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CHAPTER X: Congruity and Propriety - 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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Congruity and Propriety
Man is superior to the brute, not more by his rational faculties, than by his senses. With respect to external senses, brutes probably yield not to men; and they may also have some obscure perception of beauty: but the more delicate senses of regularity, order, uniformity, and congruity, being connected with morality and religion, are reserved to dignify the chief of the terrestrial creation. Upon that account, no discipline is more suitable to man, nor more congruous to the dignity of his nature, than that which refines his taste, and leads him to distinguish in every subject, what is regular, what is orderly, what is suitable, and what is fit and proper.* <334>
It is clear from the very conception of the terms congruity and propriety, that they are not applicable to any single object: they imply a plurality, and obviously signify a particular relation between different objects. Thus we say currently, that a decent garb is suitable or proper for a judge, modest behaviour for a young woman, and a lofty style for an epic poem: and, on the other hand, that it is unsuitable or incongruous to see a little woman sunk in an overgrown farthingale, a coat richly embroidered covering coarse and dirty linen, a mean subject in an elevated style, an elevated subject in a mean style, a first minister darning his wife’s stocking, or a reverend prelate in lawn sleeves dancing a hornpipe.
The perception we have of this relation, which seems peculiar to man, cannot proceed from any other cause, but from a sense of congruity or propriety; for supposing us destitute of that sense, the terms would to us be unintelligible.* <335>
It is matter of experience, that congruity or propriety, where-ever perceived, is agreeable; and that incongruity or impropriety, where-ever perceived, is disagreeable. The only difficulty is, to ascertain what are the particular objects that in conjunction suggest these relations; for there are many objects that do not: the sea, for example, view’d in conjunction with a picture, or a man view’d in conjunction with a mountain, suggest not either congruity or incongruity. It seems natural to infer, what will be found true by induction, that we never perceive congruity nor incongruity but among things that are connected by<336> some relation; such as a man and his actions, a principal and its accessories, a subject and its ornaments. We are indeed so framed by nature, as among things so connected, to require a certain suitableness or correspondence, termed congruity or propriety; and to be displeased when we find the opposite relation of incongruity or impropriety.*
If things connected be the subject of congruity, it is reasonable beforehand to expect a degree of congruity proportioned to the degree of the connection. And upon examination we find our expectation to be well founded: where the relation is intimate, as between a cause and its effect, a<337> whole and its parts, we require the strictest congruity; but where the relation is slight, or accidental, as among things jumbled together, we require little or no congruity: the strictest propriety is required in behaviour and manner of living; because a man is connected with these by the relation of cause and effect: the relation between an edifice and the ground it stands upon, is of the most intimate kind, and therefore the situation of a great house ought to be lofty: its relation to neighbouring hills, rivers, plains, being that of propinquity only, demands but a small share of congruity: among members of the same club, the congruity ought to be considerable, as well as among things placed for show in the same niche: among passengers in a stage-coach, we require very little congruity; and less still at a public spectacle.
Congruity is so nearly allied to beauty as commonly to be held a species of it; and yet they differ so essentially, as never to coincide: beauty, like colour, is placed upon a single subject; congruity upon a plurality: further, a thing beautiful in itself, may, with relation to other things, produce the strongest sense of incongruity.
Congruity and propriety are commonly reckoned synonymous terms; and hitherto in opening the subject they have been used indifferently: but they are distinguishable; and the precise meaning of each must be ascertained. Congruity is the ge-<338>nus, of which propriety is a species; for we call nothing propriety, but that congruity or suitableness, which ought to subsist between sensible beings and their thoughts, words, and actions.
In order to give a full view of these secondary relations, I shall trace them through some of the most considerable primary relations. The relation of a part to the whole, being extremely intimate, demands the utmost degree of congruity: even the slightest deviation is disgustful; witness the Lutrin, a burlesque poem, which is closed with a serious and warm panegyric on Lamoignon, one of the king’s judges:
Examples of congruity and incongruity are furnished in plenty by the relation between a subject and its ornaments. A literary performance intended merely for amusement, is susceptible of much ornament, as well as a music-room or a play-house; for in gaiety, the mind hath a peculiar relish for show and decoration. The most gorgeous apparel, however improper in tragedy, is not unsuitable to opera-actors: the truth is, an opera, in its present form, is a mighty fine thing; but as it deviates from nature in its capital circumstances, we look not for nature nor propriety in those which are accessory. On the other hand, a<339> serious and important subject admits not much ornament;* nor a subject that of itself is extremely beautiful: and a subject that fills the mind with its loftiness and grandeur, appears best in a dress altogether plain.
