Affiliate Link

On Simplicity

There is in Humane Nature a certain charming Quality, innate and original to it, which is called SIMPLICITY. In latter Ages, this has been almost universally exploded, and banished from amongst Men, as the Characteristic of Folly; whilst Cunning and Artifice have prevailed in its stead, and with equal Justice been dignified with the Titles of Wisdom and Understanding. But I believe the juster Account of the Matter is, that Simplicity is the homespun Dress of Honesty, and Chicanery and Craft are the Tinsel Habits and the false Elegance which are worn to cover the Deformity of Vice and Knavery.

In the first Ages of the World, when Men had no Wants but what were purely natural, before they had refin’d upon their Necessities, and Luxury and Ambition had introduced a Thousand fantastick Forms of Happiness, Simplicity was the Dress and Language of the World, as Nature was its Law. The little Cunning which was then in use, only taught them to ensnare, or to make tame such Animals as were necessary to their Support or their Convenience, and were otherwise too swift or too strong for them; but since these Arts have attain’d their utmost Perfection, Men have practised the same low Stratagems upon one another, and by an infinite Variety of Disguises and well-covered Treacheries, have long since instituted those little Basenesses among the necessary Arts and Knowledges of Life, and practised without Scruple, that which they have long owned without Shame.

But if we look into the History of the World, and into the Characters of those who have had the greatest Names in it, we shall find, that this original Simplicity of Mind has gradually been worn off in every Age, down to the present Time, when there is hardly any Characters of it remaining undefaced. The old Greeks and Romans, whose unperishable Writings have preserved to us the Actions and Manners of their Countrymen, and who were so well studied in all the Forms and reasonable Happinesses of Life, are so full of that just and beautiful Stile and Sentiment, as seems to have been the only proper Method of transcribing the frank and open Characters of the Heroes they celebrate, and of making them and their Writers immortal.

To prove the natural Charm and Beauty there is in this Simplicity, we need only, at this Day, as false as the World is grown, retire but far enough from great Cities, the Scenes of all worldly Business and Action; and, I believe, the most cunning Man will be obliged to own, the high and sincere Pleasure there is in conversing from the Heart, and without Design. What Relief do we find in the simple and unaffected Dialogues of uncorrupted Peasants, after the tiresome Grimace of the Town! The veriest Double-Dealer in the World is ever hankering after an Opportunity to open his own Heart, tho’ perhaps he curses himself after he has done it. We are all forward enough to protest and complain against the Falshood and Treachery of Mankind, tho’ the Remedy be always in our own Power, and each is at Liberty to reform himself.

But perhaps we need not be forced always to go into the Country in search of this amiable Complexion of Mind, Simplicity; for I believe it will be found sometimes, that the Men of the truest Genius and highest Characters in the Conduct of the World, (as few of them as rise in any Age) are observed to possess this Quality in the highest Degree. They are Pretenders only, to Policy and Business, who have recourse to Cunning, and the little Chicaneries thereof: for Cunning is but the Ape of Wisdom, as Sheepishness is of Modesty, Impudence of Courage, and Pedantry of Learning. — Cunning, says my Lord Bacon, is a sinister or crooked Wisdom, and Dissimulation but a faint kind of Policy; for it asks a strong Wit and a strong Heart, to know when to tell Truth and to do it; therefore they are the weaker sort of Politicians, that are the greatest Dissemblers. And certainly there is a great Difference between a cunning Man and a wise One, not only in point of Honesty but in point of Ability; as there are those that can pack the Cards, who cannot play the Game well.

Cunning is a Vice purely personal, and is with the greatest Difficulty practised in free and mixed Assemblies. A cunning Man is obliged to hunt his Game alone, and to live in the dark; he is uncapable of Counsel and Advice, for his dishonest Purpose dies upon Discovery. A vertuous and an honourable Action only, will bear a Conference and Freedom of Debate. And this is the Part of true Wisdom, to be busy and assistant in a fair and worthy Design. None but Fools are Knaves, for wise Men cannot help being honest. Cunning therefore is the Wisdom of a Fool; one who has Designs that he dare not own.

To draw these loose Thoughts towards an End. If Cunning were any real Excellence in Human Nature, how comes it that the greatest and ablest, the most amiable and worthy of Mankind, are often entirely without it, and vastly above it; while Numbers of the weaker Part are observed to be very expert therein; sordid and ignorant Servants, and dishonest idle Vagabonds, often attain to the highest Perfection in it. Simplicity we are sure is natural, and the highest Beauty of Nature; and all that is excellent in Arts which Men have invented, is either to demonstrate this native Simplicity and Truth in Nature, or to teach us to transcribe and copy in every Thing from it. Simplicity of Speech and Manners is the highest Happiness as well as the greatest Ornament of Life; whereas nothing is so tiresome to one’s self, as well as so odious to others, as Disguise and Affectation. Who was ever cunning enough to conceal his being so? No Mask ever hid it self. In a Word, those cunning Men, tho’ they are not declared Enemies to the World, yet they are really Spies upon it, and ought in the Justice of Things to be considered and treated as such, whenever they are caught. And to what purpose is all this Craft? To make themselves suspected and avoided by the World in return, and to have never a Friend in it. A Knave cannot have a Friend, any more than he can be one: An honest Man must discover him, a Rascal will betray him. And by this Time I hope my Reader and I are agreed, that Wisdom and Vertue are the same Thing, as Knavery and Cunning are generally so too; and that for the future, we shall resolve to be what we would seem, which is the only sure way not to be afraid to seem what we really are.

Perhaps it is not necessary to add here, that by Simplicity is not at all meant the Pretences to it, which are made now a-days, by many good People, who I believe very honestly mistake the Thing, and while they aim at Simplicity are guilty of very gross Affectation. The Plainness and Integrity of Mind, which is here recommended, is very little concerned in any Quaintness of Habit, or Oddness of Behaviour: Nor is it at all of Importance to Vertue and Simplicity, that great care is taken to appear unfashionable. Again, on the other side, I know very well that the Word Cunning did in the ancient Sense of it imply Knowledge. The Word Ken may perhaps be akin to it; it is of Saxon Original, and we are told the Word King is derived from it. I have no Quarrel to this Construction of it; but only against (what it now comes to signify) the little Subtilty of base Minds, who are incapable of great and honest Actions; in which Sense the Word is now commonly used.

After all, I am sensible this crooked Wisdom has established itself by the Force of an unhappy Fashion, too firmly to be immediately exploded; and though I could wish my Reader would be ashamed to live in the World by such a wretched Method, yet I would warn him to be well aware of those that do; and to be sure to arm against them, not with the same Weapons, but those which are of much better Proof, the Integrity of a wise Man, and the Wisdom of an honest one.

The Pennsylvania Gazette, April 13, 1732

1 comment

  1. Kevin Slack, in his recent book, Benjamin Franklin, Natural Right, and the Art of Virtue, p. 215, has shown that Benjamin Franklin did not write “On Simplicity.”

Comments are closed.