Thomas Reid.

The works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters online

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sufficient for all I intend to say upon the
subject, and therefore I shall adopt it —
observing only, that beauty is often taken
hi so extensive a sense as to comprehend
all the objects of taste ; yet all the authors
I have met with, who have given a division
of the objects of taste, make beauty one

I take the reason of this to be, that we
have specific names for some of the quali-
ties that please the taste, but not for all ;
and therefore all those fall under the gene-
ral name of beauty, for which there is no
specific name in the division.

There are, indeed, so many species of
beauty, that it would be as difficult to enu-
merate them perfectly, as to enumerate all
the tastes we perceive by the palate. Nor
does there appear to me sufficient reason
for making, as some very ingenious authors
have done, as many different internal senses
as there are different species of beauty or
deformity. [722]

The division of our external senses is
taken from the organs of perception, and
not from the qualities perceived. We have
not the same means of dividing the inter-
nal ; because, though some kinds of beauty
belong only to objects of the eye, and others
to objects of the ear, there are many which
we cannot refer to any bodily organ ; and
therefore I conceive every division that has
been made of our internal senses to be in
some degree arbitrary. They may be made
more or fewer, according as we have dis-
tinct names for the various kinds of beauty
and deformity; and I suspect the most
copious languages have not names for them

Novelty is not properly a quality of the
thing to which we attribute it, far less is
it a sensation in the mind to which it is
new ; it is a relation which the thing has
to the knowledge of the person. What is
new to one man, may not be so to another ;
[722, 723]

what is new this moment, may be familiar
to the same person some time hence. When
an object is first brought to our know-
ledge, it is new, whether it be agreeable
or not.

It is evident, therefore, with regard to
novelty, (whatever may be said of other
objects of taste,) that it is not merely a
sensation in the mind of him to whom the
thing is new ; it is a real relation which
the thing has to his knowledge at that

But we are so constituted, that what is
new to us commonly gives pleasure upon
that account, if it be not in itself disagree-
able. It rouses our attention, and occa-
sions an agreeable exertion of our facul-

The pleasure we receive from novelty in
objects has so great influence in human
life, that it well deserves the attention of
philosophers ; and several ingenious authors
— particularly Dr Gerard, in his " Essay on
Taste" — have, I think, successfully account-
ed for it, from the principles of the human
constitution. [723]

We can perhaps conceive a being so
made, that his happiness consists in a con-
tinuance of the same unvaried sensations or
feelings, without any active exertion on his
part. Whether this be possible or not, it
is evident that man is not such a being ;
his good consists in the vigorous exertion
of his active and intellective powers upon
their proper objects ; he is made for action
and progress, and cannot be happy without
it ; his enjoyments seem to be given by
Nature, not so much for their own sake, as
to encourage the exercise of his various
powers. That tranquillity of soul in which
some place human happiness, is not a dead
rest, but a regular progressive motion.

Such is the constitution of man by the
appointment of Nature. This constitution
is perhaps a part of the imperfection of our
nature ; but it is wisely adapted to our
state, which is not intended to be stationary,
but progressive. The eye is not satiated
with seeing, nor the ear with hearing;
something is always wanted. Desire and
hope never cease, but remain to spur us on
to something yet to be acquired; and, if
they could cease, human happiness must
end with them. That our desire and hope
be properly directed, is our part ; that they
can never be extinguished, is the work of

It is this that makes human life so busy
a scene. Man must be doing something,
good or bad, trifling or important ; and he
must vary the employment of his facul-
ties, or their exercise will become languid,
and the pleasure that attends it sicken of

The notions of enjoyment, and of activity,



considered abstractly, are no doubt very
different, and we cannot perceive a neces-
sary connection between them. But, in our
constitution, they are so connected by the
wisdom of Nature, that they must go hand
in hand ; and the first must be led and
supported by the last. [724]

An object at first, perhaps, gave much
pleasure, while attention was directed to it
with vigour. But attention cannot be long
. confined to one unvaried object, nor can it
be carried round in the same narrow circle.
Curiosity is a capital principle in the human
constitution, and its food must be what is
in some respect new. What is said of the
Athenians may, in some degree, he applied
to all mankind, That their time is spent
in hearing, or telling, or doing some new

Into this part of the human constitution,
I think, we may resolve the pleasure we
have from novelty in objects.

