Imágenes de páginas

difficult, too, to continue long on an intimate footing with him. A word, a gesture, furnished him with matter of profound meditation : he connected the most trifling circumstances like so many mathematical propositions, and conceived his conclusions to be supported by the evidence of demonstration. I believe," continues this ingenious writer, “ that imagination was the strongest of his faculties, and that it had almost absorbed all the rest. He dreamed rather than existed, and the events of his life might be said, more properly to have passed in his mind, than without him : a mode of being, one should have thought, that ought to have secured him from distrust, as it prevented him from observation ; but the truth was, it did not hinder him from attempting to observe; it only rendered his observations erroneous. That his soul was tender, no one can doubt, after having read his works ; but his imagination sometimes interposed between his reason and his affections, and destroyed their influence: he appeared sometimes void of sensibility; but it was because he did not perceive objects such as they were. Had he seen them with our eyes, his heart would have been more affected than ours.”

In this very striking description we see the melancholy picture of sensibility and genius approaching to insanity. It is a case, probably, that but rarely occurs in the extent here described : but, I believe, there is no man who has lived much in the world, who will not trace many resembling features to it, in the circle of his own acquaintances; perhaps there are few who have not been occasionally conscious of some resemblance to it in themselves.

To these observations we may add, that by an excessive indulgence in the pleasures of imagination, the taste may acquire a fastidious refinement unsuitable to the present situation) of human nature ; and those intellectual and moral habits, which ought to be formed by actual experience of the world, may be gradually so accommodated to the dreams of poetry and romance, as to disqualify us for the scene in which we are destined to act. Such a distempered state of the mind is an endless source of error; more particularly when we are placed in those critical situations, in which our conduct determines our future happiness or misery; and which, on account of this extensive influence on human life, form the principal groundwork of fictitious composition. The effect of novels, in misleading the passions of youth, with respect to the most interesting and important of all relations, is one of the many instances of the inconveniences resulting from an ill-regulated imagination.

The passion of love has been in every age the favorite subject of the poets, and has given birth to the finest productions of human genius. These are the natural delight of the young and susceptible, long before the influence of the passions is felt; and from these a romantic mind forms to itself an ideal model of beauty and perfection, and becomes enamored with its own creation. On a heart which has been long accustomed to be thus warmed by the imagination, the excellences of real characters make but a slight impression ; and, accordingly, it will be found, that men of a romantic turn, unless when under the influence of violent passions, are seldom attached to a particular object. Where, indeed, such a turn is united with a warmth of temperament, the effects are different ; but they are equally fatal to happiness. As the distinctions which exist among

real characters are confounded by false and exaggerated conceptions of ideal perfection, the choice is directed to some object by caprice and accident; a slight resemblance is mistaken for an exact coincidence ; and the descriptions of the poet and novelist are applied literally to an individual, who perhaps falls short of the common standard of excellence. “I am certain,” says the author last quoted, in her account of the character of Rousseau, “ that he never formed an attachment which was not founded on caprice. It was illusions alone that could captivate his passions; and it was necessary for him always to accomplish his mistress from his own fancy. I am certain also,” she adds," that the woman whom he loved the most, and perhaps the only woman whom he loved constantly, was his own Jullie."

In the case of this particular passion, the effects of a romantic imagination are obvious to the most careless observer; and they have often led moralists to regret, that a temper of mind so dangerous to happiness should have received so much encouragement from some writers of our own age, who might have employed their genius to better purposes. These, however, are not the only effects which such habits of study have on the character. Some others, which are not so apparent at first view, have a tendency, not only to mislead us where our own happiness is at stake, but to defeat the operation of those active principles, which were intended to unite us to society. The manner in which imagination influences the mind, in the instances which I allude to at present, is curious, and deserves a more particular explanation.

I shall have occasion afterwards to show,* in treating of our moral powers, that experience diminishes the influence of passive impressions on the mind, but strengthens our active principles. A course of debauchery deadens the sense of pleasure, but increases the desire of gratification. An immoderate use of strong liquors destroys the sensibility of the palate, but strengthens the habits of intemperance. The enjoyments we derive from any favorite pursuit gradually decay as we advance in years : and yet we continue to prosecute our favorite pursuits with increasing steadiness and vigor.

