Images de page
[ocr errors]

observations previously made on the feelings that are contrasted with them. The consideration of our desires will be sufficient, of itself, to illustrate both sets of emotions, with a few remarks that may occasionally suggest themselves on the emotions of the opposite kind.

What then are our desires—or rather, what are the objects which excite our desires ?-for, with the mere feelings themselves I may suppose you to be fully acquainted; and any attempt to define them, as feelings, must involve the use of some word exactly synonymous, or will convey no meaning whatever.

To desire, it is essential that the object appear to us good ;or rather, to appear to us good, and to appear to us desirable, are truly the same thing ; our only conception of what is good, as an immediate object of desire, being that it excites in us, when considered by us, this feeling of desire. If all things had been uniformly indifferent to all mankind, it is evident that they could not have formed any classes of things as good or evil. What we do not deisre may be conceived by us to be good, relatively to others who desire it, but cannot seem to be good, relatively to us. It would be as absurd to say, that we think that good which we should be very sorry to possess, or

even which we should be wholly indifferent whether we possessed or not, as it would be absurd to say, that we think that object beautiful, from the sight of which we shrink with an unpleasant feeling as often as we behold it, or which, when we turn on it our most observant gaze, excites in us no emotion whatever.

When I say, that to appear to us good, and to appear to us de. sirable, are only synonymous phrases, you cannot need to be told, that the good of which I speak, as synonymous with desirableness, -as that, in short, which immediately influences our actions, through the medium of our desires,—is not to be confounded with moral good, nor even with absolute physical good. What we desire, far from being always good, in the sense in which that word corresponds with the phrases virtuous or agreeable to the divine will, is often completely opposed to it. We may feel that we are desiring what is inconsistent with moral rectitude, and yet continue to desire it:

• Video meliora, proboque ;
Detcriora sequor."

This is not what Medea only could say. It is the melancholy feeling of many minds, that are deserters from virtue, indeed, but that have still for the calmness and holiness of virtue, all that respect, which does not imply absolute obedience ; and that in yield

; ing to an influence, of which they feel all the seduction, are rather captivated by vice, than blinded by it. Even with respect to mere physical good, without regard to moral excellence, we may desire what we know will be ultimately of injury to us, far greater than the temporary pleasure which it promises to yield; and, though it appears to us injurious upon the whole, and would be far from being desired by us, if it had no present charms, we may yet prefer it from the influence of those present charms, which are sufficient of themselves to constitute desirableness. The good, therefore, which is synonymous with desirableness, is not necessarily, and uniformly, however generally it may be, consistent with our own greatest advantage, or with moral propriety in our choice. It can be, defined, in no other way, than simply as that which appears to us desirable, the desire itself being the only test, as it is the only proof of tendency in objects to excite desire. That immediate good, then, of whatever kind it may be, which we term desirableness, because it is instantly followed by desire,-absolute physical good, moral good,-are three phrases which have very different meanings ; yet, obvious as the distinction is, we are very apt to confound them, merely because we have applied to them the same term; or at least to distinguish them very loosely; and, from this confusion, has arisen much of the controversy with respect to the influence of motives, and of the controversy, also, with respect to the universal influence of self-love in our benevolent affections—disputations, that in the mode in which they have generally been managed, seem to me to have thrown as little light, on the theory of morals, as they have contributed to the advancement of practical morality.

It is not, then, the highest absolute physical advantage,-nor the most undoubted moral excellence,—which, as soon as perceived, is instantly followed by our choice; that is to say, which forms, necessarily, the immediate good, or desirablenes, of which I am at present treating ;—the tendency of objects to excite in us emotions of desire. They may coincide with it, indeed; and they may produce it; but they do not constitute it. In many instances,

[ocr errors]

they may render immediately desirable, what otherwise would not have seemed to us good, or would even have seemed to us evil,-pain, for example, and privations of various kinds, which, but for views of ultimate advantage, or of moral propriety, we should have feared rather than chosen :--but though there are minds to which those greater motives can make pain, and every form of present evil, an object of choice, and, in some cases, of ardent desire, there are also minds to which the same views of advantage, and of moral propriety, will not render the pains or privations, that are to produce the greatest ultimate good, sufficiently desirable to influence their feeble will,-minds, that consider objects chiefly as present or future, near or remote,-to which a moment is more than a distant age, a distant age but a moment; and the pleasure of an hour, therefore, if it be the pleasure of the hour that is already smiling on them, far more precious than the happiness of immortality. Desire, or choice itself, then, thus varying in different minds, is a proof only of the attraction of the object chosen —that attraction to which, of whatever kind it may be, I have given the name of immediate desirableness, in reference to the instant desire or choice which is its consequent. But though the choice is, of course, a proof of the attraction which has induced the choice, it is far from being a proof of that preponderance of ultimate gain, which it might be worldly prudence to prefer, or of that moral rectitude, which is the only object of virtuous preference. That mind is most prudent, in the common sense of the term, to which the greatest amount of ultimate probable advantage, is that which uniformly renders objects most desirable ;—that mind is most virtuous, to which, in like manner, the moral propriety of certain preferences, is that which uniformly confers on objects their prevailing attraction. But still as I before remarked, we desire objects not merely as being morally worthy of our choice, or ultimately productive of the greatest amount of personal advantage to us, but for various other reasons, which constitute their immediate desirableness, as much, in many cases, or much more, than any views of morality, or calculations of selfish gain.

