Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Fiction of Imprudence

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Fiction of Imprudence

Article excerpt

But as to poor Jones, such are the calamities in which he is at present involved, owing to his imprudence.

The History of Tom Jones (1)


In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristode describes intellectual virtue as the rational and practical choice of the mean in accordance with right reason. (2) Deliberation and calculation lead us to the correct object of rational choice so that we can choose "the fight things, for the right reason, in the right way, and at the right time" (1113a, 1115b). Rational choice (prohairesis), Aristotle argues, requires that something must be "chosen (haireton) before (pro) other things" so that we can perceive or plan beforehand (1112a). Practical wisdom (phronesis) enables us to act with a certain amount of forethought and foresight. Writing in the seventeenth century, in the aftermath of the religious and political disruptions of the English Civil War, Hobbes offered a cautious definition of prudence in Leviathan (1651). He writes:

Sometimes a man desires to know the event of an action; and then he thinketh of some like action past, and the events thereof one after another; supposing like events will follow like actions ... Which kind of thoughts, is called Foresight, and Prudence, or Providence; and sometimes Wisdome; though such conjecture, through the difficulty of observing all circumstances, be very fallacious. But this is certain; by how much one man has more experience of things past, than another; by so much also he is more Prudent, and his expectations the seldomer faile him. The Present onely has a being in Nature; things Past have a being in the Memory onely, but things to come have no being at all; the Future being but a fiction of the mind, applying the sequels of actions Past, to the actions that are Present; which with most certainly is done by him that has most Experience; but not with certainty enough. And though it be called Prudence, when the Event answereth our Expectation; yet in its own nature, it is but Presumption. (3)

For Hobbes, there is a form of prudence or attempted foresight into "things to come" that is associated with "a fiction of the mind." This form of prudence is a presumption not only because it relies on a fictional or imaginary view of future events, but also because it encroaches on the claim to a prophetic or supernatural knowledge. In this sense, the assertion of prudence as foresight is an act of hubris or blindness.

As much as Hobbes's idea of a negative or presumptuous prudence can be taken as a product of the events surrounding the English Civil War and the Commonwealth, one can still see it at work at the beginning of the nineteenth century in Jane Austen's Emma (1815). (4) In the opening chapter, Emma claims to have "made the match" between Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston, prompting her father to remark, "Ah! my dear, I wish you would not make matches and foretel things, for whatever you say always comes to pass." "You made a lucky guess; and that is all that can be said," Mr. Knightley insists (13-14). "The best Prophet naturally is the best guesser," Hobbes had dryly observed in Leviathan. (5) Mr. Knightley links Emma's "genius for foretelling and guessing" to her susceptibility to "the power of fancy" (37, 95). This is reinforced by Austen's account of Emma's reaction to the first dramatic meeting between Frank Churchill and Harriet Smith: "How much more must an imaginist, like herself, be on fire with speculation and foresight!--especially with such a ground-work of anticipation as her mind had already made" (314). This presumptuous prudence is a foresight that is guided, or egged on, by the imagination. Hobbes had already suggested this when he included the definition of presumptuous prudence in his discussion "Of the Consequence or TRAYNE of Imaginations."

According to Mr. Knightley, Emma's propensity for imaginative prudence is a product of her "being the cleverest of her family" (36). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.