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CHAPTER IX: Uniformity and Variety - Henry Home, Lord Kames, Elements of Criticism, vol. 1 
Elements of Criticism, Edited and with an Introduction by Peter Jones (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). 2 vols. Vol. 1.
Part of: Elements of Criticism, 2 vols.
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Uniformity and Variety
In attempting to explain uniformity and variety, in order to show how we are affected by these circumstances, a doubt occurs, what method ought to be followed. In adhering close to the subject, I foresee difficulties; and yet by indulging such a circuit as may be necessary for a satisfactory view, I probably shall incur the censure of wandering.—Yet the dread of censure, ought not to prevail over what is proper: beside that the intended circuit will lead to some collateral matters, that are not only curious, but of considerable importance in the science of human nature.
The necessary succession of perceptions may be examined in two different views; one with respect to order and connection, and one with respect to uniformity and variety. In the first view it is handled above:* and I now proceed to the second. The world we inhabit is replete with things no less remarkable for their variety than for their number: these, unfolded by the wonderful<306> mechanism of external sense, furnish the mind with many perceptions; which, joined with ideas of memory, of imagination, and of reflection, form a complete train that has not a gap or interval. This train of perceptions and ideas, depends very little on will. The mind, as has been observed,† is so constituted, “That it can by no effort break off the succession of its ideas, nor keep its attention long fixt upon the same object”: we can arrest a perception in its course; we can shorten its natural duration, to make room for another; we can vary the succession by change of place or of amusement; and we can in some measure prevent variety, by frequently recalling the same object after short intervals: but still there must be a succession, and a change from one perception to another. By artificial means, the succession may be retarded or accelerated, may be rendered more various or more uniform, but in one shape or other is unavoidable.
The train, even when left to its ordinary course, is not always uniform in its motion: there are natural causes that accelerate or retard it considerably. The first I shall mention, is a peculiar constitution of mind. One man is distinguished from another, by no circumstance more remarkably, than his train of perceptions: to a cold languid temper belongs a slow course of perceptions,<307> which occasions dulness of apprehension and sluggishness in action: to a warm temper, on the contrary, belongs a quick course of perceptions, which occasions quickness of apprehension and activity in business. The Asiatic nations, the Chinese especially, are observed to be more cool and deliberate than the Europeans: may not the reason be, that heat enervates by exhausting the spirits? and that a certain degree of cold, as in the middle regions of Europe, bracing the fibres, rouseth the mind, and produceth a brisk circulation of thought, accompanied with vigour in action?1 In youth is observable a quicker succession of perceptions than in old age: and hence, in youth, a remarkable avidity for variety of amusements, which in riper years give place to more uniform and more sedate occupation. This qualifies men of middle age for business, where activity is required, but with a greater proportion of uniformity than variety. In old age, a slow and languid succession makes variety unnecessary; and for that reason, the aged, in all their motions, are generally governed by an habitual uniformity. Whatever be the cause, we may venture to pronounce, that heat in the imagination and temper, is always connected with a brisk flow of perceptions.
The natural rate of succession, depends also, in some degree, upon the particular perceptions that compose the train. An agreeable object, taking <308> a strong hold of the mind, occasions a slower succession than when the objects are indifferent: grandeur and novelty fix the attention for a considerable time, excluding all other ideas: and the mind thus occupied is sensible of no vacuity. Some emotions, by hurrying the mind from object to object, accelerate the succession. Where the train is composed of connected perceptions or ideas, the succession is quick; for it is so ordered by nature, that the mind goes easily and sweetly along connected objects.* On the other hand, the succession must be slow, where the train is composed of unconnected perceptions or ideas, which find not ready access to the mind; and that an unconnected object is not admitted without a struggle, appears from the unsettled state of the mind for some moments after such an object is presented, wavering between it and the former train: during that short period, one or other of the former objects will intrude, perhaps oftener than once, till the attention be fixt entirely upon the new object. The same observations are applicable to ideas suggested by language: the mind can bear a quick succession of related ideas; but an unrelated idea, for which the mind is not prepared, takes time to make an impression; and therefore a train composed of such ideas, ought to proceed with a slow pace. Hence an epic poem, a play,<309> or any story connected in all its parts, may be perused in a shorter time, than a book of maxims or apothegms, of which a quick succession creates both confusion and fatigue.
