Lincoln, Burke, and the Politics of Prudence

Lincoln, Burke, and the Politics of Prudence
AP Photo/Jim Cole

More books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than any other man, excepting only Jesus Christ, who all must admit is a special case. That is a boon to readers eager to learn about our sixteenth president, but presents a daunting challenge to any scholar interested in writing something new about the man. In Old Whigs: Burke, Lincoln, and the Politics of Prudence, Greg Weiner has done just that, detailing Lincoln’s political philosophy alongside that of Anglo-Irish parliamentarian and scholar Edmund Burke in an effort to get at the meaning and importance of prudence in political life.

Weiner, a professor of political science at Assumption College, devised a difficult task for himself in defining a concept so nebulous as prudence. Aristotle called it “right reason applied to practice,” but what is “right reason”? St. Augustine called prudence “the science of what to desire and what to avoid,” and St. Thomas Aquinas used both of these definitions in his longer discussion of the topic. But even that great thinker could not give a simple rubric of prudence.

It is likely that no brief definition could completely comprehend the virtue, though these all point us in the right direction. For Edmund Burke, the concept meant “a moral rather than a complexional timidity.” That is to say, Burke urged caution not out of cowardice but out of humility. His conservatism was grounded in modesty, and in recognizing that neither he nor any man had all of the answers. In the face of uncertainty, prudence dictates hesitating before making a drastic change.

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