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Of Simplicity and Refinement in Writing, by David Hume

"Too much ornament is a fault in every kind of production"


Of Simplicity and Refinement in Writing, by David Hume

David Hume (1711-1776)

The Scottish-born philosopher and historian David Hume was characterized by Adam Smith as "approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will admit." German philosopher Immanuel Kant gave Hume credit for waking him up from his "dogmatic slumbers."

In the essay "Of Simplicity and Refinement in Writing," Hume considers the merits and deficiencies of the ornamented Asiatic style of writing in contrast to the plainer Attic style. This version of the essay, originally published in 1742, has been taken from volume three of The Philosophical Works of David Hume (Little, Brown and Company, 1854).

Of Simplicity and Refinement in Writing

by David Hume

Fine writing, according to Addison, consists of sentiments which are natural without being obvious. There can not be a juster and more concise definition of fine writing.

Sentiments which are merely natural affect not the mind with any pleasure, and seem not worthy of our attention. The pleasantries of a waterman, the observations of a peasant, the ribaldry of a porter or hackney coachman, all of these are natural and disagreeable. What an insipid comedy should we make of the chitchat of the tea-table, copied faithfully and at full length? Nothing can please persons of taste but nature drawn with all her graces and ornaments, la belle nature; or, if we copy low life, the strokes must be strong and remarkable, and must convey a lively image to the mind. The absurd naïveté of Sancho Panza is represented in such inimitable colors by Cervantes that it entertains as much as the picture of the most magnanimous hero or the softest lover.

The case is the same with orators, philosophers, critics, or any author who speaks in his own person, without introducing other speakers or actors. If his language be not elegant, his observations uncommon, his sense strong and masculine, he will in vain boast his nature and simplicity. He may be correct; but he never will be agreeable. It is the unhappiness of such authors that they are never blamed or censured. The good fortune of a book and that of a man are not the same. The secret deceiving path of life, which Horace talks of, fallentis semita vitae, may be the happiest lot of the one; but it is the greatest misfortune which the other can possibly fall into.

On the other hand, productions which are merely surprising, without being natural, can never give any lasting entertainment to the mind. To draw chimeras is not, properly speaking, to copy or imitate. The justness of representation is lost, and the mind is displeased to find a picture which bears no resemblance to any original. Nor are such excessive refinements more agreeable in the epistolary or philosophic style than in the epic or tragic. Too much ornament is a fault in every kind of production. Uncommon expressions, strong flashes of wit, pointed similes, and epigrammatic turns, especially when they recur too frequently, are a disfigurement rather than any embellishment of discourse. As the eye, in surveying a Gothic building, is distracted by the multiplicity of ornaments, and loses the whole by a minute attention to the parts; so the mind, in perusing a work overstocked with it, is fatigued and disgusted with the constant endeavor to shine and surprise. This is the case where a writer overabounds in wit, even tho that wit in itself should be just and agreeable. But it commonly happens to such writers that they seek for their favorite ornaments, even where the subject does not afford them, and by that means have twenty insipid conceits for one thought which is really beautiful.

There is no object in critical learning more copious than this of the just mixture of simplicity and refinement in writing; and therefore, not to wander in too large a field, I shall confine myself to a few general observations on that head.

First, I observe, That though excesses of both kinds are to be avoided, and tho a proper medium ought to be studied in all productions, yet this medium lies not in a point, but admits of a considerable latitude. Consider the wide distance, in this respect, between Pope and Lucretius. These seem to lie in the two greatest extremes of refinement and simplicity in which a poet can indulge himself without being guilty of any blamable excess. All this interval may be filled with poets, who may differ from each other, but may be equally admirable, each in his peculiar style and manner. Corneille and Congreve, who carry their wit and refinement somewhat further than Pope (if poets of so different a kind can be compared together), and Sophocles and Terence, who are more simple than Lucretius, seem to have gone out of that medium, in which the most perfect productions are found, and to be guilty of some excess in these opposite characters. Of all the great poets, Vergil and Racine, in my opinion, lie nearest the centre, and are the furthest removed from both the extremities.

My second observation on this head is, That it is very difficult, if not impossible, to explain by words where the just medium lies between the excesses of simplicity and refinement, or to give any rule by which we can know precisely the bounds between the fault and the beauty. A critic may discourse not only very judiciously on this head without instructing his readers, but even without understanding the matter himself. There is not a finer piece of criticism than the Dissertation on Pastorals by Fontenelle, in which, by a number of reflections and philosophical reasonings, he endeavors to fix the just medium which is suitable to that species of writing. But let any one read the pastorals of that author, and he will be convinced that this judicious critic, notwithstanding his fine reasonings, had a false taste, and fixed the point of perfection much nearer the extreme of refinement than pastoral poetry will admit of. The sentiments of his shepherds are better suited to the toilettes of Paris than to the forests of Arcadia. But this it is impossible to discover from his critical reasonings. He blames all excessive painting and ornament as much as Vergil could have done, had that great poet written a dissertation on this species of poetry. However different the tastes of men their general discourse on these subjects is commonly the same. No criticism can be instructive which descends not to particulars, and is not full of examples and illustrations. It is allowed on all hands, that beauty, as well as virtue, always lies in a medium; but where this medium is placed is a great question, and can never be sufficiently explained by general reasonings.

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