« PrécédentContinuer »
lasting wrath, in our nursery, is not against any one who exists around us, but against the cruel tyrant, or the wicked fairy, or the robber, or the murderer, in some tale or ballad. Little generosity, in after-life, can be expected from him, who, on first hearing, as he leans on his mother's knee, the story of the Babes in the Wood, has felt no swell of anger, almost to bursting of the heart, against the guardian uncle fierce," and who does not exult in the punishment, which afterwards falls on that treacherous murderer, with a triumph more delightful than is felt by the most vindictive in the complete gratification of their own personal revenge.
How truly is this virtuous indignation of the youthful heart described by Beattie, in the glance of stern vindictive joy which brightened the tear of the future Minstrel when the beldame related to him that vengeance of heaven which forms the catastrophe of this tale" of woes :"
“ A stifled smile of stero vindictive joy
Brighten'd, one moment, Edward's starting tear.
And Innocence thus die, by doom severe ?
Tb' assaults of discontent and doubt repel.
But let us hope ;-to doubt is to rebel ;
Nor check'd the tender tear to misery given ;
This soften and refine the soul for heaven."*
It is by such generous indignation, indeed, that virtue is pretected from the contagion of guilt, or rather, without such indignation, there is already no virtue to be protected.
If the little heart, in such a case, can pause, and think, this injury was not done to me, it may with equal temptation, in maturer years, unless saved by terror of punishment, be guilty of the very crime, which, as the crime of another, excites in it so little emotion,
* Book I, stanza xlvii. and v. 1-4 of stanza xlviii.
The indignation, then, of mankind, may be considered as cooperating with the anger of the injured individual; but, unless in very atrocious cases, the general indignation is slight and faint, in comparison with the vividness of resentment in the individual. It is always sufficient, however, to sympathize with him; and this is sufficient for that just purpose which nature had in view. She has provided one whose quick and permanent resentment will lead him not to let injustice escape unpunished; and she has provided, in the community, feelings, which readily accord with the direction of the united power of the state, against the injurer of a single individual. If there had been no such feelings of sympathetic anger, it may very easily be supposed that compassion for the criminal, who was afterwards to suffer for his offence, would, in many cases, obtain for him impunity ; if, on the other hand, the indignation of the community were in every case equal to the original wrath of the individual directly injured, no opportunity could be afforded for the calm defence of innocence unjustly suspected. To have the punishment of guilt, it would be enough to have appeared to be guilty. In this universal frenzy of resentment, too, it is very evident that pot even a single individual in a nation could enjoy tranquillity for a moment. His whole life must, in that case, be a life of rage and vexation. 6 Omnis illi per iracundiam mæroremque vita transibit. Quod enim momentum erit, quo non improbanda videat ? Quoties processerit domo, per sceleratos, illi, avarosque, et prodigos, et impudentes, et ob ista felices, incedendum erit. Nusquam oculi ejus flectentur, ut non quod indignentur inveniant.” The zeal of the Knight of La Mancha, who had many giants to vanquish, and many captive princesses to free, might leave him still some moments of peace; but, if all the wrongs of all the injured were to be felt by us as our own, with the same ardent resentment and eagerness of revenge, our knight-errantry would be far more oppressive; and though we might kill a few moral giants, and free a few princesses, so many more would still remain, unslain and unfreed, that we should have little satisfaction, even in our few successes.
How admirably provident, then, is the Author of our nature, not merely in the emotions with the susceptibility of which he has endowed us, but in the very proportioning of these emotions, 90 as to produce the greatest good, at the least expense, even of momentary suffering. Some vivid feeling of resentment there must be, that the delays which may occur in the infliction of vengeance, may not save the guilty from punishment; but this vivid feeling, which must exist somewhere, nature, in ordinary cases, confines to the single breast of the sufferer. Some feelings of general sympathy with the resentment of the injured, there must also be,-that the strength of society may be readily transferred to him, for the punishment of the injurer; and these general feelings Nature has formed to be of such a kind, as may be sufficient for the purpose which they are to answer, without being too vivid, to distract the attention of the multitude from their own more important concerns. The good which Nature wills, is attained ; and is attained by means which are as simple as they are efficacious.
We have seen, then, the advantages which arise from that part of our mental constitution, by which individuals are capable of resentment, when personally injured, and of indignation when the injury has no direct relation to themselves. But resentment, admirable as it is, as a check even to that guilt which is not afraid of conscience or of God, may yet, in unfortunate dispositions, be a source of endless vexation to the individual who feels it, and to all those who live around him. It may arise too soon,-it may be disproportioned to the offence,—it may be transferred from the guilty to the innocent,-it may be too long protracted.
