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for the sake of argument, that this fact warranted the very illogical inference, “That the effect of “Beauty in that species depends on habit alone;” the question still remains to be answered; on what principle do we pronounce the Beauty of one species to be greater than that of another ? To satisfy the conditions of the problem, it is obviously necessary, not only to shew how one Rose comes to be considered as more beautiful than another Rose; one Peacock as more beautiful than another Peacock; one Woman as more beautiful than another Woman; but to explain why the Rose is pronounced to be more beautiful than the Dandelion, the Peacock more beautiful than the Stork, and a Beautiful Woman to be the masterpiece of Nature's handywork. To such questions as these, the theory of Reynolds does not furnish even the shadow of a reply. This, however, is not the only objection to which it is liable. When applied to account for the comparative Beauty of different things of the same kind, it will be found altogether unsatisfactory and eITOneOuS. In proof of this assertion, it is almost sufficient to mention the consequence to which it obviously and necessarily leads, according to the acknowledgment of its ingenious authors;–That no individual object is fitted to give pleasure to the spectator, previous to a course of comparative observations on a number of other objects of the same kind. It will afterwards appear, that, in adopting this idea, Buffier and Reynolds have confounded the principle of Taste (which is an acquired power, implying comparison and re
flection) with our natural susceptibility of the pleasing effect which Beauty produces. In the meantime, it is of more importance to remark, that neither of these writers has attempted to assign any reason why a pleasing effect should be connected with those qualities which are most commonly to be observed in nature; and, therefore, granting that the general fact corresponds with their statement, it remains to be considered, whether particular objects are perceived to be Beautiful, in consequence of their coincidence with those arrangements at which Nature appears to aim; or whether our perception of this coincidence be not a subsequent discovery, founded on a comparison of her productions with some notions of Beauty previously formed. To say, with Reynolds, that “we approve and admire Beauty, be“cause we are more accustomed to it than Defor“mity; as we approve and admire customs and fa“shions of dress, for no other reason than that “we are used to them,” is manifestly an imperfect solution of the difficulty. Even in the article of dress, it is not custom alone, but the example of those whom we look up to as patterns worthy of imitation; —that is, it is not the custom of the many, but the fashion of the few, which has the chief influence on our judgments; and, consequently, admitting (what I am by no means disposed to yield) that one mode of dress is, in itself, as beautiful as another, this concession would only afford an additional illustration of the power of the associating principle, without proving anything in favour of that conclusion which Reynolds wishes to establish.
Nor is the instance of monstrous animal productions, appealed to by Buffier, more in point. The disgust which they excite seems to arise principally from some idea of pain or suffering connected with their existence; or from the obvious unfitness of the structure of the individual for the destined purposes of his species. No similar emotion is excited by an analogous appearance in the vegetable, or in the mineral kingdoms; or even by those phenomena which contradict the uniform tenor of our past experience, with respect to Nature's most obvious and familiar laws. What occurrence so constantly presented to our senses as the fall of heavy bodies yet nobody ever thought of applying to it the epithet beautiful. The rise of a column of smoke is a comparative rarity; and yet how often has it amused the eye of the infant, of the painter, of the poet, and of the philosopher —Although the human form be necessarily fixed, by its own gravity, to the surface of this globe, how beautiful are those pictures of ancient poetry, in which the Gods are represented as transporting themselves, at pleasure, between earth and heaven : Even the genius of Shakespeare, in attempting to amplify the graces of a favourite Hero, has reserved for the last place in the climax, an attitude suggested by this imaginary attribute of the heathen divinities.
“A station, like the herald Mercury,
A still more obvious example, leading to the same conclusion, may be drawn from the agreeable effects of lights and colours; the very appearances from which I conceive our first notions of beauty are derived. Few, I presume, will venture to assert, that it is altogether owing to custom, that the eye delights to repose itself on the soft verdure of a field; or that there is nothing naturally attractive in the splendid illuminations of summer. From the regular vicissitudes of day and of night, custom (if nothing else were to operate) should entitle them both, in the same degree, to the appellation of Beautiful; but such, certainly, has not been the judgment of mankind in any age of the world. “Truly the light “is sweet, and it is a pleasant thing for the eyes to “ behold the sun.” The criticisms which I have hazarded on the speculations of these writers do not affect the certainty, nor detract from the importance of the assumption on which they proceed. The only point in dispute is, whether individual objects please in consequence of their approximation to the usual forms and colours of Nature; or whether Nature herself is not pronounced to be Beautiful, in consequence of the regular profusion in which she exhibits forms and colours intrinsically pleasing? Upon either supposition, great praise is due to those who have so happily illustrated the process by which taste is guided in the study of ideal beauty; a process which Reynolds must be allowed to have traced and described with admirable sagacity, even by such as think the most lightly of the metaphysical doctrine which he has blended with his statement of the fact. I must own, indeed, that it was not without some surprise I first read the Essay in which the opinion I have now been controverting is proposed by this great artist. To have found the same paradox in the works of an abstract philosopher, however distinguished for ingenuity and learning, would have been entirely of a piece with the other extravagancies which abound in books of science; but it is difficult to reconcile the genuine enthusiasm with which Reynolds appears to have enjoyed the Beauties, both of Nature and of Art, with the belief, that “if “Beauty were as rare as deformity now is, and de“formity as prevalent as actual Beauty, these words “would entirely change their present meanings, in “the same manner in which the word yes might be“come a negative, and no an affirmative, in conse“quence of a general convention among mankind.” The truth has probably been, that, in the judgment of Reynolds (as too often happens to all men in the more serious concerns of life), a prepossession in favour of a particular conclusion, added verisimilitude to the premises of which it was supposed to be the consequence; and that a long experience of the practical value of the maxim which it was his leading object to recommend, blinded him to the absurdity of the theory which he employed to support it. *