Hume on Writing

“Of Simplicity and Refinement in Writing”

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

. . .

First, I observe, That Tough excesses of both kinds [simplicity and refinement] are to be avoided, and though a proper medium ought to be studied in all productions; yet this medium likes not in a point, but consists of a considerable latitude.

. . .

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.

. . .

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 the medium: but where this medium is can never be sufficiently be explained by general reasonings.

I shall deliver it as a third observation on the subject, That we ought to be more on our guard against excess of refinement than that of simplicity: and that because the former excess is both less beautiful, and more dangerous than the latter.

It is a certain rule, that wit and passion are entirely incompatible. When the affections are moved, there is no place for the imagination. The mind of man being naturally limited, it is impossible that all the faculties can operate at once: And the more any one predominates, the less room there is for the others to assert their vigour. For this reason, a greater degree of simplicity is required in all compositions, where men, and actions, and passions are painted, than in such as consist of reflections and observations. And as the former species of writing is more engaging and beautiful, one may give the preference to the extreme of simplicity above that of refinement. (David Hume, Essay XX, 191-195)

*note that verbal pictures, “illustrations” are considered essential—this is opposed to the “painting” of the passions. Images play a dual role, with interesting metaphorical transference.
Images of passion are best when “simple”— Images of reflection are best when “refined.”