Fashionable Amusements

D. R. Thomason, 1831


Card-playing, for the most part, is so destitute of science, has involved in it so few intellectual qualities, and is altogether of so frivolous a character—that it must be matter of surprise, even with the votaries of the amusement themselves, if they have made it the subject of serious thought, that it should be capable of supplying any degree of pleasure to a rational mind. Its prevalence, however, among all classes of society; the firm ground which it maintains amidst the fluctuations of taste and of fashion, and that too in spite of the contempt and ridicule with which it has been constantly assailed, render it sufficiently evident, that this amusement possesses some intrinsic qualities of powerful interest and fascination.

Its advocate argues, that as a social amusement, card-playing is highly convenient. It serves as an agreeable pastime, unites the friendly circle, excludes conversation of an insipid, frivolous, or injurious character, and supplies the party with pleasing employment. Politeness has certainly no easy task to perform in the conduct of a mixed party. The social circle exhibits a great diversity of mental character, tastes, habits, education and talent. In the absence of cards, how is it to be supplied with convenient and agreeable employment, such as will engage the attention of all, and render fellowship easy, familiar, and pleasant?

General conversation, under the restrictions which good manners must necessarily impose, cannot be long sustained with convenience and interest. To meet the circumstances of all, and to be generally interesting, the topics of conversation must be extremely limited and barren. The stores of a well-furnished mind cannot be produced without manifest inconvenience; for this would destroy that mental equality which it is of the first importance to preserve. Conversation, if it is at all familiar and unrestrained, throws open the stores of the mind, elicits its powers, stimulates its efforts, and exhibits the degree of its culture and talents. The equality of mental circumstance, which, in appearance at least, should be preserved in the social circle, would thereby be destroyed. All the care, which the most delicate sense of propriety could exert, would be insufficient to preserve a seeming level; invidious distinctions would be produced, and rendered obvious. In proportion to the freedom and vivacity of conversation, so would the powers of thought, the stores of knowledge, the ebullitions of wit, and the creations of imagination, be produced, and unavoidably brought into relationships of rivalry.

With a view to this inconvenience, cards have been introduced; and it must be admitted that, to a considerable extent, they accomplish their object. They afford an amusement of which, on equal terms—all can partake. The interesting and the insipid, the mirthful and the dull, the beautiful and the unattractive, merge their respective distinctions in the feelings of interest, which the amusement in common inspires. There is a provoking mixture of truth and satire in the remarks of Dr. Johnson on this subject. "I cannot but suspect," says he, "that this odious fashion is produced by a conspiracy of the old, the ugly, and the ignorant, against the young and beautiful, the witty and the mirthful; as a contrivance to level all distinctions of nature and of art, and to confound the world in a chaos of folly; to take from those who could outshine them, all the advantages of mind and body; to withhold youth from its natural pleasures, deprive wit of its influence, and beauty of its charms; to fix those hearts upon money, to which love has hitherto been entitled; to sink life into a tedious uniformity, and to allow it no other hopes or fears but those of robbing and of being robbed."

The apology which is offered is plausible—but by no means sufficient. It furnishes adequate reason why card-playing should be tolerated, and why it should frequently invite the attention of the social circle; it must be evident however, even to the most superficial observer, that stronger motives than these reasons are able to supply, lead to the amusement. It is sought with avidity, and produces strong excitement. It is the first, and not the last resource of gratification. To it—its votaries are not driven by necessity—but they are led by inclination. It has a power to fix the attention, and to interest the feelings, beyond almost every other amusement. An almost magical charm attends it, and however long protracted, it never wearies. It often painfully and injuriously agitates indeed—but it never produces boredom. In short, ingenuity has never invented an amusement so completely absorbing, or that serves more effectually (employing a common phrase) "to kill time."

The accurate inquirer, therefore, must search for something more in this amusement than his yet been stated, to account satisfactorily for the remarkable phenomena which it exhibits. The field they afford for contest appears to be the secret of the interest which games in general create. Contest is a pleasure rendered so, by an instinct of the human mind, namely, the love of power. "The joys of conquest—are the joys of man." Triumph is a point of ambition, and the effort to obtain it, calls the mind into agreeable activity. Proofs of superiority, even in trivial efforts, is gratifying. Juvenile recreations illustrate this phenomenon of mind. For the most part they are such as afford scope for contest, and for the trial of superiority. "Almost every game," observes Dr. Thomas Brown, in his lecture on the love of power, "which, in the days of our childhood, amuses or occupies us, is a trial of our strength, agility, or skill, or some of those qualities in which power consists; and we run or wrestle with those, with whom we are, perhaps, in combats of a very different kind—to dispute, in other years, the prize of distinction in the various duties and dignities of life."

Can the powerful interest which card-playing produces, be resolved into this feeling? May the love of power, which forms a constant element in the pleasure of youthful recreations, and which enters into the graver pleasures of "children of a larger growth," be considered the passion to which cards are indebted for their power to engage and to please? The opponent conceives an insuperable obstacle in the way to this conclusion; for cards, he maintains do not afford sufficient scope for the exercise of this feeling. The trial of mental superiority is scarcely furnished by the amusement. Efforts of skill only are capable of supplying the description of gratification to which reference is made.

The pleasure of success is produced by the consciousness of discovered superiority; that success, therefore, must not be the gift of fortune—but the reward of merit. The stimulus is lacking, when the result of the contest is beyond the control of the competitor; and that triumph is worthless, which chance, rather than skill, commands.

It is remarkable how soon games of chance fail to interest children, and how early they are abandoned for those which involve the trial of personal skill and prowess. If all the games of cards do not exclude skill altogether, they demand it only in a very limited degree. The most admired, and most rational game, requires talent of a very humble order, of which the novice only will be often found destitute. To conceive, therefore, of the card-table as affording, even to the most trivial mind, the kind of gratification, which is found in the display of personal superiority, is scarcely possible. The pleasures of success, on this score, must be less than juvenile; the contest is of a nature which a child learns to despise.

This explanation, therefore, of the nature of the amusement, would involve at once an error in analysis, and a severe reflection on its advocates, many of whom, it must be supposed, are prepared, both by education and taste, for the highest orders of intellectual gratification. Hence it would appear, that cards, from their very nature, are incapable in themselves of producing any part of the interest which they possess, and that the gratification they secure must be sought in some attendant of the amusement. What is it? If cards were the sort of convenient instrument, which, like the harp, dexterously plied by the fair hand, served just so much to occupy the mind, as to relieve it from the unpleasant consciousness of being unemployed, and to leave more familiar and unrestrained the interchange of thought and communion of soul—if they served to draw more closely the spiritual bonds of the social circle, and to give facility to thought, freedom to expression, and vivacity to feeling—if the card-table were the happy and enviable scene where social pleasure reigned, where harmless wit, and innocent gaiety presided; where the glow of sentiment is kindled, and the sweet toned chords of hearts in unison awakened their music; where the furnished intellect might throw open its stores of intelligence and feeling, and where, in "the feast of reason and the flow of soul," the mind would receive instruction and pleasure, and the heart sensibility and polish; then however insignificant, or even contemptible the amusement itself might be—its advocate would be furnished with powerful, if not irresistible arguments for its support.

The fact, however, has already appeared, that card-playing cannot plead these advantages. Trivial as is the amusement, it requires the closest attention, and most entire abstraction of mind. Every step in the progress of the game demands the utmost vigilance; and the slightest degree of inattention might endanger success. An ignorant spectator of the card-table might be led to imagine, that the interest excited is similar to that which the mathematician derives from a beautiful but difficult problem of Euclid, and he would probably find it not easy to persuade himself, that "a trifle light as air," is all that occupies and amuses the interesting group which he beholds; where all is gravity, attention, and silence, scarcely relieved by a single sally of wit, a smile of gaiety, or a glance of kindred and tender thought; where the fascinations of taste, of grace, and of beauty, cease to be felt—where fair brows are shaded by somber thought, and bright eyes are chilled by cold abstraction, and where all that is beautiful, and lovely, and mirthful, is bound, as by the spell of some unholy enchantment, in sadness and silence, in coldness and lifelessness.

What, then, is the attendant circumstance, which gives to this amusement its singular attraction? Is it the financial considerations which the game involves? It must be admitted, that card-playing is capable of supplying a channel for the flow of mercenary feeling. Money is almost invariably staked at the card-table, and every candid votary of the pleasure will acknowledge, that, without this attendant, the amusement would, with most people, lose entirely its power to interest. The advocate of the card-table ascribes this circumstance to custom, whose influence is so powerful, as well in our recreations as in the more serious occupations of life. This explanation, however, is by no means satisfactory to his opponent; for if the use of money in the game were a mere arbitrary appendage, which custom had affixed, surely, in some instances at least, an effort would be made for its removal; since the fact is generally admitted, that this concomitant is an evil. The uniformity of the practice, its universality, in fact, from the highest to the lowest classes of society, in opposition to the obvious and acknowledged evils both numerous and weighty, of which it is productive, even when ample allowance is made for the tyranny of fashion, afford at least strong presumptive proof, that mercenary considerations constitute an element of the amusement, the removal of which would not only abridge—but entirely destroy the influence it possesses over its admirers.

