BMCR 2004.03.11

Prudence. Classical Virtue, Postmodern Practice

, Prudence : classical virtue, postmodern practice. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003. 1 online resource (xi, 337 pages). ISBN 0271031484 $65.00.

This book does not deal predominantly with classical material, and I am not a classicist. Why then this review for BMCR? Well, first of all, because the word “classical” does indeed figure in the (sub)title of the volume; secondly, because as a Renaissance scholar, I have some “mediated,” and admittedly incomplete, knowledge of classical culture;1 and finally, but most notably, because this volume proposes what in my view constitutes the most crucial type of classical scholarship. Indeed, it seeks to retrieve, and to re-examine (“prudently”), what in classical values and concepts is still relevant for us today, in our so-called postmodern condition.

As the editor makes clear from the outset, however, classicists who expect to find here a neo-classical restoration of ancient noble ideals will be disappointed: this is not a manifesto of reactionary politics. Simply, and more ambitiously, following the logic of postmodernism, it attempts to move “beyond modernism by drawing on those symbolic materials and intellectual traditions that modernism has suppressed” (2). Robert Hariman is perfectly conscious of the apparently antiquated and simplistic nature of the concept of prudence vis-à-vis modern rationality, private interests and technocratic expertise on a global scale. Nonetheless, as he convincingly argues, the revival of interest in prudence — communal and practical wisdom, situated knowledge, public deliberation, etc. — seems more crucial than ever in these troubled times.2

This ambitious interdisciplinary3 collection purports — too modestly I think — to be only “one contribution to the contemporary revival of interest in the concept of prudence” (ix). Nonetheless, the volume’s vast historical scope, its theoretical sophistication and its timely ethical preoccupations combine to make it far superior to most such collections. Its originality resides particularly in the “inflection” it imposes on the history of prudence: “a more Ciceronian perspective is added to the Aristotelian tradition. (…) it focuses attention on how both the practice and theory of prudence play out according to conventions of discursive performance” (ix). This approach brings about a less systematic but more stimulating and versatile view of prudence.

Following the editor’s preface and introductory theoretical chapter on prudence (“Theory Without Modernity”), the volume is divided into three parts:

1. “Conceptual frameworks”, which includes three essays described as “revisionary readings of defining moments in the history of theoretical reflection” on prudence: “Cicero and the Development of Prudential Practice at Rome” (Robert W. Cape Jr.); “After Virtú : Rhetoric, Prudence, and Moral Pluralism in Machiavelli” (Eugene Garver); “The ‘Enlightenment Project’ Revisited: Common Sense as Prudence in the Philosophy of Thomas Reid” (Peter J. Diamond).

2. “Rhetorical Structure”, a section in which one finds three “case studies of representative figures in the history of prudential public address”: “Edmund Burke’s Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol and the Texture of Prudence” (Stephen H. Browne); “Idioms of Prudence in Three Antebellum Controversies: Revolution, Constitution, and Slavery” (James Jasinski); “Fanny Wright and the Enforcing of Prudence: Women, Propriety, and Transgression in Nineteenth-Century Public Oratory of the United States” (Christine L. Oravec).

3. “Provisional Networks,” a final (contemporary) section including three essays on “prudence within some of the cultural practices and intellectual initiatives defining the early twenty-first century”: “Prudence as Republican Politics in American Popular Culture” (John S. Nelson); “Lyotard’s Postmodern Prudence” (Maurice Charland); “Prudence in the Twenty-First Century” (Robert Hariman).

Since most of these contributions are not directly relevant to classical studies — only Cape’s essay on Cicero deals with a classical author in its entirety — I will concentrate mostly on the preface, the introductory chapter, and the essay on Ciceronian prudence. I apologize to the other contributors who will, no doubt, receive better treatment in other journals.

Robert Hariman’s brief preface offers a remarkably succinct overview of the development of the “distinct mode of intelligence” that is prudence in Western thought. From the Greeks (including the Sophists, Plato, Isocrates and, especially, Aristotle) and the Romans (chiefly Cicero), through Aquinas, Machiavelli and the Scottish enlightenment, he traces the course of prudence up to its demise with the rise of (Kantian) universal moral principles and its recent revival in postmodern virtue ethics.

H.’s subsequent, and more substantial, introductory chapter (“Theory without Modernity”) sets the stage for the exploration of the “multifaceted” nature of the concept of prudence and its favoring of the (Ciceronian) “intelligible performance” tradition over the (Aristotelian) tradition based on “rational calculation” that has dominated modern thought on prudence. Thus, the relationship between the art of prudence and the art of rhetoric, which share many epistemological and ethical affinities, is emphasized from the onset.

After a short but satisfying presentation of the Aristotelian perspective on the “mode of reasoning about contingent matters” (5) that is prudence, H. goes on to question any naive acceptance of the original classical ideas and world views that shape the Aristotelian conception of prudence, where the cardinal virtue is simply “the selection of the appropriate means to achieve a moral end,” and where it is also assumed, unproblematically, that “one should strive to coordinate personal advantage with collective benefit” and “deliberate carefully before acting” (6). This wise advice amounts, as H. astutely remarks, to the proverbial “buy low and sell high.” Hence, the problem of knowing what to do in a given situation remains unsolved.

