Time governed by Wisdom
In the time of American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, prudence (wisdom) was still held in high regard. People were no less foolish in Emerson’s time than we are in ours and folks lied back then, but truth was the measure against which speech and opinion were tested. Emerson’s essay on “Prudence” speaks of truth and the damage to the self and society when truth is violated.
Every violation of truth is not only a sort of suicide in the liar, but is a stab at the health of society. — Ralph Waldo Emerson ESSAYS: FIRST EDITION (1841)
Emerson’s essay on Prudence put to paper what Titian (1490-1576) had painted on canvas in his “Allegory of Time Governed by Prudence” four centuries before.
The old man on the left (Titian himself) is turned toward the past. The boldest figure at the center (Titian’s oldest son, Orazio) represents the present. His cousin, Marco Vecellio, at the right is facing the future. The triple-headed beast — wolf, lion, and dog — represent the cardinal virtue Prudence.
In classical western philosophy dating to Plato’s Republic, Prudence (Wisdom) has been regarded as the thoughtful supervisor or manager of the other three moral virtues (Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice). Prudence (Wisdom) brings the insight to distinguish between the semblance of reality and reality itself, and the considered intelligence to act accordingly.
Titian’s painting, like Emerson’s essay, offers guidance during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. Why? There is a parallel. Titian and his heir both died in the same year during the Plague.
Reality and the semblance of reality; truth and the distortion of truth
We in our time face a threat of two simultaneous plagues: the COVID-19 pandemic, and the violation of truth that “stabs a society” and commits “a sort of suicide in the liar.” Little attention is paid to the past or the future. A society without the Wisdom to discern the difference between truth and falsehood, reality and the semblance of reality, temperance and impulse, fortitude and facades, justice and privilege, and between a democratic republic and autocracy is a society in trouble. How we manage our way through the COVID-19 pandemic will determine the American character and the nation’s future.
In the last two weeks, every home received the post card guiding the American public through the coronavirus pandemic. In a normal year, one might expect the guidelines to arrive from an authoritative source — the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, perhaps in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service.
But 2020 is not a normal year. It’s and election year. The President who called the coronavirus threat a hoax, played to the myth of national exceptionalism with references to “the Chinese virus,” assaults the patriotism of the Speaker of the House, members of the opposition party, and the Fourth Estate (the free press of the First Amendment), substitutes his personal feelings for the knowledge of the medical science professional, and puts himself at the microphone and television cameras of the daily coronavirus updates — this is the President who sends a post card presuming to provide guidance by post card to every American household at taxpayer expense.
Emerson knew that truth-telling was an essential virtue that protected the American republic from homicide and its citizens from killing their own souls. Prudence and imprudence in government were not strangers to Emerson or those whose genius crafted the balance of powers the became the U.S. Constitution.
How does a wounded country heal?
How and why it happened requires a look at American history. How we move forward leaves many of us scratching our heads. But one thing is certain. If we allow our disparate passions and partisan allegiances to replace Wisdom, we will have chosen personal suicide and societal homicide.
Emerson’s essay and Titian’s “Allegory of Time Governed by Prudence” found a friend in Anglican priest and poet Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy (June 27, 1883 – March 8, 1929), the WWI British Chaplain nicknamed ‘Woodbine Willie’ for the Woodbine cigarettes he gave injured and dying soldiers.
After World War I Studdert Kennedy became a pacifist and a socialist whose books and sermons were on the front line of the political-economic debate over the country’s future. He stood for his convictions, but saw himself as a member of a commonwealth who, like all other citizens, was called to search for wisdom “outside the prejudices and passions that arise in party strife.”
There is, and there must be, a plane upon which we can think and reason together upon questions arising out of our wider human relations, social questions, that is, apart from and above party prejudice and sectional interest. If that is not so, and there is no such plane, and we can not think of these big questions outside the prejudices and passions that arise in party strife, then it is safe to assert that there will never be a solution of the problem whatsoever. The idea that politics in the true sense — that is, the art of managing our human relationships on a large scale — must remain a separate department of life, distinct from morals and religion, is ultimately irrational and absurd.
One of the great public and religious dangers of the day is the use of the words socialism and capitalism without any real attempt to define their meaning.– G.A. Studdert-Kennedy, “The Church in Politics” sermon preached at the 1926 annual meeting of the Industrian Christian Fellowship at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London.
This April Fools Day, may God grant courage to all us fools to let Prudence lead us to find Truth again and save us for each other and our better selves.
- Gordon C. Stewart, Chaka, MN, April 1, 2020