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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 shew, 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 habit of intemperance. The enjoyments we derive from any favourite pursuit, gradually decay as we advance in years; and yet we continue to prosecute our favourite pursuits with increasing steadiness and vigour.
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 unfavourable to virtue: their force, however, every day diminishes, 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
1 The following reasoning was sug- Analogy, which the reader will find in gested to me by a passage in Butler's Note U at the end of the volume.
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 effect 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 younger 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 life; 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 com
* In further illustration of this, see of the Old, in the second book of his Aristotle's chapter on the Moral Habits Rhetoric.- Ed.
paratively 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 favourite 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 uneasi
ness 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 meant to insinuate, that a taste for them may be carried 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.
1 (After all the concessions I have histories as our modern novels, I must here made in favour of such fictitious acknowledge my own partiality for those
SECT. VI.-CONTINUATION OF THE SAME SUBJECT.
IMPORTANT USES TO WHICH THE POWER OF IMAGINATION IS
The faculty of imagination is the great spring of human activity, and the principal source of human improvement. As it delights in presenting to the mind scenes and characters more perfect than those which we are acquainted with, it prevents us from ever being completely satisfied with our present condition, or with our past attainments, and engages us continually in the pursuit of some untried enjoyment, or of some ideal excellence. Hence the ardour of the selfish to better their fortunes, and to add to their personal accomplishments; and hence the zeal of the patriot and the philosopher to advance the virtue and the happiness of the human race. Destroy this faculty, and the condition of man will become as stationary as that of the brutes.
When the notions of enjoyment or of excellence which imagination has formed, are greatly raised above the ordinary standard, they interest the passions too deeply to leave us at all times the cool exercise of reason, and produce that state of the mind which is commonly known by the name of enthusiasm ; a temper which is one of the most fruitful sources of error and disappointment, but which is a source, at the same time, of heroic actions and of exalted characters. To the exaggerated conceptions of eloquence which perpetually revolved in the mind of Cicero—to that idea which haunted his thoughts of aliquid immensum infinitumque--we are indebted for some of the most splendid displays of human genius; and it is probaperformances of an earlier date, which they have no such tendency as novels describe the adventures of imaginary have to mislead them in their views of orders of being. Many of them afford human life. In most cases, it may be lessons of morality not less instructive laid down as a rule, that fictitious histhan those in our most unexceptionable tories are dangerous, in proportion as novels; and they possess, over and the manners they exhibit profess to apabove, the important advantage of giv- proach to those which we expect to meet ing to the imagination of young persons
with in the world.) a much more vigorous exercise, while