The Delicacy of Taste and Passion [Sensitive People]
Some people are extremely sensitive to all the accidents of life. It gives them joy on every prosperous event, as well as grief on misfortunes and adversity. Favours and good acts easily engage their friendship, while the smallest injury provokes their resentment. Any honour or mark of distinction elevates them above measure. But they are as sensibly touched with contempt.
Such people have more lively enjoyments, and more pungent sorrows than sedate men. When a sensitive person meets misfortune, his sorrow engulfs him. It deprives him of the love for the common occurences in life. The right enjoyment of such things then forms the chief part of our happiness.
Great pleasures are much less frequent than great pains. A sensible temper must meet with fewer trials in the former way than in the latter. Sensitive men tend to be transported beyond all bounds of prudence and discretion, and to take false steps in the conduct of life, which are often irretrievable.
Some people have a delicacy of taste which very much resembles this delicacy of feeling. It produces the same sensitivity to beauty and ugliness, prosperity and adversity, obligations and injuries.
When you present a poem or a picture to a sensitive man, the delicacy of his feeling makes him be sensibly touched with every part of it. He perceives the masterly strokes with more relish and satisfaction just as he perceives their negligences with disgust and uneasiness. He is entertained at polite and judicious conversation. Rudeness is as great a punishment to him.
In short, delicacy of taste has the same effect as delicacy of passion. It enlarges the sphere both of our happiness and misery, and makes us sensible to pains as well as pleasures, which escape the rest of mankind.
I believe that the sensitivity of taste is to be desired and cultivated, just as the sensitivity of feelings is to be lamented and remedied.
The good or ill accidents of life are very little at our disposal; but we are pretty much masters what books we shall read, what diversions we shall partake of, and what company we shall keep.
Philosophers have tried to render happiness entirely independent of everything external. That degree of perfection is impossible to be attained. But every wise man will try to place his happiness on things that he can control and not on this delicacy of sentiment.
A sensitive man is more happy by what pleases his taste, than by what gratifies his appetites. He gets more enjoyment from a poem or a piece of reasoning than expensive luxuries.
We should cure ourselves of the sensitivity of feelings by cultivating the sensitivity to taste that enables us to judge of:
- the characters of men
- the compositions of genius, and
- the productions of the nobler arts.
A greater or less relish for those obvious beauties, which strike the senses, depends entirely upon the greater or less sensibility of the temper.
But with regard to the sciences and liberal arts, a fine taste is, in some measure, the same with strong sense, or at least depends so much upon it, that they are inseparable.
In order to judge a composition of genius:
- so many views to be taken in,
- so many circumstances to be compared,
- so much knowledge of human nature is needed
Only the man with the soundest judgment can ever be a tolerable critic. This is why we must cultivate a relish in the liberal arts.
This exercise will strengthen our judgment and let us form juster notions of life.
Many things, which please or afflict others, will appear to us too frivolous to engage our attention. We shall gradually lose that sensibility and delicacy of passion, which is so incommodious.
But perhaps I have gone too far in saying, that a cultivated taste for the polite arts extinguishes the passions, and renders us indifferent to those objects, which are so fondly pursued by the rest of mankind.
On farther reflection, I find, that it rather improves our sensibility for all the tender and agreeable passions; at the same time that it renders the mind incapable of the rougher and more boisterous emotions.
There are two very natural reasons for this:
**1. The study of the beauties, either of poetry, eloquence, music, or painting improves the temper the most. **
They give a certain elegance of soft and tender sentiments unknown by the rest of mankind. They bring the mind away from the hurry of business and interest, and into reflection, tranquility, and an agreeable melancholy. These dispositions are the best suited to love and friendship.
2. A delicacy of taste is favourable to love and friendship, by confining us our choice to few people, and making us indifferent to most people
Ordinary people are not so skilled:
- in distinguishing characters, or
- in marking those insensible differences and gradations, which make one man preferable to another.
Anyone with competent sense is sufficient for their entertainment: They talk to him, of their pleasure and affairs, with the same frankness that they would to another; and finding many, who are fit to supply his place, they never feel any vacancy or want in his absence.
But to make use of the allusion of a celebrated French author, the judgment may be compared to a clock or watch, where the most ordinary machine is sufficient to tell the hours; but the most elaborate alone can point out the minutes and seconds, and distinguish the smallest differences of time.
One who has read many books and have known many men, has enjoyment only with a few select companions. He feels too sensibly, how much all the rest of mankind fall short of the notions which he has entertained. And, his affections being thus confined within a narrow circle, no wonder he carries them further, than if they were more general and undistinguished.