We’ve done a great disservice to the word “prudence” in our time. It’s most often used to describe caution against danger (its synonyms in Merriam-Webster are “caution” and “carefulness”), or used to describe a sort of financial discretion (think Prudential Investments). And, of course, we’re all familiar with the word “prude” for the sexually cautious or reserved.
But we’ve lost the classical, and more meaningful, definition of “prudence.” It’s a concept first fully elucidated by Aristotle, but amply and beautifully demonstrated by Jane Austen in each of her novels. Thus, in honor of the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death, I want to recount the various depictions of prudence in her classic novels, and explain why they matter so much to our own time.
What Prudence Really Means
First, we must turn to Aristotle, whose definition of prudence (phronesis in ancient Greek) animated and inspired our modern conceptions of virtue. Prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues in classical Christian philosophy, and the ancient Greeks considered it the mother of all virtues.
Aristotle described prudence as the place at which intellectual and spiritual wisdom—a knowledge of the good, and desire to seek it—meets the practical and particular. The prudent person recognizes universal principles such as charity, truth, and holiness, and knows how to apply them or bring them into being in specific situations. Clyde Ray describes the virtue of prudence thus in an essay on “Sense and Sensibility”:
… If theoretical wisdom establishes the highest end of happiness, practical wisdom is a conviction leading one to deliberate well about the objects promoting that end depending on considerations of time and place: ‘virtue makes us aim at the right target, and practical wisdom makes us use the right means’ (VI.13, 1145a5-7; VI.12, 1144a7-9). Such wisdom is an intellectual virtue because it entails thinking about the actions conducive to the good life as antecedently determined by reason, but is separate from the theoretical virtues insofar as it is concerned with matters that are particular and variable rather than ‘what exists by necessity,’ which are the proper objects of ‘pure science’ (VI.4, 1140a25-28; VI.5, 1140a32-b4). Accordingly, prudence helps intelligently arrange and unify whatever general ends (e.g., wealth, pleasure, health) enable us to become ‘just, noble, and good’ (VI.12, 1143b17-33). When these particular goods are chosen and directed in accordance with moral virtue, we partake in the activity of human flourishing (eudaimonia) (X.7, 1177a20-22).
Thus, prudence is often understood as a sort of practical wisdom, or as some have argued, a type of “mindfulness.” One of my favorite definitions of prudence comes from Merriam-Webster, which calls it “the ability to govern and discipline oneself by the use of reason.”
So what does Jane Austen have to do with the virtue of prudence?
How Jane Austen Considers Prudence
Alasdair MacIntyre called Austen’s works “the last great representative of the classical tradition of virtues.” Everything she wrote was a thoughtful elucidation of what prudence looks like (or doesn’t look like) in everyday life. “Sense and Sensibility” contains 19 references to prudence and imprudence, “Pride and Prejudice” 13 references, “Emma” eight, “Mansfield Park” six, and “Persuasion” five.
If prudence is a sort of practical wisdom, a self-governance that helps us to seek the good in our everyday circumstances, then each of Austen’s novels is an exercise in learning prudence. The virtue was vital to the world in which Austen lived: among a small, tightly knit circle of human beings, all of them prone to virtue and vice, all of them seeking eudaimonia.
Each of the primary exemplars of prudence demanded of an Austen heroine (or hero) changes from book to book. Patience and forbearance are forms of prudence demanded of Elinore Dashwood in “Sense and Sensibility,” as well as Anne Elliot in “Persuasion” and Fanny Price in “Mansfield Park.” Conversational and relational prudence are demanded of Marianne Dashwood, Emma Woodhouse, Elizabeth Bennett, and Catherine Morland. The question of prudence in regards money is considered at length in “Sense and Sensibility,” as we see characters display overwrought, greedy, or calculating attitudes toward wealth. “Pride and Prejudice” pushes us to consider prudential parenting, as we watch both Mr. and Mrs. Bennett fall prey to the worst of laissez faire parenting. “Persuasion” asks us to consider the prudence and imprudence of following advice.
Even characters that seem obviously imprudent (like “Pride and Prejudice’s” Mrs. Bennett, for example) are but the tip of the virtuous iceberg in Austen’s work. Every one of her characters has a moral mountain to climb, a period of self-discovery and shame to surmount. Let’s look first at Elizabeth Bennett, undoubtedly Austen’s most popular protagonist.
The Imprudence of Assumption and Vanity
In some instances, Elizabeth Bennett displays an immediate shrewdness and sagacity. She sees through the pettiness of many of her acquaintances, and refuses to let money or acclaim influence her motives. Her greatest causes of shame throughout “Pride and Prejudice” are usually tied to her family’s lack of self-discipline: the impropriety displayed, most notably, by her younger sisters.
However, as the novel unfolds, we realize that Elizabeth has herself demonstrated a lack of prudence in some of her key relationships—most notably, perhaps, with Mr. Wickham. He’s a callous and calculating individual who draws in Elizabeth and her family via his smooth and flirtatious ways. When he spreads false stories surrounding Mr. Darcy and his sister, Elizabeth believes him immediately, without pausing to consider whether he’s telling the truth.
When Darcy reveals the true story surrounding Wickham’s actions, Elizabeth isn’t just angered at his deceit—she’s ashamed of herself. She realizes her vanity flattered her into thinking she was wise, whereas in reality, she lacked prudence.
‘How despicably I have acted!’ she cried; ‘I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! … Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.’