Curiosity is commonly strongest in child-
ren and in young persons, and accordingly
novelty pleases them most. In all ages, in
proportion as novelty gratifies curiosity, and
occasions a vigorous exertion of any of our
mental powers in attending to the new ob-
ject, in the same proportion it gives plea-
sure. In advanced life, the indolent and
inactive have the strongest passion for news,
as a relief from a painful vacuity of thought.
But the pleasure derived from new objects,
in many cases, is not owing solely or chiefly
to their being new, but to some other cir-
cumstance that gives them value. The new
fashion in dress, furniture, equipage, and
other accommodations of life, gives plea-
sure, not so much, as I apprehend, because
it is new, as because it is a sign of rank,
and distinguishes a man from the vulgar.

In some things novelty is due, and the
want of it a real imperfection. Thus, if an
author adds to the number of books with
which the public is already overloaded, we
expect from him something new ; and, if he
says nothing but what has been said before
in as agreeable a manner, we are justly
disgusted. [725]

When novelty is altogether separated
from the conception of worth and utility, it
makes but a slight impression upon a truly
correct taste. Every discovery in nature,
in the arts, and in the sciences, has a real
value, and gives a rational pleasure to a
good taste. But things that have nothing
to recommend them but novelty, are fit
only to entertain children, or those who are
distressed from a vacuity of thought. This
quality of objects may therefore be com-
pared to the cypher in arithmetic, which
adds greatly to the value of significant
figures ; but, when put by itself, signifies
nothing at all.



TnE qualities which please the taste are
not more various in themselves than are
the emotions and feelings with which they
affect our minds.

Things new and uncommon affect us with
a pleasing surprise, which rouses and invi-
gorates our attention to the object. But
this emotion soon flags, if there is nothing
but novelty to give it continuance, and
leaves no effect upon the mind.

The emotion raised by grand objects is
awful, solemn, and serious.

Of all objects of contemplation, the Su-
preme Being, is the most grand. His
eternity, his immensity, his irresistible power,
his infinite knowledge and unerring wisdom,
his inflexible justice and rectitude, his su-
preme government, conducting all the
movements of this vast universe to the no-
blest ends and in the wisest manuer — are
objects which fill the utmost capacity of the
soul, and reach far beyondits comprehension.

The emotion which this grandest of all
objects raises in the human mind, is what
we call devotion ; a serious recollected tem-
per, which inspires magnanimity, and dis-
poses to the most heroic acts of virtue. [726}

The emotion produced by other objects
which may be called grand, though iu an
inferior degree, is, in its nature and in its
effects, similar to that of devotion. It dis-
poses to seriousness, elevates the mind
above its usual state, to a kind of enthusi-
asm, and inspires magnanimity, and a con-
tempt of what is mean.

Such, I conceive, is the emotion which
the contemplation of grand objects raises in
us. We are next to consider what this
grandeur in objects is.

To me it seems to be nothing else but
such a degree of excellence, in one kind or
another, as merits our admiration.

There are some attributes of mind which
have a real and intrinsic excellence, com-
pared with their contraries, and which, in
every degree, are the natural objects of
esteem, but, in an uncommon degree, are ob-
jects of admiration. We put a value upon
them because they are intrinsically valuable
and excellent.

The spirit of modern philosophy would
indeed lead us 1 to think, that the worth and
value we put upon things is only a sensation
in our minds, and not anything inherent in
the object ; and that we might have been so
constituted as to put the highest value upon
the things which we now despise, and to
despise thequalities which we now highly


CHAP. 111.]



It gives me pleasure to observe, that Dr
Price, in his " Review of the Questions
concerning Morals," strenuously opposes
this opinion, as well as that which resolves
moral right and wrong into a sensation in
the mind of the spectator. That judicious
author saw the consequences which these
opinions draw after them, and has traced
them to their source — to wit, the account
given by Mr Locke, and adopted by the gen-
erality of modern philosophers, of the ori-
gin of all our ideas, which account he shews
to be very defective. [727]

This proneness to resolve everything into
feelings and sensations, is an extreme into
which we have been led by the desire of
avoiding an opposite extreme, as common
in the ancient philosophy.

