Imágenes de páginas

I have often been inclined to think that the apparent coldness and selfishness of mankind may be traced, in a great measure, to a want of attention and a want of imagination. In the case of misfortunes which happen to ourselves, or to our near connexions, neither of these powers is necessary to make us acquainted with our situation : so that we feel, of necessity, the correspondent emotions. But without an uncommon degree of both, it is impossible for any man to comprehend completely the situation of his neighbor, or to have an idea of a great part of the distress which exists in the world. If we feel, therefore, more for ourselves than for others, the difference is to be ascribed, at least partly, to this ; that, in the former case the facts which are the foundation of our feelings, are more fully before us than they possibly can be in the latter.

In order to prevent misapprehensions of my meaning, it is necessary for me to add, that I do not mean to deny that it is a law of our nature, in cases in which there is an interference between our own interest and that of other men, to give a certain degree of preference to ourselves; even supposing our neighbor's situation to be as completely known to us as our own. I only affirm, that, where this preference becomes blameable and unjust, the effect is to be accounted for partly in the way I mentioned.* One striking proof of this is the powerful emotions which may be occasionally excited in the minds of the most callous, when the attention has been once fixed, and the imagination awakened by eloquent, and circumstantial, and pathetic description.

A very amiable and profound moralist, in the account which he has given of the origin of our sense of justice, has, I think, drawn a less pleasing picture of the natural constitution of the human mind, than is agreeable to truth. “To disturb,” says he, “the happiness of our neighbor, merely because it stands in the way of our own; to take from him what is of real use to him, merely because it may be of equal or of more use to us; or, to indulge, in this manner, at the expense of other people, the natural preference which every man has for his own happiness above that of other people, is what no impartial spectator can go along with. Every man is, no doubt, first and principally recommended to his own care; and as he is fitter to take care of himself than of

any other person, it is fit and right that it should be so. Every man, therefore, is much more deeply interested in whatever immediately concerns himself, than in what concerns any other man: and to hear, perhaps, of the death of another person with whom we have no particular connexion, will give us less concern, will spoil our stomach, or break our rest, much less than a very insignificant disaster which has befallen ourselves. But though the ruin of our neigh

[ocr errors]

say partly; for habits of inattention to the situation of other men, undoubtedly presuppose some defect in the social affections.

bor may affect us much less than a very small misfortune of our own, we must not ruin him to prevent that small misfortune, nor even to prevent our own ruin. We must here, as in all other cases, view ourselves not so much according to that light in which we may naturally appear to ourselves, as according to that in which we naturally appear to others. Though every man may, according to the proverb, be the whole world to himself, to the rest of mankind he is a most insignificant part of it. Though his own happiness may be of more importance to him than that of all the world besides, to every other person it is of no more consequence than that of any other man. Though it may be true, therefore, that every individual, in his own breast, naturally prefers himself to all mankind, yet he dares not look mankind in the face, and avow that he acts according to this principle. He feels that, in this preference they can never go along with him, and that how natural soever it may be to him, it must always appear excessive and extravagant to them. When he views himself in the light in which he is conscious that others will view him, he sees that to them he is but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it. If he would act so as that the impartial spectator may enter into the principles of his conduct, which is what of all things he has the greatest desire to do, he must, upon this, as upon all other occasions, humble the arrogance of his self-love, and bring it down to something which other men can go along with.”

