Cultivating Prudence in an Age of Pandemic II

"speaking of smith"

Shanon FitzGerald for AdamSmithWorks

September 7, 2020
The qualities most useful to ourselves are, first of all, superior reason and understanding, by which we are capable of discerning the remote consequences of all our actions, and of foreseeing the advantage or detriment which is likely to result from them; and, secondly, self-command, by which we are able to abstain from present pleasure or to endure present pain, in order to obtain a greater pleasure or to avoid a greater pain in some future time. In the union of those two qualities consists the virtue of prudence, of all the virtues that which is most useful to the individual.

This essay is the second of two responding to the above Smith quotation. 

How would Adam Smith handle living through a pandemic, and what might he encourage us to do during it? The answer is more general than this singular situation of ours might lead us to believe. For in Smith’s writings we find less a survival guide for pandemics specifically, and more a roadmap for self-cultivation in general that is especially important during a pandemic. Part two of this essay is dedicated to a more specific discussion of how to do that.

Smith would want us to seize the socially distanced day, the mixed blessing of fewer interpersonal obligations and options, by using—or intentionally carving out—more time to think through the longer-term implications of our hopes, dreams, and intended actions—the stuff and substance of our characters. COVID-induced cabin fever, lurking just offstage as we head into the fall, might cause us to think that we’ve figured out some really important things, such as what we want to do, where we want to go, and who we want to be, once this thing is over and we can get on with our future lives. But through the use of “superior reason and understanding,” which I would translate to sober, honest reflection, we can and should check ourselves on these plans in advance, here and now. Do you really want to make this life decision or career move, or to separate from your partner, or to go in on this investment decision? Are you sure you should turn down that exciting, yet uncertain invitation to take part in a new business venture or social opportunity? Whatever your situation, I would encourage you to examine your intentions and interrogate whether or not they might be shading your understanding of the likely consequences of your own actions. To choose well, Smith says, we have to be able to see those clearly and to recognize that those actions and decisions are constitutive of who we are. 

Second, and even more important for this moment, Smith presses upon us the importance of cultivating self-command. This is vital now, since the rhythms of social interaction tend to play a huge role in assisting us with controlling and refining ourselves. Absent social guardrails and sympathetic cues, who will we be? Without houseguests coming by as often as they might have before, we might be tempted to let our place go down the drain. The same is true of our health—might you find yourself both exercising less and indulging detrimental temptations more? These questions, dear reader, are not meant to be judgmental. They aim only to spur honest self-reflection, an unchanging prerequisite for self-command. Regardless of where you are, there is no need for despair. You can change, and you can improve. You just have to start by taking an honest stock of where you are and what is keeping you there. 

This tends to be the trickiest part. So often we know what habits, routines, and regular choices are holding us back, yet we lack the wherewithal to follow through on implementing the changes that would get us to where we want to be. The only way to start is to begin; this can be done by training ourselves to endure “pain” and defer “pleasure” (both broadly conceived) in more and more useful ways. Extend your work day or chore hours by incremental margins before signing off to your chosen indulgences (be they TV, alcohol, sleep, social media, or anything else), or deliberately begin to knock some items off your long-term to do list. Embrace unpleasant tasks, and marvel at your own (gradually improvable) ability to get yourself to do so. This is the road to self-command.

Certain aspects of this virtuous practice are less optional—by the nature of your humanity you’ve inherited some things you simply need to force yourself to do. You’re a human being with a body, so you have to exercise in ways that are appropriate to you (I refuse to believe that anyone evolved for permanent inactivity). You’re a social creature with a mind and something like a soul, if not a soul itself—you need social interaction and the ethically edifying give-and-take of exchange with your fellows. I could go on, but that’d be missing the point, because most of the time when we’re lacking in our self-command we actually do know what we need to do. We simply can’t muster the strength or the courage to do it. Let Smith help you change that. 

Really, you should open yourself up to Smith’s suggestions, because they’re powerful and can change your life if you’re willing to put in the work to heed them. It will not be without reward. As the guiding quotation suggests, the pairing of advanced thoughtfulness and firm self-command promises to coalesce into the single, overarching virtue of prudence, which Smith later in TMS defines as “the habit or disposition of acting with the most perfect propriety in every possible circumstance or situation.” “It is the best head,” Smith says, “joined to the best heart.” Who wouldn’t want that?

Only us, of course. We do not always like to think through the remote consequences of our actions, nor do we always enjoy the practice of self-command. It is hard to see how that thing we really want to do right now is actually bad for us in the long run. We incur all sorts of costs by exercising self-command and doing what we know we must, instead of simply following the default path (whether it was set by us or perhaps by those around us). Both considering implications of actions and implementing needed course-corrections carry with them the weight of responsibility, and this load can be considerable. 

But should we choose to accept that burden, we might find that it brings with it also a host of unique rewards. Even in the midst of a pandemic, the world is a less scary place when we have a plan (which we arrive at by thinking through the consequences of multiple courses of action, and then choosing the best one) and when we have the self-confidence and skills to follow through on that plan (which we gain through the practice of self-command). Smith does not offer us a painless path to the good life—that is a fiction—but if we walk with him, we will not be at a loss for meaning or purpose. 

And then there is the long run equilibrium state we can arrive at if we choose to follow Smith in the practice of practical virtue. He calls this end-state prudence. Prudence is a state of mind in which we are comfortable with forethought and self-command. It is the serene, sagacious disposition to which we can aspire and at which we can arrive through long periods of humble practice of its constituent virtues. But once we do get there, the rewards are self-perpetuating. The presence of prudence tends to redound to its own benefit; having a little makes us more likely to end up with a lot. Virtues like prudence resist shallow attempts at quantification, but you won’t need anyone or anything else to tell you when you’ve arrived. You will feel it, above all in the harmonious ease of your self-improving actions. And at the end of the day—or should I say, at the end of the pandemic—what could be more useful, or more uplifting, than that?

Sydney Raseboya

I am looking at the practical part of the wealth of nations and asking myself why countries in africa not really weathy.

Just an enquiry