That we do not act always with a view to moral good, no one denies ; for, of an assertion so proud, the conscience of every one would, in this case, be a sufficient confutation; and it is only a

wretched sophistry which makes us less ready to admit, that we act in innumerable cases, with as little immediate view, at the very moment of our desire, to our selfish gain, as to morality.

I shall not, however, at present, enter fully on this discussion, which involves some of the most interesting inquiries in morals. But, with a view to the discussion, in which we may afterwards be engaged, I must request you to bear in mind the distinction of that good, which is synonymous with desirableness, and of which the only test or proof, is the resulting desire itself, from absolute physical good that admits of calculation,-or from that moral good, which conscience at once measures and approves. That which we desire must, indeed, always be desirable ; for this is only to state in other words, the fact of our desire. But, though we desire, what seems to us for our advantage, on account of this advantage, it does not therefore follow, that we desire only what seems to us advantageous; and that what is desirable must therefore imply, in the very moment of the incipient desire, some view of personal good. It implies, indeed, that satisfaction will be felt in the attainment of our desire, and uneasiness in the failure of it; but the satsifaction is the result of the attainment, not the motive to the desire itself, at the moment when the desire arose ; as the uneasiness is the result of the failure, not a feeling preceding the desire, and prompting it. The desire, in short, must have existed primarily, before satisfaction could have been felt in the attainment of its object, or regret when the object was not attained. To say, that we can desire only what is desirable, is, then, to say nothing in support of the theory, which would make our advantage the only motive of our desires ; unless it could be shewn, by some other argument,-founded on actual observation or analysis,—that the feeling of our advantage, in some respects, precedes uniformly all our desires, so as to be, in truth, that which constitutes, in every case, the immediate and simple desirableness. If, on the contrary, it appear, that we desire many things, which, though they may contribute directly or indirectly to our advantage, are yet desired by us immediately, and without any view to this advantage, at the moment at which the desire arose, the argument, from the mere fact of the desire itself, must be absolutely nugatory. It either says nothing whatever, or, by confounding the immediate desirableness with our own personal gain, it begs, or it assumes the very point in question.

Desirablness, then, does not necessarily involve the consideration of any other species of good,—it is the relation of certain objects to certain emotions, and nothing more,-the tendency of certain objects, as contemplated by us, to be followed by that particular feeling which we term desire.

I have said, that with the feeling of desire, as the mere emotion thus produced by certain objects, you must all be sufficiently acquainted. It is a feeling which is of course, in some degree complex, as implying always, together with the vivid feeling that arises on the prospect of good, the conception of the object which seems desirable : but the vivid feeling combined with this conception, seems to me of a peculiar kind, or at least to be something more than can be reduced to any of those elementary feelings which have been considered by us. It is not mere approbation or love of an object, as capable of affording us a certain amount of enjoyment,—but that which results from such love, as its effect. It is not the mere regret that is felt on the absence of a beloved object,,but a prospective feeling, which may, or may not, attend that retrospective regret,--and which, far from being painfully depressing, like regret, is, at least in many of its forms, one of the most delightful excitements of which our mind is susceptible,-the embellisher of existence,-and the creator of the greater portion of that happiness, which it seems at the time only to present to our distant gaze.

Love of an object,-regret at the absence of that object--these feelings we may discover by analysis : but discovering these, we discover rather what gives birth to our wishes, than what constitutes them,—the sunbeams and the kindling incense from which the phenix arises, rather than the vigorous bird itself, immortal, in the very changes of its seeming mortality.

[ocr errors]


To enumerate the objects of our desire and fear, would be to enumerate almost every object which exists around us on our earth, and almost every relation of these objects; without taking into account the variety of wishes more fantastic, which our wild imagination is capable of forming. A complete enumeration of all the possibilities of human wishes, is almost as little to be expected, as

« PrécédentContinuer »