I am ready to acknowledge, that there is much truth in this passage; and that a prudential regard to the opinion of others, might teach a man of good sense, without the aid of more amiable motives, to conceal his unreasonable partialities in favor of himself, and to act agreeably to what he conceives to be the sentiments of impartial spectators. But I cannot help thinking, that the fact is much too strongly stated with respect to the natural partiality of self-love, supposing the situation of our neighbors to be as completely presented to our view, as our own must of necessity be. When the orator wishes to combat the selfish passions of his audience, and to rouse them to a sense of what they owe to mankind ; what mode of persuasion does nature dictate to him? Is it to remind them of the importance of the good opinion of the world, and of the necessity, in order to obtain it, of accommodating their conduct to the sentiments of others, rather than to their own feelings? Such considerations undoubtedly might, with some men, produce a certain effect; and might lead them to assume the appearance of virtue ; but they would never excite a sentiment of indignation at the thought of injustice, or a sudden and involuntary burst of disinterested affection. If the orator can only succeed in fixing their attention to facts, and in bringing these facts home to their imagination by the power of his eloquence, he has completely attained his object. No sooner are the facts apprehended, than the benevolent principles of our nature display themselves in all their beauty. The most cautious and timid lose, for a moment, all thought of themselves, and despising every consideration of prudence or of safety, become wholly engrossed with the fortunes of others.

Many other facts, which are commonly alleged as proofs of the original selfishness of mankind, may be explained, in part, in a similar way; and may be traced to habits of inattention, or to a want of imagination, arising, probably, from some fault in early education.

What has now been remarked with respect to the social principles, may be applied to all our other passions, excepting those which take their rise from the body. They are commonly strong in proportion to the warmth and vigor of the imagination.

It is, however extremely curious, that when an imagination, which is naturally phlegmatic, or which, like those of the vulgar, has little activity from a want of culture, is fairly roused by the descriptions of the orator or the poet, it is more apt to produce the violence of enthusiasm, than in minds of a superior order. By giving this faculty occasional exercise, we acquire a great degree of command over it. As we can withdraw the attention at pleasure from objects of sense, and transport ourselves into a world of our own, so when we wish to moderate our enthusiasm, we can dismiss the objects of imagination, and return to our ordinary perceptions and occupations. But in a mind to which these intellectual visions are not familiar, and which borrows them completely from the genius of another, imagination, when once excited, becomes perfectly ungovernable, and produces something like a temporary insanity. Hence the wonderful effects of popular eloquence on the lower orders ; effects which are much more remarkable than what it ever produces on men of education.*


Continuation of the same subject.Inconveniences resulting from

an ill-regulated Imagination. It was undoubtedly the intention of nature, that the objects of perception should produce much stronger impressions on the mind than its own operations. And, accordingly they always do so, when proper care has been taken in early life to exercise the different principles of our constitution. But it is possible, by long habits of solitary reflection, to reverse this order of things, and to weaken the attention to sensible objects to so great a degree, as to leave the conduct almost wholly under the influence of imagination. Removed to a distance from society, and from the pursuits of life, when we have long been accustomed to converse with our own thoughts, and have found our activity gratified by intellectual exertions, which afford scope to all our powers and affections, without exposing us to the inconveniences resulting from the bustle of the world, we are apt to contract an unnatural predilection for meditation, and to lose all interest in external occurrences. In such a situation too, the mind gradually loses that command which education, when properly conducted, gives it over the train of its ideas, till at length the most extravagant dreams of imagination acquire as powerful an influence in exciting all its passions, as if they were realities. A wild and mountainous country, which presents but a limited variety of objects, and these only of such a sort as “awake to solemn thought," has a remarkable effect in cherishing this enthusiasm.

*"The province of eloquence is to reign over minds of slow perception and little imagination ; to set things in lights they never saw them in; to engage their attention by details and circumstances gradually unfolded; to adorn and heighten them with images and colors unknown to them; and to raise and engage their rude passions to the point to which the speaker wishes to bring them." – Gray's Letters, p. 394.

