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A Defence of Poetry and Other Essays eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 86 pages of information about A Defence of Poetry and Other Essays.
she knew that she would speedily perish, rather than betray the conspirators to the tyrant [Footnote:  Tacitus.]; these illustrious persons certainly made a small estimate of their private interest.  If it be said that they sought posthumous fame; instances are not wanting in history which prove that men have even defied infamy for the sake of good.  But there is a great error in the world with respect to the selfishness of fame.  It is certainly possible that a person should seek distinction as a medium of personal gratification.  But the love of fame is frequently no more than a desire that the feelings of others should confirm, illustrate, and sympathize with, our own.  In this respect it is allied with all that draws us out of ourselves.  It is the ’last infirmity of noble minds’.  Chivalry was likewise founded on the theory of self-sacrifice.  Love possesses so extraordinary a power over the human heart, only because disinterestedness is united with the natural propensities.  These propensities themselves are comparatively impotent in cases where the imagination of pleasure to be given, as well as to be received, does not enter into the account.  Let it not be objected that patriotism, and chivalry, and sentimental love, have been the fountains of enormous mischief.  They are cited only to establish the proposition that, according to the elementary principles of mind, man is capable of desiring and pursuing good for its own sake.

JUSTICE

The benevolent propensities are thus inherent in the human mind.  We are impelled to seek the happiness of others.  We experience a satisfaction in being the authors of that happiness.  Everything that lives is open to impressions or pleasure and pain.  We are led by our benevolent propensities to regard every human being indifferently with whom we come in contact.  They have preference only with respect to those who offer themselves most obviously to our notice.  Human beings are indiscriminating and blind; they will avoid inflicting pain, though that pain should be attended with eventual benefit; they will seek to confer pleasure without calculating the mischief that may result.  They benefit one at the expense of many.

There is a sentiment in the human mind that regulates benevolence in its application as a principle of action.  This is the sense of justice.  Justice, as well as benevolence, is an elementary law of human nature.  It is through this principle that men are impelled to distribute any means of pleasure which benevolence may suggest the communication of to others, in equal portions among an equal number of applicants.  If ten men are shipwrecked on a desert island, they distribute whatever subsistence may remain to them, into equal portions among themselves.  If six of them conspire to deprive the remaining four of their share, their conduct is termed unjust.

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