Page images

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 paflive impressions, for inftance, 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 fight 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 fight 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 lite, 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 paffive 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 aflifting the sick and helpless, and would offer greater violence to his nature, if he should with- . hold 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 obfervations 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 fi&titious distress, is not merely useless to the character, but positively hurtful.

It will not, I think, be disputed, that the frequent perusal of pathetic compofitions 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 de. cay 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 paslive 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 prefents 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 fight of those distresses which he might alleviate. And, accordingly, many are to be found, who, if the situations of romance were realised, 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.

nature, fenle

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 fight 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 com. positions. 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 in. sensibly 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 use. ful 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 fiâtitious history, displays of character may be most success. fully 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 selfith luxury; and that nothing can effe&tually advance our moral improvement, but an attention to the active duties which belong to our stations.


Continuation of the fame Subje&.-Important Uses to which the

Power of Imagination is fubfervient.


he 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 thar thole



« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »