D. R. Thomason, 1831
Man was designed for happiness. The benevolence of the Divine character forbids the reverse of this position; while the instinctive desire for happiness, which is common to every breast, together with the profusion of means which are furnished for its gratification, supplies unquestionable evidence of its truth. If any other object than immediate gratification is proposed as the aim of his being, it is not because his happiness is deemed of inferior importance—but because his ultimate good is necessarily involved in the duty enjoined. If he is subjected to privations, self-denial, and laborious exertions—it is because they facilitate the purposes which infinite benevolence contemplates in his existence; forming a valuable course of discipline, to train him for a nobler sphere of being, and to prepare him for the full enjoyment of that happiness which will be found in a successful termination of his probationary career. In the absence of correct apprehensions of this truth, have arisen the equally dangerous extremes of Epicureanism and Stoicism; the former making virtue to consist in the unrestrained gratification of every appetite; the latter in the voluntary endurance of privation and pain.
That truth prescribes a path equally remote from both these extremes, is evident on a glance at the circumstances of our present condition. It is a state of probation, and consequently is supplied with a wise admixture of good and evil. Beneficial sufferings, and criminal pleasures, both attend our steps to test our virtue. To endure the former with befitting fortitude—and resist the solicitations offered by the latter—constitute the triumph of virtue, and the perfection of character. The latter task is undoubtedly the more difficult, and demands therefore the greater share of attention and diligence.
But the Author of our existence, while he contemplates us as probationers, and surrounds us with circumstances suited to that character, views us also as beings capable of enjoyment, and with a liberal hand offers us the means of innocent pleasures in as great abundance, there is reason to believe, as at all comports with our moral interests.
What pleasures partake of the former, and what of the latter character—is a question of infinite importance; on which, however, men are by no means agreed. An extensive class of gratifications is, by some people, pronounced innocent and lawful, and by others criminal and dangerous. So strictly indeed are these opposite sentiments maintained by their respective advocates, and so uniformly do they appear in practice, that they form the distinctive characteristics of each party. What is commonly termed the religious part of society, is distinguished less readily by the peculiarities of its creed, than by its uniform avoidance of what is generally comprehended under the phrase "worldly amusements."
The fact, however, is much to be regretted, that the reasons for this peculiarity have been seldom either clearly defined, or correctly understood. Both parties have betrayed a lamentable ignorance on the question in debate, and their mutual opposition has assumed the character, rather of a party struggle—than the laudable efforts of men anxious for the interests of virtue. Those who maintain the lawfulness of these pursuits, deem the objections advanced by their opponents, as destitute of reason, and to originate either in narrow-mindedness, or in the affectation of superior sanctity; while on the other hand, those on whom the harsh censure is cast, have not been duly concerned to supply the rationale of their sentiments and conduct.
In many instances it is deemed a sufficient ground of objection to fashionable amusements, that they are the amusements of the world. A reason more incorrect cannot possibly be alleged. Its absurdity, to every man of sense and reflection, is as palpable as its bigotry is disgusting. The slightest acquaintance with the principles of Christian virtue, is sufficient for the conviction, that they do not require their professors to avoid these amusements, merely because they are those of the world. True religion prescribes for itself, indeed, a line of demarcation, not for party distinction—but for the preservation of its purity. It enjoins separation, not from the world—but from its improprieties. The beneficent Creator has scattered in our path a profusion of enjoyments, which he designs to be common to his rational creatures, and a refusal of these blessings, because others partake of them—involves both folly and sin!
The important relation which exists between innocent enjoyment and personal virtue, renders every attempt to multiply the sources of the former, not only legitimate—but laudable. If the benevolence of
God—a distinguishing attribute of his nature—is met in our happiness, then is it a law of virtue—that every means for the increase of happiness should be sought. The sentiment has often been abused—but it nevertheless forms a maxim both correct and weighty.
But there is another point of contact between virtue and happiness. By multiplying sources of innocent gratification, the desire to partake of innocent pleasures is weakened. It is evident, that the power which any temptation possesses, depends on the degree of supposed good which it contains. No temptation would be such—did it not possess qualities apparently desirable; and in proportion as it possesses these qualities, it becomes influential. The mind is never in a state less liable to seduction, than when already in possession of virtuous pleasure. When removed from the means of gratification, and when moral principle forms the only defense, temptations well-timed and well-chosen, may make successful advances; but when the heart is already occupied by innocent enjoyments, it is removed from the desire of sinful gratification, and consequently escapes the danger.
Happiness, moreover, in a well-constituted mind, is the parent of gratitude; gratitude is the mainspring of obedience, and forms the strongest stimulus to moral advances. Hence it follows, that to interdict any gratification, unless it is expressly forbidden, or is apparently dangerous, becomes not only undue severity—but positive criminality. The stoic is an enemy at once to happiness and virtue.
Another reason why many people object to participate in fashionable amusements is, that abstinence from such pursuits forms, in their opinion, the distinguishing characteristic of the professors of religion. This objection possesses all the weakness and absurdity of the former. Is it possible that the differences between the religious and irreligious part of society are so few or so slight—as to occasion danger of their being mistaken or unobserved? Is religion a mere profession, to designate which, some arbitrary badge must be invented and appropriated, either like the symbols of office or the titles of rank? Surely if religion is anything, its genius is peculiar, and those who live under its influence will naturally and necessarily exhibit its characteristics; there needs therefore no arbitrary line of demarcation to separate them from the rest of the world; and if any has been drawn, it cannot be too soon erased.
Nor does the weakness and absurdity merely of such objections to popular amusements render them injudicious, by exposing their advocates to ridicule and contempt—but religion itself suffers. It is liable to present in the conduct of such people, not the dignity of a rational system—but a detestable compound of weakness, fanaticism, and hypocrisy.
Nor is this all; for if the amusements thus interdicted are really sinful, the situation of many is extremely perilous. Let an intelligent youth, for instance, be accustomed to hear such pursuits declaimed against and forbidden, without a single reason accompanying the prohibition, or such reasons only as his judgment pronounces palpably absurd—how unprepared will he be to meet the first temptation, which a favorable opportunity supplies to participate in pleasures rendered additionally fascinating, by the very prohibition, which has been so decidedly but unsatisfactorily urged.
All who have made human character the object of their study, are aware of the vigor of youthful passion, and how impatient it is of restraint. To curb it, the hand of reason must be assiduously employed; the native virtues of the heart must be carefully cultivated; they must be grafted on the stock of principle, in order to secure their growth and render them productive. The instructor of youth, who attempts to form a virtuous character, at once fair and firm, on the basis of mere prohibition and command—acts with ignorance and folly, similar to that of the inconsiderate builder described in one of our Savior's parables.
Is it too much to affirm, that not a few of those fearful desolations of character, which often distress our view, have in great part been owing to this defective mode of education? The young disciple is probably made sufficiently familiar with the precepts of virtue—but the reasonableness of those precepts have not been exhibited; the rules of moral propriety have been laid down with accuracy and care—but their fitness has not been made apparent; direction is given—but principle is not instilled. These partial efforts are for a time sufficient. While the ductility which attends the first stages of mental growth continues, nothing more is necessary for preserving the character.
The natural affections of the youthful mind, its reverence for authority, and its love of imitation—are alone adequate to the task of binding the heart and forming the practice to virtue. Constantly under the eye of the parent or guardian, presented only with virtuous examples, and removed from temptations to evil—the juvenile character, like the injudicious structure referred to, while the sky is serene and no tempest is near, stands alike in beauty and safety. But when its circumstances are reversed; when the passions have become vigorous, the reins of authority slackened, and wicked practices rendered familiar by observation and example; when criminal pleasure solicits to indulgence, rendered additionally fascinating by the charms of novelty; when the scruples of conscience which form the barrier against vice, are undermined by sophistry and shaken by ridicule; when this moral flood assails the fabric—it falls, and its prostrate ruins present the sad memento of unskillful design.
On the supposition, therefore, that fashionable amusements are really dangerous, it is important that the instructor of youth should employ his best exertions to prevent exposure to their temptations. It is obvious that sinful gratification forms the strongest test of youthful virtue. Pleasure, at this early period of life, is peculiarly attractive, and becomes the most powerful enemy. If the severity of this test is to be relaxed, if the destroyer is to be interrupted in her pursuit and foiled in her artifices, the hand of truth must be diligently employed to strip the gilded temptress of her flattering disguises; and, by exhibiting her genuine character and design, must endeavor to break the spell of her fatal blandishments.