So strong, indeed, is this presumption, that the objector to the amusement, appealing to the honest convictions of his intelligent and candid opponent, may with safety challenge a denial. Nor does the trifling nature of the sums which are generally staked at the card-table, in any degree invalidate this position. At first sight, indeed, it might appear, that the mercenary feeling, if any is produced, must, under this circumstance, be too feeble to secure the interest to which the objector refers the amusement. It must be remembered, however, that gradations of sums of money are deposited at the game, proportioned to the circumstances of those who partake of the amusement. It is impossible to determine what amounts are too inconsiderable to provoke avarice, or what prospect of gain is too slight to stimulate mercenary feeling, and gratify a covetous propensity. The love of gain is all-devouring, and it seizes with avidity the slightest degree of gratification. It resembles the trunk of an elephant, which, together with its great strength, and gigantic grasp, possesses the most delicate sensibility, and a perception of the minutest objects, and appropriates the smallest portions of food which are offered to supply its prodigious appetite.

The very habit of such a pursuit is sufficient to engender avaricious desire. The man who devotes himself to money transactions, and acquires his wealth by a multitude of trifling gains, forms insensibly the habit of fixing his attention on the smallest degree of financial profit; he will display an industry to obtain it, and derive a gratification from success, apparently very disproportionate to the intrinsic value of the sum obtained. This common characteristic of a tradesman is solely the result of the habits which he acquires in his business. Let the votary of the card-table accurately mark the history of his feelings connected with his favorite amusement, and he will doubtless be able to trace a similar process.

If these remarks are correct, considerable importance is unquestionably due to the objections advanced against the amusement. It appears to fall short of the end for which all amusements ought to be appointed, namely, that of supplying rational and harmless recreation. Card-playing is not a rational amusement. It partakes of extreme frivolity. By the wise and the good it has ever been esteemed contemptible. It is somewhere recorded, that Cobilon, the Lacedemonian, being sent to Corinth with a commission, to conclude a treaty of friendship and alliance, when he saw the captains and senators of that city playing at dice, returned home without doing anything, saying, that he would not so much sully the glory of the Spartans, as that it should be said they had made a league with gamesters. Hence it would seem, that this honest Heathen took every man addicted to gaming—for a fool or a knave; and therefore resolved not to have any dealings with such, as neither of these characters could he depended on.

It is, moreover, too exciting, too engrossing, too absorbing. It consumes a considerable portion of time, without securing any corresponding advantages. It is too laborious to be purely recreative, while it is unproductive of benefit, either to mind or body; and amid the powerful fascination which it possesses, it leaves unimproved, both the intellect and the feelings, the temper and the taste. The tendency of the amusement is deeply mischievous. Covetousness is the parent of the gratification, and a tribe of hateful passions its progeny. "The love of money is the root of all evil," and the card-table furnishes ample comment on the sacred assertion. Pride may dissemble and disown this truth—but too many evidences prove, that selfish delight and sordid triumph on the one hand, and pride and envy on the other—are the evil spirits of mischief, which commonly preside at the engagements of the card-table.

The perniciousness of gambling was so well understood by the grand imposter Mahomet, that he thought it necessary to prohibit it expressly in the Koran, not as "a thing in itself naturally evil—but only morally so, as it is a step to the greatest vices; for while we captivate ourselves to chance, we lose our authority over our passions, being incited to immoderate desire, excessive hope, joy, and grief. We stand or fall at the uncertain cast of the dice, or the turning up of a card. We are slaves to the feeblest wishes, which, if they succeed not, we grow furious, and banish all prudence, temperance, and justice."

To young people especially, the amusement is injurious. All their recreations should subserve the purposes of intellectual and moral improvement, and while so many amusements, combining this advantage, are at hand, it is a reflection, both on taste and feeling—to prefer to them the frivolous pleasures of card-playing,

To fill the void of an unfurnished brain,
To palliate dullness—and give time a shove!"