When such disorders of the imagination have been long confirmed by habit, the evil may perhaps be beyond a remedy ; but in their inferior degrees, much may be expected from our own efforts ; in particular, from mingling gradually in the business and amusements of the world ; or, if we have sufficient force of mind for the exertion, from resolutely plunging into those active and interesting and hazardous scenes, which, by compelling us to attend to external circumstances, may weaker. the impressions of imagination, and strengthen those produced by realities. The advice of the poet, in these cases, is equally beautiful and just :

“Go, soft enthusiast ! quit the cypress groves,
Nor to the rivulet's lonely moanings tune
Your sad complaint. Go, seek the cheerful haunts
Of men, and mingle with the bustling crowd;
Lay schemes for wealth, or power, or fame, the wish
Of nobler minds, and push them night and day.
Or join the caravan in quest of scenes
New to your eyes, and shifting every hour,
Beyond the Alps, beyond the Appenines.
Or, more adventurous, rush into the field
Where war grows hot; and raging through the sky,
The lofty trumpet swells the madd’ning soul ;
And in the hardy camp and toilsome march,

Forget all softer and less manly cares."-Armstrong. The disordered state of mind to which these observations refer is the more interesting, that it is chiefly incident to men of und common sensibility and genius. It has been often remarked, that there is a connexion between genius and melancholy : and there is one sense of the word melancholy, in which the remark is undoubtedly true ; a sense which it may be difficult to define, but in which it implies nothing either gloomy or malevolent.* This, I think, is

Δια τι παντες όσοι περιττοι γεγoνασιν άνδρες, η κατα φιλοσοφιαν, η πολιτικην, ή ποιησιν, τεχνας, φαινονται μελαγχολικοι οντες.-Aristot. Problem, sect. Xxx.

Such is the philosophic melancholy which Thompson has so pathetically described as exerting a peculiar influence at that period of the year, “when the dark winds of autumn return, and when the falling leaves and the naked fields fill the heart at once with mournful presages and with tender recollections."

[ocr errors]

not only confirmed by facts, but may be inferred from some principles which were formerly stated on the subject of invention; for as the disposition now alluded to has a tendency to retard the current of thought, and to collect the attention of the mind, it is peculiarly favorable to the discovery of those profound conclusions which result from an accurate examination of the less obvious relations among our ideas. From the same principles too, may be traced some of the effects which situation and early education produce on the intellectual character. Among the natives of wild and solitary countries we may expect to meet with sublime exertions of poetical imagination and of philosophical research ; while those men whose attention has been dissipated from infancy amidst the bustle of the world, and whose current of thought has been trained to yield and accommodate itself, every moment, to the rapid succession of trifles, which diversify fashionable life, acquire, without any effort on their part, the intellectual habits which are favorable to gaiety, vivacity, and wit.

When a man, under the habitual influence of a warm imagination, is obliged to mingle occasionally in scenes of real business, he is perpetually in danger of being misled by his own enthusiasm. What we call good sense in the conduct of life, consists chiefly in that temper of mind which enables its possessor to view, at all times, with perfect coolness and accuracy, all the various circumstances of his situation, so that each of them may produce its due impression on him, without any exaggeration arising from his own peculiar habits. But to a man of an ill-regulated imagination, external circumstances only serve as hints to excite his own thoughts, and the conduct he pursues has, in general, far less reference to his real situation, than to some imaginary one, in which he conceives himself to be placed : in consequence of which, while he appears to himself to be acting with the most perfect wisdom and consistency, he may frequently exhibit to others all the appearances of folly. Such, pretty nearly, seems to be the idea which the author (Madame de Staël Holstein) of the “Reflections on the Character and Writings of Rousseau," has formed of that extraordinary mar

« His faculties,” we are told, “were slow in their operation, but his heart was ardent: it was in consequence of his own meditations that he became impassioned: he discovered no sudden emotions, but all his feelings grew upon reflection. It has, perhaps, happened to him to fall in love gradually with a woman, by dwelling on the idea of her during her absence. Sometimes he would part with you

with all his former affection ; but if an expression had escaped you, which might bear an unfavorable construction, he would recollect it, examine it, exaggerate it, perhaps dwell upon it for a month, and conclude by a total breach with you. Hence it was that there was scarce a possibility of undeceiving him ; for the light which broke in upon him at once was not sufficient to efface the wrong impressions which had taken place so gradually in his mind. It was extremely

« AnteriorContinuar »