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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Prudent Man
By Adam Smith (1723–1790)
 
From the ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’

THE PRUDENT man always studies seriously and earnestly to understand whatever he professes to understand, and not merely to persuade other people that he understands it; and though his talents may not always be very brilliant, they are always perfectly genuine. He neither endeavors to impose upon you by the cunning devices of an artful impostor, nor by the arrogant airs of an assuming pedant, nor by the confident assertions of a superficial and impudent pretender: he is not ostentatious even of the abilities which he really possesses. His conversation is simple and modest; and he is averse to all the quackish arts by which other people so frequently thrust themselves into public notice and reputation. For reputation in his profession he is naturally disposed to rely a good deal upon the solidity of his knowledge and abilities: and he does not always think of cultivating the favor of those little clubs and cabals, who, in the superior arts and sciences, so often erect themselves into the supreme judges of merit; and who make it their business to celebrate the talents and virtues of one another, and to decry whatever can come into competition with them. If he ever connects himself with any society of this kind, it is merely in self-defense; not with a view to impose upon the public, but to hinder the public from being imposed upon, to his disadvantage, by the clamors, the whispers, or the intrigues, either of that particular society or of some other of the same kind.  1
  The prudent man is always sincere; and feels horror at the very thought of exposing himself to the disgrace which attends upon the detection of falsehood. But though always sincere, he is not always frank and open; and though he never tells anything but the truth, he does not always think himself bound, when not properly called upon, to tell the whole truth. As he is cautious in his actions, so he is reserved in his speech; and never rashly or unnecessarily obtrudes his opinion concerning either things or persons.  2
  The prudent man, though not always distinguished by the most exquisite sensibility, is always very capable of friendship. But his friendship is not that ardent and passionate but too often transitory affection, which appears so delicious to the generosity of youth and inexperience. It is a sedate but steady and faithful attachment to a few well-tried and well-chosen companions; in the choice of whom he is guided not by the giddy admiration of shining accomplishments, but by the sober esteem of modesty, discretion, and good conduct. But though capable of friendship, he is not always much disposed to general sociality. He rarely frequents, and more rarely figures in, those convivial societies which are distinguished for the jollity and gayety of their conversation. Their way of life might too often interfere with the regularity of his temperance, might interrupt the steadiness of his industry, or break in upon the strictness of his frugality.  3
  But though his conversation may not always be very sprightly or diverting, it is always perfectly inoffensive. He hates the thought of being guilty of any petulance or rudeness; he never assumes impertinently over anybody, and upon all common occasions is willing to place himself rather below than above his equals. Both in his conduct and conversation he is an exact observer of decency; and respects, with an almost religious scrupulosity, all the established decorums and ceremonials of society. And in this respect he sets a much better example than has frequently been done by men of much more splendid talents and virtues, who in all ages—from that of Socrates and Aristippus down to that of Dr. Swift and Voltaire, and from that of Philip and Alexander the Great down to that of the great Czar Peter of Moscovy—have too often distinguished themselves by the most improper and even insolent contempt of all the ordinary decorums of life and conversation, and who have thereby set the most pernicious example to those who wish to resemble them, and who too often content themselves with imitating their follies without even attempting to attain their perfections.  4
  In the steadiness of his industry and frugality, in his steadily sacrificing the ease and enjoyment of the present moment for the probable expectation of the still greater ease and enjoyment of a more distant but more lasting period of time, the prudent man is always both supported and rewarded by the entire approbation of the impartial spectator, and of the representative of the impartial spectator,—the man within the breast. The impartial spectator does not feel himself worn out by the present labor of those whose conduct he surveys; nor does he feel himself solicited by the importunate calls of their present appetites. To him their present, and what is likely to be their future, situation are very nearly the same; he sees them nearly at the same distance, and is affected by them very nearly in the same manner: he knows, however, that to the persons principally concerned they are very far from being the same, and that they naturally affect them in a very different manner. He cannot therefore but approve, and even applaud, that proper exertion of self-command which enables them to act as if their present and their future situation affected them nearly in the same manner in which they affect him.  5
  The man who lives within his income is naturally contented with his situation, which by continual though small accumulations is growing better and better every day. He is enabled gradually to relax, both in the rigor of his parsimony and in the severity of his application; and he feels with double satisfaction this gradual increase of ease and enjoyment, from having felt before the hardship which attended the want of them. He has no anxiety to change so comfortable a situation; and does not go in quest of new enterprises and adventures, which might endanger, but could not well increase, the secure tranquillity which he actually enjoys. If he enters into any new projects or enterprises, they are likely to be well concerted and well prepared. He can never be hurried or driven into them by any necessity, but has always time and leisure to deliberate soberly and coolly concerning what are likely to be their consequences.  6
  The prudent man is not willing to subject himself to any responsibility which his duty does not impose upon him. He is not a bustler in business where he has no concern; is not a meddler in other people’s affairs; is not a professed counselor or adviser, who obtrudes his advice where nobody is asking it; he confines himself, as much as his duty will permit, to his own affairs, and has no taste for that foolish importance which many people wish to derive from appearing to have some influence in the management of those of other people; he is averse to enter into any party disputes, hates faction, and is not always very forward to listen to the voice even of noble and great ambition. When distinctly called upon, he will not decline the service of his country; but he will not cabal in order to force himself into it, and would be much better pleased that the public business were well managed by some other person, than that he himself should have the trouble, and incur the responsibility, of managing it. In the bottom of his heart he would prefer the undisturbed enjoyment of secure tranquillity, not only to all the vain splendor of successful ambition, but to the real and solid glory of performing the greatest and most magnanimous actions.  7
 
 
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