At first, men are prone by nature and by
habit to give all their attention to things
external. Their notions of the mind, and
its operations, are formed from some analogy
they bear to objects of sense ; and an ex-
ternal existence is ascribed to things which
are only conceptions or feelings of the

This spirit prevailed much in the philo-
sophy both of Plato and of Aristotle, and
produced the mysterious notions of eternal
and self-existent ideas, of materia prima, of
substantial forms, and others of the like

From the time of Des Cartes, philosophy
took a contrary turn. That great man dis-
covered, that many things supposed to have
an externalexistence, were only conceptions
or feelings of the mind. This track has
been pursued by his successors to such an
extreme as to resolve everything into sens-
ations, feelings, and ideas in the mind, and
to leave nothing external at all.

The Peripatetics thought that heat and
cold which we feel to be qualities of external
objects. The moderns make heat and cold
to be sensations only, and allow no real
quality of body to be called by that name :
and the same judgment they have formed
with regard to all secondary qualities.

So far Des Cartes and Mr Locke went.
Their successors being put into this track
of converting into feelings things that were
believed to have an externalexistence, found
that extension, solidity, figure, and all the
primary qualities of body, are sensations or
feelings of the mind ; and that the material
world is a pheenomenon only, and has no
existence but in our mind. [728]

It was then a very natural progress to con-
ceive, that beauty, harmony, and grandeur,
the objects of taste, as well as right and
wrong, the objects of the moral faculty, are
nothing but feelings of the mind.

Those who are acquainted with the
writings of modern philosophers, can easily
trace this doctrine of feelings, from Des

Cartes down to Mr Hume, who put the
finishing stroke to it, by making truth and
error to be feelings of the mind, and belief
to be an operation of the sensitive part of
our nature.

To return to our subject, if we hearken
to the dictates of common sense, we must be
convinced that there is real excellence in
some things, whatever our feelings or our
constitution be.

It depends no doubt upon our constitu-
tion, whether we do or do not perceive ex-
cellence where it really is : but the object
has its excellence from its own constitution,
and not from ours.

The common judgment of mankind in this
matter sufficiently appears in the language
of all nations, which uniformly ascribes ex-
cellence, grandeur, and beauty to the object,
and not to the mind that perceives it. And
I believe in this, as in most other things,
we shall find the common judgment of man-
kind and true philosophy not to be at va-

Is not power in its nature more excel-
lent than weakness ; knowledge than igno-
rance ; wisdom than folly ; fortitude than
pusillanimity ?

Is there no intrinsic excellence in self-
command, in generosity, in public spirit ?
Is not friendship a better affection of mind
than hatred, a noble emulation than envy ?

Let us suppose, if possible, a being so
constituted as to have a high respect for
ignorance, weakness, and folly; to venerate
cowardice, malice, and envy, and to hold
the contrary qualities in contempt ; to have
an esteem for lying and falsehood ; and to
love most those who imposed upon him,
and used him worst. Could we believe
such a constitution to be anything else than
madness and delirium ? It is impossible.
We can as easily conceive a constitution,
by which one should perceive two and three
to make fifteen, or a part to be greater than
the whole.

Every one who attends to the operations
of his own mind will find it to be certainly
true, as it is the common belief of mankind,
that esteem is led by opinion, and that every
person draws our esteem, as far only as he
appears either to reason or fancy to be
amiable and worthy.

There is therefore a real intrinsic excel-
lence in some qualities of mind, as in power,
knowledge, wisdom, virtue, magnanimity.
These, in every degree, merit esteem ; but
in an uncommon degree they merit admir-
ation ; and that which merits admiration
we call grand.

