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essay i: Our Attachment to Objects of Distress - Henry Home, Lord Kames, Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion 
Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, Corrected and Improved, in a Third Edition. Several Essays Added Concerning the Proof of a Deity, Edited and with an Introduction by Mary Catherine Moran (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005).
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Our Attachment to Objects of Distress
A noted French critic,* treating of poetry and painting, undertakes a subject attempted by others unsuccessfully, which is, to account for the strong attachment we have to objects of distress, imaginary as well as real.
It is not easy (says he) to account for the pleasure we take in poetry and painting, which has often a strong resemblance to affliction, and of which the symptoms are sometimes the same with those of them ostlively sorrow. The arts of poetry and painting are never more applauded than when they succeed in giving pain. A secret charm attaches us to representations of this nature, at the very time our heart, full of anguish, rises up against its proper pleasure. I dare undertake this paradox, (continues our author), and to explain the foundation of this sort of pleasure which we have in poetry and painting; an undertaking that may appear bold, if not rash, seeing it promises to account to every man for what passes in his own breast, and for the secret springs of his approbation and dislike.
Let us attend him in this difficult undertaking. The following proposition is laid down by him as fundamental:
That man by nature is designed an active being: that inaction, whether of body or mind, draws on languor and disgust: and that this is a cogent motive to fly to any sort of occupation for relief. Thus (adds he) we fly by instinct to every object that can excite our passions, and keep us in agitation, notwithstanding the pain such objects often gives, which causes vexatious days and sleepless nights: but man suffers more by being without passions, than by the agitation they occasion.1
This is the sum of his first section. In the second he goes on to particular instances. The first he gives is compassion; which makes us dwell upon the miseries and distresses of others, though thereby we are made to partake of their sufferings; an impulse that he observes is entirely owing to the foregoing principle, which makes us chuse occupation, however painful, rather than be without action. Another is public executions.
We go in crouds (says he) to a spectacle the most horrid that man can behold, to see a poor wretch broken upon the wheel, burnt alive, or his intrails torn out. The more dreadful the scene, the more numerous the spectators. Yet one might foresee, even without experience, that the cruel circumstances of the execution, the deep groans and anguish of a fellow-creature, must make an impression, the pain of which is not effaced but in a long course of time. But the attraction of agitation prevails more than the joint powers of reflection and experience.
He goes on to mention the strange delight the Roman people had in the entertainments of the amphitheatre; criminals exposed to be torn to pieces by wild beasts, and gladiators in troops hired to butcher one another. He takes this occasion to make the following observation upon the English nation.
So tender-hearted are that people, that they observe humanity towards their greatest criminals. They allow not of torture; alledging it better to leave a crime unpunished, than to expose an innocent person to those torments authorised in other Christian countries to extort a confession from the guilty. Yet this people, so respectful of their kind, have an infinite pleasure in prize-fighting, bull-baiting, and such other savage spectacles.
He concludes with showing, that it is this very horror of inaction, which makes men every day precipitate themselves into play, and deliver themselves over to cards and dice.
None but fools and sharpers (says he) are moved to play by hope of gain. The generality are directed by another motive. They neglect those diversions where skill and address are required, chusing rather to risk their fortunes at games of mere chance, which keep their minds in continual motion, and where every throw is decisive.2
Here is our author’s account, fairly stated. It has, I acknowledge, an air of truth; but the following considerations made me doubt. In the first place, if the pain of inaction be the motive which carries us to the spectacles above mentioned, we must expect to find them frequented by none but those who are oppressed with idleness. But this does not hold. All sorts of persons flock to them. Pictures of danger, or of distress, have a secret charm which attracts men from the most serious occupations, and operate equally upon the active and the indolent. In the next place, were there nothing in these spectacles to attract the mind, abstracting from the pain of inaction, there would be no such thing as a preference of one object to another, upon any other ground than that of agitation; and the more the mind was agitated, the greater would be the attraction of the object. But this is contrary to experience. There are many objects of horror and distaste that agitate the mind exceedingly, which even the idlest fly from. And a more apt instance need not be given, than what our author himself cites from Livy;* who, speaking of Antiochus Epiphanes, has the following words. Gladiatorum munus Romanae consuetudinis, primo majore cum terrore hominum insuetorum ad tale spectaculum, quam voluptate dedit. Deinde saepius dando, et familiare oculis gratumque id spectaculum fecit, et armorum studium plerisque juvenum accendit. This spectacle we see was at first so far from being attractive to the Greeks, that it was their aversion, till custom rendering it familiar, and less agitating, it came at last to be relished. Upon the same account, the bear-garden, which is one of the chief entertainments of the English, is held in abhorrence by the French, and other polite nations. It is too savage an entertainment, to be relished by those of a refined taste.