To a person of a mean appearance, gorgeous apparel is unsuitable; which, beside the incongruity, shows by contrast the meanness of appearance in the strongest light. Sweetness of look and manner requires simplicity of dress joined with the greatest elegance. A stately and majestic air requires sumptuous apparel, which ought not to be gaudy, nor crowded with little ornaments. A woman of consummate beauty can bear to be highly adorned, and yet shows best in a plain dress
Congruity regulates not only the quantity of ornament, but also the kind. The decorations of a<340> dancing-room ought all of them to be gay. No picture is proper for a church, but what has religion for its subject. Every ornament upon a shield should relate to war; and Virgil, with great judgement, confines the carvings upon the shield of Aeneas, to the military history of the Romans: that beauty is overlooked by Homer; for the bulk of the sculpture upon the shield of Achilles, is of the arts of peace in general, and of joy and festivity in particular: the author3 of Telemachus betrays the same inattention, in describing the shield of that young hero.
In judging of propriety with regard to ornaments, we must attend, not only to the nature of the subject that is to be adorned, but also to the circumstances in which it is placed: the ornaments that are proper for a ball, will appear not altogether so decent at public worship: and the same person ought to dress differently for a marriage-feast and for a funeral.
Nothing is more intimately related to a man, than his sentiments, words, and actions; and therefore we require here the strictest conformity. When we find what we thus require, we have a lively sense of propriety: when we find the contrary, our sense of impropriety is no less lively. Hence the universal distaste of affectation, which consists in making a shew of greater delicacy and refinement, than is suited either to the character or circumstances of the person. Nothing in epic<341> or dramatic compositions is more disgustful than impropriety of manners. In Corneille’s tragedy of Cinna, Aemilia, a favourite of Augustus, receives daily marks of his affection, and is loaded with benefits: yet all the while is laying plots to assassinate her benefactor, directed by no other motive but to avenge her father’s death:* revenge against a benefactor, founded solely upon filial piety, cannot be directed by any principle but that of justice, and therefore never can suggest unlawful means; yet the crime here attempted, a treacherous murder, is what even a miscreant will scarce attempt against his bitterest enemy.
What is said might be thought sufficient to explain the relations of congruity and propriety. And yet the subject is not exhausted: on the contrary, the prospect enlarges upon us, when we take under view the effects these relations produce in the mind. Congruity and propriety, where-ever perceived, appear agreeable; and every agreeable object produceth in the mind a pleasant emotion: incongruity and impropriety, on the other hand, are disagreeable; and of course produce painful emotions. These emotions, whether pleasant or painful, sometimes vanish without any consequence; but more frequently occasion other emotions, to which I proceed.
When any slight incongruity is perceived in an<342> accidental combination of persons or things, as of passengers in a stage-coach, or of individuals dining at an ordinary;4 the painful emotion of incongruity, after a momentary existence, vanisheth without producing any effect. But this is not the case of propriety and impropriety: voluntary acts, whether words or deeds, are imputed to the author; when proper, we reward him with our esteem; when improper, we punish him with our contempt. Let us suppose, for example, a generous action suited to the character of the author, which raises in him and in every spectator the pleasant emotion of propriety: this emotion generates in the author both self-esteem and joy; the former when he considers his relation to the action, and the latter when he considers the good opinion that others will entertain of him: the same emotion of propriety, produceth in the spectators, esteem for the author of the action; and when they think of themselves, it also produceth, by contrast, an emotion of humility. To discover the effects of an unsuitable action, we must invert each of these circumstances: the painful emotion of impropriety, generates in the author of the action both humility and shame; the former when he considers his relation to the action, and the latter when he considers what others will think of him: the same emotion of impropriety, produceth in the spectators, contempt for the author of the action; and it also produceth, by contrast when they think of<343> themselves, an emotion of self-esteem. Here then are many different emotions, derived from the same action considered in different views by different persons; a machine provided with many springs, and not a little complicated. Propriety of action, it would seem, is a favourite of nature, or of the author of nature, when such care and solicitude is bestow’d on it. It is not left to our own choice; but, like justice, is required at our hands; and, like justice, is enforced by natural rewards and punishments: a man cannot, with impunity, do any thing unbecoming or improper; he suffers the chastisement of contempt inflicted by others, and of shame inflicted by himself. An apparatus so complicated, and so singular, ought to rouse our attention: for nature doth nothing in vain; and we may conclude with certainty, that this curious branch of the human constitution is intended for some valuable purpose. To the discovery of that purpose or final cause I shall with ardour apply my thoughts, after discoursing a little more at large upon the punishment, as it may now be called, that nature hath provided for indecent and unbecoming behaviour. This, at any rate, is necessary, in order to give a full view of the subject; and who knows whether it may not, over and above, open some track that will lead us to the final cause we are in quest of?