In the contemplation of uncommon ex-
cellence, the mind feels a noble enthusiasm,
which disposes it to the imitation of what it



When we contemplate the character of
Cato — his greatness of soul, his superiority
to pleasure, to toil, and to danger ; his ar-
dent zeal for the liberty of his country ;
when we see him standing unmoved in mis-
fortunes, the last pillar of the liberty of
Rome, and falling nobly in his country's
ruin — who would not wish to be Cato rather
than Csesar in all his triumph ? [730]

Such a spectacle of a great soul strug-
gling with misfortune, Seneca thought not
unworthy of the attention of Jupiter him-
self, " Ecce spectaculum Deo dignum, ad
quod respiciat Jupiter suo operi intentus,
vir fortis cum mala fortuna compositus."

As the Deity is, of all objects of thought,
the most grand, the descriptions given in
holy writ of his attributes and works, even
when clothed in simple expression, are
acknowledged to be sublime. The expres-
sion of Moses, " And God said, Let there
be light, and there was light,"* .has not
escaped the notice of Longinus, a Heathen
critic, as an example of the sublime.

What we call sublime in description, or
in speech of any kind, is a proper expres-
sion of the admiration and enthusiasm which
the subject produces in the mind of the
speaker. If this admiration and enthu-
siasm appears to be just, it carries the
hearer along with it involuntarily, and by
a kind of violence rather than by cool con-
viction : for no passions are so infectious as
those which hold of enthusiasm.

But, on the other hand, if the passion of
the speaker appears to be in no degree jus-
tified by the subject or the occasion, it pro-
duces in the judicious hearer no other emo-
tion but ridicule and contempt.

The true sublime cannot be produced
solely by art in the composition ; it must
take its rise from grandeur in the subject,
and a corresponding emotion raised in the
mind of the speaker. A proper exhibition
of these, though it should be artless, is
irresistible, like fire thrown into the midst
of combustible matter. [731]

When we contemplate the earth, the sea,
the planetary system, the universe, these
are vast objects ; it requires a stretch of
imagination to grasp them in our minds.
But they appear truly grand, and merit the
highest admiration, when we consider them
as the work of God, who, in the simple
style of scripture, stretched out the heavens,
and laid the foundation of the earth ; or, in
the poetical language of Milton —

" In his hand
He took the golden compasses, prepar'd
In God's eternal store, to circumscribe
This universe and all created things.
One foot he centr'd, and the other turn'd
Bound thro' the vast profundity obscure ;

* Better translated—" Be there light, and light
tbere was " — H.

And said, Thus far extend, thus far thy bounds
This be thy just circumference, O world."

When we contemplate the world of Epi-
curus, and conceive the universe to be a
fortuitous jumble of atoms, there is nothing
grand in this idea. The clashing of atoms
by blind chance has nothing in it fit to raise
our conceptions, or to elevate the mind.
But the regular structure of a vast system
of beings, produced by creating power, and
governed by the best laws which perfect
wisdom and goodness could contrive, is a
spectacle which elevates the understanding,
and fills the soul With devout admiration.

A great work is a work of great power,
great wisdom, and great goodness, well con-
trived for some important end. But power,
wisdom, and goodness, are properly the at-
tributes of mind only. They are ascribed to
the work figuratively, but are really inherent
in the author : and by the same figure, the
grandeur is ascribed to the work, but is
properly inherent in the mind that made it.

Some figures of speech are so natural and
so common in all languages, that we are led
to think them literal and proper expressions.
Thus an action is called brave, virtuous,
generous ; but it is evident, that valour,
virtue, generosity, are the attributes of per-
sons only, and not of actions. In the action
considered abstractly, there is neither val-
our, nor virtue, nor generosity. The same
action done from a different motive may
deserve none of those epithets. [732] The
change in this case is not in the action, but
in the agent; yet, in all languages, generosity
and other moral qualities are ascribed to
actions. By a figure, we assign to the effect
a quality which is inherent only in the

By the same figure, we ascribe to a work
that grandeur which properly is inherent in
the mind of the author.

When we consider the " Iliad" as the
work of the poet, its sublimity was really
in the mind of Homer. He conceived
great characters, great actions, and great
events, in a manner suitable to their nature,
and with those emotions which they are
naturally fitted to produce ; and he conveys
his conceptions and his emotions by the
most proper signs. The grandeur of his
thoughts is reflected to our eye by his work,
and, therefore, it is justly called a grand

When we consider the things presented
to our mind in the " Iliad" without regard
to the poet, the grandeur is properly in
Hector and Achilles, and the other great
personages, human and divine, brought
upon the stage.

