« PreviousContinue »
he will go no further than strict principle appears to require. He will advance slowly and reluctantly. As it is justice, not generosity, which impels him, he will often feel as a task what he is required by conscience to perform. Whereas to him, who is prompted by virtuous sensibility, every office of beneficence and humanity is a pleasure. He gives, assists, and relieves, not merely because he is bound to do so, but because it would be painful for him to refrain. Hence the smallest benefit he confers rises in its value, on account of its carrying the affection of the giver impressed upon the gift. It speaks his heart, and the discovery of the heart is very frequently of greater consequence than all that liberality can bestow. How often will the affectionate smile of approbation gladden the humble, and raise the dejected ? How often will the look of tender sympathy, or the tear that involuntarily falls, impart consolation to the unhappy? By means of this correspondence of hearts, all the great duties which we owe to one another are both performed to more advantage, and endeared in the performance. From true sensibility flow a thousand good offices, apparently small in themselves, but of high importance to the felicity of others; offices which altogether escape the observation of the cold and unfeeling, who, by the hardness of their manner, render themselves unamiable, even when they mean to do good. How happy then would it be for mankind, if this affectionate disposition prevailed more generally in the world! How much would the sum of public virtue and public felicity be increased, if men were always inclined to rejoice with them that rejoice, and to weep with them that weep.
But, besides the effect of such a temper on general virtue and happiness, let us consider its effect on the happiness of him who possesses it, and the various pleasures to which it gives him access. If he be master of riches or influence, it affords him the means of increasing his own enjoyment, by relieving the wants, or increasing the comforts of others. If he command not these advantages, yet all the comforts which he sees in the possession of the deserving, become in some sort his, by his rejoicing in the good which they enjoy. Even the face of nature yields a satisfaction to him which the insensible can never know. The profusion of goodness which he beholds poured forth on the universe dilates his heart with the thought that innumerable multitudes around him are blest and happy. When he sees the labours of men appearing to prosper, and views a country flourishing in wealth and industry; when he beholds the spring coming forth in its beauty, and reviving the decayed face of nature; or in autumn beholds the fields loaded with plenty, and the year crowned with all its fruits; he lifts his affections with gratitude to the great Father of all, and rejoices in the general felicity and joy.
indeed be objected, that the same sensibility lays open the heart to be pierced with many wounds from the distresses which abound in the world; exposes us to frequent suffering from the
participation which it communicates, of the sorrows, as well as of the joys of friendship. But let it be considered, that the tender melancholy of sympathy is accompanied with a sensation, which they who feel it
would not exchange for the gratifications of the selfish. When the heart is strongly moved by any of the kind affections, even when it pours itself forth in virtuous sorrow, a secret attractive charm mingles with the painful emotion; there is a joy in the midst of grief. Let it be farther considered, that the griefs which sensibility introduces are counterbalanced by pleasures which flow from the same source. Sensibility heightens in general the human powers, and is connected with acuteness in all our feelings. If it makes us more alive to some painful sensations, in return it renders the pleasing ones more vivid and animated. The selfish man languishes in his narrow circle of pleasures. They are confined to what affects his own interest. He is obliged to repeat the same gratifications till they become insipid. But the man of virtuous sensibility moves in a wider sphere of felicity. His powers are much more frequently called forth into occupations of pleasing activity. Number less occasions open to him, of indulging his favourite taste, by conveying satisfaction to others. Often it is in his power, in one way or other, to soothe the afflicted heart, to carry some consolation into the house of woe. In the scenes of ordinary life, in the domestic and social intercourses of men, the cordiality of his affections cheers and gladdens him. Every appearance, every description of innocent happiness, is enjoyed by him. Every native expression of kindness and affection among others is felt by him, even though he be not the object of it. Among a circle of friends, enjoying one another, he is as happy as the happiest. In a word, he lives in a different sort of world from what the selfish man inhabits. He possesses a new sense, which enables him to behold
objects which the selfish cannot see.
At the same time his enjoyments are not of that kind which remain merely on the surface of the mind. They penetrate the heart. They enlarge and elevate, they refine and ennoble it. To all the pleasing emotions of affection, they add the dignified consciousness of virtue.-- Children of Men! Men formed by nature to live and to feel as brethren! How long will ye continue to estrange yourselves from one another by competitions and jealousies, when in cordial union ye might be so much more blest ? How long will ye seek your happiness in selfish gratifications alone, neglecting those purer and better sources of joy, which flow from the affections and the heart?
Having now explained the nature, and shown the value and high advantages of true sensibility, I proceed to point out some of the mistaken forms, and abuses of this virtue.
In modern times, the chief improvement of which we have to boast is a sense of humanity. This, notwithstanding the selfishness that still prevails, is the favourite and distinguishing virtue of the age. On general manners, and on several departments of society, it has had considerable influence. It has abated the spirit of persecution; it has even tempered the horrors of war; and man is now more ashamed, than he was in some former ages, of acting as a savage to man. Hence, sensibility is become so reputable a quality, that the appearance of it is frequently assumed when the reality is wanting. Softness of manners must not be mistaken for true sensibility. Sensibility indeed tends to produce gentleness of behaviour; and when such
behaviour flows from native affection, it is valuable and amiable. But the exterior manner alone may be learned in the school of the world; and often, too often, is found to cover much unfeeling hardness of heart. Professions of sensibility on every trifling occasion, joined with the appearance of excessive softness, and a profusion of sentimental language, afford always much ground for distrust. They create the suspicion of a studied character. Frequently, under a negligent and seemingly rough manner, there lies a tender and feeling heart. Manliness and sensibility are so far from being incompatible, that the truly brave are for the most part generous and humane; while the soft and effeminate are hardly capable of any vigorous exertion of affection.
As sensibility supposes delicacy of feeling with respect to others, they who affect the highest sensibility are apt to carry this delicacy to excess. They are, perhaps, not incapable of the warmth of disinterested friendship; but they are become so refined in all their sensations; they entertain such high notions of what ought to correspond in the feelings of others to their own; they are so mightily hurt by every thing which comes not up to their ideal standard of reciprocal affection, as to produce disquiet and uneasiness to all with whom they are connected. Hence, unjust suspicions of their friends; hence, groundless upbraidings and complaints of unkindness; hence, a proneness to take violent offence at trifles. In consequence of examining their friends with a microscopic eye, what to an ordinary observer would not be unpleasing, to them is grating and disgusting. At the bottom of the character of such persons there always lie much