Such latitude hath nature indulged in the rate of succession: what latitude it indulges with respect to uniformity, we proceed to examine. The uniformity or variety of a train, so far as composed of perceptions, depends on the particular objects that surround the percipient at the time. The present occupation must also have an influence; for one is sometimes engaged in a multiplicity of affairs, sometimes altogether vacant. A natural train of ideas of memory is more circumscribed, each object being, by some connection, linked to what precedes and to what follows it: these connections, which are many, and of different kinds, afford scope for a sufficient degree of variety; and at the same time prevent that degree which is unpleasant by excess. Temper and constitution also have an influence here, as well as upon the rate of succession: a man of a calm and sedate temper, admits not willingly any idea but what is regularly introduced by a proper connection: one of a roving disposition embraces with avidity every new idea, however slender its relation be to those that preceded it. Neither must we overlook the nature of the perceptions that compose the train; for their influence is no less with respect to uniformity and variety, than with<310> respect to the rate of succession. The mind engrossed by any passion, love or hatred, hope or fear, broods over its object, and can bear no interruption; and in such a state, the train of perceptions must not only be slow, but extremely uniform. Anger newly inflamed eagerly grasps its object, and leaves not a cranny in the mind for another thought but of revenge. In the character of Hotspur, that state of mind is represented to the life; a picture remarkable for likeness as well as for high colouring.
Hear you, cousin, a word.
Having view’d a train of perceptions as directed by nature, and the variations it is susceptible of from different necessary causes, we proceed to examine how far it is subjected to will; for that this faculty hath some influence, is observed above. And first, the rate of succession may be retarded by insisting upon one object, and propelled by dismissing another before its time. But such voluntary mutations in the natural course of succession, have limits that cannot be extended by the most painful efforts: which will appear from con-<312>sidering, that the mind circumscribed in its capacity, cannot, at the same instant, admit many perceptions; and when replete, that it hath not place for new perceptions, till others are removed; consequently that a voluntary change of perceptions cannot be instantaneous, as the time it requires sets bounds to the velocity of succession. On the other hand, the power we have to arrest a flying perception, is equally limited: and the reason is, that the longer we detain any perception, the more difficulty we find in the operation; till, the difficulty becoming unsurmountable, we are forc’d to quit our hold, and to permit the train to take its usual course.
The power we have over this train as to uniformity and variety, is in some cases very great, in others very little. A train composed of perceptions of external objects, depends entirely on the place we occupy, and admits not more nor less variety but by change of place. A train composed of ideas of memory, is still less under our power; because we cannot at will call up any idea that is not connected with the train.* But a train of ideas suggested by reading, may be varied at will, provided we have books at hand.
The power that nature hath given us over our train of perceptions, may be greatly strengthened by proper discipline, and by an early application<313> to business; witness some mathematicians, who go far beyond common nature in slowness and uniformity; and still more persons devoted to religious exercises, who pass whole days in contemplation, and impose upon themselves long and severe penances. With respect to celerity and variety, it is not easily conceived what length a habit of activity in affairs will carry some men. Let a stranger, or let any person to whom the sight is not familiar, attend the chancellor of Great Britain through the labours but of one day, during a session of parliament: how great will be his astonishment! what multiplicity of law-business, what deep-thinking, and what elaborate application to matters of government! The train of perceptions must in that great man be accelerated far beyond the ordinary course of nature: yet no confusion or hurry; but in every article the greatest order and accuracy. Such is the force of habit. How happy is man, to have the command of a principle of action that can elevate him so far above the ordinary condition of humanity!†
We are now ripe for considering a train of perceptions, with respect to pleasure and pain: and to that speculation peculiar attention must be given, because it serves to explain the effects that uniformity and variety have upon the mind. A<314> man, when his perceptions flow in their natural course, feels himself free, light, and easy, especially after any forcible acceleration or retardation. On the other hand, the accelerating or retarding the natural course, excites a pain, which, tho’ scarcely felt in small removes, becomes considerable toward the extremes. Aversion to fix on a single object for a long time, or to take in a multiplicity of objects in a short time, is remarkable in children; and equally so in men unaccustomed to business: a man languishes when the succession is very slow; and, if he grow not impatient, is apt to fall asleep: during a rapid succession, he hath a feeling as if his head were turning round; he is fatigued, and his pain resembles that of weariness after bodily labour.