Next to the Deity and his works, we ad-
mire great talents and heroic virtue in men,
whether represented in history or in fiction.
The virtues of Cato, Aristides, Socrates,



Marcus Aurelius, are truly grand. Extra-
ordinary talents and genius, whether in
poets, orators, philosophers, or lawgivers, are
objects of admiration, and therefore grand.
We find writers of taste seized with a kind
of enthusiasm in the description of such

What a grand idea does Virgil give of the
power of eloquence, when he compares the
tempest of the sea, suddenly calmed by the
command of Neptune, to a furious sedition
in a great city, quelled at once by a man of
authority and eloquence. [733]

" Sic ait, ac dicto citius tumida aequora placat :
Ac veluti magno in populo, si forte coorta est
Seditio, ssnvitque animis ignobile vulgus ;
Jamque faces et saxa volant, furor arma ministrat ;
Turn pierate gravem, et meritis, si forte virnm quem
Compexere, silent, arrectisque auribus adstant.
Hie regit dictis animos, et pectora mulcet.
Sic cunctus pelagi cecidit fragor."

The wonderful genius of Sir Isaac New-
ton, and his sagacity in discovering the laws
of Nature, is admirably expressed in that
short but sublime epitaph by Pope : —

" Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night;
God said, Let Newton be — and all was light."

Hitherto we have found grandeur only in
qualities of mind ; but, it may be asked, Is
there no real grandeur in material objects ?

It will, perhaps, appear extravagant to
deny that there is ; yet it deserves to be
considered, whether all the grandeur we
ascribe to objects of sense be not derived
from something intellectual, of which they
are the effects or signs, or to which they bear
some relation or analogy.

Besides the relations of effect and cause,
of sign and thing signified, there are innu-
merable similitudes and analogies between
things of very different nature, which lead
us to connect them in our imagination, and
to ascribe to the one what properly belongs
to the other.

Every metaphor in language is an instance
of this ; and it must be remembered, that a
very great part of language, which we now
account proper, was originally metaphorical ;
for the metaphorical meaning becomes the
proper, as soon as it becomes the most
usual ; much more, when that which was at
first the proper meaning falls into disuse.

The poverty of language, no doubt, con-
tributes in part to the use of metaphor ;
and, therefore, we find the most barren and
uncultivated languages the most metaphori-
cal. But the most copious language may
be called barren, compared with the fertility
of human conceptions, and can never, with-
out the use of figures, keep pace with the
variety of their delicate modifications.

But another cause of the use of metaphor
is, that we find pleasure in discovering rela-
tions, similitudes, analogies, and even con-
trasts, that are not obvious to every eye.

All figurative speech presents something of
this kind ; and the beauty of poetical lan-
guage seems to be derived in a great mea-
sure from this source.

Of all figurative language, that is the most
common, the most natural, and the most
agreeable, which either gives a body, if we
may so 'speak, to things intellectual, and
clothes them with visible qualities; orwhich,
on the other hand, gives intellectual qualities
to the objects of sense.

To beings of more exalted faculties, intel-
lectual objects may, perhaps, appear to most
advantage in their naked simplicity. But
we can hardly conceive them but by means
of some analogy they bear to the objects of
sense. The names we give them are almost
all metaphorical or analogical.

Thus, the names of grand and sublime, as
well as their opposites, mean and low, are
evidently borrowed from the dimensions of
body ; yet, it must be acknowledged, that
many things are truly grand and sublime,
to which we cannot ascribe the dimensions
of height and extension.

Some analogy there is, without doubt, be-
tween greatness of dimension, which is an
object of external sense, and that grandeur
which is an object of taste. On account of
this analogy, the last borrows its name from
the first ; and, the name being common,
leads us to conceive that there is something
common in the nature of the things. [735]

But we shall find many qualities of mind,
denoted by names taken from some quality
of body to which they have some analogy,
without anything common in their nature.

Sweetness and austerity, simplicity and
duplicity, rectitude and crookedness, are

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 111 of 114)