More cavorting with Coleridge’s aphorisms …this time on “Prudence”

PRUDENTIAL APHORISMS 

33. With respect to any final aim or end, the greater part of mankind live at hazard. They have no certain harbour in view, nor direct their course by any fixed star….It is not, however, the less true, that there is a proper object to aim at; and if this object be meant by the term happiness (though I think that not the most appropriate term for a state), the perfection of which consists in the exclusion of all “hap” (i.e. chance), I assert there is such a thing as human happiness, as summum bonum, or ultimate good. What this is, the Bible alone shows clearly and certainly, and points out the way that leads to the attainment of it. This is that which prevailed with Augustine to study the Scriptures, and engaged his affection to them. “In Cicero, and Plato, and other such writers,” says he, “ I meet with many things acutely said, and things that excite a certain warmth of emotion, but in none of them do I find these words, ‘ Come unto me, all ye that labour, and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ [Matt 11:28 &c]

33c. Among the aids to reflection, place the following maxim prominent; let distinctness in expression advance side by side with distinction in thought…Whether you are reflecting for yourself, or reasoning with another, make it a rule to ask yourself the precise meaning of the word on which the point in question appears to turn…and if it may be (i.e. by writers of authority has been) used in several senses, then ask which of these the word is at present intended to convey. by this means, and scarcely without it, you will at length acquire a facility in detecting the quid pro quo [one thing substituted for another] …for the quid pro quo is at once the rock and quarry on and with which the strong-holds of disbelief, materialism, and (more pernicious still) epicurean morality are built.

34. If we seriously consider what religion is, we shall find the saying of the wise King Solomon to be unexceptionally true: “Wisdom’s ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. [Proverbs 3:17].  Does religion require any thing of us more than that we live “soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world? [Titus 2:12] Now what, I pray, can be more pleasant and peaceable than these? Temperance is always at leisure, luxury always in a hurry: the latter weakens the body and pollutes the soul, the former is the sanctity, purity, and sound state of both. It is one of Epicurus’s fixed maxims: “That life can never be pleasant without virtue.”  

[Note: The above is fine as far as it goes except that virtue is not possible for man to attain in his own strength…he needs to trust in the faithfulness of Jesus Messiah in his blood and trust that he is therefore declared to be acquitted/vindicated by God ..where does Coleridge’s theology leave the man who knows in honesty that he has often not lived a virtuous life? He leaves him wrestling with guilt and  unable to resolve it, perhaps envying the man of so-called virtue. Envying others is silly because no-one but God really knows what is in each person.

Coleridge recognises this and  appends a lengthy comment to aphorism 34 in which he argues in brief:

  1. It is a common place amongst moralists both Christian and pagan to assert that happiness in this life consists solely, or principally in virtue
  2. that the dictates of virtue are the same as that which self-interest tends to and necessarily includes,  an intelligent self-love i.e.if you become better you will be happier and vice versa…thus prudence is our natural state (the voice of nature).
  3. a temperate and habit of active industry will bring pleasure but virtue may add a higher good. Coleridge here quotes Sir George Mackenzie: temperance heightens the pleasure of enjoyment , by defending us against the insults of excess. So the surgeon, to preserve what is sound will cut off what is tainted.
  4. if then the time has not yet come for any thing higher act on the maxim of seeking the most pleasure with the least pain…this approach may produce a nobler seed. If it be true that men are miserable because they are wicked, it is likewise true, that many men are wicked because they are miserable.This is a safer language than the sentence quoted in aphorism 34 above (that happiness consists in virtue etc), sayings which I find hard to reconcile with…the declaration of St Paul: If in this life only we have hope, we are of all men most miserable. [1 Cor.15:19]
  5. At all events, I should rely far more confidently on the converse, viz., that to be vicious is to be miserable. Coleridge here quotes Thomas Browne: When God forsakes us, Satan also leaves us: for such offenders he looks upon as sure and sealed up, and his temptations then needless unto them. [in Christian Morals]  Thomas Browne here precedes  C S Lewis: The Screwtape Letters…the idea that Satan doesn’t bother with evil folk, he already has them stitched up. He saves his energy for Christians! ..the closer to God, the stronger the temptations come…] Coleridge continues: In the service of God we have the sure promise of all the blessings of this life and that to come; what are the promises held out to us by infidelity? So attend to prudence, in alliance with truth, not confounding duty and interest which we should keep distinct because our faith consists in our duty to strive after Godliness,in the name and power, and through the prevenient and assisting grace, of the mediator…
  6. The advantages of a life passed in conformity with the precepts of virtue and religion can sometimes lead to a person mistakenly thinking that these advantages are the result of and motive for,  virtue and boasting to others of the result in their lives, forgetting that the ultimate results of our actions for good or evil it is quite impossible to see. Coleridge quotes Carlyle to the effect that the immediate consequence  of our actions, good or evil,  are often clear enough but the future consequences can only be surmised. Coleridge continues by concluding that if our motive for seeking wisdom is only obtaining wealth and extensive patronage, then the result will only be not love and esteem but and deservedly too, aversion and contempt in their stead. 

35.  Though prudence  (temperance) in itself is neither virtue nor spiritual holiness, yet without prudence, or in opposition to it, neither virtue nor holiness can exist.

36. Art thou under the tyranny of sin? a slave to vicious habits? at enmity with God, and a skulking fugitive from thy own conscience?  Coleridge here quotes Tillotson: “The conscience of a man’s own virtue and integrity lifts up his head. But when he hath done wickedly, he is sensible that he is condemned by others, as well as by himself.”  Coleridge continues: O, how idle the dispute, whether the listening to the dictates of prudence from prudential and self-interested motives be virtue or merit, when the not listening is guilt, misery, madness and despair! The best, the most Christianlike pity thou canst show, is to take pity on thy own soul. The best and most acceptable service thou canst render, is to do justice and show mercy to thyself.  

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