Naturally, H. goes on to show that, within classical culture, exemplars — and exemplary individuals or actions — were seen as a way of bridging the gap between general rules and specific cases. He thus expounds on the exemplary civic leadership of Pericles through a close analysis of his 430 speech (as reported by Thucydides) that challenges the Athenians to pursue the war against Sparta. Concentrating on five essential elements of the classical understanding of prudence (attention to character, awareness of the limits on action, balancing of the contradictions in each situation, identification of mutually advantageous outcomes and successful rhetorical performance), he eloquently demonstrates how prudence has a paradoxical, somewhat circular and dual structure that flips back and forth between rules and exemplars, the collective and the individual, intelligence and virtue, etc.

The crucial question, of course, concerns the relevance of such an elusive and non-systematic cognitive mode in our complex contemporary world. As I have noted earlier, prudence might, at first glance, seem like a “stranger in the corporate structures of modern thought,” but it is made necessary by the “concern for how modern civilization can be harmful to human dignity” (14), since modernity has been dominated by the “complementary mentalities of political realism and progressive social engineering” (15) that have created distorted versions of prudence (as “flexible-because-amoral expediency,” on the one hand, or “rigid moralizing,” on the other).

The problem is that, from the point of view of modern rationality, prudential mentality involves a certain number of serious “flaws”: it “antedates fact-value distinction; it is difficult to quantify; it is largely retrospective; it is necessarily parochial; it is prescriptive; it is too general; it focuses too much on individual personality; it can be a stalking horse for political advocacy” (18). On the other hand, prudence is interesting in that it “gives no special priority to either of the two great axes of modern thought — representation and subjectivity (…) There is no cogito, no controlled experiment, no phenomenological method, no falsification rule (…) no hierarchy of decision rules.” Hence, prudence’s apparent weaknesses can be seen as strengths when opposed to modern ideals of rational analysis and organization. Indeed, it is precisely because prudence questions “the legitimation criteria of high modernism” that it becomes interesting as “one version of a postmodern condition,” which this volume puts forward through various historical and contemporary studies of prudential practice, texts and discourses.

The first such essay, and the only one, as I have said, that is (entirely) relevant for classicists is Robert W. Cape Jr.’s “Cicero and the Development of Prudential Practice at Rome.” It is an ambitious attempt to give an overarching view of Cicero’s evolving conception of prudence in his treatises on oratory and politics. Cape’s approach is basically chronological and philological: after defining the status of prudentia before Cicero, he goes on to analyze its treatment in De inventione, De oratore, De re publica and Brutus.

The result is a historically informed and sophisticated view of the various guises of prudence throughout the Ciceronian oeuvre: from the designation of prudentia as one of the four cardinal virtues and the early attempt at uniting prudentia with eloquentia in De inventione, to “a retreat to a simpler expression of prudentia” (60), in his late Brutus, through the elevation of “the Roman value of prudentia to the level of sapientia in the mature dialogue De oratore (written during the politically difficult time of the First Triumvirate) and, finally, Cicero’s most extended effort to demonstrate prudential practice in the fragmentary De re publica, where the best statesman is shown to be the vir prudens, thus “offering a practical and ethical model of political performance that dovetails with the rhetorical and ethical habitus of the orator” (52), a prudential model that Cicero here adorns — in the fabled “Dream of Scipio” — with an apparently novel emphasis on “the divine help available to the prudens that accounts for his almost divine foresight” (58).

Cape’s thorough tracking down of the thread of prudentia in the above works is highly commendable, firstly, because of its apt consideration of the historical and political context of Cicero’s shifting view on prudence, but, even more so, because of its uncommon — and exemplary — attention to the rhetorical and performative nature of the texts under study. Most notably, C. is careful to underscore, unlike many commentators, the crucial fact that Cicero’s argument for prudence is most often made within texts that belong to the tradition of the dialogue genre:

“by elevating the term within the dialogue genre, providing examples of viri prudentes in intellectual debate, associating prudentia intimately with rhetoric and politics, and doing this within the context of writing literary dialogue as a form of political action, Cicero provided a model of prudential practice. His own activity in writing the dialogues is as much the practice of a prudens vir as are the actions of the characters within the dialogues” (39).4

This attention to the performative nature of Cicero’s written dialogues is of course perfectly appropriate in a volume that specifically seeks to focus, as we have noted, “on how both the practice and theory of prudence play out according to conventions of discursive performance.”

The other essays in the collection deal with extremely diverse authors and historical perspectives (from Machiavelli — in a substantial essay by Eugene Garver — to Jean-François Lyotard and American pop culture, through the Scottish Enlightenment, Edmund Burke, nineteenth-century political debate and women’s oratory in the US…). All of the contributors appear to have devoted careful attention to historical context and discursive or textual performance.