If this object be ever important, it is especially so in the present day. It cannot have escaped observation, that the age in which we live presents some prominent peculiarities, which have a powerful bearing on the subject under discussion. The relation which the religious part of society sustains to the rest of the community, has of late been considerably altered. The progress of general education and refinement has considerably modified the sentiments, habits, and taste of the professors of religion. The odium which was formerly attached to this class of society, is now almost universally removed; the harsher features of puritanical piety, at least in appearance, have been softened down; its contracted views and illiberal feelings exchanged for opposite qualities, and its general aspect rendered not only unforbidding—but even amiable; so that the profession of religion is not only tolerated—but, to a certain extent, has become fashionable. A spirit so conciliatory on the part of the world, cannot but be viewed by the religious party with delight, and a wish to concede, as much as possible, the points of difference. The distance, once broad, and seemingly impassable, is reduced, and constant and convenient opportunity for interaction with the world, is afforded. With this disposition to conciliate, the professors of religion are in considerable danger of compromising their principles, and of resigning the essential characteristics of their faith.
The religious youth is especially liable to this peril. Unlike his pious ancestors, he is not kept at a distance from the world by mutual antipathy, nor driven by persecution into exile. On the contrary, he is brought into frequent and friendly contact with the irreligious part of society, and is invited to its pursuits both of business and pleasure. His temptations to yield to sinful solicitations must be both numerous and powerful; his objections will be met both by argument and banter, and every device will be employed to seduce his heart from its allegiance to virlue—and to tempt his feet from her paths.
What, then, is the best antidote—which the guardian of his early character can employ? Doubtless it is thoroughly to instruct him in the principles of virtue; to put him in possession not only of the precepts—but also of the grounds of moral obligation; to give him a clear insight into the nature and moral tendency of those sinful pleasures, against which he is with propriety warned. There is in the human mind, at least before it becomes corrupted by moral evil—an instinctive love of truth. To discern it clearly is its delight—and to adhere to it firmly its nobility.
As soon as reason dawns to shed its light on his path, then let the youthful disciple be conducted to the temple of this fair divinity of truth—and taught to offer at her shrine the homage of his heart. Let him be taught his dignity as a rational being, and his accountableness as a moral agent; a foundation for virtuous character will then be laid, on which, under the conduct of heavenly guidance, a superstructure may be raised as permanent in its duration as noble and beautiful in its form.
To encounter the formidable temptations to which he is exposed, a youth thus instructed is admirably qualified. Inspired with a love of truth, and at the same time taught to separate it from error—he will meet the attacks alike of sophistry and ridicule—without fear or failure. Possessing too much skill to be foiled by the former, and too much dignity to shrink before the latter—he will be conquered by neither. Clad in intellectual armor, and inspired by moral courage—he will be fearless of attack; and, conscious of his prowess, he will invite rather than shun the contest. He will never betray the cause which he espouses, either by ignorantly mistaking, or cowardly compromising its principles. He will silence, if he cannot convince his opponents, and destroy their opposition, if he does not gain their concurrence. He will rise with a noble superiority above the sneers and cavils and aspersions of witlings, of infidels, of libertines. He will preserve unimpaired, the sweetness of his temper amid the overflowing of their gall; and, as he passes on with modest greatness through the whole ranks of these unhappy men—he will eye them by turns with generous compassion and just disdain.
There is no need, it is presumed, any further to multiply proofs of the importance of the present inquiry. Under the designation of Fashionable Amusements will be included, the Theater, the Ball Room, Card-playing, and Novel-reading. Each amusement will be taken separately under consideration; its moral character and tendency examined, and the question discussed, whether it may correctly be pronounced a lawful amusement. The meaning affixed lo the term lawful has been already determined. The present is a probationary state; it is accordingly provided both with innocent and sinful pleasures. It is the part of virtue to choose the former, and reject the latter. To make the necessary selection, it must be remembered, that the great end of our present existence is, to form a virtuous character, and therefore that those pursuits and pleasures which are compatible with such a design, may be considered legitimate; but whatever, on the other hand, appears subversive of this object, must be prohibited as sinful and dangerous.