But a moderate course will not satisfy the mind, unless the perceptions be also diversified: number without variety is not sufficient to constitute an agreeable train. In comparing a few objects, uniformity is pleasant; but the frequent reiteration of uniform objects becomes unpleasant: one tires of a scene that is not diversified; and soon feels a sort of unnatural restraint when confined within a narrow range, whether occasioned by a retarded succession or by too great uniformity. An excess in variety is, on the other hand, fatiguing: which is felt even in a train of related perceptions; much more of unrelated perceptions, which gain not admittance without effort: the effort, it is true,<315> is scarce perceptible in a single instance; but by frequent reiteration it becomes exceedingly painful. Whatever be the cause, the fact is certain, that a man never finds himself more at ease, than when his perceptions succeed each other with a certain degree, not only of velocity, but also of variety. The pleasure that arises from a train of connected ideas, is remarkable in a reverie; especially where the imagination interposeth, and is active in coining new ideas, which is done with wonderful facility: one must be sensible, that the serenity and ease of the mind in that state, makes a great part of the enjoyment. The case is different where external objects enter into the train; for these, making their appearance without order, and without connection save that of contiguity, form a train of perceptions that may be extremely uniform or extremely diversified; which, for opposite reasons, are both of them painful.
To alter, by an act of will, that degree of variety which nature requires, is not less painful, than to alter that degree of velocity which it requires. Contemplation, when the mind is long attached to one subject, becomes painful by restraining the free range of perception: curiosity, and the prospect of useful discoveries, may fortify one to bear that pain: but it is deeply felt by the bulk of mankind, and produceth in them aversion to all abstract sciences. In any profession or calling, a train of operation that is simple and reitera-<316>ted without intermission, makes the operator languish, and lose vigour: he complains neither of too great labour, nor of too little action; but regrets the want of variety, and the being obliged to do the same thing over and over: where the operation is sufficiently varied, the mind retains its vigour, and is pleased with its condition. Actions again create uneasiness when excessive in number or variety, tho’ in every other respect pleasant: thus a throng of business in law, in physic, or in traffic, distresses and distracts the mind, unless where a habit of application is acquired by long and constant exercise: the excessive variety is the distressing circumstance; and the mind suffers grievously by being kept constantly upon the stretch.
With relation to involuntary causes disturbing that degree of variety which nature requires, a slight pain affecting one part of the body without variation, becomes, by its constancy and long duration, almost insupportable: the patient, sensible that the pain is not increased in degree, complains of its constancy more than of its severity, of its engrossing his whole thoughts, and admitting no other object. A shifting pain is more tolerable, because change of place contributes to variety: and an intermitting pain, suffering other objects to intervene, still more so. Again, any single colour or sound often returning becomes unpleasant; as may be observed in viewing a train of similar<317> apartments in a great house painted with the same colour, and in hearing the prolonged tollings of a bell. Colour and sound varied within certain limits, tho’ without any order, are pleasant; witness the various colours of plants and flowers in a field, and the various notes of birds in a thicket: increase the number or variety, and the feeling becomes unpleasant; thus a great variety of colours, crowded upon a small canvas or in quick succession, create an uneasy feeling, which is prevented by putting the colours at a greater distance from each other either of place or of time. A number of voices in a crowded assembly, a number of animals collected in a market, produce an unpleasant feeling; tho’ a few of them together, or all of them in a moderate succession, would be pleasant. And because of the same excess in variety, a number of pains felt in different parts of the body, at the same instant or in a rapid succession, are an exquisite torture.
The pleasure or pain resulting from a train of perceptions in different circumstances, are a beautiful contrivance of nature for valuable purposes. But being sensible, that the mind, inflamed with speculations so highly interesting, is beyond measure disposed to conviction; I shall be watchful to admit no argument nor remark, but what appears solidly founded; and with that caution I proceed to unfold these purposes. It is occasionally observed above, that persons of a phlegmatic tempera-<318>ment, having a sluggish train of perceptions, are indisposed to action; and that activity constantly accompanies a brisk flow of perceptions. To ascertain that fact, a man need not go abroad for experiments: reflecting on things passing in his own mind, he will find, that a brisk circulation of thought constantly prompts him to action; and that he is averse to action when his perceptions languish in their course. But as man by nature is formed for action, and must be active in order to be happy, nature hath kindly provided against indolence, by annexing pleasure to a moderate course of perceptions, and by making any remarkable retardation painful. A slow course of perceptions, is attended with another bad effect: man, in a few capital cases, is governed by propensity or instinct; but in matters that admit deliberation and choice, reason is assigned him for a guide: now, as reasoning requires often a great compass of ideas, their succession ought to be so quick as readily to furnish every motive that may be necessary for mature deliberation; in a languid succession, motives will often occur after action is commenced, when it is too late to retreat.
