The abuse of the beautiful and the encroachments of imagination, when, having only the casting vote, it seeks to grasp the law-giving sceptre, has done great injury alike in life and in science. It is therefore highly expedient to examine very closely the bounds that have been assigned to the use of beautiful forms. These limits are embodied in the very nature of the beautiful, and we have only to call to mind how taste expresses its influence to be able to determine how far it ought to extend it.
The following are the principal operations of taste; to bring the sensuous and spiritual powers of man into harmony, and to unite them in a close alliance. Consequently, whenever such an intimate alliance between reason and the senses is suitable and legitimate, taste may be allowed influence. But taste reaches the bounds which it is not permitted to pass without defeating its end or removing us from our duty, in all cases where the bond between mind and matter is given up for a time, where we must act for the time as purely creatures of reason, whether it be to attain an end or to perform a duty. Cases of this kind do really occur, and they are even incumbent on us in carrying out our destiny.
For we are destined to obtain knowledge and to act from knowledge. In both cases a certain readiness is required to exclude the senses from that which the spirit does, because feelings must be abstracted from knowledge, and passion or desire from every moral act of the will.
When we know, we take up an active attitude, and our attention is directed to an object, to a relation between different representations. When we feel, we have a passive attitude, and our attention—if we may call that so, which is no conscious operation of the mind—is only directed to our own condition, as far as it is modified by the impression received. Now, as we only feel and do not know the beautiful, we do not distinguish any relation between it and other objects, we do not refer its representation to other representations, but to ourselves who have experienced the impression. We learn or experience nothing in the beautiful object, but we perceive a change occasioned by it in our own condition, of which the impression produced is the expression. Accordingly our knowledge is not enlarged by judgments of taste, and no knowledge, not even that of beauty, is obtained by the feeling of beauty. Therefore, when knowledge is the object, taste can give us no help, at least directly and immediately; on the contrary, knowledge is shut out as long as we are occupied with beauty.
But it may be objected, What is the use then of a graceful embodiment of conceptions, if the object of the discussion or treatise, which is simply and solely to produce knowledge, is rather hindered than benefited by ornament? To convince the understanding this gracefulness of clothing can certainly avail as little as the tasteful arrangement of a banquet can satisfy the appetite of the guests, or the outward elegance of a person can give a clue to his intrinsic worth. But just as the appetite is excited by the beautiful arrangement of the table, and attention is directed to the elegant person in question, by the attractiveness of the exterior, so also we are placed in a favorable attitude to receive truth by the charming representation given of it; we are led to open our souls to its reception, and the obstacles are removed from our minds which would have otherwise opposed the difficult pursuit of a long and strict concatenation of thought. It is never the contents, the substance, that gains by the beauty of form; nor is it the understanding that is helped by taste in the act of knowing. The substance, the contents, must commend themselves to the understanding directly, of themselves; whilst the beautiful form speaks to the imagination, and flatters it with an appearance of freedom.
But even further limitations are necessary in this innocent subserviency to the senses, which is only allowed in the form, without changing anything in the substance. Great moderation must be always used, and sometimes the end in view may be completely defeated according to the kind of knowledge and degree of conviction aimed at in imparting our views to others. There is a scientific knowledge, which is based on clear conceptions and known principles; and a popular knowledge, which is founded on feelings more or less developed. What may be very useful to the latter is quite possibly adverse to the former.
When the object in view is to produce a strict conviction on principles, it is not sufficient to present the truth only in respect to its contents or subject; the test of the truth must at the same time be contained in the manner of its presentation. But this can mean nothing else than that not only the contents, but also the mode of stating them, must be according to the laws of thought. They must be connected in the presentation with the same strict logical sequence with which they are chained together in the seasonings of the understanding; the stability of the representation must guarantee that of the ideas. But the strict necessity with which the understanding links together reasonings and conclusions, is quite antagonistic to the freedom granted to imagination in matters of knowledge. By its very nature, the imagination strives after perceptions, that is, after complete and completely determinate representations, and is indefatigably active to represent the universal in one single case, to limit it in time and space, to make of every conception an individual, and to give a body to abstractions. Moreover, the imagination likes freedom in its combinations, and admits no other law in them than the accidental connection with time and space; for this is the only connection that remains to our representations, if we separate from them in thought all that is conception, all that binds them internally and substantially together. The understanding, following a diametrically opposite course, only occupies itself with part representations or conceptions, and its effort is directed to distinguish features in the living unity of a perception. The understanding proceeds on the same principles in putting together and taking to pieces, but it can only combine things by part-representations, just as it can separate them; for it only unites, according to their inner relations, things that first disclosed themselves in their separation.