The reason has been demanded, why chess, as well as cards, should not be prohibited by the objectors to fashionable amusements. The reply is at once easy and satisfactory. The two amusements, both in their nature and tendency, are essentially different. The game of cards is frivolous in itself, and injurious in its effects. This cannot be said of chess. It is a game of science, and the mental effort it demands is, in a high degree, manly. It combines many of the advantages of mathematical study, tending to discipline the mind, by accustoming it to efforts of abstraction, and severe processes of thought. Without hesitation, it may be said, that some results to the female gender, of a valuable kind might be anticipated, could young ladies be induced to forsake the card-table, and devote some portion of the time, which they are accustomed to occupy in the idle amusement of cards—to the highly intellectual and deeply interesting pleasures of the chess-board. Chess, moreover, unless by confirmed gamblers, is never played at for money. To win the game is ever deemed a sufficient remuneration for the toil of contest, and the successful competitor is never reduced to the degrading task of gathering up the miserable pittances, which have been produced from the pockets of others.

On the score of temper, also, the game of chess is infinitely preferable. "No man can lose a game of chess without perceiving the wrong move or moves, which led to that termination; his loss is the effect of his own misconduct, which might have been avoided, had he adopted a different course, and which he was at full liberty to have done; he can blame no one but himself; he feels no angry, envious, or malicious passion excited; he cannot embroil himself in any quarrel with his friend, because at starting they possessed equal advantages; and it would be the most absurd thing in the world to quarrel with another because he has made a better use than his neighbor, of the opportunities equally afforded to each.

But in other games the case is greatly altered; it is a chance whether the players are in any degree placed under equal advantages; one becomes liable to the feelings of envy, the other to those of triumph. And as the effects are in a great degree, if not wholly, "by chance", the passions of hope, fear, distrust, anxiety, and various others, are continually excited, and torment the mind.

I am now speaking where no stake or only a trifling one is played for. If large sums are betted, all these evils are awfully magnified, and financial ruin may attend one of the parties. If I am in any degree a correct reasoner, whatever tends to provoke anger, to inflame our corrupt passions, to encourage selfishness, and steel the heart against feeling for the disappointments, losses, and distresses of others, must be wrong.

Numerous and plausible, therefore, as may be the arguments in support of this popular amusement, it nevertheless appears to be indulged in at the expense of what is far more important to character and happiness, than the trifling evils which it is designed to avoid. The card-table may secure the social party against the miseries of insipidity, and the horrors of boredom; it may preserve pride from mortification, and maintain the punctilios of artificial politeness; but these benefits are produced at an expense far exceeding their value. The mind is reduced to an idle and useless employment; and the heart is subjected to a severe and dangerous test of its best and most amiable feelings.

When money, moreover, is staked at the card-table, the charge of direct criminality is alleged against the amusement. The argument is constructed upon the same ground on which gambling in general is sinful—there is an improper employment of money.

Wealth is an important instrument of our own and others' good; its possession, therefore, involves a moral responsibility. It is a valuable talent committed to our trust, for the employment of which we are amenable to Him who has placed it in our hands. It must be disbursed under the direction of the judgment, and with the conscientious design of procuring either our own or others' good. We may probably feel ourselves at liberty to purchase an article of luxury; our conscientious scruples are removed by the consideration that the article is the product of some industrious hand, which needs the money we expend. Let this remark be applied to the subject under consideration.

At the card-table money is placed under the control of the contingencies which accompany the game. The person who deposits the money, either needs it for his own use, or he does not. In the former case, he cannot lose it without inconvenience; in the latter, he possesses a superfluity, which he is bound to appropriate to such a purpose as may render it the probable instrument of benefit to another. If he loses the sum, he parts with it criminally; if he gains to it an additional sum, he is guilty of a species of robbery, inasmuch as he returns for it no suitable equivalent. Everyone will immediately recognize the validity of this reasoning as applied to the practice of gambling, when conducted on an extensive scale. The vice is then universally censured; but when trifling amounts of money only are involved, the same act undergoes, it would appear, a change of moral character, and loses the features which in the former instance are viewed with disapprobation and disgust.

A gross error, however, is here committed. What is inherently wrong in the greater, cannot be right in the lesser; the obnoxious elements, which exist in an extensive system of gambling, pervade, in a proportionate degree, every modification of the practice, and convey a corresponding measure of criminality. If gambling is immoral in all its gradations, it must be in card-playing, which is one.