The diversity of subject matter and historical context might seem eclectic, but the volume is nonetheless more coherent than many collections of essays dealing with a single historical period. Not only does it remain focused throughout on the topic at hand, but its more rhetorical, less philosophical, perspective on prudence and practical wisdom gives it a definite cogency and originality. More importantly, one finds throughout an obviously sincere desire to investigate the relevance of prudence for our present state of affairs.

This is most evident in the editor’s concluding chapter (“Prudence in the Twenty First Century”), which presents a sophisticated and cautiously optimistic attempt to face the daunting challenges that confront us today and await us in the near future within our “glocalized” culture. In sketching the role that the value and concept of prudence can play in such a task — from the point of view of history, theory, practice, structure, character and audience — Robert Hariman initiates a dialogue on prudence that should be continued. His knowledge and mastery of the literature and various perspectives on prudence is impressive. His critical attitude is all the more praiseworthy in view of the fact that he never “gives in” entirely to one contemporary theoretical perspective, be it the civic republicanism of a Beiner, the loftier logic of interpretation of a Gadamer (which he terms “bourgeois prudence”) or the “avant-garde prudence” of poststructuralist thinkers such as Lyotard. As befits his subject, he is always conscious of limits and context. His ability to relate classical or early modern aspects of prudence to contemporary perspectives such as ecology (or the Monica Lewinsky scandal!) is also notable, though some more recent historical events might have been even better fodder for such analysis…

Finally, it is obvious, from the essays themselves and from their editorial support, that much effort (and “deliberation”5) was made to present a coherent account of prudence today and throughout history, even if the idea here is not to propose a historical narrative of a notion that doesn’t lend itself to such a perspective.

The volume does exhibit some of the usual, and perhaps unavoidable, flaws of collections of essays, most notably, the (necessary) gaps in the cultural and historical territory covered.6 For example, as an admittedly biased Renaissance scholar, I would have appreciated that a little more attention be given to the humanist revival of prudence in this period, especially since Renaissance humanists were inspired precisely by the rhetorical (and generally Ciceronian) perspective on prudence that is promoted in this volume. In his introductory chapter, the editor acknowledges that the “Renaissance might have been the high-water mark for prudence as a theory of political action” (21) and Cape concludes his essay by saying that “The real heirs of Cicero’s contribution to the idea of prudentia were not the Romans of the Empire, but the Renaissance humanists” (61). Yet, in the essays, only Machiavelli makes the cut as a — certainly most crucial but not exactly typical — exemplar of the Renaissance’s many-sided view of prudence and rhetoric. (Of course, this is also good news, since it means that much work and research remains to be done on the fortune and various avatars of the notion of prudence throughout history.7)

One last quibble: it would have been interesting to include a general bibliography of primary and secondary literature on prudence, especially since the footnotes to the essays are packed with interesting and up-to-date references.

But these minor criticisms should not prevent scholars (of various disciplines, including classics, rhetoric, political science, philosophy, communications, media and literary studies) from appreciating this significant and timely collection that should play an important role in the current revival of interest in classical prudence.

Let us hope, with the editor, that “some parts of this project” may “double as suggestions toward developing a postmodern culture dedicated to worthwhile and sustainable communities developed through wise use of modes of expertise and experience” (20). Although it might be preferable to end on a more prudent note, since, in Hariman’s own words, “There is no definitive case or last word (…) A reflexive understanding of prudence ends by recapitulating incompleteness” (24).


1. I also happen to be doing postdoctoral research on the fate of the classical virtue of prudence in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century France, within a research group based at the Université de Montréal (“Les discours de la morale au XVIIe siècle”) under the supervision of Eric Mechoulan.

2. The revival of interest in prudence is obvious in the numerous contemporary references that can be found in the footnotes of the editor’s introductory chapter (see, particularly, footnotes 1 to 3).

3. The authors are mainly affiliated with various communication studies programs, but rhetoric, philosophy, political science, “general studies,” and, of course, classics (Cape) are also represented.

4. However, Cape perhaps credits Cicero with too much responsibility for the development of the dialogue genre in Roman culture. A broader view on dialogue’s use in Roman literature can be found in Pierre Grimal’s “Caractères généraux du dialogue romain. De Lucilius à Cicéron” ( L’Information littéraire, 5, Paris, 1955, 192-198). Of course, Cicero will become the most renowned Latin author of dialogues (especially for Renaissance humanists). The best study of Ciceronian dialogue is still Michel Ruch’s Le préambule dans les oeuvres philosophiques de Cicéron. Essai sur la genèse et l’art du dialogue (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1958).

5. The authors apparently met at a small conference to discuss their respective articles. The editor, also, by contributing not only a short preface but a substantial introductory chapter and an equally substantial conclusion has greatly contributed to the general coherence of the volume.

6. For example, except for the essays on Cicero, Machiavelli and Lyotard, all other contributions are devoted to either American or British subjects.

7. Perhaps it was thought that Victoria Kahn’s excellent book on Renaissance humanism and prudence (in relation to rhetoric and skepticism) does a good enough job on this subject (V. Kahn, Rhetoric, prudence, and Skepticism in the Renaissance. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985).