A gross impropriety is punished with contempt and indignation, which are vented against the of-<344>fender by external expressions: nor is even the slightest impropriety suffered to pass without some degree of contempt. But there are improprieties of the slighter kind, that provoke laughter; of which we have examples without end in the blunders and absurdities of our own species: such improprieties receive a different punishment, as will appear by what follows. The emotions of contempt and of laughter occasioned by an impropriety of that kind, uniting intimately in the mind of the spectator, are expressed externally by a peculiar sort of laugh, termed a laugh of derision or scorn.* An impropriety that thus moves not only contempt but laughter, is distinguished by the epithet of ridiculous; and a laugh of derision or scorn is the punishment provided for it by nature. Nor ought it to escape observation, that we are so fond of inflicting that punishment, as sometimes to exert it even against creatures of an inferior species: witness a turkycock swelling with pride, and strutting with display’d feathers, which in a gay mood is apt to provoke a laugh of derision.
We must not expect, that these different improprieties are separated by distinct boundaries: for of improprieties, from the slightest to the most gross, from the most risible to the most serious, there are degrees without end. Hence it is, that in viewing some unbecoming actions, too risible<345> for anger, and too serious for derision, the spectator feels a sort of mixt emotion, partaking both of derision and of anger; which accounts for an expression, common with respect to the impropriety of some actions, That we know not whether to laugh or be angry.
It cannot fail to be observed, that in the case of a risible impropriety, which is always slight, the contempt we have for the offender is extremely faint, tho’ derision, its gratification, is extremely pleasant. This disproportion between a passion and its gratification, may seem not conformable to the analogy of nature. In looking about for a solution, I reflect upon what is laid down above, that an improper action, not only moves our contempt for the author, but also, by means of contrast, swells the good opinion we have of ourselves. This contributes, more than any other particular, to the pleasure we have in ridiculing follies and absurdities; and accordingly, it is well known, that those who have the greatest share of vanity, are the most prone to laugh at others. Vanity, which is a vivid passion, pleasant in itself and not less so in its gratification, would singly be sufficient to account for the pleasure of ridicule, without borrowing any aid from contempt. Hence appears the reason of a noted observation, That we are the most disposed to ridicule the blunders and absurdities of others, when we are in high spirits;<346> for in high spirits, self-conceit displays itself with more than ordinary vigour.
Having with wary steps traced an intricate road, not without danger of wandering; what remains to complete our journey, is to account for the final cause of congruity and propriety, which make so great a figure in the human constitution. One final cause, regarding congruity, is pretty obvious, that the sense of congruity, as one principle of the fine arts, contributes in a remarkable degree to our entertainment; which is the final cause assigned above for our sense of proportion,* and need not be enlarged upon here. Congruity indeed with respect to quantity, coincides with proportion: when the parts of a building are nicely adjusted to each other, it may be said indifferently, that it is agreeable by the congruity of its parts, or by the proportion of its parts. But propriety, which regards voluntary agents only, can never be the same with proportion: a very long nose is disproportioned, but cannot be termed improper. In some instances, it is true, impropriety coincides with disproportion in the same subject, but never in the same respect. I give for an example a very little man buckled to a long toledo:5 considering the man and the sword with respect to size, we perceive a disproportion: considering the sword as<347> the choice of the man, we perceive an impropriety.
The sense of impropriety with respect to mistakes, blunders, and absurdities, is evidently calculated for the good of mankind. In the spectators it is productive of mirth and laughter, excellent recreation in an interval from business. But this is a trifle compared to what follows. It is painful to be the subject of ridicule; and to punish with ridicule the man who is guilty of an absurdity, tends to put him more on his guard in time coming. It is well ordered that even the most innocent blunder is not committed with impunity; because, were errors licensed where they do no hurt, inattention would grow into habit, and be the occasion of much hurt.
