I love old books.  When I read an old book, I am guaranteed of at least two things.  First, the old book must possess some enduring value or it would not continue to be published.  There is something lasting or seminal about the content.  Second, the author’s perspective is bound to be different because it is coming from a different cultural/historical perspective.   C.S. Lewis prescribed that his young students not allow themselves to read two new books in a row.  Instead, he suggested that they read one old book for every new book.  For Lewis, the reading of old books helps us compensate for the inevitable blind spots of each generation and society.

In the current business environment, business ethics has become a hot topic.  The increased interest may be attributed to ethical failures becoming more common in recent years.  In such a marketplace that is unlike any before it in regards to speed, technology, change, and complexity, is there anything we can learn from old books?

Adam Smith (1723-1790) is most well-known for The Wealth of Nations in which he describes the foundations of capitalism and, among other things, the “invisible hand.”  In a less well-known prior work, Smith laid out his moral philosophy, from which he described the virtues necessary for an economy to function properly and thrive.  In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith set forth several moral virtues which are still applicable more than two hundred years later.

One of those virtues is prudence.  For Smith, prudence encompasses a variety of traits such as modesty, simplicity, sincerity, frugality, industry and work ethic.  While not necessarily being the most talented, according to Smith, the prudent person is desirable as a coworker.  The prudent man “studies seriously and earnestly to understand whatever he professes to understand, and not merely to persuade other people that he understands it; and though his talents may not always be very brilliant, they are always perfectly genuine.”[1]  One who is prudent relies on the diligent search for wisdom to perfect his craft.

Prudence includes the sacrificing of ease today for a longer lasting and greater benefit in the future.  The prudent person takes the long-term view.  According to Smith, the prudent person does not meddle in others’ affairs, and hates the thought of being rude or offensive.

One who is prudent always lives within his income.   This comes from a contentment of spirit which is pleased with small accumulations earned through diligence and preparedness rather than get-rich-quick ideas.[2]  Never being driven by hurry or necessity, the prudent person always “deliberate[s] slowly and cooly” the consequences of actions.

Smith went so far as to call prudence the confluence of all the intellectual as well as moral virtues.  “It is the best head joined with the best heart.”[3]  And though we certainly live and work in a marketplace far different from that of Adam Smith’s generation, we just as surely can benefit from his two-hundred year-old wisdom.

[1] Smith, A. (1790/1976). The theory of moral sentiments. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund. (p. 213)

[2] This sound concept has precedence in Scripture: “Wealth gained quickly will dwindle away, but the one who gathers it little by little will become rich” (Proverbs 13:11, NET Bible).

[3] Ibid; p. 216.

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