Imatges de pÓgina
PDF
EPUB

for a solution, I reflect upon what is laid down above, that an improper action not only moves our contempt for the author, but also by means of contrast, swells the good opinion we have of ourselves. This contributes, more than any other particular, to the pleasure we have in ridiculing follies and absurdities; and accordingly, it is well known, that those who have the greatest share of vanity are the most prone to laugh at others. Vanity, which is a vivid passion, pleasant in itself, and not less so in its gratification, would singly be sufficient to account for the pleasure of ri-. dicule, without borrowing any aid from contempt. Hence appears the reason of a noted observation, That we are the most disposed to ridicule the blunders and absurdities of others, when we are in high spirits; for in high spirits, self-conceit displays itself with more than ordinary vigour.

Having with wary steps traced an intricate road, not without danger of wandering; what remains to complete our journey, is to account for the final cause of congruity and propriety, which make so great a figure in the human constitution. One final cause, regarding congruity, is pretty obvious, that the sense of congruity, as one principle of the fine arts, contributes in a remarkable degree to our entertainment; which is the final cause assigned above for our sense of proportion,* and need not be enlarged upon here. Congruity, indeed, with respect to quantity, coincides with proportion ; when the parts of a building are nicely adjusted to each other, it may be said indifferently, that it is agreeable by the congruity of its parts, or by the proportion of its parts. But propriety, which regards voluntary agents only, can never be the same with proportion: a very long nose is disproportioned, but cannot be termed improper. In some instances,

* See Chapter iii.

it is true, impropriety coincides with disproportion in the same subject, but never in the same respect. I give for an example a very little man buckled to a long toledo : considering the man and the sword with respect to size, we perceive a disproportion : considering the sword as the choice of the man, we perceive an impropriety.

The sense of impropriety with respect to mistakes, blunders, and absurdities, is evidently calculated for the good of mankind. In the spectators it is productive of mirth and laughter, excellent recreation in an interval from business. But this is a trifle compared to what follows. It is painful to be the subject of ridicule ; and to punish with ridicule the man who is guilty of an absurdity, tends to put him more on his guard in time coming. It is well ordered, that even the most innocent blunder is not committed with iinpunity ; because, were errors licensed where they do no hurt, inattention would grow into habit, and be the occasion of much hurt.

The final cause of propriety as to moral duties, is of all the most illustrious. To have a just notion of it, the moral duties that respect others must be distinguished from those that respect ourselves. Fidelity, gratitude, and abstinence from injury, are examples of the first sort; temperance, modesty, firmness of mind, are examples of the other: the former are made duties by the sense of justice; the latter by the sense of propriety. Here is a final cause of the sense of propriety that will rouse our attention. It is undoubtedly the interest of every man to suit his behaviour to the dignity of his nature, and to the station allotted him by Providence; for such rational conduct contributes in every respect to happiness, by preserving health, by procuring plenty, by gaining the esteem of others, and, which of all is the greatest blessing, by gaining a justly founded self-esteem. But in a matter so essential to our well-being, even self-interest is not relied on: the powerful authority of duty is superadded to the motive of interest. The God of Nature, in all things essential to our happiness, hath observed one uniform method: to keep us steady in our conduct, he hath fortified us with natural laws and principles, preventive of many aberrations, which would daily happen were we totally surrendered to so fallible a guide as is human reason. Propriety cannot rightly be considered in another light than as the natural law that regulates our conduct with respect to ourselves; as justice is the natural law that regulates our conduct with respect to others. I call propriety a law, no less than justice; because both are equally rules of conduct that ought to be obeyed: propriety includes that obligation ; for to say an action is proper, is in other words to say, that it ought to be performed; and to say it is improper, is in other words to say, that it ought to be forborne. It is that very character of ought and should which makes justice a law to us; and the same character is applicable to propriety, though perhaps more faintly than to justice: but the difference is in degree only, not in kind; and we ought, without hesitation and reluctance, to submit equally to the government of both.

But I have more to urge upon that head. To the sense of propriety as well as of justice, are annexed the sanctions of rewards and punishments; which evidently prove the one to be a law as well as the other. The satisfaction a man hath in doing his duty joined to the esteem and good-will of others, is the reward that belongs to both equally. The punishments also, though not the same, are nearly allied; and differ in degree more than in quality. Disobedience to the law of justice is punished with remorse; disobedience to the law of propriety, with shame, which is remorse in a lower degree. Every transgression of the law of justice raises indignation in the beholder ; and so doth every flagrant transgression of the law of pro

priety. Slighter improprieties receive a milder punishment: they are always rebuked with some degree of contempt, and frequently with derision. In general, it is true, that the rewards and punishments annexed to the sense of propriety are slighterin degree than those annexed to the sense of justice; which is wisely ordered, because duty to others is still more essential to society than duty to ourselves : society, indeed, could not subsist a moment, were individuals not protected from the headstrong and turbulent passions of their neighbours.

The final cause now unfolded of the sense of propriety, must, to every discerning eye, appear delightful : and yet this is but a partial view ; for that sense reaches another illustrious end, which is, in conjunction with the sense of justice, to enforce the performance of social duties. In fact, the sanctions visibly contrived to compel a man to be just to himself, are equally serviceable to compel him to be just to others; which will be evident from a single reflection, that an action, by being unjust, ceases not to be improper : an action never appears more eminently improper, than when it is unjust : it is obviously becoming and suitable to human nature, that each man do his duty to others; and, accordingly, every transgression of duty to others, is at the same time a transgression of duty to one's self. This is a plain truth without exaggeration; and it opens a new and enchanting view in the moral landscape, the prospect being greatly enriched by the multiplication of agreeable objects. It appears now, that nothing is overlooked, nothing left undone, that can possibly contribute to the enforcing social duty : for to all the sanctions that belong to it singly, are superadded the sanctions of self-duty. A familiar example shall suffice for illustration. An act of ingratitude, considered in itself, is to the author disagreeable, as well as to every spectator ; considered by the author with relation to himVOL. I.

35

self, it raises self-contempt: considered by him with relation to the world, it makes him ashamed: considered by others, it raises their contempt and indignation against the author. These feelings are all of them occasioned by the impropriety of the action. When the action is considered as unjust, it occasions another set of feelings : in the author it produces remorse, and a dread of merited punishment; and in others, the benefactor chiefly, indignation and hatred directed to the ungrateful person. Thus shame and remorse united in the ungrateful person, and indignation united with hatred in the hearts of others, are the punishments provided by nature for injustice. Stupid and insensible must he be, who, in a contrivance so exquisite, perceives not the benevolent hand of our creator.

CHAPTER XI.

DIGNITY AND GRACE.

The terms dignity and meanness are applied to man in point of character, sentiment, and behaviour : we say, for example, of one man, that he hath natural dignity in his air and manner; of another, that he makes a mean figure: we perceive dignity in every action and sentiment of some persons; meanness and vulgarity in the actions and sentiments of others. With respect to the fine arts,

[ocr errors]
« AnteriorContinua »