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And telling me, the sov'reignest thing on earth
First Part, Henry IV. Act I. Sc. 4.
Passions and emotions are also inflamed by comparison. A man of high rank humbles the bystanders, even to annihilate them in their own opinion: Cæsar, beholding the statue of Alexander, was greatly mortified, that now at the age of thirty-two when Alexander died, he had not performed one memorable action.
Our opinions also are much influenced by comparison. A man whose opulence exceeds the ordinary standard, is reputed richer than he is in reality; and wisdom or weakness, if at all remarkable in an individual, is generally carried beyond the truth.
The opinion a man forms of his present distress is heightened by contrasting it with his former happiness.
Could I forget
Southern's Innocent Adultery, Act II.
The distress of a long journey makes even an indifferent inn agreeable : and in travelling, when the road is good, and the horseman well covered, a bad day may be
agreeable by making him sensible how snug he is.
The same effect is equally remarkable, when a man opposes his condition to that of others. A ship tossed about VOL. I.
in a storm, makes the spectator reflect upon his own ease and security, and puts these in the strongest light:
Suave, mari magno turbantibus æquora ventis,
Lucret. l. 2. principio.
A man in grief cannot bear mirth: it gives him a more lively notion of his unhappiness, and of course make him more unhappy. Satan contemplating the beauties of the terrestrial paradise, has the following exclamation:
With what delight could I have walk'd thee round,
state. Paradise Lost, book ix. l. 114.
Gaunt. All places that the eye of heaven visits,
To lie that way thou go’st, not whence thou com’st.
Bolingbroke. Oh, who can hold a fire in his hand,
King Richard II. Act I. Sc. 6.
The appearance of danger gives sometimes pleasure, sometimes pain. A timorous person upon the battlements of a high tower, is seized with fear, which even the consciousness of security cannot dissipate. But upon one of a firm head, this situation has a contrary effect: the appearance of danger heightens, by opposition, the consciousness of security, and consequently, the satisfaction that arises from security: here the feeling resembles that above mentioned, occasioned by a ship labouring in a storm.
The effect of magnifying or lessening objects by means of comparison, is so familiar, that no philosopher has thought of searching for a cause.* The obscurity of the object may possibly have contributed to their silence; but luckily, we discover the cause to be a principle unfolded above, which is, the influence of passion, over our opinions.* We have had occasion to see many illustrious effects of that singular power of passion; and that the magnifying or diminishing objects by means of comparison, proceeds from the same cause, will evidently appear, by reflecting in what manner a spectator is affected, when a very large animal is for the first time placed beside a very small one of the same species. The first thing that strikes the mind, is the difference between the two animals, which is so great as to occasion surprise ; and this, like other emotions, magnifying its object, makes us conceive the difference to be the greatest that can be : we see, or seem to see, the one animal extremely little, and the other extremely large. The emotion of surprise arising from any unusual resemblance, serves equally to explain, why at first view we are apt to think such resemblance more entire than it is in reality. And it must not escape observation, that the circumstances of more and less, which are the proper subjects of comparison, raise a perception so indistinct and vague as to facilitate the effect described : we have no mental standard of great and little, nor of the several degrees of any attribute; and the mind thus unrestrained, is naturally disposed to indulge its surprise to the utmost extent.
* Practical writers upon the fine arts will attempt any thing, being blind hoth to the difficulty and danger. De Piles, accounting why contrast is agreeable, says, "That it is a sort of war, which puts the opposite parties in - motion.” Thus, to account for an effect of which there is no doubt, any: cause, however foolish, is made welcome.
In exploring the operations of the mind, some of which are extremely nice and slippery, it is necessary to pro
with the utmost caution: and after all, seldom it happens that speculations of that kind afford any satisfaction. Luckily, in the present case, our speculations are supported by facts and solid argument. First, a small object of one species opposed to a great object of another, produces not, in any degree, that deception which is so remarkable when both objects are of the same species. The greatest disparity between objects of different kinds, is so common as to be observed with perfect indifference; but such disparity between objects of the same kind, being uncommon, never fails to produce surprise : and may we not fairly conclude, that surprise, in the latter case, is what occasions the deception, when we find no deception in the former? In the next place, if surprise be the sole cause of the deception, it follows necessarily, that the deception will vanish as soon as the objects compared become familiar. , This holds so unerringly, as to leave no reasonable doubt that surprise is the prime mover : our surprise is great the first time a small lap-dog is seen with a large mastiff; but when two such animals are constantly together, there is no surprise, and it makes no difference whether they be viewed separately or in company: we set no bounds to the riches of a man who has recently made his fortune, the surprising disproportion between his present and his past situation being carried to an extreme; but with regard to a family that for many generations bath enjoyed great wealth, the same false reckoning is not made: it is equally remarkable, that a trite simile has no effect; a lover compared to a moth scorching itself at the flame of a candle, originally a sprightly simile, has by frequent use lost all force ; love cannot now be compared to fire, without some degree of disgust: it has been justly objected against Homer, that the lion is too often introduced into his similes; all the variety he is able to throw into them, not being sufficient to keep alive the reader's surprise.
* Chapter ii. part v.