* The following reasoning was suggested to me by a passage in Butler's Analogy. “Going over the theory of virtue in one's thoughts, talking well, and drawing fine pictures of it; this is so far from necessarily or certainly conducing to form a habit of it in him who thus employs himself, that it may harden the mind in a contrary course, and render it gradually more insensible, i. e form a habit of insensibility to all moral obligations. For, from our very faculty of habits, passive im. pressions, by being repeated, grow weaker. Thoughts, by often passing through the mind, are felt less sensibly ; being accustomed to danger, begets intrepidity, i. e. lessens fear; to distress, lessens the passion of pity; to instances of others' mortality, lessens the sensible apprehension of our own. And from these two observations together, that practical habits are formed and strengthened by repeated acts; and that passive impressions grow weaker by being repeated upon us; it must follow, that active habits may be gradually forming and strengthening by a course of acting upon such and such motives and excitements, while these motives and excitements themselves are, by proportionable degrees, growing less sensible, i. e. are continually less and less sensibly felt, even as the active habits strengthen. And experience confirms this : for active principles, at the very time they are less lively in perception than they were, are found to be,somehow, wrought more thoroughly into the temper and character, and become more effectual in influencing our practice. The three things just mentioned may afford instances of it. Perception of danger is a nalural excitement of passive fear and active caution: and by being inured to danger, habits of the latter are gradually wrought, at the same time that the former gradually lessens. Perception of distress in others, is a natural excitement passively to pity, and actively to relieve it; but let a man set himself to attend to, inquire out and relieve distressed persons, and he cannot but grow less and less sensibly affected with the verious miseries of life with which he must become acquainted; when yet, at the same time, benevolence, considered not as a passion, but as a practical principle of action, will strengthen: and whilst he passively compassionates the distressed less, he will acquire a greater aptitude actively to assist and befriend them. So also, at the same time that the daily instances of men's dying around us, give us daily a less sensible passive feeling or apprehension of our own mortality, such instances greatly contribute to the strengthening a practical regard of it in serious men ; i.e. to forming a habit of acting with a constant view to it.”—Butler's Analogy, p. 122, 3d edition.

On these two laws of our nature is founded our capacity of moral improvement. In proportion as we are accustomed to obey our sense of duty, the influence of the temptations to vice is diminished; while, at the same time, our habit of virtuous conduct is confirmed. How many passive impressions, for instance, must be overcome, before the virtue of beneficence can exert itself uniformly and habitually! How many circumstances are there in the distresses of others, which have a tendency to alienate our hearts from them, and which prompt us to withdraw from the sight of the miserable! The impressions we receive from these are unfavorable to virtue: their force, however, every day dininishes, and it may, perhaps, by perseverance, be wholly destroyed. It is thus that the character of the beneficent man is formed. The passive impressions which he felt originally, and which counteracted his sense of duty, have lost their influence, and a habit of beneficence is become part of his nature.

It must be owned, that this reasoning may, in part, be retorted; for among those passive impressions, which are weakened by repetition, there are some which have a beneficial tendency. The uneasiness, in particular, which the sight of distress occasions, is a strong incentive to acts of humanity; and it cannot be denied that it is lessened by experience. This might naturally lead us to expect, that the young and unpractised would be more disposed to perform beneficent actions, than those who are advanced in life, and who have been familiar with scenes of misery. And, in truth, the fact would be so, were it not that the effect of custom on this passive impression is counteracted by its effects on others; and, above all, by its influence in strengthening the active habit of beneficence. An old and experienced physician is less affected by the sight of bodily pain than a young practitioner ; but he has acquired a more confirmed habit of assisting the sick and helpless, and would offer greater violence to his nature, if he should withhold from them any relief that he has in his power to bestow. In this case we see a beautiful provision made for our moral improvement, as the effects of experience on one part of our constitution are made to counteract its effects on another.

If the foregoing observations be well founded, it will follow, that habits of virtue are not to be formed in retirement, but by mingling in the scenes of active lise, and that an habitual attention to exhibitions of fictitious distress, is not merely useless to the character, but positively hurtful.

