Chapter 2a

The Influence of Custom on Morals

September 28, 2015

11 Our feelings on beauty are so much influenced by custom and fashion, that the beauty of conduct is also influenced. However, this influence seems much less than it is everywhere else.

  • Custom and fashion can make any physical thing agreeable, no matter how absurd.
  • But custom and fashion can never make a character like Nero or Claudius agreeable
    • Nero will always be dreaded and hated.
    • Claudius will always be scorned and derided.

Our sense of beauty depends on the principles of the imagination. These principles=

  • are of a very nice and delicate nature, and
  • may easily be altered by habit and education.

But the feelings of moral approbation are founded on the strongest feelings of human nature. They may be somewhat warped, but they cannot be entirely perverted.

12 The influence of custom and fashion on moral sentiments is not so great. However, it is perfectly similar to what it is everywhere else. When custom and fashion coincide with the natural principles of right and wrong, they=

  • heighten the delicacy of our feelings, and
  • increase our abhorrence for everything evil.

Whatever is inconsistent with moral rules is shocking to people who have been=

  • educated in really good company, and
  • accustomed to see only justice, modesty, humanity, and good order in the persons they esteemed and lived with.

On the contrary, those who were brought up in violence, licentiousness, falsehood, and injustice lose=

  • some sense of the impropriety of such conduct, and
  • all sense of=
    • its dreadful enormity, or
    • the vengeance and punishment due to it.

Custom has rendered it habitual to them. They regard it as the way of the world. It is something which may or must be practised to hinder us from being the dupes of our own integrity.

13 Fashion too will sometimes give reputation to a certain degree of disorder. On the contrary, it can disapprove of qualities which deserve esteem. In Charles II’s reign, a degree of licentiousness was the characteristic of a liberal education. According to those times, it=

  • was connected with generosity, sincerity, magnanimity, loyalty, and
  • proved that the person was a gentleman and not a puritan.

On the other hand, the severity of manners and regularity of conduct were altogether unfashionable. They were connected with cant, cunning, hypocrisy, and low manners. To superficial minds, the vices of the great seem always agreeable. They connect them with=

  • the splendour of fortune, and
  • many superior virtues which they ascribe to their superiors=
    • the spirit of freedom and independency, and
    • frankness, generosity, humanity, and politeness.

On the contrary, the following virtues of the inferior ranks of people seem mean and disagreeable to them=

  • their parsimonious frugality,
  • their painful industry,
  • their rigid adherence to rules.

They connect those virtues with=

  • the meanness of that inferior station, and
  • many great vices which they suppose, usually accompany the inferior ranks.

An example is an abject, cowardly, ill-natured, lying, pilfering disposition.

Ashrama Dharma

14 Men in the different professions and states of life are conversant in very different objects. These habituate them to very different feelings which then naturally create very different characters and manners. We expect those manners in each rank and profession. Experience has taught us that those manners belong to it.

In each species of things, we are pleased with the middle conformation which agrees exactly with the natural general standard of each. In each rank or species of men, we are pleased if their character is just right to their situation. We say that a man should look like his trade and profession. Yet the pedantry of every profession is disagreeable.

For the same reason, the different periods of life have different manners assigned to them.

  • We expect gravity and sedateness in old age. The infirmities, long experience, and worn-out sensibility of old age render these natural and respectable.
  • We expect to find sensibility, gaiety and sprightly vivacity in youth. Experience teaches us to expect these from the lively impressions that all interesting objects make on their tender and unpractised senses.

However, each of those two ages may easily have too much of their own peculiarities. Equally disagreeable are the=

  • flirting levity of youth, and
  • immovable insensibility of old age.

According to the common saying=

  • the young are most agreeable when in their behaviour there is something of the manners of the old
  • the old, when they retain something of the gaiety of the young.

However, either of them may easily have too much of the other’s manners. The extreme coldness and dull formality in youth, is ridiculous. The levity, carelessness, and vanity in old age, is contemptible.

15 Custom has led us to peculiar characters and manners appropriate to each rank and profession. These characters and manners sometimes have a propriety independent of custom. If we considered all the circumstances which naturally affect the characters and manners in each state of life, we should approve of their propriety for their own sakes. The propriety of a person’s behaviour does not depend on its suitableness to any one circumstance of his situation. It depends on all the circumstances which we feel should naturally call on his attention, when we bring his case home to ourselves.

We disapprove of a man who is so much occupied by any circumstance as to entirely neglect the rest, because it was not properly adjusted to all the circumstances of his situation. If his circumstance required his whole attention, his emotion perhaps would not exceed what we should= entirely sympathize with, and approve of.

A parent can privately express grief on the loss of an only son, without blame. But it would be unpardonable in an army general.

Glory and the public safety demanded so much of his attention.

Different objects should commonly occupy the attention of men of different professions.

Different passions should naturally become habitual to them. When we bring home their situation to ourselves, we must be sensible that every occurrence naturally affects them according to how their resulting emotions coincides or disagrees with their fixed habit and temper.

We cannot expect the same sensibility to a clergyman’s gay pleasures and amusements, with those of an officer. The clergyman cannot, with propriety, deliver messages of tidings with levity or indifference, because his job is= to keep people mindful of that awful futurity awaiting them, to announce the possible fatal consequences of deviations from the rules of duty, and to set the example of perfect conformity. His mind is supposed to be continually occupied with what is too grand and solemn. He cannot think of those frivolous objects thought of by the dissipated and the gay. Independent of custom, we readily feel that, = there is a propriety in the manners which custom has allotted to this profession, and The clergyman’s grave, austere and abstracted severity is most suitable in his character. These reflections are so very obvious. No one is so inconsiderate as not to have= made them at some time, and noticed his own approbation of the usual character of this order.

16 The foundation of the customary character of some other professions is not so obvious. Our approbation of it is founded entirely in habit.

For example, custom leads us to see the military profession as having gaiety, levity, and sprightly freedom and some dissipation. We would expect them instead to be serious because their lives are continually exposed to uncommon danger. But in reality, it is the constant fear of death that forces them to=

  • forget about it
  • wrap themselves up in careless indifference
  • plunge themselves into amusement and dissipation

A camp is not for a thoughtful or melancholy man. But the long exposure to continual danger depresses and exhausts the mind and renders it incapable of all happiness and enjoyment. And so, they lose all their anxiety through continual pleasures and amusements.

Whenever an officer is not exposed to any uncommon danger, he loses his character’s gaiety and dissipated thoughtlessness. The captain of a city guard is commonly as sober, careful, and penurious an animal as the rest of his fellow-citizens.

For the same reason, a long peace reduces the difference between the civil and the military character. Gaiety and dissipation then forms the usual character of military men. Custom then strongly connects this state to the military character. We despise any man incapable of acquiring it, because of his humour or situation. We laugh at the serious faces of a city guard, which so little resemble those of their profession.

They seem often=

  • ashamed of the regularity of their own manners
  • fond of affecting that levity which is unnatural to them, so that they will not be out of the fashion of their trade

Whatever is the deportment we have been used to see in a respectable order of men, becomes associated to that order, in our imagination. Whenever we see the one, we expect to see the other.


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