Catherine Morland learns a similar lesson in “Northanger Abbey.” She’s become obsessed with sordid and sensational gothic romances. So when she thinks there’s a chance her friend Eleanor’s mother was viciously murdered by her father, she jumps to conclusions, not thinking of the pain her assumption might cause her friend, or her friend’s family. Eleanor’s brother Henry confronts Catherine thus.
If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? … Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?
Here, Henry doesn’t just rebuke Catherine for her silliness, he reminds her of her reason, and of the virtuous ends to which it can be applied. He gives her the ingredients she needs to seek prudence—“consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you”—and urges her to put aside folly. Thus, Catherine’s shame prompts in her a repentance and renewal that results in true wisdom.
The Folly Of Vanity And Cruelty
We see several of Austen’s antagonists display folly without shame: chief among such characters are Wickham and Willoughby, Henry Crawford, Frank Churchill, and William Elliot (among others). Many of these characters are charming, suave, Epicurean. They seem excellent foils for our leading heroines. But as time goes on, we find they have a hidden secret or vice that prevents them from truly seeking and exemplifying virtue.
In addition, we’re presented with characters such as Lydia Bennett, Lucy Steele, Maria Bertram, Catherine Elliot, and Isabella Thorpe, who serve as foils to the leading protagonists. Many of these women seek pleasure before virtue, or vanity before humility. They are at times cruel or imprudent, selfish and petulant—and never learn from their mistakes.
In this instance, interestingly enough, Emma Woodhouse acts much like an antagonist throughout her book. It’s often hard to like her: she’s wealthy, spoiled, and vain. But that’s why her transformation—from folly to shame, ignorance to self-discovery—is perhaps the most powerful of any in Austen’s books. It’s why her romance is also one of the most poignant: because (much like Henry Tilney’s relationship with Catherine Morland) it is Mr. Knightley’s willingness to rebuke her that leads Emma into greater virtue. After she makes fun of an elderly spinster at a picnic, Knightley says this to Emma:
Were she your equal in situation—but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her—and before her niece, too—and before others, many of whom… would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.—This is not pleasant to you, Emma—and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will,—I will tell you truths while I can; satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel, and trusting that you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do now.
We can debate later on whether Jeremy Northam’s delivery of these lines in the 1996 film adaptation of “Emma” is 100 times more powerful than any Colin Firth monologue in “Pride and Prejudice.” But this is the entire climax of the book, because it turns Emma from the principal antagonist in her own story to a character eager to seek virtue and “the ability to govern and discipline” herself.
The Importance Of Forbearance
My two favorite Austen heroines, Elinore Dashwood and Anne Elliot, display prudence more fully than perhaps any other characters in her novels. But theirs is also a prudence sharpened by all the pangs of unrequited love: a virtue cultivated by suffering in silence. This also makes them two of the saddest characters in Austen’s fiction, for the majority of their journeys. Thankfully, Austen likes to give us happy endings.
Elinore serves as the counselor and protector of her family. She’s humble, kind, generous, and astute. But above all else, she’s patient: patient with the occasional silliness of her sister and mother, the unkindnesses of their economic condition, as well as the maltreatment and neglect of the man she loves. Elinore forbears. That’s what she does. And because Austen is a kind author, she gives Elinore everything she deserves at the end of her book. But throughout “Sense and Sensibility,” Elinore suffers silently.
The same is true of Anne Elliot, except for an important difference: Anne is much older, and much of her suffering is born out of a foolish decision she made as a young woman. When the man she loved—Captain Wentworth—asked Anne to marry him, she was persuaded by her family to reject him. It’s a decision she regrets for the rest of her life. Thus, whereas Elinore is taught forbearance through hardship, Anne must learn it through her own folly.
In this sense, “Persuasion” begins where many of Austen’s other novels turn. The moment of foolishness and shame, the words that can’t be stolen back—for Anne, these happened far off in the past. Because of them, she’s had to grapple with a difficult present, and has no idea what the future will bring.
But it’s precisely because of these travails that Anne’s character has both sharpened and softened into virtue: she’s built courage and confidence, alongside compassion and sweetness. When Captain Wentworth meets her a second time, he meets a different—more virtuous—Anne.
Elinore and Anne taught me how to deal with disappointed hopes, beyond the realm of the romantic. Of course, it took a lot of growing up to realize that not every period of forbearance ends in “happily ever after.” We don’t always get the answers we want, the rewards we desire for our patience. But Anne’s story suggests that virtue itself is worth the journey. We realize, while reading her story, that she would’ve been just as happy without Captain Wentworth in her life. Thus, in Anne Elliot, we see prudence take its fullest shape.
Why Prudence Should Matter To Us
It’s tragic that the virtue of prudence has fallen into such disrepute and unfamiliarity, because we need it deeply. In our technological age, where temptations lie in wait on every side—whether of gluttony, obsession, lust, pride, selfishness, malice, or folly—we must relearn the virtue of prudence. We need to learn how to navigate every particular instance of life with wisdom and discretion. We need self-governance, more than perhaps ever before.
Thankfully, Jane Austen hasn’t gone anywhere. Her novels are incredibly popular, transcending the boundaries of time and fashion. While many laud the romantic nature of her books, the feminist confidence of her heroines, the “happily ever after” endings she gives us, I think it’s her virtues that sets her apart. In every novel, Austen doesn’t just show us how to seek happiness—she shows us that prudence itself lies at the heart of happiness. And that’s a lesson we all need to learn.