It will not, I think, be disputed, that the frequent perusal of pathetic compositions diminishes the uneasiness which they are naturally fitted to excite. A person who indulges habitually in such studies, may feel a growing desire of his usual gratification, but he is every day less and less affected by the scenes which are presented to him. I believe it would be difficult to find an actor long hackneyed on the stage, who is capable of being completely interested by the distresses of a tragedy. The effect of such compositions and representations, in rendering the mind callous to actual distress, is still greater; for as the imagination of the poet almost always carries him beyond truth and nature, a familiarity with the tragic scenes which he exhibits, can hardly fail to deaden the impression produced by the comparatively trifling sufferings which the ordinary course of human affairs presents to us. In real life, a provision is made for this gradual decay of sensibility, by the proportional decay of other passive impressions, which have an opposite tendency, and by the additional force which our active habits are daily acquiring. Exhibitions of fictitious distress, while they produce the former change on the character, have no influence in producing the latter : on the contrary, they tend to strengthen those passive impressions which counteract beneficence. The scenes into which the novelist introduces us are, in general, perfectly unlike those which occur in the world. As his object is to please, he removes from his descriptions every circumstance which is disgusting, and presents us with histories of elegant and dignified distress. It is not such scenes that human life exhibits. We have to act, not with refined and elevated characters, but with the mean, the illiterate, the vulgar, and the profligate. The perusal of fictitious history has a tendency to increase that disgust which we naturally feel at the concomitants of distress, and to cultivate a false refinement of taste, inconsistent with our condition as members of society. Nay, it is possible for this refinement to be carried so far as to withdraw a man from the duties of life, and even from the sight of those distresses which he might alleviate. And, accordingly, many are to be found, who, if the situations of romance were realized, would not fail to display the virtues of their favorite characters, whose sense of duty is not sufficiently strong to engage them in the humble and private scenes of human misery.

To these effects of fictitious history we may add, that it gives no exercise to our active habits. In real life, we proceed from the passive impression to those exertions which it was intended to produce. In the contemplation of imaginary sufferings, we stop short at the impression, and whatever benevolent dispositions we may feel, we have no opportunity of carrying them into action.

From these reasonings it appears, that an habitual attention to exhibitions of fictitious distress is in every view calculated to check our moral improvement. It diminishes that uneasiness which we feel at the sight of distress, and which prompts us to relieve it. It strengthens that disgust which the loathsome concomitants of distress excite in the mind, and which prompts us to avoid the sight of misery; while, at the same time, it has no tendency to confirm those habits of active beneficence, without which, the best dispositions are useless. I would not, however, be understood to disapprove entirely of fictitious narratives, or of pathetic compositions. On the contrary, I think that the perusal of them may be attended with advantage, when the effects which I have mentioned are corrected by habits of real business. They soothe the mind when ruffled by the rude intercourse of society, and stealing the attention insensibly from our own cares, substitute, instead of discontent and distress, a tender and pleasing melancholy. By exhibitions of characters a little elevated above the common standard, they have a tendency to cultivate the taste in life; to quicken our disgust at what is mean or offensive, and to form the mind insensibly to elegance and dignity. Their tendency to cultivate the powers of moral perception has never been disputed ; and when the influence of such perceptions is powerfully felt, and is united with an active and manly temper, they render the character not only more amiable, but more happy in itself, and more useful to others; for although a rectitude of judgment with respect to conduct, and strong moral feelings, do, by no means, alone constitute virtue; yet they are frequently necessary to direct our behaviour in the more critical situations of life; and they increase the interest we take in the general prosperity of virtue in the world. I believe, likewise, that, by means of fictitious history, displays of character may be most successfully given, and the various weaknesses of the heart exposed. I only mean to insinuate, that a taste for them may ried too far; that the sensibility which terminates in imagination, is but a refined and selfish luxury; and that nothing can effectually advance our moral improvement, but an attention to the active duties which belong to our stations.*

be car

* After all the concessions I have here made in favor of such fictitious histories as our modern novels, I must acknowledge my own partiality for those per.

« AnteriorContinuar »