COMMON SENSE: WHAT IS IT?
One beautiful evening, Yoritomo-Tashi was strolling in the gardens of
his master, Lang-Ho, listening to the wise counsels which he knew so
well how to give in all attractiveness of allegory, when, suddenly, he
paused to describe a part of the land where the gardener's industry was
Here parasitic plants had, by means of their tendrils, crept up the
shrubbery and stifled the greater part of i
Only a few of them reached the center of the crowded bunches of the grain
stalks and of the trailing vines that interlaced the tiny bands which
held them against the wall.
One plant alone, of somber blossom and rough leaves, was able to flourish
even in close proximity to the wild verdure. It seemed that this plant
had succeeded in avoiding the dangerous entanglements of the poisonous
plants because of its tenacious and fearless qualities, at the same time
its shadow was not welcome to the useless and noxious creeping plants.
"Behold, my son," said the Sage, "and learn how to understand the
teachings of nature: The parasitic plants represent negligence against
the force of which the best of intentions vanish."
Energy, however, succeeds in overcoming these obstacles which increase
daily; it marks out its course among entanglements and rises from the
midst of the most encumbered centers, beautiful and strong.
Ambition and audacity show themselves also after having passed through
thousands of difficulties and having overcome them all.
Common sense rarely needs to strive; it unfolds itself in an atmosphere
of peace, far from the tumult of obstructions and snares that are not
Its flower is less alluring than many others, but it never allows itself
to be completely hidden through the wild growth of neighboring branches.
It dominates them easily, because it has always kept them at a distance.
Modest but self-sustaining, it is seen blossoming far from the struggles
which always retard the blossoming of plants and which render their
flowering slower and, at times, short-lived.
A most absurd prejudice has occasionally considered common sense to be an
inferior quality of mind.
This error arises from the fact that it can adapt itself as well to the
most elevated conceptions as to the most elemental mentalities.
To those who possess common sense is given the faculty of placing
everything in its proper rank.
It does not underestimate the value of sentiments by attributing to them
an exaggerated importance.
It permits us to consider fictitious reasons with reservation and of
resolutely rejecting those that resort to the weapons of hypocrisy.
Persons who cultivate common sense never refuse to admit their errors.
One may truly affirm that they are rarely far from the truth, because
they practise directness of thought and force themselves never to deviate
from this mental attitude.
Abandoning for a moment his favorite demonstration by means of symbolism,
Yoritomo said to us:
"Common sense should be thus defined:
"It is a central sense, toward which all impressions converge and unite
in one sentiment--the desire for the truth.
"For people who possess common sense, everything is summed up in one
"The love of directness and simplicity.
"All thoughts are found to be related; the preponderance of these two
sentiments makes itself felt in all resolutions, and chiefly in the
reflections which determine them.
"Common sense permits us to elude fear which always seizes those whose
judgment vacillates; it removes the defiance of the Will and indicates
infallibly the correct attitude to assume."
And Yoritomo, whose mind delighted in extending his observations to the
sociological side of the question, adds:
"Common sense varies in its character, according to surroundings and
"The common sense of one class of people is not the same as that of a
"Certain customs, which seem perfectly natural to Japan would offend
those belonging to the western world, just as our Nippon prejudices would
find themselves ill at ease among certain habits customary among
"Common sense," he continues, "takes good care not to assail violently
those beliefs which tradition has transmuted into principles.
"However, if direct criticism of those beliefs causes common sense to be
regarded unfavorably, it will be welcomed with the greatest reserve and
will maintain a certain prudence relative to this criticism, which will
be equivalent to a proffered reproach.
"Common sense often varies as to external aspects, dependent upon
education, for it is evident that a diamio (Japanese prince) can not
judge of a subject in the same way as would a man belonging to the lowest
class of society.
"The same object can become desirable or undesirable according to the
rank it occupies.
"Must one believe that common sense is excluded from two such
"No, not at all. An idea can be rejected or accepted by common sense
without violating the principles of logic in the least.
"If, as one frequently sees, an idea be unacceptable because of having
been presented before those belonging to a particular environment, common
sense, by applying its laws, will recognize that the point of view must
be changed before the idea can become acceptable."
And again, Yoritomo calls our attention to a peculiar circumstance.
"Common sense," he says, "is the art of resolving questions, not the art
of posing them.
"When taking the initiative it is rarely on trial.
"But the moment it is a case of applying practically that which
ingenuity, science or genius have invented, it intervenes in the happiest
and most decisive manner.
"Common sense is the principle element of discernment.
"Therefore, without this quality, it is impossible to judge either of the
proposition or the importance of the subject.
"It is only with the aid of common sense that it is possible to
distinguish the exact nature of the proposition, submitted for a just
appreciation, and to render a solution of it which conforms to perfect
accuracy of interpretation.
