The first chapter is a pleasing essay on the influence of custom and fashion on manners, dress, and in Fine Art generally. The second chapter makes the application to our moral sentiments. Although custom will never reconcile us to the conduct of a Nero or a Claudius, it will heighten or blunt the delicacy of our sentiments on right and wrong. The fashion of the times of Charles II. made dissoluteness reputable, and discountenanced regularity of conduct. There is a customary behaviour that we expect in the old and in the young, in the clergyman and in the military man. The situations of different ages and countries develop characteristic qualities—endurance in the savage, humanity and softness in the civilized community. But these are not the extreme instances of the principle. We find particular usages, where custom has rendered lawful and blameless actions, that shock the plainest principles of right and wrong; the most notorious and universal is infanticide.
Section I. is on Prudence, and is an elegant essay on the beau ideal of the prudential character. Section II. considers character as affecting other people. Chapter I. is a disquisition on the comparative priority of the objects of our regard. After self, which must ever have the first place, the members of our own family are recommended to our consideration. Remoter connexions of blood are more or less regarded according to the customs of the country; in pastoral countries clanship is manifested; in commercial countries distant relationship becomes indifferent. Official and business connexions, and the association of neighbourhood, determine friendships. Special estimation is a still preferable tie. Favours received determine and require favours in return. The distinction of ranks is so far founded in nature as to deserve our respect. Lastly, the miserable are recommended to our compassion. Next, as regards societies (Chap. II.), since our own country stands first in our regard, the author dilates on the virtues of a good citizen. Finally, although our effectual good offices may not extend beyond our country, our good-will may embrace the whole universe. This universal benevolence, however, the author thinks must repose on the belief in a benevolent and all-wise governor of the world, as realized, for example, in the meditations of Marcus Antoninus.
Section III. Of Self-command. On this topic the author produces a splendid moral essay, in which he describes the various modes of our self-estimation, and draws a contrast between pride and vanity. In so far as concerns his Ethical theory, he has still the same criterion of the virtue, the degree and mode commended by the impartial spectator.