Nature hath guarded man, her favourite, against a succession too rapid, no less carefully than against one too slow: both are equally painful, tho’ the pain is not the same in both. Many are the good effects of that contrivance. In the first place, as the exertion of bodily faculties is by certain pain-<319>ful sensations confined within proper limits, Nature is equally provident with respect to the nobler faculties of the mind: the pain of an accelerated course of perceptions, is Nature’s admonition to relax our pace, and to admit a more gentle exertion of thought. Another valuable purpose is discovered upon reflecting in what manner objects are imprinted on the mind: to give the memory firm hold of an external object, time is required, even where attention is the greatest; and a moderate degree of attention, which is the common case, must be continued still longer to produce the same effect: a rapid succession, accordingly, must prevent objects from making an impression so deep as to be of real service in life; and Nature, for the sake of memory, has by a painful feeling guarded against a rapid succession. But a still more valuable purpose is answered by the contrivance; as, on the one hand, a sluggish course of perceptions indisposeth to action; so, on the other, a course too rapid impels to rash and precipitant action: prudent conduct is the child of deliberation and clear conception, for which there is no place in a rapid course of thought. Nature therefore, taking measures for prudent conduct, has guarded us effectually from precipitancy of thought, by making it painful.
Nature not only provides against a succession too slow or too quick, but makes the middle course extremely pleasant. Nor is that course confined<320> within narrow bounds: every man can naturally, without pain, accelerate or retard in some degree the rate of his perceptions. And he can do it in a still greater degree by the force of habit: a habit of contemplation annihilates the pain of a retarded course of perceptions; and a busy life, after long practice, makes acceleration pleasant.
Concerning the final cause of our taste for variety, it will be considered, that human affairs, complex by variety as well as number, require the distributing our attention and activity in measure and proportion. Nature therefore, to secure a just distribution corresponding to the variety of human affairs, has made too great uniformity or too great variety in the course of perceptions, equally unpleasant: and indeed, were we addicted to either extreme, our internal constitution would be ill suited to our external circumstances. At the same time, where great uniformity of operation is required as in several manufactures, or great variety as in law or physic, Nature, attentive to all our wants, hath also provided for these cases, by implanting in the breast of every person, an efficacious principle that leads to habit: an obstinate perseverance in the same occupation, relieves from the pain of excessive uniformity; and the like perseverance in a quick circulation of different occupations, relieves from the pain of excessive variety. And thus we come to take delight in several occu-<321>pations, that by nature, without habit, are not a little disgustful.
A middle rate also in the train of perceptions between uniformity and variety, is no less pleasant than between quickness and slowness. The mind of man, so framed, is wonderfully adapted to the course of human affairs, which are continually changing, but not without connection: it is equally adapted to the acquisition of knowledge, which results chiefly from discovering resemblances among differing objects, and differences among resembling objects: such occupation, even abstracting from the knowledge we acquire, is in itself delightful, by preserving a middle rate between too great uniformity and too great variety.
We are now arrived at the chief purpose of the present chapter; which is to consider uniformity and variety with relation to the fine arts, in order to discover if we can, when it is that the one ought to prevail, and when the other. And the knowledge we have obtained, will even at first view suggest a general observation, That in every work of art, it must be agreeable, to find that degree of variety which corresponds to the natural course of our perceptions; and that an excess in variety or in uniformity must be disagreeable, by varying that natural course. For that reason, works of art admit more or less variety according to the nature of the subject: in a picture of an interesting event that strongly attaches the spectator to a<322> single object, the mind relisheth not a multiplicity of figures nor of ornaments: a picture representing a gay subject, admits great variety of figures and ornaments; because these are agreeable to the mind in a chearful tone. The same observation is applicable to poetry and to music.