"The last point is essential and has its judicial function in all the
circumstances of life. Without accuracy, common sense can not be
satisfactorily developed, because it finds itself continually shocked by
incoherency, resulting from a lack of exactness in the expression of
If we wish to know what the principal qualities are which form common
sense, we shall turn over a few pages and we shall read:
"Common sense is the synthesis of many sentiments, all of which converge
in forming it.
"The first of these sentiments is reason.
"Then follows moderation.
"To these one may add:
"The faculty of penetration;
"The quality consistency.
"Then, wisdom, which permits us to profit by the lessons of experience.
"A number of other qualities must be added to these, in order to complete
the formation of common sense; but, altho important, they are only the
satellites of those we have just named.
"Reason is really indispensable to the projection of healthy thoughts.
"The method of reasoning should be the exhaustive study of minute detail,
of which we shall speak later.
"For the moment we shall content ourselves by indicating, along the broad
lines of argument, what is meant by this word reason.
"Reasoning is the art of fixing the relativeness of things.
"It is by means of reasoning that it is possible to differentiate events
and to indicate to what category they belong.
"It is the habit of reasoning to determine that which it is wise to
undertake, thus permitting us to judge what should be set aside.
"How could we guide ourselves through life without the beacon-light of
reason? It pierces the darkness of social ignorance, it helps us to
distinguish vaguely objects heretofore plunged in obscurity, and which
will always remain invisible to those who are unprovided with this
indispensable accessory--the gift of reasoning.
"He who ventures in the darkness and walks haphazard, finds himself
suddenly confronted by obstacles which he was unable to foresee.
"He finds himself frightened by forms whose nature he cannot define, and
is often tempted to attribute silhouettes of assassins to branches of
trees, instead of recognizing the real culprit who is watching him from
the corner of the wild forest.
"Life, as well as the wildest wilderness, is strewn with pitfalls. To
think of examining it rapidly, without the aid of that torch called
reason, would be imitating the man of whom we have just spoken.
"Many are the mirages, which lead us to mistake dim shadows for
disquieting realities, unless we examine them critically, for otherwise
we can never ascribe to them their true value.
"Certain incidents, which seem at first sight to be of small importance,
assume a primordial value when we have explained them by means of
"To reason about a thing is to dissect it, to examine it from every
point of view before adopting it, before deferring to it or before
rejecting it; in one word, to reason about a thing is to act with
conscious volition, which is one of the phases essential to the conquest
of common sense.
"This principle conceded, it then becomes a question of seriously
studying the method of reasoning, which we propose to do in the following
manner but first it is necessary to be convinced of this truth."
Without reason there is no common sense.
Yoritomo teaches us that, altho moderation is only of secondary
importance, it is still indispensable to the attainment of common sense.
It is moderation which incites us to restrain our impatience, to silence
our inexplicable antipathies and to put a break on our tempestuous
Can one judge of the aspect of a garden while the tempest is twisting the
branches of the trees, tearing off the tendrils of the climbing vines,
scattering the petals of the flowers and spoiling the corollas already in
And now, Yoritomo, who loves to illustrate his teachings by expressive
figures of speech, tells us the following story.
"A Japanese prince, on awakening, one day, demanded lazily of his
servants what kind of weather it was, but he forbade them to raise the
awnings which kept a cool, dim light in his room and shielded his eyes
from the strong light from without. The two servants left him reclining
upon his divan and went into the adjoining room, where the stained-glass
windows were not hung with curtains.
"One of them, putting his face close to a yellow-tinted pane of glass,
exclaimed in admiration of the beautiful garden, bathed in the early
"The second one, directing his gaze to a dark blue pane and, looking
through the center, remarked to his companion, I see no sunshine, the day
is dreary and the clouds cast gloomy shadows upon the horizon.
"Each one returned to relate their impressions of the weather, and
the prince wondered at the different visions, unable to understand
There, concluded the Shogun, that is what happens to people who do not
Those, who see things through the medium of enthusiasm refuse to
recognize that they could be deprived of brilliancy and beauty.
The others, those who look upon things from a pessimistic standpoint,
never find anything in them save pretexts for pouring out to their
hearers tales of woe and misery.
All find themselves deceptively allured; some rush toward illusion,
others do not wish to admit the positive chances for success, and both
lacking moderation, they start from a basis of false premises from which
they draw deplorable conclusions, thus defeating future success.
The spirit of penetration, according to the old Nippon philosopher, is
not always a natural gift. "It is," said he, "a quality which certain
people possess in a very high degree but which in spite this fact should
be strengthened by will and discipline.
"One can easily acquire this faculty by endeavoring to foresee the
solution of contemporary events; or at least try to explain the hidden
reasons which have produced them.
"Great effects are produced, many times, from seemingly unimportant
causes, and it is, above all, to the significant details that the spirit
of penetration should give unceasing and undivided attention.