Were man a being whose only view, in all his actions, is either to attain pleasure, or to avoid pain; which our author lays down as a preliminary, borrowed from Mr Locke (chap. Of Power, sect. 37 and 43.);3 it would, upon that supposition, be hard if not impossible, to give any satisfactory account why we should incline, with our eyes open, to frequent entertainments that must necessarily give us pain. But when we more attentively examine human nature, we discover many and various impulses to action, independent of pleasure and pain. Let us prosecute this thought, because it may probably lead to a solution of the problem.
When we attend to the emotions raised in us by external objects, or to any of our emotions, we find them greatly diversified. They are strong or weak, distinct or confused, &c. There is no division of emotions more comprehensive than into agreeable or disagreeable. It is unnecessary, and would perhaps be in vain, to search for the cause of these differences. More we cannot say, but that such is the constitution of our nature, so contrived by the Author of all things, in order to answer wise and good purposes.
There is another circumstance to be attended to in these emotions; that affection enters into some of them, aversion into others. To some objects we have an affection, and we desire to possess and enjoy them: other objects raise our aversion, and move us to avoid them. No object can move our affection but what is agreeable, nor our aversion but what is disagreeable. Whether it be the effect of every agreeable object to raise affection, we have no occasion at present to inquire. But it is of importance to observe, that many objects are disagreeable, perhaps painful, that raise not aversion in any degree. Objects of horror and terror, loathsome objects, and many others raise aversion. But there are many emotions or passions, some of them of the most painful sort, that raise no aversion. Grief is a most painful passion, and yet is not accompanied with any degree of aversion. On the contrary, it is attractive, no less so than many of our pleasant emotions: we cling to the object that raises our grief, and love to dwell upon it. Compassion is an instance of the like nature. Objects of distress raise no aversion in us, though they give us pain. On the contrary, they draw us to them, and inspire us with a desire to afford relief.
During infancy, appetite and desire are our sole impulses to action. But in the progress of life, when we learn to distinguish the objects around us as productive of pleasure or pain, we acquire by degrees impulses to action of a different sort. Self-love is a strong motive to search about for every thing that may contribute to happiness. Self-love operates by means of reflection and experience; and every object, as soon as discovered to contribute to our happiness, raises in us of course a desire of possessing. Hence it is, that pleasure and pain are the only motives to action, as far as self-love is concerned. But our appetites and passions are not all of them of this kind. They frequently operate by direct impulse, without the intervention of reason, in the same manner as instinct does in brute creatures. As they are not influenced by any sort of reasoning, the view of shunning misery or acquiring happiness, makes no part of the impulsive motive. It is true, that the gratification of our passions and appetites, is agreeable; and it is also true, that, in giving way to a particular appetite, the view of pleasure may, by a reflex act, become an additional motive to the action. But these things must not be confounded with the direct impulse arising from the appetite or passion; which, as I have said, operates blindly, and in the way of instinct, without any view to consequences.
To ascertain the distinction betwixt actions directed by self-love and actions directed by particular appetites and passions, it must be further remarked, that the aim of self-love is always to make us happy, but that other appetites and passions have frequently a very different tendency. This will be plain from induction. Revenge gratified against the man we hate, is agreeable. It is a very different case, where we have taken offence at a man we love. Friendship will not allow me, however offended, to hurt my friend. “I cannot find in my heart to do him mischief; but I would have him made sensible of the wrong he has done me.” Revenge thus denied a vent, recoils, and preys upon the vitals of the person offended. It displays itself in peevishness and bad humour; which must work and ferment, till time or acknowledgment of the wrong, carry it off. This sort of revenge is turned against the man himself who is offended; and examples there are of persons in this pettish humour, working great mischief to themselves, in order to make the offenders sensible of the wrong. Thus, no example is more common, than that of a young woman disappointed in love, who prone to augment her distress, throws herself away upon any worthless man that will ask her the question. My next example will be still more satisfactory. Every one must have observed, that when the passion of grief is at its height, the very nature of it is to shun and fly from every thing that tends to give ease or comfort. In the height of grief, a man rushes on to misery, by a sort of sympathy with the person for whom he is grieved. Why should I be happy when my friend is no more, is the language of this passion. In these circumstances, the man is truly a self-tormentor. And here we have a singular phaenomenon in human nature; an appetite after pain, an inclination to render one’s self miserable. This goes farther than even self-murder; a crime that is never perpetrated but in order to put an end to misery, when it rises to such an height as to be insupportable.
We now see how imperfect the description is of human nature, given by Mr Locke, and by our French author. They acknowledge no motive to action, but what arises from self-love; measures laid down to attain pleasure, or to shun pain. Many appetites and passions, with the affection and aversion involved in them, are left entirely out of the system. And yet we may say, with some degree of probability, that we are more frequently influenced by these than by self-love. So various is human nature, and so complicated its acting powers, that it is not readily to be taken in at one view.
We return to our subject, after havin gun folded those principles of action with which it is connected. It may be gathered from what is above laid down, that nature, which designed us for society, has linked us together in an intimate manner, by the sympathetic principle, which communicates the joy and sorrow of one to many. We par take the afflictions of our fellows: we grieve with them and for them; and, in many instances, their misfortunes affect us equally with our own. Let it not therefore appear surprising, that, instead of shunning objects of misery, we chuse to dwell upon them; for this is truly as natural as indulging grief for our own misfortunes. And it must be observed at the same time, that this is wisely ordered by providence: were the social affections mixed with any degree of aversion, even when we suffer under them, we should be inclined, upon the first notice of an object in distress, to drive it from our sight and mind, instead of affording relief.
Nor must we judge of this principle as any way vitious or faulty: for besides that it is the great cement of human society, we ought to consider, that, as no state is exempt from misfortunes, mutual sympathy must greatly promote the security and happiness of mankind. That the prosperity and preservation of each individual should be the care of many, tends more to happiness in general, than that each man, as the single in habitant of adesert island, should be left to stand or fall by himself, without prospect of regard or assistance from others. Nor is this all. When we consider our own character and actions in a reflex view, we cannot help approving this tenderness and sympathy in our nature. We are pleased with ourselves for being so constituted: we are conscious of inward merit; and this is a continual source of satisfaction.
To open this subject a little more, it must be observed, that naturally we have a strong desire to be acquainted with the history of others. We judge of their actions, approve or disapprove, condemn or acquit; and in this the busy mind has a wonderful delight. Nay, we go farther. We enter deep into their concerns, take a side; we partake of joys and distresses with those we favour, and show a dislike to others. This turn of mind makes history, novels, and plays, the most universal and favourite entertainments. It is natural to man as a sociable creature; and we venture to affirm, that the most sociable have the greatest share of this sort of curiosity, and the strongest attachment to such entertainments.
Tragedy is an imitation or representation of human characters and actions. It is a feigned history, which commonly makes a stronger impression than what is real; because, if it be a work of genius, incidents will be chosen to make the deepest impressions; and will be so conducted as to keep the mind in continual suspense and agitation, beyond what commonly happens in real life. By a good tragedy, all the social passions are excited. We take a sudden affection to some of the personages represented: we come to be attached to them as to our bosom-friends; and we hope and fear for them, as if the whole were a true history.
To a dry philosopher, unacquainted with theatrical entertainments, it may appear surprising, that imitation should have such an effect upon the mind, and that the want of truth and reality should not prevent the operation of our passions. But whatever may be the physical cause, one thing is evident, that this aptitude of the mind of man to receive impressions from feigned as well as from real objects, contributes to the noblest purposes of life. Nothing contributes so much to improve the mind and confirm it in virtue, as being continually employed in surveying the actions of others, entering into the concerns of the virtuous, approving their conduct, condemning vice, and showing an abhorrence at it; for the mind acquires strength by exercise, as well as the body. But were this sort of discipline confined to scenes in real life, the generality of men would be little the better for it, because such scenes rarely occur. They are not frequent even in history. But in compositions where liberty is allowed of fiction, it must be want of genius, if the mind be not sufficiently exercised, till it acquire the greatest sensibility, and the most confirmed habits of virtue.
Thus, tragedy engages our passions, no less than true history. Friendship, concern for the virtuous, abhorrence of the vitious, compassion, hope, fear, and the whole train of the social passions, are roused and exercised by both of them equally.
