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STANDARD OF TASTE.
No disputing about taste, a generally received saying-The difficulty of sapping the foundation of this proverb-The proverb in some cases true and in others not-Nature sparing in her divisions of the scale of pleasures-The difficulties to be encountered in applying the proverb to subjects of taste in general-Our conviction of a common nature-The common nature of man invariable-This common nature also perfect-A right and a wrong taste in morals accounted for on this conviction of a common nature-Opinions in matters of importance rejected, creates uneasiness-The disgust produced by differing from what is judged to be the common standard-The final causes to which uniformity of taste leads-To ascertain what the standard of nature is, of importance-The common sense of mankind, the only standard in the fine arts-The corrupting effect of voluptuousness-The number qualified to be judges in the fine arts, few-The difference of taste in the fine arts, less than is commonly imagined.
"THAT there is no disputing about taste," meaning taste in its figurative as well as proper sense, is a saying so generally received as to have become a proverb. One thing even at first view is evident, that if the proverb hold true with respect to taste in its proper meaning, it must hold equally true with respect to our other external senses: if the pleasures of the palate disdain a comparative trial, and reject all criticism, the pleasures of touch, of smell, of sound, and even of sight, must be equally privileged. At that rate, a man is not within the reach of censure, even where he prefers the Saracen's head upon a sign-post before the best tablature of Raphael, or a rude Gothic tower before the finest Grecian building; or where he prefers the smell of a rotten carcass to that of the most odoriferous flower, or discords before the most exquisite harmony.
But we cannot stop here. If the pleasures of external sense be exempted from criticism, why not every one of our pleasures, from whatever source derived? if taste in its proper sense cannot be disputed, there is little room for disputing it in its figurative sense. proverb accordingly comprehends both; and in that large sense may be resolved into the following general proposition, that with respect to the perceptions of sense, by which some objects appear agreeable, some disagreeable, there is not such a thing as a good or a bad, a right, or a wrong; that every man's taste is to himself an ultimate standard without appeal; and consequently that there is no ground of censure against any one, if such a one there be, who prefers Blackmore to Homer, selfishness to benevolence, or cowardice to magnanimity.
The proverb in the foregoing examples is indeed carried very far: it seems difficult, however, to sap its foundation, or with success to attack it from any quarter: for is not every man equally a judge of what ought to be agreeable or disagreeable to himself? does it seem whimsical, and perhaps absurd, to assert, that a man ought not to be pleased when he is, or that he ought to be pleased when he is not?
This reasoning may perplex, but will never afford conviction. every one of taste will reject it as false, however unqualified to detect
the fallacy. At the same time, tnough no man of taste will assent to the proverb as holding true in every case, no man will affirm that it holds true in no case: objects there are, undoubtedly, that we may like or dislike indifferently, without any imputation upon our taste. Were a philosopher to make a scale for human pleasures, he would not think of making divisions without end; but would rank together many pleasures arising perhaps from different objects, either as equally conducing to happiness, or differing so imperceptibly as to make a separation unnecessary. Nature has taken this course, at least it appears so to the generality of mankind. There may be subdivisions without end; but we are only sensible of the grosser divisions, comprehending each of them various pleasures equally affecting; to these the proverb is applicable in the strictest sense; for with respect to pleasures of the same rank, what ground can there be for preferring one to another? if a preference in fact be given by any individual, it cannot proceed from taste, but from custom, imitation, or some peculiarity of mind.
Nature, in her scale of pleasures, has been sparing of divisions: she has wisely, and benevolently filled every division with many pleasures, in order that individuals may be contented with their own lot, without envying that of others. Many hands must be employed to procure us the conveniences of life; and it is necessary that the different branches of business, whether more or less agreeable, be filled with hands: a taste too refined would obstruct that plan; for it would crowd some employments, leaving others, no less useful, totally neglected. In our present condition, lucky it is that the plurality are not delicate in their choice, but fall in readily with the occupations, pleasures, food, and company, that fortune throws in their way; and if at first there be any displeasing circumstance, custom soon makes it easy.