The understanding observes a strict necessity and conformity with laws in its combinations, and it is only the consistent connection of ideas that satisfies it. But this connection is destroyed as often as the imagination insinuates entire representations (individual cases) in this chain of abstractions, and mixes up the accidents of time with the strict necessity of a chain of circumstances. Accordingly, in every case where it is essential to carry out a rigidly accurate sequence of reasoning, imagination must forego its capricious character; and its endeavor to obtain all possible sensuousness in conceptions, and all freedom in their combination, must be made subordinate and sacrificed to the necessity of the understanding. From this it follows that the exposition must be so fashioned as to overthrow this effort of the imagination by the exclusion of all that is individual and sensuous. The poetic impulse of imagination must be curbed by distinctness of expression, and its capricious tendency to combine must be limited by a strictly legitimate course of procedure. I grant that it will not bend to this yoke without resistance; but in this matter reliance is properly placed on a certain amount of self-denial, and on an earnest determination of the hearer or reader not to be deterred by the difficulties accompanying the form, for the sake of the subject-matter. But in all cases where no sufficient dependence can be placed on this self-denial, or where the interest felt in the subject-matter is insufficient to inspire courage for such an amount of exertion, it is necessary to resign the idea of imparting strictly scientific knowledge; and to gain instead greater latitude in the form of its presentation. In such a case it is expedient to abandon the form of science, which exercises too great violence over the imagination, and can only be made acceptable through the importance of the object in view. Instead of this, it is proper to choose the form of beauty, which, independent of the contents or subject, recommends itself by its very appearance. As the matter cannot excuse the form in this case, the form must trespass on the matter.
Popular instruction is compatible with this freedom. By the term popular speakers or popular writers I imply all those who do not direct their remarks exclusively to the learned. Now, as these persons do not address any carefully trained body of hearers or readers, but take them as they find them, they must only assume the existence of the general conditions of thought, only the universal impulses that call attention, but no special gift of thinking, no acquaintance with distinct conceptions, nor any interest in special subjects. These lecturers and authors must not be too particular as to whether their audience or readers assign by their imagination a proper meaning to their abstractions, or whether they will furnish a proper subject-matter for the universal conceptions to which the scientific discourse is limited. In order to pursue a safer, easier course, these persons will present along with their ideas the perceptions and separate cases to which they relate, and they leave it to the understanding of the reader to form a proper conception impromptu. Accordingly, the faculty of imagination is much more mixed up with a popular discourse, but only to reproduce, to renew previously received representations, and not to produce, to express its own self-creating power. Those special cases or perceptions are much too certainly calculated for the object on hand, and much too closely applied to the use that is to be made of them, to allow the imagination ever to forget that it only acts in the service of the understanding. It is true that a discourse of this popular kind holds somewhat closer to life and the world of sense, but it does not become lost in it. The mode of presenting the subject is still didactic; for in order to be beautiful it is still wanting in the two most distinguished features of beauty, sensuousness of expression and freedom of movement.
The mode of presenting a theme may be called free when the understanding, while determining the connection of ideas, does so with so little prominence that the imagination appears to act quite capriciously in the matter, and to follow only the accident of time. The presentation of a subject becomes sensuous when it conceals the general in the particular, and when the fancy gives the living image (the whole representation), where attention is merely concerned with the conception (the part representation). Accordingly, sensuous presentation is, viewed in one aspect, rich, for in cases where only one condition is desired, a complete picture, an entirety of conditions, an individual is offered. But viewed in another aspect it is limited and poor, because it only confines to a single individual and a single case what ought to be understood of a whole sphere. It therefore curtails the understanding in the same proportion that it grants preponderance to the imagination; for the completer a representation is in substance, the smaller it is in compass.
It is the interest of the imagination to change objects according to its caprice; the interest of the understanding is to unite its representations with strict logical necessity.
To satisfy the imagination, a discourse must have a material part, a body; and these are formed by the perceptions, from which the understanding separates distinct features or conceptions. For though we may attempt to obtain the highest pitch of abstraction, something sensuous always lies at the ground of the thought. But imagination strives to pass unfettered and lawless from one conception to another conception, and seeks not to be bound by any other connection than that of time. So when the perceptions that constitute the bodily part of a discourse have no concatenation as things, when they appear rather to stand apart as independent limbs and separate unities, when they betray the utter disorder of a sportive imagination, obedient to itself alone, then the clothing has aesthetic freedom and the wants of the fancy are satisfied. A mode of presentation such as this might be styled an organic product, in which not only the whole lives, but also each part has its individual life. A merely scientific presentation is a mechanical work, when the parts, lifeless in themselves, impart by their connection an artificial life to the whole.
On the other hand, a discourse, in order to satisfy the understanding and to produce knowledge, must have a spiritual part, it must have significance, and it receives this through the conceptions, by means of which those perceptions are referred to one another and united into a whole. The problem of satisfying the understanding by conformity with law, while the imagination is flattered by being set free from restrictions, is solved thus: by obtaining the closest connection between the conceptions forming the spiritual part of the discourse, while the perceptions, corresponding to them and forming the sensuous part of the discourse, appear to cohere merely through an arbitrary play of the fancy.
If an inquiry be instituted into the magic influence of a beautiful diction, it will always be found that it consists in this happy relation between external freedom and internal necessity. The principal features that contribute to this freedom of the imagination are the individualizing of objects and the figurative or inexact expression of a thing; the former employed to give force to its sensuousness, the latter to produce it where it does not exist. When we express a species or kind by an individual, and portray a conception in a single case, we remove from fancy the chains which the understanding has placed upon her and give her the power to act as a creator. Always grasping at completely determinate images, the imagination obtains and exercises the right to complete according to her wish the image afforded to her, to animate it, to fashion it, to follow it in all the associations and transformations of which it is capable. She may forget for a moment her subordinate position, and act as an independent power, only self-directing, because the strictness of the inner concatenation has sufficiently guarded against her breaking loose from the control of the understanding. An inexact or figurative expression adds to the liberty, by associating ideas which in their nature differ essentially from one another, but which unite in subordination to the higher idea. The imagination adheres to the concrete object, the understanding to this higher idea, and thus the former finds movement and variety even where the other verifies a most perfect continuity. The conceptions are developed according to the law of necessity, but they pass before the imagination according to the law of liberty.
Thought remains the same; the medium that represents it is the only thing that changes. It is thus that an eloquent writer knows how to extract the most splendid order from the very centre of anarchy, and that he succeeds in erecting a solid structure on a constantly moving ground, on the very torrent of imagination.
If we compare together scientific statement or address, popular address, and fine language, it is seen directly that all three express the idea with an equal faithfulness as regards the matter, and consequently that all three help us to acquire knowledge, but that as regards the mode and degree of this knowledge a very marked difference exists between them. The writer who uses the language of the beautiful rather represents the matter of which he treats as possible and desirable than indulges in attempts to convince us of its reality, and still less of its necessity. His thought does in fact only present itself as an arbitrary creation of the imagination, which is never qualified, in itself, to guarantee the reality of what it represents. No doubt the popular writer leads us to believe that the matter really is as he describes it, but does not require anything more firm; for, though he may make the truth of a proposition credible to our feelings, he does not make it absolutely certain. Now, feeling may always teach us what is, but not what must be. The philosophical writer raises this belief to a conviction, for he proves by undeniable reasons that the matter is necessarily so.
Starting from the principle that we have just established, it will not be difficult to assign its proper part and sphere to each of the three forms of diction. Generally it may be laid down as a rule that preference ought to be given to the scientific style whenever the chief consideration is not only the result, but also the proofs. But when the result merely is of the most essential importance the advantage must be given to popular elocution and fine language. But it may be asked in what cases ought popular elocution to rise to a fine, a noble style? This depends on the degree of interest in the reader, or which you wish to excite in his mind.
The purely scientific statement may incline either to popular discourse or to philosophic language, and according to this bias it places us more or less in possession of some branch of knowledge. All that popular elocution does is to lend us this knowledge for a momentary pleasure or enjoyment. The first, if I may be allowed the comparison, gives us a tree with its roots, though with the condition that we wait patiently for it to blossom and bear fruit. The other, or fine diction, is satisfied with gathering its flowers and fruits, but the tree that bore them does not become our property, and when once the flowers are faded and the fruit is consumed our riches depart. It would therefore be equally unreasonable to give only the flower and fruit to a man who wishes the whole tree to be transplanted into his garden, and to offer the whole tree with its fruit in the germ to a man who only looks for the ripe fruit. The application of the comparison is self-evident, and I now only remark that a fine ornate style is as little suited to the professor's chair as the scholastic style to a drawing-room, the pulpit, or the bar.
The student accumulates in view of an ulterior end and for a future use; accordingly the professor ought to endeavor to transmit the full and entire property of the knowledge that he communicates to him. Now, nothing belongs to us as our own but what has been communicated to the understanding. The orator, on the other hand, has in view an immediate end, and his voice must correspond with an immediate want of the public. His interest is to make his knowledge practically available as soon as possible; and the surest way is to hand it over to the senses, and to prepare it for the use of sensation. The professor, who only admits hearers on certain conditions, and who is entitled to suppose in his hearers the dispositions of mind in which a man ought to be to receive the truth, has only in view in his lecture the object of which he is treating; while the orator, who cannot make any conditions with his audience, and who needs above everything sympathy, to secure it on his side, must regulate his action and treatment according to the subjects on which he turns his discourse. The hearers of the professor have already attended his lectures, and will attend them again; they only want fragments that will form a whole after having been linked to the preceding lectures. The audience of the orator is continually renewed; it comes unprepared, and perhaps will not return; accordingly in every address the orator must finish what he wishes to do; each of his harangues must form a whole and contain expressly and entirely his conclusion.
It is not therefore surprising that a dogmatic composition or address, however solid, should not have any success either in conversation or in the pulpit, nor that a fine diction, whatever wit it may contain, should not bear fruit in a professor's chair. It is not surprising that the fashionable world should not read writings that stand out in relief in the scientific world, and that the scholar and the man of science are ignorant of works belonging to the school of worldly people that are devoured greedily by all lovers of the beautiful. Each of these works may be entitled to admiration in the circle to which it belongs; and more than this, both, fundamentally, may be quite of equal value; but it would be requiring an impossibility to expect that the work which demands all the application of the thinker should at the same time offer an easy recreation to the man who is only a fine wit.
For the same reason I consider that it is hurtful to choose for the instruction of youth books in which scientific matters are clothed in an attractive style. I do not speak here of those in which the substance is sacrificed to the form, but of certain writings really excellent, which are sufficiently well digested to stand the strictest examination, but which do not offer their proofs by their very form. No doubt books of this kind attain their end, they are read; but this is always at the cost of a more important end, the end for which they ought to be read. In this sort of reading the understanding is never exercised save in as far as it agrees with the fancy; it does not learn to distinguish the form from the substance, nor to act alone as pure understanding. And yet the exercise of the pure understanding is in itself an essential and capital point in the instruction of youth; and very often the exercise itself of thought is much more important than the object on which it is exercised. If you wish for a matter to be done seriously, be very careful not to announce it as a diversion. It is preferable, on the contrary, to secure attention and effort by the very form that is employed, and to use a kind of violence to draw minds over from the passive to an active state. The professor ought never to hide from his pupil the exact regularity of the method; he ought rather to fix his attention on it, and if possible to make him desire this strictness. The student ought to learn to pursue an end, and in the interest of that end to put up with a difficult process. He ought early to aspire to that loftier satisfaction which is the reward of exertion. In a scientific lecture the senses are altogether set aside; in an aesthetic address it is wished to interest them. What is the result? A writing or conversation of the aesthetic class is devoured with interest; but questions are put as to its conclusions; the hearer is scarcely able to give an answer. And this is quite natural, as here the conceptions reach the mind only in entire masses, and the understanding only knows what it analyzes. The mind during a lecture of this kind is more passive than active, and the intellect only possesses what it has produced by its own activity.
However, all this applies only to the vulgarly beautiful, and to a vulgar fashion of perceiving beauty. True beauty reposes on the strictest limitation, on the most exact definition, on the highest and most intimate necessity. Only this limitation ought rather to let itself be sought for than be imposed violently. It requires the most perfect conformity to law, but this must appear quite natural. A product that unites these conditions will fully satisfy the understanding as soon as study is made of it. But exactly because this result is really beautiful, its conformity is not expressed; it does not take the understanding apart to address it exclusively; it is a harmonious unity which addresses the entire man—all his faculties together; it is nature speaking to nature.
A vulgar criticism may perhaps find it empty, paltry, and too little determined. He who has no other knowledge than that of distinguishing, and no other sense than that for the particular, is actually pained by what is precisely the triumph of art, this harmonious unity where the parts are blended in a pure entirety. No doubt it is necessary, in a philosophical discourse, that the understanding, as a faculty of analysis, find what will satisfy it; it must obtain single concrete results; this is the essential that must not by any means be lost sight of. But if the writer, while giving all possible precision to the substance of his conceptions, has taken the necessary measures to enable the understanding, as soon as it will take the trouble, to find of necessity these truths, I do not see that he is a less good writer because he has approached more to the highest perfection. Nature always acts as a harmonious unity, and when she loses this in her efforts after abstraction, nothing appears more urgent to her than to re-establish it, and the writer we are speaking of is not less commendable if he obeys nature by attaching to the understanding what had been separated by abstraction, and when, by appealing at the same time to the sensuous and to the spiritual faculties, he addresses altogether the entire man. No doubt the vulgar critic will give very scant thanks to this writer for having given him a double task. For vulgar criticism has not the feeling for this harmony, it only runs after details, and even in the Basilica of St. Peter would exclusively attend to the pillars on which the ethereal edifice reposes. The fact is that this critic must begin by translating it to understand it—in the same way that the pure understanding, left to itself, if it meets beauty and harmony, either in nature or in art, must begin by transferring them into its own language—and by decomposing it, by doing in fact what the pupil does who spells before reading. But it is not from the narrow mind of his readers that the writer who expresses his conceptions in the language of the beautiful receives his laws. The ideal which he carries in himself is the goal at which he aims without troubling himself as to who follows and who remains behind. Many will stay behind; for if it be a rare thing to find readers simply capable of thinking, it is infinitely more rare to meet any who can think with imagination. Thus our writer, by the force of circumstances, will fall out, on the one hand, with those who have only intuitive ideas and feelings, for he imposes on them a painful task by forcing them to think; and, on the other hand, he aggravates those who only know how to think, for he asks of them what is absolutely impossible—to give a living, animated form to conception. But as both only represent true humanity very imperfectly—that normal humanity which requires the absolute harmony of these two operations—their contradictory objections have no weight, and if their judgments prove anything, it is rather that the author has succeeded in attaining his end. The abstract thinker finds that the substance of the work is solidly thought; the reader of intuitive ideas finds his style lively and animated; both consequently find and approve in him what they are able to understand, and that alone is wanting which exceeds their capacity.
But precisely for this very reason a writer of this class is not adapted to make known to an ignorant reader the object of what he treats, or, in the most proper sense of the word, to teach. Happily also, he is not required for that, for means will not be wanting for the teaching of scholars. The professor in the strictest acceptation is obliged to bind himself to the needs of his scholars; the first thing he has to presuppose is the ignorance of those who listen to him; the other, on the other hand, demands a certain maturity and culture in his reader or audience. Nor is his office confined to impart to them dead ideas; he grasps the living object with a living energy, and seizes at once on the entire man—his understanding, his heart, and his will.