This may appear to be a fair account of the attachment we have to theatrical entertainments: but when the subject is more narrowly examined, some difficulties occur, to which the principles above laid down will scarce afford a satisfactory answer. It is not wonderful that young people flock to such entertainments. The love of novelty, desire of occupation, beauty of action, are strong attractions: and if one be once engaged, of whatever age, by entering into the interests of the personages represented, the attraction becomes strong; and the foresight of running into grief and affliction will not disengage us. But we generally become wise by experience; and it may appear surprising, when distress is the never-failing effect of such entertainments, that persons of riper judgment do not shun them altogether. Doth self-love lie asleep in this case, which is for ordinary so active a principle? One should naturally think, that as repeated experience must make us sufficiently wise to keep out of harm’s way; deep tragedies would be little frequented by persons of reflection. Yet the contrary is true in fact; the deepest tragedies being the most frequented by persons of all ages, by those especially of delicate feelings upon whom the strongest impressions are made. A man of that character, who is scarce relieved from the deep distress he was thrown into the night before by a well-acted tragedy, does, in his closet, coolly and deliberately resolve to go to the next entertainment of the kind, without feeling the smallest obstruction from self-love.
This leads to a speculation, perhaps one of the most curious that belongs to human nature. Contrary to what is generally understood, the foregoing speculation affords a palpable proof, that even self-love does not always operate to avoid pain and distress. In examining how this is brought about, there will be discovered an admirable contrivance in human nature, to give free scope to the social affections. Keeping in view what is above laid down, that of the painful passions some are accompanied with a version, some with affection; we find, upon the strictest examination, that those painful passions, which, in the direct feeling, are free from any degree of aversion, have as little of it in the reflex act. Or, to express the thing more familiarly, when we reflect upon the pain we have suffered by our concern for others, there is no degree of aversion mixed with the reflection, more than with the pain itself which was raised by a sight of the object. For illustration’s sake, let us compare the pain which arises from compassion with any bodily pain. Cutting one’s flesh is not only accompanied with strong aversion in the direct feeling, but with an aversion equally strong in reflecting upon the action afterward. We feel no such aversion in reflecting upon the mental pains above described. On the contrary, when we reflect upon the pain which the misfortune of a friend gave us, the reflection is accompanied with an eminent degree of satisfaction. We approve ourselves for suffering with our friend, value ourselves the more for that suffering, and are ready to undergo chearfully the like distress upon the like occasion. Self-love gives no opposition.
When we examine those particular passions, which, though painful, are yet accompanied with no aversion; we find they are all of the social kind, arising from that eminent principle of sympathy, which is the cement of human society. The social passions are accompanied with appetite for indulgence when they give us pain, no less than when they give us pleasure. We submit willingly to such painful passions, and reckon it no hardship to suffer under them. In being thus constituted, we have the consciousness of regularity and order, and that it is right and meet we should suffer after this manner. Thus the moral affections, even such of them as produce pain, are none of them attended with any degree of aversion, not even in reflecting upon the distress they often bring us under. Sympathy in particular attaches us to an object in distress so powerfully as even to overbalance self-love, which would make us fly from it. Sympathy accordingly, though a painful passion, is attractive; and in affording relief, the gratification of the passion is not a little pleasant. And this observation tends to set the moral affections in a very distinguished point of view, in opposition to those that are either malevolent, or selfish.
Many and various are the springs of action in human nature, and not one more admirable than what is now unfolded. Sympathy is an illustrious principle, which connects persons in society by ties stronger than those of blood. Yet compassion, the child of sympathy, is a painful emotion; and were it accompanied with any degree of aversion, even in reflecting upon the distress it occasioned, that aversion would by degrees blunt the passion, and at length cure us of what we would be apt to reckon a weakness or disease. But the Author of our nature hath not left his work imperfect. He has given us this noble principle entire, without a counterbalance, so as to have a vigorous and universal operation. Far from having any aversion to pain occasioned by the social principle, we reflect upon such pain with satisfaction, and are willing to submit to it upon all occasions with chearfulness and heart-liking, just as much as if it were a real pleasure. And, thus, tragedy is allowed to seize the mind with all the different charms which arise from the exercise of the social passions, without the least obstacle from self-love.
Had the principle of sympathy occurred to our author, he would have found it sufficient to explain our voluntarily partaking with others in their distress, without having need of so imperfect a cause as aversion to in action. Without entering deep into philosophy, he might have had hints in abundance from common life to explain it. In every corner, persons are to be met with of such a sympathising temper, as to chuse to spend their lives with the diseased and distressed. They partake with them in the irafflictions, enter heartily into their concerns, and sigh and groan with them. These pass their lives in sadness and despondency, without having any other satisfaction than what arises upon the reflection of having done their duty.
