, Fortune, like other females, delights rather in favouring the young than the old.
Nothing universal can be rationally affirmed on any moral or any political subject. Pure metaphysical abstraction does not belong to these matters. The lines of morality are not like the ideal lines of mathematics. They are broad and deep as well as long. They admit of exceptions; they demand modifications. These exceptions and modifications are not made by the process of logic, but by the rules of prudence. Prudence is not only the first in rank of the virtues political and moral, but she is the director, regulator, the standard of them all. Metaphysics cannot live without definition; but prudence is cautious how she defines. Our courts cannot be more fearful in suffering fictitious cases to be brought before them for eliciting their determination on a point of law than prudent moralists are in putting extreme and hazardous cases of conscience upon emergencies not existing.
The rules of prudence in general, like the laws of the stone tables, are, for the most part, prohibitive. Thou shalt not, is their characteristic formula; and it is an especial part of Christian prudence that it should be so.
The great end of prudence is to give cheerfulness to those hours which splendour cannot gild, and acclamation cannot exhilarate; those soft intervals of unbended amusement, in which a man shrinks to his natural dimensions, and throws aside the ornaments or disguises which he feels in privacy to be useless encumbrances, and to lose all effect when they become familiar.
Prudence is a lovely quality. This teaches us to speak every word, and perform every action of life, at a proper time, in the proper place, and toward the proper person. It is prudence that distinguishes our various behaviour toward our fellow-creatures, according to their different ranks and degrees among mankind, or the different relations in which we stand to them. It is a very desirable excellency to know when it is proper to speak, and when it is best to keep silence; at what seasons, and in what company, we should awaken our zeal, and exert our active powers; or when we should hide ourselves, or put a bridle upon our lips, and sit still, and hear.
Bacon seems to have had that over-estimate of those who are called the prudent which is rather common. One cause of the supposed superiority of wisdom often attributed to the over-cautious, reserved, non-confiding, non-enterprising characters, as compared with the more open, free-spoken, active, and daring, is the tendency to overrate the amount of what is distinctly known. The bold and enterprising are likely to meet with a greater number of tangible failures than the over-cautious; and yet if you take a hundred average men of each description, you will find that the bold have had, on the whole, a more successful career. But the failuresthat is, the non-successof the overcautious cannot be so distinctly traced. Such a man only misses the advantagesoften very greatwhich boldness and free-speaking might have gained. He who always goes on foot will never meet with a fall from a horse, or be stopped on a journey by a restive horse; but he who rides, though exposed to these accidents, will, in the end, have accomplished more journeys than the other. He who lets his land lie fallow will have incurred no losses from bad harvests; but he will not have so much of his land as if he had ventured to encounter such risks.
Richard Whately: Annot. on Bacons Essay, On Boldness.