We have found that it is dangerous for the soundness of knowledge to give free scope to the exigencies of taste in teaching, properly so called. But this does not mean by any means that the culture of this faculty in the student is a premature thing. He must, on the contrary, be encouraged to apply the knowledge that he has appropriated in the school to the field of living development. When once the first point has been observed, and the knowledge acquired, the other point, the exercise of taste, can only have useful results. It is certain that it is necessary to be quite the master of a truth to abandon without danger the form in which it has been found; a great strength of understanding is required not to lose sight of your object while giving free play to the imagination. He who transmits his knowledge under a scholastic form persuades me, I admit, that he has grasped these truths properly and that he knows how to support them. But he who besides this is in a condition to communicate them to me in a beautiful form not only proves that he is adapted to promulgate them, he shows moreover that he has assimilated them and that he is able to make their image pass into his productions and into his acts. There is for the results of thought only one way by which they can penetrate into the will and pass into life; that is, by spontaneous imagination, only what in ourselves was already a living act can become so out of us; and the same thing happens with the creations of the mind as with those of organic nature, that the fruit issues only from the flower. If we consider how many truths were living and active as interior intuitions before philosophy showed their existence, and how many truths most firmly secured by proofs often remain inactive on the will and the feelings, it will be seen how important it is for practical life to follow in this the indications of nature, and when we have acquired a knowledge scientifically to bring it back again to the state of a living intuition. It is the only way to enable those whose nature has forbidden them to follow the artificial path of science to share in the treasures of wisdom. The beautiful renders us here in relation with knowledge what, in morals, it does in relation with conduct; it places men in harmony on results, and on the substance of things, who would never have agreed on the form and principles.
The other sex, by its very nature and fair destiny, cannot and ought not to rival ours in scientific knowledge; but it can share truth with us by the reproduction of things. Man agrees to have his taste offended, provided compensation be given to his understanding by the increased value of its possessions. But women do not forgive negligence in form, whatever be the nature of the conception; and the inner structure of all their being gives them the right to show a strict severity on this point. The fair sex, even if it did not rule by beauty, would still be entitled to its name because it is ruled by beauty, and makes all objects presented to it appear before the tribunal of feeling, and all that does not speak to feeling or belies it is lost in the opinion of women. No doubt through this medium nothing can be made to reach the mind of woman save the matter of truth, and not truth itself, which is inseparable from its proofs. But happily woman only needs the matter of truth to reach her highest perfection, and the few exceptions hitherto seen are not of a nature to make us wish that the exception should become the rule. As, therefore, nature has not only dispensed but cut off the other sex from this task, man must give a double attention to it if he wishes to vie with woman and be equal to her in what is of great interest in human life. Consequently he will try to transfer all that he can from the field of abstraction, where he is master, to that of imagination, of feeling, where woman is at once a model and a judge. The mind of woman being a ground that does not admit of durable cultivation, he will try to make his own ground yield as many flowers and as much fruit as possible, so as to renew as often as possible the quickly-fading produce on the other ground, and to keep up a sort of artificial harvest where natural harvests could not ripen. Taste corrects or hides the natural differences of the two sexes. It nourishes and adorns the mind of woman with the productions of that of man, and allows the fair sex to feel without being previously fatigued by thought, and to enjoy pleasures without having bought them with labors. Thus, save the restrictions I have named, it is to the taste that is intrusted the care of form in every statement by which knowledge is communicated, but under the express condition that it will not encroach on the substance of things. Taste must never forget that it carries out an order emanating elsewhere, and that it is not its own affairs it is treating of. All its parts must be limited to place our minds in a condition favorable to knowledge; over all that concerns knowledge itself it has no right to any authority. For it exceeds its mission, it betrays it, it disfigures the object that it ought faithfully to transmit, it lays claim to authority out of its proper province; if it tries to carry out there, too, its own law, which is nothing but that of pleasing the imagination and making itself agreeable to the intuitive faculties; if it applies this law not only to the operation, but also to the matter itself; if it follows this rule not only to arrange the materials, but also to choose them. When this is the case the first consideration is not the things themselves, but the best mode of presenting them so as to recommend them to the senses. The logical sequence of conceptions of which only the strictness should have been hidden from us is rejected as a disagreeable impediment. Perfection is sacrificed to ornament, the truth of the parts to the beauty of the whole, the inmost nature of things to the exterior impression. Now, directly the substance is subordinated to form, properly speaking it ceases to exist; the statement is empty, and instead of having extended our knowledge we have only indulged in an amusing game.
The writers who have more wit than understanding and more taste than science, are too often guilty of this deception; and readers more accustomed to feel than to think are only too inclined to forgive them. In general it is unsafe to give to the aesthetical sense all its culture before having exercised the understanding as the pure thinking faculty, and before having enriched the head with conceptions; for as taste always looks at the carrying out and not at the basis of things, wherever it becomes the only arbiter, there is an end of the essential difference between things. Men become indifferent to reality, and they finish by giving value to form and appearance only.