"Everything around us can serve as a subject for careful study; political
events, incidents which interest family or friends, all may serve as just
so many themes for earnest reflection.
"It is always preferable to confine this analysis to subjects in which we
have no personal interest; thus we shall accustom ourselves to judge of
people and things dispassionately and impersonally. This is the quality
of mind necessary to the perfect development of penetration.
"If, for any reason, passion should create confusion of ideas, clearness
of understanding would be seriously compromised and firmness of judgment,
by deteriorating, would cast aside the manifestation of common sense.
"The spirit consistency is perhaps more difficult to conquer, for it is a
combination of many of the qualities previously mentioned.
"Its inspiration is drawn from the reasoning faculty, it cannot exist
without moderation and implies a certain amount of penetration, because
it must act under the authority of conviction.
"If you strike long enough in the same place on the thickest piece of
iron, in time it will become as thin as the most delicate kakemono [a
picture which hangs in Japanese homes].
"It is impossible to define the spirit of consistency more accurately.
"It is closely related to perseverance, but can not be confounded with
it, because the attributes of consistency have their origin in logic and
reason which does not produce one act alone but a series of acts
sometimes dependent, always inferred.
"The spirit of consistency banishes all thought derogatory to the subject
in question; it is the complete investiture of sentiments, all converging
toward a unique purpose."
This purpose can be of very great importance and the means of attainment
multiform, but the dominant idea will always direct the continuous
achievements; under their different manifestations--and these at times
contradictory--they will never be other than the emanation of a direct
thought, whose superior authority is closely united to the final success.
Wisdom, continued the philosopher, should be mentioned here only as the
forerunner which permits us to analyze experience.
It is from this never-ending lesson which life teaches us that the wisdom
of old age is learned.
But is it really necessary to reach the point of decrepitude, in order to
profit by an experience, actually useless at that time, as is always a
"Is it not much better to compel its attainment when the hair is black
and the heart capable of hope?
"Why give to old age alone the privileges of wisdom and experience?
"It is high time to combat so profound an error.
"Is it not a cruel irony which renders such a gift useless?
"Of what benefit is wisdom resulting from experience if it cannot
preserve us from the unfortunate seduction of youth?
"Why should its beauty be unveiled only to those who can no longer profit
by it?" This is the opinion of Yoritomo, who says:
"What would be thought of one who prided himself on possessing bracelets
when he had lost his two arms in war?
"It is, therefore, necessary, not only to encourage young people to
profit by lessons of wisdom and experience, but, still further, to
indicate to them how they can accomplish the result of these lessons.
"It is certain that he who can recall a long life ought to understand
better than the young man all the pitfalls with which it is strewn.
"But does he always judge of it without bias or prejudice?
"Does he not find acceptable pretexts for excusing his past faults and
does he not exaggerate the rewards for excellence, which have accorded
him advantages, due at times to chance or to the force of circumstances?
"Finally, the old man can not judge of the sentiments which he held at
twenty years of age, unless it be by the aid of reminiscences, more or
less fleeting, and an infinitely attenuated intensity of representation.
"Emotive perception being very much weakened, the integrity of memory
must be less exact.
"Then, in the recession of years, some details, which were at times
factors of the initial idea, are less vivid, thus weakening the power of
reason which was the excuse, the pretext, or the origin of the act.
"This is why, altho we may honor the wisdom of the aged, it is well to
acquire it at a time when we may use it as a precious aid.
"To those who insist that nothing is equivalent to personal experience,
we shall renew our argument, begging them to meditate on the preceding
lines, drawing their attention to the fact that a just opinion can only
be formed when personal sentiment is excluded from the discussion.
"Is it, then, necessary to have experienced pain in order to prevent
or cure it?
"The majority of physicians have never been killed by the disease
"Does this fact prevent them from combatting disease victoriously?
"And since we are speaking of common sense we shall not hesitate to
invoke it in this instance, and all will agree that it should dictate
"Then why could we not do for the soul that which can be done for the
"It is first from books, then from the lessons of life that physicians
learn the principles underlying their knowledge of disease and its
"Is it absolutely indispensable for us to poison ourselves in order to
know that such and such a plant is harmful and that another contains the
healing substance which destroys the effects of the poison?
"We may all possess wisdom if we are willing to be persuaded that the
experience of others is as useful as our own."
The events which multiply about us, Yoritomo says, ought to be, for each
master, an opportunity for awakening in the soul of his disciples a
perfect reasoning power, starting from the inception of the premises to
arrive at the conclusions of all arguments.
From the repetition of events, from their correlation, from their
equivalence, from their parallelism, knowledge will be derived and will
be productive of good results, in proportion as egotistical sentiment is
eliminated from them; and slowly, with the wisdom acquired by experience,
common sense will manifest itself tranquil and redoubtable, working
always for the accomplishment of good as does everything which is the
emblem of strength and peace.