Knowledge, when separated from justice and virtue, is seen to be cunning and not wisdom. ~ Plato

Cunning, in most modern usage, indicates cleverness and skills at sly, crafty, and surreptitious behavior.


  • At the same time that I think discretion the most useful talent a man can be master of, I look upon cunning to be the accomplishment of little, mean, ungenerous minds. Discretion points out the noblest ends to us, and pursues the most proper and laudable methods of attaining them: cunning has only private selfish aims, and sticks at nothing which may make them succeed. Discretion has large and extended views, and, like a well-formed eye, commands a whole horizon: cunning is a kind of short-sightedness, that discovers the minutest objects which are near at hand, but is not able to discern things at a distance. Discretion the more it is discovered, gives a greater authority to the person who possesses it: cunning, when it is once detected, loses its force, and makes a man incapable of bringing about even those events which he might have done had he passed only for a plain man. Discretion is the perfection of reason, and a guide to us in all the duties of life: cunning is a kind of instinct, that only looks out after our immediate interest and welfare. Discretion is only found in men of strong sense and good understandings, cunning is often to be met with in brutes themselves, and in persons who are but the fewest removes from them.
  • Cunning is only the mimic of discretion, and may pass upon weak men in the same manner as vivacity is often mistaken for wit, and gravity for wisdom.
  • Nothing doth more hurt in a state than that cunning men pass for wise.
  • We take cunning for a sinister or crooked wisdom. And certainly there is a great difference, between a cunning man, and a wise man; not only in point of honesty, but in point of ability.
  • And because these cunning men, are like haberdashers of small wares, it is not amiss to set forth their shop.
  • CUNNING, n. The faculty that distinguishes a weak animal or person from a strong one. It brings its possessor much mental satisfaction and great material adversity. An Italian proverb says: "The furrier gets the skins of more foxes than asses."
    • Ambrose Bierce, The Cynic's Dictionary (1906); republished as The Devil's Dictionary (1911).
  • The weak in courage is strong in cunning.
    • William Blake, “Proverbs of Hell,” The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, line 49.
  • the cunning the craven
    … they live for until
    though the sun in his heaven
    says Now
  • Wisdom and truth, the offspring of the sky, are immortal; while cunning and deception, the meteors of the earth, after glittering for a moment, must pass away.
    • Robert Hall, as reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895), p. 241.
  • Cunning is the art of concealing our own defects, and discovering other people's weaknesses.
    • William Hazlitt, Characteristics, in the manner of Rochefoucauld's Maxims, No. 101 (1823).
  • Vor neuer nis wit so kene
    so þane red him is a-wene.
    þanne erest kumeþ his yhephede
    wone hit is alre-mest on drede.
    • For human wit is never so keen
      As when the problem's unforeseen.
      It's when the mind is most in fear
      That guile and cunning first appear.
    • The Owl and the Nightingale (author unknown), Line 681.
  • Nothing is so silly as cunning.
  • Knowledge, when separated from justice and virtue, is seen to be cunning and not wisdom.
    • Plato, speech of Aspasia, recounted by Socrates, Menexenus 246e, Plato: The Collected Dialogues (1961), p. 196.
  • Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides:
    Who cover faults, at last shame them derides.
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