Hence arises that superficial and frivolous bel-esprit that we often see hold sway in social conditions and in circles where men pride themselves, and not unreasonably, on the finest culture. It is a fatal thing to introduce a young man into assemblies where the Graces hold sway before the Muses have dismissed him and owned his majority. Moreover, it can hardly be prevented that what completes the external education of a young man whose mind is ripe turns him who is not ripened by study into a fool. I admit that to have a fund of conceptions, and not form, is only a half possession. For the most splendid knowledge in a head incapable of giving them form is like a treasure buried in the earth. But form without substance is a shadow of riches, and all possible cleverness in expression is of no use to him who has nothing to express.
Thus, to avoid the graces of education leading us in a wrong road, taste must be confined to regulating the external form, while reason and experience determine the substance and the essence of conceptions. If the impression made on the senses is converted into a supreme criterion, and if things are exclusively referred to sensation, man will never cease to be in the service of matter; he will never clear a way for his intelligence; in short, reason will lose in freedom in proportion as it allows imagination to usurp undue influence.
The beautiful produces its effect by mere intuition; the truth demands study. Accordingly, the man who among all his faculties has only exercised the sense of the beautiful is satisfied even when study is absolutely required, with a superficial view of things; and he fancies he can make a mere play of wit of that which demands a serious effort. But mere intuition cannot give any result. To produce something great it is necessary to enter into the fundamental nature of things, to distinguish them strictly, to associate them in different manners, and study them with a steady attention. Even the artist and the poet, though both of them labor to procure us only the pleasure of intuition, can only by most laborious and engrossing study succeed in giving us a delightful recreation by their works.
I believe this to be the test to distinguish the mere dilettante from the artist of real genius. The seductive charm exercised by the sublime and the beautiful, the fire which they kindle in the young imagination, the apparent ease with which they place the senses under an illusion, have often persuaded inexperienced minds to take in hand the palette or the harp, and to transform into figures or to pour out in melody what they felt living in their heart. Misty ideas circulate in their heads, like a world in formation, and make them believe that they are inspired. They take obscurity for depth, savage vehemence for strength, the undetermined for the infinite, what has not senses for the super-sensuous. And how they revel in these creations of their brain! But the judgment of the connoisseur does not confirm this testimony of an excited self-love. With his pitiless criticism he dissipates all the prestige of the imagination and of its dreams, and carrying the torch before these novices he leads them into the mysterious depths of science and life, where, far from profane eyes, the source of all true beauty flows ever towards him who is initiated. If now a true genius slumbers in the young aspirant, no doubt his modesty will at first receive a shock; but soon the consciousness of real talent will embolden him for the trial. If nature has endowed him with gifts for plastic art, he will study the structure of man with the scalpel of the anatomist; he will descend into the lowest depths to be true in representing surfaces, and he will question the whole race in order to be just to the individual. If he is born to be a poet, he examines humanity in his own heart to understand the infinite variety of scenes in which it acts on the vast theatre of the world. He subjects imagination and its exuberant fruitfulness to the discipline of taste, and charges the understanding to mark out in its cool wisdom the banks that should confine the raging waters of inspiration. He knows full well that the great is only formed of the little—from the imperceptible. He piles up, grain by grain, the materials of the wonderful structure, which, suddenly disclosed to our eyes, produces a startling effect and turns our head. But if nature has only intended him for a dilettante, difficulties damp his impotent zeal, and one of two things happens: either he abandons, if he is modest, that to which he was diverted by a mistaken notion of his vocation; or, if he has no modesty, he brings back the ideal to the narrow limits of his faculties, for want of being able to enlarge his faculties to the vast proportions of the ideal. Thus the true genius of the artist will be always recognized by this sign—that when most enthusiastic for the whole, he preserves a coolness, a patience defying all obstacles, as regards details. Moreover, in order not to do any injury to perfection, he would rather renounce the enjoyment given by the completion. For the simple amateur, it is the difficulty of means that disgusts him and turns him from his aim; his dreams would be to have no more trouble in producing than he had in conception and intuition.
I have spoken hitherto of the dangers to which we are exposed by an exaggerated sensuousness and susceptibility to the beautiful in the form, and from too extensive aesthetical requirements; and I have considered these dangers in relation to the faculty of thinking and knowing. What, then, will be the result when these pretensions of the aesthetical taste bear on the will? It is one thing to be stopped in your scientific progress by too great a love of the beautiful, another to see this inclination become a cause of degeneracy in character itself, and make us violate the law of duty. In matters of thought the caprices of "taste" are no doubt an evil, and they must of necessity darken the intelligence; but these same caprices applied to the maxims of the will become really pernicious and infallibly deprave the heart. Yet this is the dangerous extreme to which too refined an aesthetic culture brings us directly we abandon ourselves exclusively to the feelings for the beautiful, and directly we raise taste to the part of absolute lawgiver over our will.
