Part 9 of a 16 part series regarding morals and conduct.
Prudence is looking very intently into a Mirror; it was an ancient belief that in a mirror one could see both the past and the future. Prudence here is seeking wisdom from the experience of the past and thinking cautiously of the future.
– V. W. Bro. W. H. Taine
Prudence teaches us “to regulate our lives and actions agreeably to the dictates of reason”. In dealing with anything, we should always have sound judgement. Sounds simple enough, but it can prove to be difficult at times. Obviously we shouldn’t put ourselves in situations where we’ll harm ourselves, our family, our reputation or the integrity of the craft. What’s difficult is that we often find ourselves in these situations anyways because we didn’t think it prudent enough to consider what was said or done earlier. There are times when we’ve all regretted things we’ve done or said, and had we the judgement and insight to know the proper action to take we wouldn’t find ourselves in such situations.
Prudence is extremely important in lodge. It must be exercised in all matters; otherwise unfortunate situations that might be difficult to change will result. It’s all about thinking ahead:
Prudence is that habit by which we wisely judge and prudentially determine on all things relative to cur present as well as to our future happiness. This virtue should be the peculiar characteristic of every Mason, not only for the government of his conduct while in the Lodge, but also when abroad in the world.
Prudence is among the most exalted objects that demand every Mason’s special attention, for it is the rule which governs all other virtues. She directs us to the path which leads to every degree of propriety, inciting us to the performance of worthy actions, and, as a guiding-star, lighting our steps through the dreary and dark-some ways of this life. (Sickels, 1868)
In Freemasonry, prudence helps us in acquiring knowledge through education and experience. A prudent man uses good judgement and reasoning and always seeks and lives by truth. With prudence, the Freemason has a clear mind – open to receive wisdom and knowledge. In this sense, prudence can also be synonymous with truth.
Prudence can also be represented by the chisel. In the same way that the chisel turns a rough ashlar into a perfect one, so does prudence polish our minds with wisdom and education:
As the workman, with the aid of a chisel gives form and regularity to the shapeless mass of stone, so education by cultivating ideas and polishing rude thoughts transforms the ignorant savage into the civilised being.
The Chisel furthermore demonstrates the advantages of discipline. The mind like the diamond in its original state is unpolished, but by grinding away the external coat we are enabled to discover the latent beauty of the stone. Thus education discovers the latent beauties of the mind, and draws them forth to range over the field of matter and space in order to display the summit of human knowledge, our duty to God and man. (Henderson, 1996)
It’s all about having common sense and being careful. As Freemasons we need to think things through. What’s the best way to do things? Prudence means not only making the right decisions but also acting on them. We ought always to be reasonable and learn from our mistakes. Being aware and realizing what is going on around us is the insight that helps us decide what course of action we need for the future. One important element of this is being able to ask for advice from other wise and prudent people.
It’s important to look back at mistakes to know where we’ve been, but at the same time we shouldn’t dwell on such things but look to the future, ever bearing in mind the present situation we’re in as well. To seek truth, or light, is also about learning to use reason:
Prudence leads us to act according to the dictates of reason, but it is of reason availing itself of all the light which it can obtain, and therefore above all of the light of revelation, so that our conduct may be regulated in accordance with the divine law, and may be such as to ensure our highest and eternal happiness ; for prudence has respect to the interests not only of the present life, but of that which is to come. (Paton, 1873)
We can say that prudence involves the use of common sense, reason and logic. But to go further, we can also say that it implies caution as well as foresight in determining the consequences of certain actions beforehand. It also refers to the wisdom of our conduct in the activities of thought, study and discretion. It brings us closer to the Creator in that we reflect on the moral consequences of our actions and on our relationship to Him as well. Eventually we come to a point where we realize our own ignorance, and in turn humble ourselves to seek more light:
We all know that in the erection of a building, just how easy it is to misread the plan, and how we need a good light. We have only to seek, and we will find the light that we need. The light of a Master Mason is but darkness visible, that is, ignorance realised, for there is no greater darkness than ignorance not realised. (Henderson, 1996)
Prudence is a virtue that needs to be constantly practiced when in the company of others. It helps us to understand each other better and also allows us to determine what to do at any given time, as well as how to avert crisis and overcome adversity:
Prudence is the true guide to human understanding, and consists in judging and determining with propriety what is to be said or done upon all our occasions, what dangers we should endeavour to avoid, and how to act in all our difficulties. (Mackey, 1878)
In terms of Freemasonry, prudence is usually applied when keeping discretion over certain matters. There are the obvious secrets of signs, grips and words but those are only symbolic secrets as a means to teach prudence. The true Freemason will know when, what and how to say certain things when in the company of certain brethren. This is especially difficult for the Master of the lodge, who is privy to a lot of sensitive information and uses the utmost prudence in how he uses that information. Therefore as Freemasons, we should follow that example in our own dealings and use discretion as well as good judgment, self-control and intelligence:
The application of Prudence to our everyday life means that we will use discretion in our acts and words; that we will use good judgment in what we say and do; and that we will use self-control and foresight in all such matters. It also means that we will act intelligently and with conscious regard of what the consequences will be. (Cerza, 1977)
Although there are days when we don’t require the use of prudence, indeed it is used a lot in Masonic ritual as a reminder to us of how we are obligated to act. We can use the blazing star as an example, as prudence and wisdom are considered intellectual light in this sense and lead us through the dark path of life:
In Hutchinson’s system, the Blazing Star is considered a symbol of Prudence. “It is placed,” says he, “in the center, ever to be present to the eye of the Mason, that his heart may be attentive to her dictates and steadfast in her laws;-for Prudence is the rule of all Virtues; Prudence is the path which leads to every degree of propriety; Prudence is the channel where self-approbation flows for ever; she leads us forth to worthy actions, and, as a Blazing Star, enlighteneth us through the dreary and darksome paths of this life” (Spirit of Masonry, edition of 1775, Lecture v, page 111).
Most importantly, we should remember that there’s a difference between knowledge and wisdom. To have knowledge of Masonic symbolism and ritual is indeed a worthy endeavor to strive for, but without the wisdom and understanding of these elements it is but all for naught:
A Mason may know every word of our ritual from the beginning of the entered Apprentice Degree to the final words of the Sublime Degree of Master Mason and still have no wisdom, Masonic or otherwise. Many a great leader of the Craft has been a stumbling, halting ritualist; yet possessed in abundance a Masonic wisdom which made him a power for good among the brethren, by whom he was well beloved. (Unknown, 1930)
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