From Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. It is a predictable eccentricity of my reading that the only thing on Franklin I’d read to this point was one of Sainte-Beuve’s portraits. And maybe a few exchanges with his friend David Hume. But each day, wisely used, gives room for new amends.
I continu’d this method [of Socratic argumentation] some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced anything that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken. This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engaged in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat everyone of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure. For, if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent a candid attention. If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix’d in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error. And by such a manner, you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire. Pope says, judiciously:
“Men should be taught as if you taught them not,
And things unknown propos’d as things forgot;”
farther recommending to us
“To speak, tho’ sure, with seeming diffidence.”
And he might have coupled with this line that which he has coupled with another, I think, less properly,
“For want of modesty is want of sense.”
If you ask, Why less properly? I must repeat the lines,
“Immodest words admit of no defense,
For want of modesty is want of sense.”
Now, is not want of sense (where a man is so unfortunate as to want it) some apology for his want of modesty? and would not the lines stand more justly thus?
“Immodest words admit but this defense,
That want of modesty is want of sense.”
This, however, I should submit to better judgments.
The first quote two quotes are from Pope’s An Essay on Criticism (573-74 for the couplet and 567 for the ‘farther’ on single line). Note that Franklin, consciously or not, has appropriately softened Pope’s must into should.
Learn then what morals critics ought to show,
For ’tis but half a judge’s task, to know.
‘Tis not enough, taste, judgment, learning, join;
In all you speak, let truth and candour shine:
That not alone what to your sense is due,
All may allow; but seek your friendship too.
Be silent always when you doubt your sense;
And speak, though sure, with seeming diffidence:
Some positive, persisting fops we know,
Who, if once wrong, will needs be always so;
But you, with pleasure own your errors past,
And make each day a critic on the last.
‘Tis not enough, your counsel still be true;
Blunt truths more mischief than nice falsehoods do;
Men must be taught as if you taught them not;
And things unknown proposed as things forgot.
Without good breeding, truth is disapprov’d;
That only makes superior sense belov’d.
The second couplet is not actually Pope, though it is apparently commonly misattributed to him. It belongs to the 4th Earl of Roscommon and the original context appears to have been an objection to filth in poetry.