The moral destination of man requires that the will should be completely independent of all influence of sensuous instincts, and we know that taste labors incessantly at making the link between reason and the senses continually closer. Now this effort has certainly as its result the ennobling of the appetites, and to make them more conformable with the requirements of reason; but this very point may be a serious danger for morality.
I proceed to explain my meaning. A very refined aesthetical education accustoms the imagination to direct itself according to laws, even in its free exercise, and leads the sensuous not to have any enjoyments without the concurrence of reason; but it soon follows that reason, in its turn, is required to be directed, even in the most serious operations of its legislative power, according to the interests of imagination, and to give no more orders to the will without the consent of the sensuous instincts. The moral obligation of the will, which is, however, an absolute and unconditional law, takes unperceived the character of a simple contract, which only binds each of the contracting parties when the other fulfils its engagement. The purely accidental agreement of duty with inclination ends by being considered a necessary condition, and thus the principle of all morality is quenched in its source.
How does the character become thus gradually depraved? The process may be explained thus: So long as man is only a savage, and his instincts' only bear on material things and a coarse egotism determines his actions, sensuousness can only become a danger to morality by its blind strength, and does not oppose reason except as a force. The voice of justice, moderation, and humanity is stifled by the appetites, which make a stronger appeal. Man is then terrible in his vengeance, because he is terribly sensitive to insults. He robs, he kills, because his desires are still too powerful for the feeble guidance of reason. He is towards others like a wild beast, because the instinct of nature still rules him after the fashion of animals.
But when to the savage state, to that of nature, succeeds civilization; when taste ennobles the instincts, and holds out to them more worthy objects taken from the moral order; when culture moderates the brutal outbursts of the appetites and brings them back under the discipline of the beautiful, it may happen that these same instincts, which were only dangerous before by their blind power, coming to assume an air of dignity and a certain assumed authority, may become more dangerous than before to the morality of the character; and that, under the guise of innocence, nobleness, and purity, they may exercise over the will a tyranny a hundred times worse than the other.
The man of taste willingly escapes the gross thraldom of the appetites. He submits to reason the instinct which impels him to pleasure, and he is willing to take counsel from his spiritual and thinking nature for the choice of the objects he ought to desire. Now, reason is very apt to mistake a spiritualized instinct for one of its own instincts, and at length to give up to it the guidance of the will, and this in proportion as moral judgment and aesthetic judgment, the sense of the good and the sense of the beautiful, meet in the same object and in the same decision.
So long as it remains possible for inclination and duty to meet in the same object and in a common desire, this representation of the moral sense by the aesthetic sense may not draw after it positively evil consequences, though, if the matter be strictly considered, the morality of particular actions does not gain by this agreement. But the consequences will be quite different when sensuousness and reason have each of them a different interest. If, for example, duty commands us to perform an action that revolts our taste, or if taste feels itself drawn towards an object which reason as a moral judge is obliged to condemn, then, in fact, we suddenly encounter the necessity of distinguishing between the requirements of the moral sense and those of the aesthetic sense, which so long an agreement had almost confounded to such a degree that they could not be distinguished. We must now determine their reciprocal rights, and find which of them is the real master in our soul. But such a long representation of the moral sense by the sense of the beautiful has made us forget this master. When we have so long practised this rule of obeying at once the suggestions of taste, and when we have found the result always satisfactory, taste ends by assuming a kind of appearance of right. As taste has shown itself irreproachable in the vigilant watch it has kept over the will, we necessarily come to grant a certain esteem to its decisions; and it is precisely to this esteem that inclination, with captious logic, gives weight against the duties of conscience.
Esteem is a feeling that can only be felt for law, and what corresponds to it. Whatever is entitled to esteem lays claim to an unconditional homage. The ennobled inclination which has succeeded in captivating our esteem will, therefore, no longer be satisfied with being subordinate to reason; it aspires to rank alongside it. It does not wish to be taken for a faithless subject in revolt against his sovereign; it wishes to be regarded as a queen; and, treating reason as its peer, to dictate, like reason, laws to the conscience. Thus, if we listen to her, she would weigh by right equally in the scale; and then have we not good reason to fear that interest will decide?
Of all the inclinations that are decided from the feeling for the beautiful and that are special to refined minds, none commends itself so much to the moral sense as the ennobled instinct of love; none is so fruitful in impressions which correspond to the true dignity of man. To what an elevation does it raise human nature! and often what divine sparks does it kindle in the common soul! It is a sacred fire that consumes every egotistical inclination, and the very principles of morality are scarcely a greater safeguard of the soul's chastity than love is for the nobility of the heart. How often it happens while the moral principles are still struggling that love prevails in their favor, and hastens by its irresistible power the resolutions that duty alone would have vainly demanded from weak human nature! Who, then, would distrust an affection that protects so powerfully what is most excellent in human nature, and which fights so victoriously against the moral foe of all morality, egotism?