The proverb will hold true as to the particulars now explained; but when applied in general to every subject of taste, the difficulties to be encountered are insuperable. We need only to mention the difficulty that arises from human nature itself; do we not talk of a good and a bad taste? of a right and a wrong taste? and upon that supposition, do we not, with great confidence, censure writers, painters, architects, and every one who deals in the fine arts? Are such criticisms absurd, and void of common sense? have the foregoing expressions, familiar in all languages and among all people, no sort of meaning? This can hardly be; for what is universal, must have a foundation in nature. If we can reach that foundation, the standard of taste will no longer be a secret.
We have a sense or conviction of a common nature, not only in our own species, but in every species of animals: and our conviction is verified by experience; for there appears a remarkable uniformity among creatures of the same kind, and a deformity no less remarkable among creatures of different kinds. This common nature is conceived to be a model or standard for each individual that belongs to the kind. Hence it is a wonder to find an individual deviating from the common nature of the species, whether in its internal or external
construction: a child born with aversion to its mother's milk, is a wonder, no less than if born without a mouth, or with more than one. This conviction of a common nature in every species, paves the way finely for distributing things into genera and species; to which we are extremely prone, not only with regard to animals and vegetables, where nature has led the way; but also with regard to many other things, where there is no ground for such distribution, but fancy merely.
With respect to the common nature of man in particular, we have a conviction that it is invariable not less than universal; that it will be the same hereafter as at present, and as it was in time past; the same among all nations and in all corners of the earth. Nor are we deceived; because, giving allowance for the difference of culture and gradual refinement of manners, the fact corresponds to our conviction.
We are so constituted as to conceive this common nature to be not only invariable, but also perfect or right; and consequently that individuals ought to be made conformable to it. Every remarkable deviation from the standard makes, accordingly, an impression upon us of imperfection, irregularity, or disorder: it is disagreeable, raises in us a painful emotion: monstrous births, exciting the curiosity of a philosopher, fail not at the same time to excite a sort of horror.
This conviction of a common nature or standard and of its perfection, accounts clearly for that remarkable conception we have of a right and a wrong sense or taste in morals. It accounts not less clearly for the conception we have of a right and a wrong sense or taste in the fine arts. A man who, avoiding objects generally agreeable, delights in objects generally disagreeable, is condemned as a monster we disapprove his taste as bad or wrong, because we have a clear conception that he deviates from the common standard. If man were so framed as not to have any notion of a common standard, the proverb mentioned in the beginning would hold universally, not only in the fine arts, but in morals: upon that supposition, the taste of every man, with respect to both, would to himself be an ultimate standard. But as the conviction of a common standard is universal and a branch of our nature, we intuitively conceive a taste to be right or good, if conformable to the common standard, and wrong or bad if disconformable.
No particular in human nature is more universal, than the uneasiness a man feels when in matters of importance his opinions are rejected by others: why should difference in opinion create uneasiness, more than difference in stature, in countenance, or in dress? the conviction of a common standard explains the mystery: every man, generally speaking, taking it for granted that his opinions agree with the common sense of mankind, is, therefore, disgusted with those who think differently, not as differing from him, but as differing from the common standard: hence in all disputes, we find the parties, each of them equally appealing constantly to the common sense of mankind as the ultimate rule or standard. With respect to points * See Essays on Morality and Natural Religion, Part I. Essay 2. ch. 1.
arbitrary or indifferent, which are not supposed to be regulated by any standard, individuals are permitted to think for themselves with impunity the same liberty is not indulged with respect to points that are reckoned of moment; for what reason, other than that the standard by which these are regulated, ought, as we judge, to produce a uniformity of opinion in all men? In a word, to this conviction of a common standard must be wholly attributed the pleasure we take in those who espouse the same principles and opinions with ourselves, as well as the aversion we have at those who differ from In matters left indifferent by the standard, we find nothing of the same pleasure or pain: a bookish man, unless swayed by convenience, relishes not the contemplative man more than the active; his friends and companions are chosen indifferently out of either class: a painter consorts with a poet or musician, as readily as with those of his own art; and one is not the more agreeable to me for loving beef, as I do, nor the less agreeable for preferring mutton.
