The tragic death of prudence

Photo courtesy of Micah Veillon, Student Publications

The second sentence of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence states that “prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes…”

Thomas Jefferson uses the word prudence at the commencement of this sentence for a reason: he was heavily influenced by Epicurean thought.

In a letter to his friend and former personal secretary, William Short, Jefferson states that he was “too Epicurean,” and that happiness is the aim of life, virtue is the foundation of happiness, and virtue consists of: prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice.

So what exactly is this prudence he’s speaking of, this most important aspect of virtue?

Well, in context of what he writes in the declaration, it’s a philosophy by which to approach changing long standing governments, holding it should not be done for “light and transient causes.”

In short, prudence is about discipline, wisdom, and caution.

Why exactly, you may ask, is prudence dead in America?

Well, to paraphrase Nietzche, “prudence is dead, and our passions have killed it.”

Specifically, the ignorance that arises from us being blinded by our passions.

In due time, the death of prudence will lead to the death of our institutions, and ultimately will usher in the death of our freedoms.

A recent Gallup Poll shows that 61% of Americans favor abolishing the Electoral College and transitioning to electing the President by means of a national popular vote.

In the same poll 89% of Democrats and 68% of Independents favor the abolition of the Electoral College.

Why could this be? Well, Americans don’t know much about the ideas of the constitution.

I seriously don’t know why we don’t read The Federalist Papers in American history classes.

We also don’t teach the classics, and we’ve abandoned classes on Western civilization.

As it stands, very few universities offer classes in Western Civilization to undergraduates.

A report conducted by the National Association of Scholars following 50 top American Universities found that in 1964, 20% of them required a Western Civilization course, while the rest offered it as a course.

In 2010, zero required the course, and only 32% even offered it.

How are we supposed to make prudent decisions about the future of our nation when its populace knows practically nothing about its institutions? We shouldn’t be surprised when our institutions are casually torn down when those doing so aren’t aware of the need for prudence in changing long standing systems of government.

I’d like to also discuss the threat that ‘progress’ poses to
prudence.

During the later months of this year’s Presidential race, there was a slogan being used by many global leaders: build back better.

While I think it comes with good intentions, I will say that we have to be cautious when building back better.

It’s far easier to destroy than it is to build, and improving institutions that have lasted for centuries requires the utmost dedication to prudent decision making.

It’s incredibly easy to point out flaws that need improvement, but it’s remarkably difficult to actually improve them without destroying them.

It’s why when Obama stated that “we are five days away from fundamentally changing America” conservatives were immensely concerned.

Fundamental change implies fundamental problems, which requires complete restructuring of cultural and political institutions, which human history goes to show often ends in despotism, regardless of the intentions.

It’s not that I don’t think there’s problems in the world, or in America. There’s plenty. It’s not that I don’t want progress. I most certainly do.

However, I also want to preserve the progress that we’ve made. I think the events that took place in Philadelphia in 1887 may be some of the most progressive moments in history.

What we have is so remarkably rare. It’s the culmination of centuries of political and cultural traditions, passed on generation to generation. It’s a leap forward, away from the primitive cycle of political order.

The founders understood the peril unbridled human passion brings to social order. Read their letters to each other; John Jay writes to Jefferson that “…there is reason to fear that too much has been expected from the virtue and good sense of the people.”

Washington writes to John Jay that “we probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation…” That’s why the U.S Constitution was structured to accommodate for just that: the failure of the Articles of Confederation to act as a bulwark to the passions of men.

John F. Kennedy, in his famous speech “We choose to go to the Moon,” stated that “America was not built by those who waited and rested.”

While I agree, I would amend this in the following way: America was not built by those who waited and rested, but it was built by those who hesitated.

Those who were cautious, wise, and disciplined. Those who were prudent.

The death of prudence has yet to truly reach us in America, and maybe it’s not too late.

Maybe it can be revived.

While I’m unsure if it will be, I do know this: what we have in the West, and particularly in America, is extraordinarily rare.

We are apt to destroy it if we aren’t prudent about moving forward.

We are the exception, not the rule, of political order.