But do not follow this guide till you have secured a better. Suppose a loved object be met that is unhappy, and unhappy because of you, and that it depends only on you to make it happy by sacrificing a few moral scruples. You may be disposed to say, "Shall I let this loved being suffer for the pleasure of keeping our conscience pure? Is this resistance required by this generous, devoted affection, always ready to forget itself for its object? I grant it is going against conscience to have recourse to this immoral means to solace the being we love; but can we be said to love if in presence of this being and of its sorrow we continue to think of ourselves? Are we not more taken up with ourselves than with it, since we prefer to see it unhappy rather than consent to be so ourselves by the reproaches of our conscience?" These are the sophisms that the passion of love sets against conscience (whose voice thwarts its interests), making its utterances despicable as suggestions of selfishness, and representing our moral dignity as one of the components of our happiness that we are free to alienate. Then, if the morality of our character is not strongly backed by good principles, we shall surrender, whatever may be the impetus of our exalted imagination, to disgraceful acts; and we shall think that we gain a glorious victory over our self-love, while we are only the despicable victims of this instinct. A well-known French romance, "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," gives us a striking example of this delusion, by which love betrays a soul otherwise pure and beautiful. The Presidente de Tourvel errs by surprise, and seeks to calm her remorse by the idea that she has sacrificed her virtue to her generosity.
Secondary and imperfect duties, as they are styled, are those that the feeling for the beautiful takes most willingly under its patronage, and which it allows to prevail on many occasions over perfect duties. As they assign a much larger place to the arbitrary option of the subject, and at the same time as they have the appearance of merit, which gives them lustre, they commend themselves far more to the aesthetic taste than perfect or necessary duties, which oblige us strictly and unconditionally. How many people allow themselves to be unjust that they may be generous! How many fail in their duties to society that they may do good to an individual, and reciprocally! How many people forgive a lie sooner than a rudeness, a crime against humanity rather than an insult to honor! How many debase their bodies to hasten the perfection of their minds, and degrade their character to adorn their understanding! How many do not scruple to commit a crime when they have a laudable end in view, pursue an ideal of political happiness through all the terrors of anarchy, tread under foot existing laws to make way for better ones, and do not scruple to devote the present generation to misery to secure at this cost the happiness of future generations! The apparent unselfishness of certain virtues gives them a varnish of purity, which makes them rash enough to break and run counter to the moral law; and many people are the dupes of this strange illusion, to rise higher than morality and to endeavor to be more reasonable than reason.
The man of a refined taste is susceptible, in this respect, of a moral corruption, from which the rude child of nature is preserved by his very coarseness. In the latter, the opposite of the demands of sense and the decrees of the moral law is so strongly marked and so manifest, and the spiritual element has so small a share in his desires, that although the appetites exercise a despotic sway over him, they cannot wrest his esteem from him. Thus, when the savage, yielding to the superior attraction of sense, gives way to the committal of an unjust action, he may yield to temptation, but he will not hide from himself that he is committing a fault, and he will do homage to reason even while he violates its mandates. The child of civilization, on the contrary, the man of refinement, will not admit that he commits a fault, and to soothe his conscience he prefers to impose on it by a sophism. No doubt he wishes to obey his appetite, but at the same time without falling in his own esteem. How does he manage this? He begins by overthrowing the superior authority that thwarts his inclination, and before transgressing the law he calls in question the competence of the lawgiver. Could it be expected that a corrupt will should so corrupt the intelligence? The only dignity that an inclination can assume accrues to it from its agreement with reason; yet we find that inclination, independent as well as blind, aspires, at the very moment she enters into contest with reason, to keep this dignity which she owes to reason alone. Nay, inclination even aspires to use this dignity she owes to reason against reason itself.
These are the dangers that threaten the morality of the character when too intimate an association is attempted between sensuous instincts and moral instincts, which can never perfectly agree in real life, but only in the ideal. I admit that the sensuous risks nothing in this association, because it possesses nothing except what it must give up directly duty speaks and reason demands the sacrifice. But reason, as the arbiter of the moral law, will run the more risk from this union if it receives as a gift from inclination what it might enforce; for, under the appearance of freedom, the feeling of obligation may be easily lost, and what reason accepts as a favor may quite well be refused it when the sensuous finds it painful to grant it. It is, therefore, infinitely safer for the morality of the character to suspend, at least for a time, this misrepresentation of the moral sense by the sense of the beautiful. It is best of all that reason should command by itself without mediation, and that it should show to the will its true master. The remark is, therefore, quite justified, that true morality only knows itself in the school of adversity, and that a continual prosperity becomes easily a rock of offence to virtue. I mean here by prosperity the state of a man who, to enjoy the goods of life, need not commit injustice, and who to conform to justice need not renounce any of the goods of life. The man who enjoys a continual prosperity never sees moral duty face to face, because his inclinations, naturally regular and moderate, always anticipate the mandate of reason, and because no temptation to violate the law recalls to his mind the idea of law. Entirely guided by the sense of the beautiful, which represents reason in the world of sense, he will reach the tomb without having known by experience the dignity of his destiny. On the other hand, the unfortunate man, if he be at the same time a virtuous man, enjoys the sublime privilege of being in immediate intercourse with the divine majesty of the moral law; and as his virtue is not seconded by any inclination, he bears witness in this lower world, and as a human being, of the freedom of pure spirits!