The final cause of propriety as to moral duties, is of all the most illustrious. To have a just notion of it, the moral duties that respect others must be distinguished from those that respect ourselves. Fidelity, gratitude, and abstinence from injury, are examples of the first sort; temperance, modesty, firmness of mind, are examples of the other: the former are made duties by the sense of justice; the latter, by the sense of propriety. Here is a final cause of the sense of propriety, that will rouse our attention. It is undoubtedly the interest of every man, to suit his behaviour to the dignity of his nature, and to the station allotted him by Providence; for such rational conduct contributes<348> in every respect to happiness, by preserving health, by procuring plenty, by gaining the esteem of others, and, which of all is the greatest blessing, by gaining a justly-founded self-esteem. But in a matter so essential to our well-being, even self-interest is not relied on: the powerful authority of duty is superadded to the motive of interest. The God of nature, in all things essential to our happiness, hath observed one uniform method: to keep us steady in our conduct, he hath fortified us with natural laws and principles, preventive of many aberrations, which would daily happen were we totally surrendered to so fallible a guide as is human reason. Propriety cannot rightly be considered in another light, than as the natural law that regulates our conduct with respect to ourselves; as justice is the natural law that regulates our conduct with respect to others. I call propriety a law, no less than justice; because both are equally rules of conduct that ought to be obey’d: propriety includes that obligation; for to say an action is proper, is in other words to say, that it ought to be performed; and to say it is improper, is in other words to say, that it ought to be forborne. It is that very character of ought and should which makes justice a law to us; and the same character is applicable to propriety, tho’ perhaps more faintly than to justice: but the difference is in degree only, not in kind; and we ought, without hesita-<349>tion or reluctance, to submit equally to the government of both.
But I have more to urge upon that head. To the sense of propriety as well as of justice, are annexed the sanctions of rewards and punishments; which evidently prove the one to be a law as well as the other. The satisfaction a man hath in doing his duty, joined to the esteem and good-will of others, is the reward that belongs to both equally. The punishments also, tho’ not the same, are nearly allied; and differ in degree more than in quality. Disobedience to the law of justice is punished with remorse; disobedience to the law of propriety, with shame, which is remorse in a lower degree. Every transgression of the law of justice raises indignation in the beholder; and so doth every flagrant transgression of the law of propriety. Slighter improprieties receive a milder punishment: they are always rebuked with some degree of contempt, and frequently with derision. In general, it is true, that the rewards and punishments annexed to the sense of propriety, are slighter in degree than those annexed to the sense of justice: which is wisely ordered, because duty to others is still more essential to society, than duty to ourselves: society indeed could not subsist a moment, were individuals not protected from the headstrong and turbulent passions of their neighbours.
The final cause now unfolded of the sense of propriety, must, to every discerning eye, appear<350> delightful: and yet this is but a partial view; for that sense reaches another illustrious end, which is, in conjunction with the sense of justice to enforce the performance of social duties. In fact, the sanctions visibly contrived to compel a man to be just to himself, are equally serviceable to compel him to be just to others; which will be evident from a single reflection, That an action, by being unjust, ceases not to be improper: an action never appears more eminently improper, than when it is unjust: it is obviously becoming, and suitable to human nature, that each man do his duty to others; and accordingly every transgression of duty to others, is at the same time a transgression of duty to one’s self. This is a plain truth without exaggeration; and it opens a new and enchanting view in the moral landscape, the prospect being greatly enriched by the multiplication of agreeable objects. It appears now, that nothing is overlooked, nothing left undone, that can possibly contribute to the enforcing social duty; for to all the sanctions that belong to it singly, are superadded the sanctions of self-duty. A familiar example shall suffice for illustration. An act of ingratitude, considered in itself, is to the author disagreeable, as well as to every spectator: considered by the author with relation to himself, it raises self-contempt: considered by him with relation to the world, it makes him ashamed: considered by others, it raises their contempt and indignation<351> against the author. These feelings are all of them occasioned by the impropriety of the action. When the action is considered as unjust, it occasions another set of feelings: in the author it produces remorse, and a dread of merited punishment; and in others, the benefactor chiefly, indignation and hatred directed to the ungrateful person. Thus shame and remorse united in the ungrateful person, and indignation united with hatred in the hearts of others, are the punishments provided by nature for injustice. Stupid and insensible must he be, who, in a contrivance so exquisite, perceives not the benevolent hand of our Creator.6 <352>
[* ]Nec vero illa parva vis naturae est rationisque, quod unum hoc animal sentit quid sit ordo, quid sit quod deceat in factis dictisque, qui modus. Itaque eorum ipsorum, quae aspectu sentiuntur, nullum aliud animal, pulchritudinem, venustatem, convenientiam partium sentit. Quam similitudinem natura ratioque ab oculis ad animum transferens, multo etiam magis pulchritudinem, constantiam, ordinem, in consiliis factisque conservandum putat, cavetque ne quid indecorè effeminatève faciat; tum in omnibus et opinionibus et factis ne quid libidinosè aut faciat aut cogitet. Quibus ex rebus conflatur et efficitur id, quod quaerimus, honestum. Cicero de officiis, l. 1. [I.iv.14: “And it is no mean manifestation of Nature and Reason that man is the only animal that has a feeling for order, for propriety, for moderation in word and deed. And so no other animal has a sense of beauty, loveliness, harmony in the visible world; and Nature and Reason, extending the analogy of this from the world of sense to the world of spirit, find that beauty, consistency, order are far more to be maintained in thought and deed, and the same Nature and Reason are careful to do nothing in an improper or unmanly fashion, and in every thought and deed to do or think nothing capriciously. It is from these elements that is forged and fashioned that moral goodness which is the subject of this inquiry.”]
