From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia


  IT is a remarkable circumstance, that in almost all Christian countries, many of the public and popular amusements have been regarded as objectionable by the more sober and conscientious part of the community. This opinion could scarcely have been general unless it had been just: yet why should a people prefer amusements of which good men feel themselves compelled to disapprove? Is it because no public recreation can be devised of which the evil is not greater than the good? or because the inclinations of moat men are much that if it were devised, they would not enjoy it? It may be feared that the desires which are seeking for gratification are not themselves pure; and pure pleasures are not congenial to impure minds. The real cause of the objectionable nature of many popular diversions is to be sought in the want of virtue in the people.

  Amusement is confessedly a subordinate concern in life. It is neither the principal nor among the principal objects of proper solicitude. No reasonable man sacrifices the more important thing to the leas, and that a man’s religious and moral condition is of incomparably greater importance than his diversion, is sufficiently plain. In estimating the propriety or rather the lawfulness of a given amusement, it may safely be laid down, That none is lawful of which the aggregate consequences are injurious to morals: nor, if its effects upon the immediate agents are, in general, morally bad: nor, if it occasions needless pain and misery to men or to animals: nor, lastly, if it occupies much time, or is attended with much expense. Respecting all amusements, the question is not whether, in their simple or theoretical character, they are defensible, but whether they are defensible in their actually existing state.

  THE DRAMA. So that if a person, by way of showing the propriety of theatrical exhibitions, should ask whether there was any harm in a man’s repeating a composition before others and accompanying it with appropriate gestures, he would ask a very foolish question; because he would ask a question that possesses little or no relevancy to the subject, What are the ordinary effects of the stage upon those who act on it? One and one only answer can be given,—that whatever happy exceptions there may be, the effect is bad; that the moral and religious character of actors is lower than that of persons in other professions. “It is an undeniable fact, for the truth of which we may safely appeal to every age and nation, that the situation of the performers, particularly of those of the female sex, is remarkably unfavourable to the maintenance and growth of the religious and moral principle, and of course highly dangerous to their eternal interests.”1

  Therefore, if I take my seat in the theatre, I have paid three or five shillings as an inducement to a number of persons to subject their principles to extreme danger;—and the defence which I make is, that I am amused by it. Now we affirm that this defence is invalid; that it is a defence which reason pronounces to be absurd, and morality to be vicious. Yet I have no other to make: it is the sum total of my justification.

  But this, which is sufficient to decide the morality of the question, is not the only nor the chief part of the evil. The evil which is suffered by performers may be more intense, but upon spectators and others it is more extended. The night of a play is the harvest-time of iniquity, where the profligate and the sensual put in their sickles and reap. It is to no purpose to say that a man may go to a theatre or parade a saloon without taking part in the surrounding licentiousness. All who are there promote the licentiousness; for if none was there, there would be no licentiousness; that is to say, if none purchased tickets there would be neither actors to be depraved, nor dramas to vitiate, nor saloons to degrade, and corrupt, and shock us. The whole question of the lawfulness of the dramatic amusements, as they are ordinarily conducted, is resolved into a very simple thing:—after the doors on any given night are closed, have the virtuous or the vicious dispositions of the attenders been in the greater degree promoted? Every one knows that the balance is on the side of vice, and this conclusively decides the question,—“Is it lawful to attend?”

  The same question is to be asked, and the same answer I believe will he returned, respecting various other assemblies for purposes of amusement. They do more harm than good. They please, but they injure us; and what makes the case still stronger is, that the pleasure is frequently such as ought not be enjoyed. A tippler enjoys pleasure in becoming drunk, but he is not to allege the gratification as a set-off against the immorality. And so it is with no small portion of the pleasures of an assembly. Dispositions are gratified which it were wiser to thwart; and to speak the truth, if the dispositions of the mind were such as they ought to be, many of these modes of diversion would be neither relished nor resorted to. Some persons try to persuade themselves that charity forms a part of their motive in attending such places; as when the profits of the night are given to a benevolent institution. They hope, I suppose, that though it would not be quite right to go if benevolence were not a gainer, yet that the end warrants the means. But if these persons are charitable, let them give their guinea without deducting half for purposes of questionable propriety. Religions amusements, such as oratorios and the like, form one of those artifices of chicanery by which people cheat or try to cheat themselves. The music, say they, is sacred, is devotional; and we go to hear it as we go to church: it excites and animates our religious sensibilities. This, in spite of the solemnity of the association, is really ludicrous. These scenes subserve religion no more than they subserve chymistry. They do not increase its power any more than the power of the steam-engine. As it respects Christianity, it is all imposition and fiction; and it is unfortunate that some of the moat solemn topics of our religion are brought into such unworthy and debasing alliance.2

  MASQUERADES are of amore decided character. If the pleasure which people derive from meeting in disguises consisted merely in the “fun and drollery” of the thing, we might wonder to see so many children of five and six feet high, and leave them perhaps to their childishness:—but the truth is that to many the zest of the concealment consists in the opportunity which it gives of covert licentiousness; of doing that in secret of which openly they would profess to be ashamed. Some men and some women who affect propriety when the face is shown, are glad of a few hours of concealed libertinism. It is a time in which principles are left to guard the citadel of virtue without the auxiliary of public opinion. And ill do they guard it! It is no equivocal indication of the slender power of a person’s principles when they do not restrain him any longer than his misdeeds will produce exposure. She who is immodest at a masquerade, is modest nowhere. She may affect the language of delicacy and maintain external decorum, but she has no purity of mind.