I have ventured to say, that my disgust is raised, not by differing from me, but by differing from what I judge to be the common standard. This point, being of importance, ought to be firmly established. Men, it is true, are prone to flatter themselves, by taking it for granted that their opinions and their taste are in all respects conformable to the common standard; but there may be exceptions, and experience shows there are some: there are instances without number, of persons who are addicted to the grosser amusements of gaming, eating, drinking, without having any relish for more elegant pleasures; such, for example, as are afforded by the fine arts: yet these very persons, talking the same language with the rest of mankind, pronounce in favor of the more elegant pleasures, and they invariably approve those who have a more refined taste, being ashamed of their own as low and sensual. It is in vain to think of giving a reason for this singular impartiality, other than the authority of the common standard with respect to the dignity of human nature:* and from the instances now given, we discover that the authority of that standard, even upon the most grovelling souls, is so vigorous, as to prevail over self-partiality, and to make them despise their own taste compared with the more elevated taste of others.
Uniformity of taste and sentiment resulting from our conviction of a common standard, leads to two important final causes; the one respecting our duty, the other our pastime. Barely to mention the first shall be sufficient, because it does not properly belong to the present undertaking. Unhappy it would be for us did not uniformity prevail in morals: that our actions should uniformly be directed to what is good and against what is ill, is the greatest blessing in society; and in order to uniformity of action, uniformity of opinion and sentiment is indispensable.
With respect to pastime in general, and the fine arts in particular, the final cause of uniformity is illustrious. Uniformity of taste gives opportunity for sumptuous and elegant buildings, for fine gardens, and extensive embellishments, which please universally; and the rea * See Chap. 11.
son is, that without uniformity of taste, there could not be any suitable reward, either of profit or honor, to encourage men of genius to labor in such works, and to advance them toward perfection. The same uniformity of taste is equally necessary to perfect the art of music, sculpture, and painting, and to support the expense they require after they are brought to perfection. Nature is, in every particu lar, consistent with herself: we are framed by Nature to have a high relish for the fine arts, which are a great source of happiness, and friendly in a high degree to virtue: we are, at the same time, framed with uniformity of taste, to furnish proper objects for that high relish; and if uniformity did not prevail, the fine arts could never have made any figure.
And this suggests another final cause no less illustrious. separation of men into different classes, by birth, office, or occupation, however necessary, tends to relax the connection that ought to be among members of the same state; which bad effect is in some measure prevented by the access all ranks of people have to public spectacles, and to amusements that are best enjoyed in company. Such meetings, where every one partakes of the same pleasures in common, are no slight support to the social affections.
Thus, upon a conviction common to the species is erected a standard of taste, which without hesitation is applied to the taste of every individual. That standard, ascertaining what actions are right what wrong, what proper what improper, has enabled moralists to establish rules for our conduct, from which no person is permitted to swerve. We have the same standard for ascertaining in all the fine arts, what is beautiful or ugly, high or low, proper or improper, proportioned or disproportioned: and here, as in morals, we justly condemn every taste that deviates from what is thus ascertained by the common standard.
That there exists a rule or standard in nature for trying the taste of individuals, in the fine arts as well as in morals, is a discovery; but is not sufficient to complete the task undertaken. A branch still more important remains upon hand; which is, to ascertain what is truly the standard of nature, that we may not lie open to have a false standard imposed on us. But what means shall be employed for inging to light this natural standard? This is not obvious: for when we have recourse to general opinion and general practice, we are betrayed into endless perplexities. History informs us, that nothing is more variable than taste in the fine arts: judging by numbers, the Gothic taste of architecture must be preferred before that of Greece, and the Chinese taste probably before either. It would be endless to recount the various tastes that have prevailed in different ages with respect to gardening, and still prevail in different countries. Despising the modest coloring of nature, women of fashion in France daub their cheeks with a red powder; nay, an unnatural swelling in the neck, peculiar to the inhabitants of the Alps, is relished by that people. But we ought not to be discouraged by such untoward instances, when we find as great variety in morai opinions was it not among some nations held lawful for a man to