It must at the same time be remarked, that one can bear a greater variety of natural objects, than of objects in a picture; and a greater variety in a picture, than in a description. A real object presented to view, makes an impression more readily than when represented in colours, and much more readily than when represented in words. Hence it is, that the profuse variety of objects in some natural landscapes, neither breed confusion nor fatigue: and for the same reason, there is place for greater variety of ornament in a picture than in a poem. A picture however, like a building, ought to be so simple as to be comprehended in one view. Whether every one of Le Brun’s pictures of Alexander’s history will stand this test, is submitted to judges.3
From these general observations, I proceed to particulars. In works exposed continually to public view, variety ought to be studied. It is a rule accordingly in sculpture, to contrast the different limbs of a statue, in order to give it all the variety possible. Tho’ the cone in a single view, be more beautiful than the pyramid; yet a pyramidal steeple, because of its variety, is justly preferred. For the same reason, the oval is prefer-<323>red before the circle; and painters, in copying buildings or any regular work, give an air of variety, by representing the subject in an angular view: we are pleased with the variety, without losing sight of the regularity. In a landscape representing animals, those especially of the same kind, contrast ought to prevail: to draw one sleeping, another awake; one sitting, another in motion; one moving toward the spectator, another from him, is the life of such a performance.
In every sort of writing intended for amusement, variety is necessary in proportion to the length of the work. Want of variety is sensibly felt in Davila’s history of the civil wars of France:4 the events are indeed important and various; but the reader languishes by a tiresome monotony of character, every person engaged being figured a consummate politician, governed by interest only. It is hard to say, whether Ovid disgusts more by too great variety, or too great uniformity: his stories are all of the same kind, concluding invariably with the transformation of one being into another; and so far he is tiresome by excess in uniformity: he is not less fatiguing by excess in variety, hurrying his reader incessantly from story to story. Ariosto is still more fatiguing than Ovid, by exceeding the just bounds of variety: not satisfied, like Ovid, with a succession in his stories, he distracts the reader, by jumbling together a multitude of them without any connection. Nor is the Orlan-<324>do Furioso less tiresome by its uniformity than the Metamorphoses, tho’ in a different manner: after a story is brought to a crisis, the reader, intent on the catastrophe, is suddenly snatch’d away to a new story, which makes no impression so long as the mind is occupied with the former. This tantalizing method, from which the author never once swerves during the course of a long work, beside its uniformity, hath another bad effect: it prevents that sympathy, which is raised by an interesting event when the reader meets with no interruption.
The emotions produced by our perceptions in a train, have been little considered, and less understood; the subject therefore required an elaborate discussion. It may surprise some readers, to find variety treated as only contributing to make a train of perceptions pleasant, when it is commonly held to be a necessary ingredient in beauty of whatever kind; according to the definition, “That beauty consists in uniformity amid variety.”5 But after the subject is explained and illustrated as above, I presume it will be evident, that this definition, however applicable to one or other species, is far from being just with respect to beauty in general: variety contributes no share to the beauty of a moral action, nor of a mathematical theorem: and numberless are the beautiful objects of sight that have little or no variety in them; a globe, the most uniform of all figures, is of all the most<325> beautiful; and a square, tho’ more beautiful than a trapezium, hath less variety in its constituent parts. The foregoing definition, which at best is but obscurely expressed, is only applicable to a number of objects in a group or in succession, among which indeed a due mixture of uniformity and variety is always agreeable; provided the particular objects, separately considered, be in any degree beautiful, for uniformity amid variety among ugly objects, affords no pleasure. This circumstance is totally omitted in the definition; and indeed to have mentioned it, would at the very first glance have shown the definition to be imperfect: for to define beauty as arising from beautiful objects blended together in a due proportion of uniformity and variety, would be too gross to pass current; as nothing can be more gross, than to employ in a definition the very term that is to be explained.
[* ]Chap. 1.
[† ]Locke, book 2. chap. 14. [Essay Concerning Human Understanding, II.14. This is not a direct quotation.]
[1. ]A reference to debate about Montesquieu’s views in L’Esprit des Lois, pt. 3 (1748; English trans. The Spirit of the Laws, 1750). Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755), noble landowner and parliamentary magistrate, studied law in Paris and Bordeaux and visited England, where his writings were admired, 1729–31 to study its politics.
[* ]See chap. 1.
[2. ]Act 1, sc. 2.
[* ]See chap. 1.
[† ]This chapter was composed in the year 1753. [The Earl of Hardwicke was lord chancellor in 1753.]
[3. ]Le Brun’s series of paintings for Versailles under the title “Battles of Alexander”: see<101> above.
[4. ]Enrico Caterino Davila, Historia della guerre civili di Francia, 1630 (trans. into English 1647).
[5. ]The reference is to Francis Hutcheson, An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue; in Two Treatises, London, 1725, where the phrase is usually “uniformity amidst variety”: for example, Treatise 1, sect. 2. Hutcheson (1694–1746) was professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University, and Kames, like Adam Smith (1723–90) and David Hume (1711–76), was familiar with his philosophical work.