And if this account of the matter be just, we may be assured, that those who are the most compassionate in their temper, will be the fondest of tragedy, which affords them a large field for indulging the passion. Admirable indeed are the effects brought about by this means: for passions, as they gather strength by indulgence, so they decay by want of exercise. Persons in prosperity, unacquainted with distress and misery, are apt to grow hard-hearted. Tragedy is an admirable resource in such a case. It serves to humanize the temper, by supplying feigned objects of pity, which have nearly the same effect to exercise the passion that real objects have. And thus, we are carried by a natural impulse to deal deep in affliction, occasioned by representations of feigned misfortunes; and the passion of pity alone would throng such representations, were there nothing else to attract the mind, or to afford satisfaction.
It is owing to curiosity, that public executions are so much frequented. Sensible people endeavour to correct an appetite, the indulging of which produces pain; and upon reflection is attended with no degree of self-approbation. Hence it is, that such spectacles are the entertainment of the vulgar chiefly, who allow themselves blindly to be led by curiosity with little attention whether it will contribute to their good or not.
With respect to prize-fighting and gladiatorian shews, nothing animates and inspires us more than examples of courage and bravery. We catch the spirit of the actor, and turn bold and intrepid as he appears to be. On the other hand, we enter into the distresses of the vanquished, and have a sympathy for them in proportion to the gallantry of their behaviour. No wonder then that such shews are frequented by persons of the best taste. We are led by the same principle that makes us fond of perusing the lives of heroes and of conquerors. And it may be observed by the bye, that such spectacles have an admirable good effect in training up the youth to boldness and resolution. In this therefore I see not that foreigners have reason to condemnthe English taste. Spectacles of this sort deserveen couragement from the state, and to be made an object of public police.
As for gaming, I cannot bring myself to think that there is any pleasure in having the mind kept in suspense, and as it were upon the rack, which must be the case of those who venture their money at games of hazard. Inaction and idleness are not by far so hard to bear. I am satisfied that the love of money is at the bottom. Nor is it a solid objection, That people will neglect games of skill and address, to venture their money at hazard; for this may be owing to indolence, diffidence, or impatience. There is indeed a curious speculation with regard to this article of gaming, that pleasure and pain attend good and bad success at play, independent of the money lost or win. It is plain, that good luck raises the spirits, as bad luck depresses them, without regard to consequences: and to that is owing our concern at game, when we play for trifles. To what principle in our nature that concern is owing, I leave to be investigated by others, as it is not necessarily connected with the subject of the present Essay.
I lay hold of the present edition to investigate the point left open in the former. This earth produces little for the use of man but what requires the preparation both of art and industry; and man, by nature artful and industrious, is well fitted for his situation. Were every thing furnished to his hand without thought or labour, he would sink below the lowest of the brute creation. I say, below, because the lowest creature perfect in its kind, is superior to a creature of whatever kind that is corrupted. Self-love moves us to labour for ourselves; benevolence to labour for others. And emulation is added to enforce these principles. Emulation is visible even in children, striving for victory without knowing what moves them. Instriving for fame, power, riches, emulation makes a splendid figure: it operates vigorously in works of skill, nor does it lye dormant in competitions that depend mostly or intirely on chance, such as playing with cards or dice. It is true, that the pleasure of victory without a view to gain, is extremely faint; and it pains me to observe that the desperate risks voluntarily submitted to in games of chance, are mostly, if not intirely instigated by avarice.
[* ]l’Abbé du Bos.
[1. ]Jean-Baptiste Dubos (1679–1742), Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture (Paris, 1719), Introduction, p. 1; pt. 1, sec. 1, pp. 5–7.
[2. ]Ibid., pt. 1, sec. 2, pp. 12–13, 19, 22.
[* ]Lib. 41 [“Gladiatorial contest exhibited in Roman fashion frightened the spectators, who were unused to such sights, more than it pleased them. By frequently giving these exhibitions, he familiarised the eyes of his people to them so that they learned to enjoy them and he created amongst most of the younger men a passion for arms.” Livy, History of Rome (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1912), vol. 4, 41.20.]
[3. ]John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London, 1690; reprint, ed. Peter H. Nidditch, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), II.xxi.37, pp. 254–5; II.xxi.43, pp. 259–60.