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With respect to the present undertaking, it is not the author's intention to compose a regular treatise upon each of the fine arts; but only, in general, to exhibit their fundamental principles, drawn from human nature, the true source of criticism. The fine arts are intended to entertain us, by making pleasant impressions; and, by that circumstance, are distinguished from the useful arts; but, in order to make pleasant impressions, we ought, as above hinted, to know what objects are naturally agreeable, and what naturally disagreeable. That subject is here attempted, as far as necessary for unfolding the genuine principles of the fine arts; and the author assumes no merit from his performance, but that of evincing, perhaps more distinctly than hitherto has been done, that these principles, as well as every just rule of criticism, are founded upon the sensitive part of our nature. What the author hath discovered or collected upon that subject, he chooses to impart in the gay and agreeable form of criticism; imagining that this form will be more relished, and perhaps be no less instructive, than a regular and laboured disquisition. His plan is, to ascend gradually to principles, from facts and experiments ; instead of beginning with the former, handled abstractedly, and descending to the latter. But, thongh criticism is thus his only declared aim, he will not disown, that all along it has been his view, to explain the Nature of Man, considered as a sensitive being capable of pleasure and pain : and, though he flatters himself with having made some progress in that important science, he is, however, too sensible of its extent and difficulty, to undertake it professedly, or to avow it as the chief purpose of the present work.
To censure works, not men, is the just prerogative of criticism; and accordingly all personal censure is here avoided, unless where necessary to illustrate some general proposition. No praise is claimed on that account; because censuring with a view merely to find fault, cannot be entertaining to any person of humanity. Writers, one should imagine, ought, above all others, to be reserved on that article, when they lie so open to retaliation. The author of this treatise, far from being confident of meriting no censure, entertains not even the slightest hope of such perfection. Amusement was at first the sole aim of his inquiries : proceeding from one particular to another, the subject grew under his hand ; and he was far advanced before the thought struck him, that his private meditations might be publicly useful. In public, however, he would not appear in a slovenly dress; and therefore he pretends not otherwise to apologise for his errors, than by observing, that in a new subject, no less nice than extensive, errors are in some measure unavoidable. Neither pretends he to justify his taste in every particular : that point must be extremely clear, which admits not variety of opinion; and in some matters susceptible of great refinement, time is perhaps the only infallible touch-stone of taste : to that he appeals, and to that he cheerfully submits.
N. B. THE ELEMENTS OF CRITICISM, meaning the whole, is a title too assuming for this work. A number of these elements or principles are here unfolded : but, as the author is far from imagining that he has completed the list, a more humble title is proper, such as may express any number of parts less than the whole. This he thinks is signified by the title he has chosen, viz. ELEMENTS OF CRITICISM.
ELEMENTS OF CRITICISM.
Perceptions and Ideas in a 'Frain.
A Man, while awake, is conscious of a continued train of perceptions and ideas passing in his mind. It requires no activity on his part to carry on the train.* At the same time, we learn from daily experience, that the train of our thoughts is not regulated by chance : and if it depend not upon will, nor upon chance, by what law is it governed ? The question is of importance in the science of human nature; and I promise beforehand, that it will be found of great importance in the fine arts.
* For how should this be done? what idea is it that we are to add? If we can specify the idea, that idea is already in the mind, and there is no occasion for any act of the will. If we cannot specify any idea, I next demand, how can a person will, or to what purpose, if there be nothing in view? We cannot form a conception of such a thing. If this argument need confirmation, I urge experience: whoever makes a trial will find, that ideas are linked together in the mind, forming a connected chain; and that we have not the command of any idea independeni of the chain,
It appears, that the relations by which things are linked together, have a great influence in directing the train of thought. Taking a view of external objects, their inherent properties are not more remarkable than the various relations that connect them together : Cause and effect, contiguity in time or in place, high and low, prior and posterior, resemblance, contrast, and a thousand other relations, connect things together without end. Not a single thing appears solitary and altogether devoid of connexion ; the only difference is, that some are intimately connected, sone more slightly; some near, some at a distance.
Experience will satisfy us of what reason makes probable, that the train of our thoughts is in a great measure regulated by the foregoing relations : an external object is no sooner presented to us in idea, than it suggests to the mind other objects to which it is related; and in that manner is a train of thoughts composed. Such is the law of succession; which must be natural, because it governs all human beings. The law, however, seems not to be inviolable: it sometimes happens that an idea arises in the mind, without any perceived connexion; as, for example, after a profound sleep.
But, though we cannot add to the train an unconnected idea, yet in a measure we can attend to some ideas, and dismiss others. There are few things but what are connected with many others; and when a thing thus connected becomes a subject of thought, it commonly suggests many of its connexions : among these a choice is afforded; we can insist upon one, rejecting others; and sometimes we insist on what is commonly held the slighter connexion. Where ideas are left to their natural course, they are continued through the strictest connexions: the mind extends its view to a son more readily than to a servant; and more readily to a neighbour than