Book 3

Chapter 1

In the Manner of Montaigne

After thinking a good deal upon what might be given as a definition of common sense; in other words, what phrase might be substituted in lieu of it; for that is what is meant by a definition; I would try whether the phrase, natural judgment would not do. Getting up a little in the world, and examining mankind, there was nothing that struck me so much, as to find men, thought eminent in a profession, seeming to want judgment in matters of knowledge, which was common to me with them. I took it for granted, that it was owing to the mind being so much employed in a particular way, that it had no habit of thinking in any other; and doubtless there is a good deal in this. For a mathematician, capable of demonstrating all the problems of Euclid; and even of inventing shorter and clearer methods of demonstration, may be incapable of comparing ideas, and drawing conclusions on a matter of domestic economy, or national concern. For though a great deal may be owing to a knowledge of a particular subject, and a habit of thinking upon it; yet as much or more depends upon the natural judgment. I will select the instance of a lawyer, because it is in that profession, that I have had an opportunity, the most, of examining the original powers of the mind. In this profession I have found those of the highest reputation of legal knowledge, and who were so, and yet were not the most successful in particular causes. The reason was, that though they had a knowledge of rules, they failed in the application of them and had not given good advice, in bringing or defending the action in which they had been consulted. Or whether the cause were good or bad, they had wanted judgment in conducting it. The attempting to maintain untenable ground; or the points upon which they put the cause, showed a want of judgment. It is the same thing in the case of a judge. The knowledge of all law goes but a little way to the discerning the justice of the cause. Because the application of the rule to the case, is the province of judgment. Hence it is, that if my cause is good, and I am to have my choice of two judges, the one of great legal science, but deficient in natural judgment; the other of good natural judgment, but of no legal knowledge, I would take the one that had what we call common sense. For though I could not have a perfect confidence in the decision of one or the other, yet I would think my chance best with the one that had common sense. If my cause was bad, I might think I stood some chance with the learned judge, deficient in natural judgment. An ingenious advocate would lead off his mind, upon some quibble, and calling that law, flatter him upon his knowing the law, and least his knowledge of it should be called in question, the learned judge might determine for him. For there is nothing that alarms a dunce so much as the idea of reason. It is a prostrating principle which puts him upon a level with the bulk of mankind. The knowledge of an artificial rule sets him above these, and is, therefore, maintained by him with all the tenacity of distinguishing prerogative. To a weak judge, deficient in natural reason, a knowledge of precedents is indispensable. In the language of Scotch Presbyterian eloquence, there is such a thing as hukes and e’en, to had up a crippled Christian’s breeks; or, in English, hooks and eyes, which were before buttons and button-holes, to answer the same purpose with pantaloons or sherryvallies. Such are cases to a judge, weak in understanding; because these give him the appearance of learning, and of having made research.

But it does not follow, that I undervalue legal knowledge in a lawyer, or judge, or resolve all into common sense in that or any other profession or occupation.

I select, in the next instance, that of a physician. What can one do in this profession, without medical knowledge? And yet without good sense, the physician is as likely to kill as to cure. It is the only means that one who is not a physician himself has to judge of the skill of one who calls himself such, what appears to be the grade of his mind, and his understanding upon common subjects. We say, he does not appear to have common sense; how can he be trusted in his profession? Common sense, I take to be, therefore, judgment upon common subjects; and that degree of it which falls to the share of the bulk of mankind. For even amongst the common people, we speak of mother wit, which is but another name for common sense. Clergy wit, is that of school learning; or the lessons of science, in which a dunce may be eminent. For it requires but memory, and application. But the adage is the dictate of experience, and the truth of it is eternal, “An ounce of mother wit is worth a pound of clergy.”