It may arise too soon; or rather, it may arise when a little refection would have shewn that it ought not to have arisen. In the intercourse of society, it must often unavoidably happen, that there may be apparent injury, without any real desire of injuring. We may consider that evil as intentional which was not intended; we may consider that as an insult, which was said, perhaps, with a sincere desire of correcting, as gently as possible, some imperfection, which is not less an imperfection, because we shrink from hearing of it. To distinguish what simply gives us pain, from that which was intended to give us unnecessary pain, is no easy task, in many cases, and in all cases requires some reflection. According as the emotion of anger,—at least any displeasure more lasting than a single moment,--precedes or follows this due reflection, it is to be viewed, therefore, in a very different light. The dispo
sition which becomes instantly angry, without reflection, on the slightest semblance of injury, is, in common language, as you know, termed passionate.
Another form of a passionate disposition, arising, indeed, from the same cause, is that which involves the next error, which I have stated with respect to resentment, the disproportion of the anger and the offence. He who does not pause, even to weigh the circumstances, cannot be supposed to pause, to measure the extent of injury. He feels that he is injured, and all his anger bursts out instantly on the offender. It is this disproportion, indeed, which is the chief evil of what is commonly termed passion. Some cause of slight displeasure there may be, even when anger, in its violence, would be immoral and absurd. Yet such is the infirmity of our nature, that it is often no slight triumph over our weakness, to forgive a trifle with as much magnanimity, as that with which we have forgiven greater injuries. He who has truly pardoned in heart, as well as in profession, the political rival who has displaced him, may yet be very angry with his steward or his groom; and it is no small panegyric of woman to be mistress of herself, though China fall.
To what cause, or causes, are we to ascribe this quickness of anger, on small occasions, when, if the occasion had been greater, the resentment would have been less ? This apparent anomaly in our emotion, seems to me to arise chiefly, or wholly, from three
In the first place, any great injury is felt by us immediately as an injury-as an important event in our life—an occasion on which we have to act a part-and if we have any virtue whatever, our whole system of practical ethics comes before us. We remember that we ought to forgive, and we think of this duty, merely because the importance of the injury makes us feel, that, on such an occasion, we are heroes of a little drama, and must walk majestically across the stage.
In the second place, I may remark, that great offences seldom occar, without some little warning of suspicion, which puts us on our guard, and prevents, therefore, sudden exasperation. But what warning is there, that a cup is to be broken, or a pair of spectacles mislaid ?
Still more important than these, however, though perhaps less obvious, seems to me the cause which I have last to mention, that
any great offence is of course a great evil, and that the magnitude of the evil, therefore, occupies us as much, as our resentment, and thus lessens the vividness of the mere feeling of resentment, by dividing, as it were, its interest with that of other intermingled feelings. An injury which deprives us of half our estate, presents to us many objects of thought, as well as the mere image of the injurer. But when a servant, in his excessive love of order, has laid out of our way a volume which we expected to find on our table, or has negligently suffered the newspaper to catch fire, which he was drying for us, the evil is not sufficiently great to occupy or distract us ; and we see, therefore, the whole unpardonable atrocity of the neglect itself, or of that overdiligence, which is often as teazing in its consequences as neglect.
Any one of these causes, operating singly, might be sufficient, perhaps, to explain what seems at first, as I have said, so very strange an anomaly; and their influence, as may well be supposed, is far more powerful, when they operate, as they usually operate together. The little evils, which fret us most, then, we may perhaps venture to conclude, produce this seemingly disproportionate effect, as being those, in which we do not feel that we have any great part to act—which are so sudden as to have given us no warning-and in which there is not sufficient injury, to divert our fretfulness from the immediate object, by the sorrow which might otherwise have mingled with our wrath.
A third error, with respect to this emotion, consists in transferring it from the guilty to the innocent. The species of disposition which has this character, is what is commonly termed peevish or fretful. Some trifling circumstance of disappointed hope or mortified vanity, has disturbed that serenity wbich was before all smiles; and for half a day, or, perhaps, for many days, if the provocation have been a very little more than nothing, no smile is again to be seen. He whose unfortunate speech, or action, produced this change, may already be at the distance of many miles; but he is represented by every person, and every thing that meets the eye of the offended ; and the wrath which he deserved, or did not deserve, is poured out, perhaps, in greater profusion than if he were actually present. It might then, indeed, have been a thunder-shower, which falls heavily for a while, but leaves afterwards a clear sky. It is now a fog, which lours, and chills, and