Cranlana News

A note from Kerry Flattley on Prudence

Ahead of next month's launch of the Democracy & Society Symposium, Cranlana's Director of Programmes, Kerry Flattley, has prepared the following note on Titian's 'An Allegory of Prudence' and the need to look at the past with clear-eyed and uncompromising vision. Only honest acknowledgement of our failings, Kerry posits, can properly prepare us for making decisions in the present.

The Cranlana Advanced: Democracy & Society Symposium runs 20–21 May 2016. Click here to register.

Titian's 'An Allegory of Prudence'

A faint Latin inscription sits above the faces in the painting. In English it reads: ‘From the past, the present acts prudently, lest it spoils the future.’

Many interpretations have been made of Titian’s allegory. Consistent with the Latin inscription is that the virtue of prudence, which is the practice of wisdom, carries the past into the present and passes it on to the future. It has traditionally been understood as the supreme and essential political virtue. In its absence, States collapse.

Aristotle, who was fond of elaborating the virtues by describing their opposing vices, did not do this with prudence. Perhaps this was because he understood prudence as a virtue that required all the others. Its vices must therefore have been just as comprehensive.

But we can still name some in order to be reminded of its importance: carelessness, foolishness, recklessness and thoughtlessness.

Many interpretations of the wolf, lion and dog in the painting have proposed that Titian was influenced by the fifth-century Roman, Macrobius, and his account of these animals’ symbolism in Egyption religion: ‘the lion’s head denotes the present, the condition of which, between the past and the future, is strong and fervent by virtue of present action; the past is designated by the wolf’s head because the memory of things that belong to the past is devoured and carried away; and the image of the dog, trying to please, signifies the outcome of the future, of which hope, though uncertain, always gives us a pleasing picture.’

Hannah Arendt was also very interested in politics as a meeting of past, present and future. When a political regime, like Antonio in The Tempest,makes a sinner of memory in order to credit its own lie, it commits the greatest political transgression. It makes a pauper of the past, strips the present of truly human action, and hands the future a fraud.

Kerry Flattley
Director of Programmes