We speak of an egregious blockhead, and say, he has not even common sense: that is, he has not the very thing that is necessary to begin with; and which every person is usually endowed with, that has the proportions of the human form. It seems to be something bordering on instinct, and resembles it in the uniformity and certainty of its operations. It is that without which it is not worth while attempting to make a great man. What is a general without common sense-that is, natural judgment? But why talk of generals, or lawyers, or judges, or go so far from home? Where we see, as we sometimes do, the want of natural judgment, in the management of a man’s own affairs, on a small scale; whether of merchandize, or of manufactures, or farming, we say that he cannot succeed; and in general, though not always, the want of success in common pursuits, is owing to inexperience, or a want of natural judgment. The quibbling in a matter of contract; the evasion of fulfilment, is a want of natural judgment. I think the poet says,

“The want of honesty is want of sense.”

There can be nothing more true. And I think it is remarkable, that in those divine writings, which we call, by way of eminence, the scriptures, dishonesty is called folly; and honesty wisdom. Common sense is that degree of understanding which is given to men in general, though some are peculiarly favoured, with uncommon powers. But no man can be said to have common sense, who is a knave. For, of all things, it is the strongest proof of a want of judgment upon an extensive scale. Had I the world to begin again, with all the experience that years have given me, and were to think myself at liberty, from all considerations of duty, or obligation; yet, on the principle of self-interest, I would be honest, and exceed rather than come short, in giving all their due. For it is the adage, and as true as any of the apothegms that we hear, that honesty is the best policy. Indeed all the rules of morality are but maxims of prudence. They all lead to self-preservation; and had they no other foundation, they would rest upon this, as sufficient to support them. The discerning mind sees its interest as clear as a ray of light, leading it to do justice. Let me see any man quibble and evade, cheat or defraud, and I do not say constructively, and with a reference to a future state, but in relation to this life, and his temporal affairs, that he is unwise; that is, he wants the judgment to perceive his true interest. This is the presumption: and when knavery is found to consist with strong powers, I resolve it into defect of fortitude, or want of resolution, to be what the man must know he ought to be. The

----Video meliora proboque
Deteriora sequor----

is correct. Present gain is preferred to future good: like the child that wishes the tree cut down, that it may have all the fruit at one season. The feelings of resentment or of love, and strong passions, ambition or avarice, like tempests on the ocean take away the presence of mind, and baffle the skill of the navigator. Therefore my reasoning does not apply in cases where the passions are concerned. But in a case of dispassionate judging, as in a matter of meum and tuum, between indifferent persons; or where the question may be, by what means an object is most directly attainable, the strength of natural judgment, or common sense, shows itself. Where the crooked path is chosen, or the false conception is entertained, we say there is a want of common sense.

In throwing out these reflections of a moral nature, I refresh myself a little in the course of my memoir, and present a chapter now and then, like an Oasis in the great sands of Africa: here the reader, like the Caravan, may stop for a little time, and taste the cool spring, or nibble a pile of grass; and go on again. In short, all other parts of my book will appear to some, a wide waste, producing nothing profitable. To them, a green spot of moral truth, now and then occurring, will reconcile to the traversing the desert; or rather, in passing the sands, will give relief. Were it not that I am afraid of lessening too much the chapters of amusement, and so losing readers, it would be more agreeable to my own mind to moralize more. But I must not forget, that it is only by means of amusing, that I could get readers; or have an opportunity of reaching the public with my lecture. This will be as it may; but it has always been amongst my apologies for this play of fancy, in which I have so much indulged my imagination.

I add a thought or two in the subject treated of in the beginning of this chapter, common sense. We find in the poet Horace, sat.I. line 66, this expression:

“Communi sensu plane caret”----

He wants common sense. The poet applies it to his own case, as what might be said of him, when at any time he had interrupted unseasonably his patron, Maecenas, when reading, or intruded upon him when engaged in business.

“Simplicior quis, et est qualem me saepe legentem
Aut tacitum, impellat quovis semone molestus?”
This had evinced a want of attention to circumstances, and so far, a defect of judgment. A want of discrimination, it may be inferred, is a want of common sense.