Chap. VI. The Effect Which an Early Association of Ideas Has
upon the Character.
EDUCATED in the enervating
style recommended by the writers on whom I have been animadverting; and not
having a chance, from their subordinate state in society, to recover their lost
ground, is it surprising that women every where appear a defect in nature? Is
it surprising, when we consider what a determinate effect an early association
of ideas has on the character, that they neglect their understandings, and turn
all their attention to their persons?
The great advantages which naturally result from storing the mind with
knowledge, are obvious from the following considerations. The association of
our ideas is either habitual or instantaneous; and the latter mode seems rather
to depend on the original temperature of the mind than on the will. When the
ideas, and matters of fact, are once taken in, they lie by for use, till some
fortuitous circumstance makes the information dart into the mind with
illustrative force, that has been received at very different periods of our
lives. Like the lightning's flash are many recollections; one idea assimilating
and explaining another, with astonishing rapidity. I do not now allude to that
quick perception of truth, which is so intuitive that it baffles research, and
makes us at a loss to determine whether it is reminiscence or ratiocination,
lost sight of in its celerity, that opens the dark cloud. Over those
instantaneous associations we have little power; for when the mind is once
enlarged by excursive flights, or profound reflection, the raw materials will,
in some degree, arrange themselves. The understanding, it is true, may keep us
from going out of drawing when we group our thoughts, or transcribe from the
imagination the warm sketches of fancy; but the animal spirits, the individual
character, give the colouring. Over this subtile electric fluid,1
how little power do we possess, and over it how little power can reason obtain!
These fine intractable spirits appear to be the essence of genius, and beaming
in its eagle eye, produce in the most eminent degree the happy energy of
associating thoughts that surprise, delight, and instruct. These are the
glowing minds that concentrate pictures for their fellow-creatures; forcing
them to view with interest the objects reflected from the impassioned
imagination, which they passed over in nature.
I must be allowed to explain myself. The generality of people cannot see or
feel poetically, they want fancy, and therefore fly from solitude in search of
sensible objects; but when an author lends them his eyes they can see as he
saw, and be amused by images they could not select, though lying before them.
Education thus only supplies the man of genius with knowledge to give
variety and contrast to his associations; but there is an habitual association
of ideas, that grows 'with our growth,' which has a great effect on the moral
character of mankind; and by which a turn is given to the mind that commonly
remains throughout life. So ductile is the understanding, and yet so stubborn,
that the associations which depend on adventitious circumstances, during the
period that the body takes to arrive at maturity, can seldom be disentangled by
reason. One idea calls up another, its old associate, and memory, faithful to
the first impressions, particularly when the intellectual powers are not
employed to cool our sensations, retraces them with mechanical exactness.
This habitual slavery, to first impressions, has a more baneful effect on
the female than the male character, because business and other dry employments
of the understanding, tend to deaden the feelings and break associations that
do violence to reason. But females, who are made women of when they are mere
children, and brought back to childhood when they ought to leave the go-cart
for ever, have not sufficient strength of mind to efface the superinductions of
art that have smothered nature.
Every thing that they see or hear serves to fix impressions, call forth
emotions, and associate ideas, that give a sexual character to the mind. False
notions of beauty and delicacy stop the growth of their limbs and produce a
sickly soreness, rather than delicacy of organs; and thus weakened by being
employed in unfolding instead of examining the first associations, forced on
them by every surrounding object, how can they attain the vigour necessary to
enable them to throw off their factitious character? — where find strength
to recur to reason and rise superiour to a system of oppression, that blasts
the fair promises of spring? This cruel association of ideas, which every thing
conspires to twist into all their habits of thinking, or, to speak with more
precision, of feeling, receives new force when they begin to act a little for
themselves; for they then perceive that it is only through their address to
excite emotions in men, that pleasure and power are to be obtained. Besides,
the books professedly written for their instruction, which make the first
impression on their minds, all inculcate the same opinions. Educated then in
worse than Egyptian bondage, it is unreasonable, as well as cruel, to upbraid
them with faults that can scarcely be avoided, unless a degree of native vigour
be supposed, that falls to the lot of very few amongst mankind.
For instance, the severest sarcasms have been levelled against the sex, and
they have been ridiculed for repeating 'a set of phrases learnt by rote,' when
nothing could be more natural, considering the education they receive, and that
their 'highest praise is to obey, unargued' — the will of man. If they are
not allowed to have reason sufficient to govern their own conduct — why,
all they learn — must be learned by rote! And when all their ingenuity is
called forth to adjust their dress, 'a passion for a scarlet coat,' is so
natural, that it never surprised me; and, allowing Pope's summary of their
character to be just, 'that every woman is at heart a rake,' why should they be
bitterly censured for seeking a congenial mind, and preferring a rake to a man
Rakes know how to work on their sensibility, whilst the modest merit of
reasonable men has, of course, less effect on their feelings, and they cannot
reach the heart by the way of the understanding, because they have few
sentiments in common.
It seems a little absurd to expect women to be more reasonable than men in
their likings, and still to deny them the uncontrouled use of reason.
When do men fall-in-love with sense? When do they, with their superiour
powers and advantages, turn from the person to the mind? And how can they then
expect women, who are only taught to observe behaviour, and acquire manners
rather than morals, to despise what they have been all their lives labouring to
attain? Where are they suddenly to find judgment enough to weigh patiently the
sense of an awkward virtuous man, when his manners, of which they are made
critical judges, are rebuffing, and his conversation cold and dull, because it
does not consist of pretty repartees, or well turned compliments? In order to
admire or esteem any thing for a continuance, we must, at least, have our
curiosity excited by knowing, in some degree, what we admire; for we are unable
to estimate the value of qualities and virtues above our comprehension. Such a
respect, when it is felt, may be very sublime; and the confused consciousness
of humility may render the dependent creature an interesting object, in some
points of view; but human love must have grosser ingredients; and the person
very naturally will come in for its share — and, an ample share it mostly
Love is, in a great degree, an arbitrary passion, and will reign, like some
other stalking mischiefs, by its own authority, without deigning to reason; and
it may also be easily distinguished from esteem, the foundation of friendship,
because it is often excited by evanescent beauties and graces, though to give
an energy to the sentiment, something more solid must deepen their impression
and set the imagination to work, to make the most fair — the first good.
Common passions are excited by common qualities. — Men look for beauty
and the simper of good-humoured docility: women are captivated by easy manners;
a gentleman-like man seldom fails to please them, and their thirsty ears
eagerly drink the insinuating nothings of politeness, whilst they turn from the
unintelligible sounds of the charmer — reason, charm he never so wisely.
With respect to superficial accomplishments, the rake certainly has the
advantage; and of these females can form an opinion, for it is their own
ground. Rendered gay and giddy by the whole tenor of their lives, the very
aspect of wisdom, or the severe graces of virtue, must have a lugubrious
appearance to them; and produce a kind of restraint from which they and love,
sportive child, naturally revolt. Without taste, excepting of the lighter kind,
for taste is the offspring of judgment, how can they discover that true beauty
and grace must arise from the play of the mind? and how can they be expected to
relish in a lover what they do not, or very imperfectly, possess themselves?
The sympathy that unites hearts, and invites to confidence, in them is so very
faint, that it cannot take fire, and thus mount to passion. No, I repeat it,
the love cherished by such minds, must have grosser fuel.
The inference is obvious; till women are led to exercise their
understandings, they should not be satirized for their attachment to rakes; nor
even for being rakes at heart, when it appears to be the inevitable consequence
of their education. They who live to please — must find their enjoyments,
their happiness, in pleasure! It is a trite, yet true remark, that we never do
any thing well, unless we love it for its own sake.
Supposing, however, for a moment, that women were, in some future revolution
of time, to become, what I sincerely wish them to be, even love would acquire
more serious dignity, and be purified in its own fires; and virtue giving true
delicacy to their affections, they would turn with disgust from a rake.
Reasoning then, as well as feeling, the only province of woman, at present,
they might easily guard against exteriour graces, and quickly learn to despise
the sensibility that had been excited and hackneyed in the ways of women, whose
trade was vice; and allurements, wanton airs. They would recollect that the
flame, one must use appropriated expressions, which they wished to light up,
had been exhausted by lust, and that the sated appetite losing all relish for
pure and simple pleasures, could only be roused by licentious arts or variety.
What satisfaction could a woman of delicacy promise herself in a union with
such a man, when the very artlessness of her affection might appear insipid?
Thus does Dryden describe the situation,
——— 'Where love is duty, on the female side,
'On theirs mere sensual gust, and sought with surly pride.'
But one grand truth women have yet to learn, though much it imports them to
act accordingly. In the choice of a husband, they should not be led astray by
the qualities of a lover — for a lover the husband, even supposing him to
be wise and virtuous, cannot long remain.
Were women more rationally educated, could they take a more comprehensive
view of things, they would be contented to love but once in their lives; and
after marriage calmly let passion subside into friendship — into that
tender intimacy, which is the best refuge from care; yet is built on such pure,
still affections, that idle jealousies would not be allowed to disturb the
discharge of the sober duties of life, nor to engross the thoughts that ought
to be otherwise employed. This is a state in which many men live; but few, very
few women. And the difference may easily be accounted for, without recurring to
a sexual character. Men, for whom we are told women were made, have too much
occupied the thoughts of women; and this association has so entangled love with
all their motives of action; and, to harp a little on an old string, having
been solely employed either to prepare themselves to excite love, or actually
putting their lessons in practice, they cannot live without love. But, when a
sense of duty, or fear of shame, obliges them to restrain this pampered desire
of pleasing beyond certain lengths, too far for delicacy, it is true, though
far from criminality, they obstinately determine to love, I speak of the
passion, their husbands to the end of the chapter — and then acting the
part which they foolishly exacted from their lovers, they become abject wooers,
and fond slaves.
Men of wit and fancy are often rakes; and fancy is the food of love. Such
men will inspire passion. Half the sex, in its present infantile state, would
pine for a Lovelace; a man so witty, so graceful, and so valiant: and can they
deserve blame for acting according to principles so constantly
inculcated? They want a lover, and protector; and, behold him kneeling before
them — bravery prostrate to beauty! The virtues of a husband are thus
thrown by love into the back ground, and gay hopes, or lively emotions, banish
reflection till the day of reckoning comes; and come it surely will, to turn
the sprightly lover into a surly suspicious tyrant, who contemptuously insults
the very weakness he fostered. Or, supposing the rake reformed, he cannot
quickly get rid of old habits. When a man of abilities is first carried away by
his passions, it is necessary that sentiment and taste varnish the enormities
of vice, and give a zest to brutal indulgences; but when the gloss of novelty
is worn off, and pleasure palls upon the sense, lasciviousness becomes
barefaced, and enjoyment only the desperate effort of weakness flying from
reflection as from a legion of devils. Oh! virtue thou art not an empty name!
All that life can give — thou givest!
If much comfort cannot be expected from the friendship of a reformed rake of
superiour abilities, what is the consequence when he lacketh sense, as well as
principles? Verily misery, in its most hideous shape. When the habits of weak
people are consolidated by time, a reformation is barely possible; and actually
makes the beings miserable who have not sufficient mind to be amused by
innocent pleasure; like the tradesman who retires from the hurry of business,
nature presents to them only a universal blank; and the restless thoughts prey
on the damped spirits.2 Their reformation,
as well as his retirement, actually makes them wretched because it deprives
them of all employment, by quenching the hopes and fears that set in motion
their sluggish minds.
If such is the force of habit; if such is the bondage of folly, how
carefully ought we to guard the mind from storing up vicious associations; and
equally careful should we be to cultivate the understanding, to save the poor
wight from the weak dependent state of even harmless ignorance. For it is the
right use of reason alone which makes us independent of every thing —
excepting the unclouded Reason — 'whose service is perfect freedom.'
1. I have sometimes, when inclined to laugh
at materialists, asked whether, as the most powerful effects in nature, are
apparently produced by fluids, the magnetic, &c. the passions might not be
fine volatile fluids that embraced humanity, keeping the more refractory
elementary parts together — or whether they were simply a liquid fire that
pervaded the more sluggish materials, giving them life and heat?
2. I have frequently seen this exemplified
in women, whose beauty could no longer be repaired. They have retired from the
noisy scenes of dissipation; but, unless they became methodists, the solitude
of the select society of their family connexions or acquaintance, has presented
only a fearful void; consequently, nervous complaints, and all the vapourish
train of idleness, rendered them quite as useless, and far more unhappy, than
when they joined the giddy throng.
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