Of late, I have enjoyed reading books written by famous men now deceased. So it is that I am in the process of reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin. In his book, Franklin describes the process of his education. That includes learning to write prose.
While I was intent on improving my language, I met with an English grammar (I think it was Greenwood’s), at the end of which there were two little sketches of the arts of rhetoric and logic, the latter finishing with a specimen of a dispute in the Socratic method; and soon after I procur’d Xenophon’s Memorable Things of Socrates, wherein there are many instances of the same method. I was charm’d with it, adopted it, dropt my abrupt contradiction and positive argumentation, and put on the humble inquirer and doubter. And being then, from reading Shaftesbury (probably Lord Shaftesbury [Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury]: italics mine) and Collins (probably Anthony Collins), become a real doubter in many points of our religious doctrine, I found this method safest for myself and very embarrassing to those against whom I used it; therefore I took a delight in it, practis’d it continually, and grew very artful and expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions, the consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always deserved. I continu’d this method some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing 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 engag’d 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 every one 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.
Franklin was no stranger to argument. In addition, to helping to guide the course of the American Revolution, Franklin helped to write the Constitution. So although he may have done so modestly, Franklin did argue his case effectively. So his advice on modesty seems curious.
Consider again this line from Franklin’s text.
retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion;
How did Franklin decide what matters may possibly be disputed? There is no simple answer, but I suspect that in addition to Pope Franklin had also read this passage.
22Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart.
23But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes.
24And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient,
25In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth;
26And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.
Deist? Christian? I know not for certain which Franklin was, but it seems he was aware of God in his life, that he was God’s servant. And as it becomes a servant, he strove to do the Master’s Will yet remain humble.