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© August 2005
revised 26 June 2008
This is a companion exhibit to the IN BRIEF topic on prudentia, and a supplement to the GALLERY exhibit on the Athenian Society emblem, with its introductory discussion of prudentia iconography (see the related entries, CAT. 28 and CAT. 29, in the gallery catalog), which will probably be moved here.
Recent scholarship avers that the importance of prudential deliberation and reasoning was greatly diminished after the Renaissance:
While it is true that our own impoverished notion of prudence as little more than “calculating self-interest” may well be traced back to the much-disparaged age of enlightenment, it is also true that the Enlightenment’s practices of critical rationality (especially those associated with the new science) are not wholly to blame for this.
There was, in fact, a rich post-Renaissance tradition of prudentia revealed in its iconography that bears closer investigation.
During the early modern period, the virtue of prudence was not just taught to the orator, politician, and prince, but was popularized for the middling classes children and adults alike through its iconography (as traditionally figured and taught in the emblem literature) and its inclusion in one of the most influential picture-books of the age, Comenius’ Orbis Sensualium Pictus (for a brief introduction to this educational classic, see the spread on “The Booksellers Shop”, located directly below the Table of Contents listing for the top-level LIBRARY page.)
Comenius’ Orbis Pictus, with its “entertaining” delineations (copper and wood engravings) and innovative approach (teaching words and things together, hand in hand) had an enormous circulation, and was translated into most European languages, along with some Oriental languages as well. It remained for a long time the most popular textbook in Europe. For example, about 100 years after its initial publication, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (17491832), whose holistic, participative way of science has been suggested as a model for science in the 21st century, used Orbis Pictus (which took a similarly intuitive approach to the natural world) as a child.
The last English edition of Orbis Pictus appeared in 1777, and was reprinted in the United States in 1812. So Comenian pedagogy also made its way across the Atlantic, and was influential in the Americas as well as in Europe. Indeed, the New England Puritan, Cotton Mather, recorded in his Magnalia that Comenius had at one point even been solicited to become President of Harvard College (subsequent to the resignation of President Dunster in 1654):
Comenius’ Orbis Pictus (which developed from his earlier Janua Linguarum Reserta, pub. Leszno, 1631) aimed at giving readers a multilingual (verbal and visual, Latin and vernacular) “picture and nomenclature of all the chief things that are in the world; and of mens employments therein.” Included among the 151 illustrated chapters comprising this encyclopedic survey of the phenomenal world is a chapter dedicated to prudentia, in the book’s section on self-realization (fulfilling one’s nature as a human being by developing the virtues). Significantly, the chapter on prudentia is directly preceded by a chapter on ethica (moral philosophy), and it is followed by chapters on sedulitas (diligence), temperantia (temperance), fortitudo (fortitude), patientia (patience), humanitas (humanity), justitia (justice), and liberalitas (liberality). This section on the virtues is, in turn, followed by a section on human relations (man and wife, blood relations, masters and servants, urban citizenry), which is immediately followed by discussion of the arts and professions (the law, merchandizing, medicine, play-acting, magic, sports, royalty, the military). Following this is the book’s closing section on religion, with chapters on Gentilism, Judaism, Christianity, “Mahometism” (Islam), “Gods Providence,” and “The last Judgement.”
This structure positions prudentia at the center of Comenius’ picture of life, manners, and right conduct during the 17th century, making a life-long practice of prudentia a necessity in “forming the Mind and settling good Habits,” as the publisher of yet another English edition of Orbis Pictus would advertise in 1728.
Moreover, Comenius’ text is itself a persuasive model of prudential reasoning and practice. It is framed as an invitational rhetoric.
Orbis Pictus commences with a formal Invitatio (chapter I) wherein “The Master” invites “the Boy” to join with him in a learning experience which partakes of divine wisdom:
Orbis Pictus concludes with a Clausula (chapter CLI) which reads in full:
With this close, we have moved beyond prudentia to the promise of phronesis (or what one colleague of mine has nicely translated as “wisdom of the heart”).
Throughout his book, Comenius yokes knowledge to the cumulative practical wisdom that comes from long experience taking part, ethically and reflectively, in the universal harmony of all being.
It was a theme that would resonate with scientists for several generations, many of whom believed, like Hooke, in the maxim
as proclaimed on the title page to Hoole’s first English translation of Orbis Pictus.
This GALLERY exhibit juxtaposes various images of prudentia from the Renaissance and early modern period in the interest of recovering its iconographic tradition and early adaptation for a modern age.
TOPICS: the allegorical use of the female form; the collective intellectual; early models of the social individual (vs. the bourgeois individual); the applicability of a neo-Aristotelian model (“predicated on a small city-state of a few thousand people”) to modern societies with populations in the tens and hundreds of millions
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