[* ]From many things that pass current in the world without being generally condemned, one at first view would imagine, that the sense of congruity or propriety hath scarce any foundation in nature; and that it is rather an artificial refinement of those who affect to distinguish themselves from others. The fulsome panegyrics bestow’d upon the great and opulent, in epistles dedicatory and other such compositions, would incline us to think so. Did there prevail in the world, it will be said, or did nature suggest, a taste of what is suitable, decent, or proper, would any good writer deal in such compositions, or any man of sense receive them without disgust? Can it be supposed, that Lewis XIV. of France was endued by nature with any sense of propriety, when, in a dramatic performance purposely composed for his entertainment, he suffered himself, publicly and in his presence, to be styled the greatest king ever the earth produced? [All of the operas by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–87) at the Palais Royal from 1673 to 1686 were preceded by a prologue glorifying Louis XlV. Similarly, Molière’s Le Malade Imaginaire, with ballet and entractes by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643–1704), ends its laudatory prologue with the words “Louis, Louis, Louis, the greatest of Kings.” Followers of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764) in the 1740s fiercely rejected such features and provoked bitter rivalry between supporters of French and Italian opera.] These it is true are strong facts; but luckily they do not prove the sense of propriety to be artificial: they only prove, that the sense of propriety is at times overpowered by pride and vanity; which is no singular case, for that sometimes is the fate even of the sense of justice.
[* ]In the chapter of beauty, qualities are distinguished into primary and secondary: and to clear some obscurity that may appear in the text, it is proper to be observed, that the same distinction is applicable to relations. Resemblance, equality, uniformity, proximity, are relations that depend not on us, but exist equally whether perceived or not; and upon that account may justly be termed primary relations. But there are other relations, that only appear such to us, and that have not any external existence like primary relations; which is the case of congruity, incongruity, propriety, impropriety: these may be properly termed secondary relations. Thus it appears from what is said in the text, that the secondary relations mentioned, arise from objects connected by some primary relation. Property is an example of a secondary relation, as it exists no where but in the mind. I purchase a field or a horse: the covenant makes the primary relation; and the secondary relation built on it, is property.
[1. ]Horace Ars Poetica 22: “That was meant to be a wine-jar, when the wheel first turned; why has it ended up as a pitcher?”
[* ]Contrary to this rule, the introduction to the third volume of the Characteristics, is a continued chain of metaphors: these in such profusion are too florid for the subject; and have beside the bad effect of removing our attention from the principal subject, to fix it upon splendid trifles. [Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713), philosopher and moralist, critic of Hobbes, friend of Locke, and much admired by Scottish thinkers. His Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times was published in 1711.]
[2. ]James Thomson (1700–1748): poet and dramatist. Born in Scotland, he moved to London, where several of his works were set to music.
[3. ]François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon (1651–1715): theologian, author and critic, archbishop of Cambrai. Télémaque (1699) is a prose narrative.
[* ]See act 1. sc. 2.
[4. ]A tavern or eating house where public meals are provided at a fixed price.
[* ]See chap. 7.
[* ]See chap. 3.
[5. ]A sword made at Toledo, Spain.
[6. ]First edition reads: “perceives not the hand of the Sovereign Architect.”