  THE FIELD. If we proceed with the calculation of the benefits and mischiefs of field sports, in the merchant—like manner of debtor and creditor, the balance is presently found to be greatly against them. The advantages to him who rides after hounds and shoots pheasants, are—that he is amused, and possibly that his health is improved; some of the disadvantages are—that it is unpropitious to the influence of religion and the dispositions which religion induces; that it expends money and time which a man ought to be able to employ better; and that it inflicts gratuitous misery upon the inferior animals. The value of the pleasure cannot easily be computed; and as to health it may pass for nothing, for if a man is so little concerned for his health that he will not take exercise without dogs and guns, he has no reason to expect other men to concern themselves for it in remarking upon his actions. And then for the other side of the calculation.—That field sports have any tendency to make a man better, no one will pretend: and no one who looks around him will doubt that their tendency is in the opposite direction. It is not necessary to show that every one who rides after the dogs is a worse man in the evening than he was in the morning: the influence of such things is to be sought in those with whom they are habitual. Is the character of the sportsman, then, distinguished by religions sensibility? No. By activity of benevolence? No. By intellectual exertion? No. By purity of manners! No. Sportsmen are not the persons who diffuse the light of Christianity, or endeavour to rectify the public morals, or to extend the empire of knowledge. Look again at the clerical sportsman. Is he usually as exemplary in the discharge of his functions as those who decline such diversions? His parishioners know that he is not. So, then, the religious and moral tendency of field sports is bad. It is not necessary to show how the ill effect is produced. It is sufficient that it actually is produced.

  As to the expenditure of time and money, I dare say we shall be told that a man has a right to employ both as he chooses. We have heretofore seen that he has no such right. Obligations apply just as truly to the mode of employing leisure and property, as to the use which a man may make of a pound of arsenic. The obligations are not indeed alike enforced in a court of justice: the misuser of arsenic is carried to prison, the misuser of time and money awaits as sure an inquiry at another tribunal. But no folly is more absurd than that of supposing we have a right to do whatever the law does not punish. Such is the state of mankind, so great is the amount of misery and degradation, and so great are the effects of money and active philanthropy in meliorating this condition of our species, that it is no light thing for a man to employ his time and property upon vain and needless gratifications. It is no light thing to keep a pack of hounds and to spend days and weeks in riding after them. As to the torture which field sports inflict upon animals, it is wonderful to observe our inconsistencies. He who has, in the day, inflicted upon half a dozen animals almost as much torture as they are capable of sustaining, and who has wounded perhaps half a dozen more and left them to die of pain or starvation, gives in the evening a grave reproof to his child whom he sees amusing himself with picking off the wings of flies! The infliction of pain is not that which gives pleasure to the sportsman (this were ferocious depravity), but he voluntarily inflicts the pain in order to please himself. Yet this man sighs and moralizes over thebe cruelty of children! An appropriate device for a sportsman’s dress, would be a pair of balances, of which one scale was laden with “virtue and humanity,” and the other with “sport;” the latter should be preponderating and lifting the other into the air.

  THE TURF is still worse, partly because it is a stronghold of gambling, and therefore an efficient cause of misery and wickedness. It is an amusement of almost unmingled evil. But upon whom is the evil chargeable? Upon the fifty or one hundred persons only who bring horses and make bets? No. Every man participates who attends the course. The great attraction of many public spectacles, and of this among others, consists more in the company than in the ostensible object of amusement. Many go to a race-ground who cannot tell when they return what horse has been the victor. Every one, therefore, who is present, must take his share of the mischief and the responsibility.

  It is the same with respect to the gross and vulgar diversions of boxing, wrestling, and feats of running and riding. There is the same almost pure and unmingled evil,—the same popularity resulting from the coneourses who attend, and by consequence, the participation and responsibility in those who do attend. The drunkenness, and the profaneness, and the debauchery, lie in part at the doors of those who are merely lookers on; and if these lookers on make pretensions to purity of character, their example is so much the more influential, and their responsibility tenfold increased. Defences of these gross amusements are ridiculous. One tells us of keeping up the national spirit, which is the same thing as to say that a human community is benefited by inducing into it the qualities of the bull-dog. Another expatiates upon invigorating the muscular strength of the poor, as if the English poor were under a little necessity to labour and to strengthen themselves by labour, that artificial means must be devised to increase their toil.

  The vicissitudes of folly are endless: the vulgar games of the present clay may soon be displaced by others, the same in genus but differing in species. At the present moment, wrestling has become the point of interest. A man is conveyed across the kingdom to try whether he can throw down another, and when he has done it, grave narratives of the feat are detailed in half the newspapers of the country! There is a grossness, a vulgarity, a want of mental elevation in these things, which might induce the man of intelligence to reprobate them even if the voice of morality were silent. They are remains of barbarism,—evidences that barbarism still maintains itself among us,—proofs that the higher qualities of our nature are not sufficiently dominant over the lower.

  These grossnesses will pass away, as the deadly conflicts of men with beasts are passed already. Our posterity will wonder at the barbarism of us their fathers, as we wonder at the barbarism of Rome. Let him then who loves intellectual elevation, advance beyond the present times, and anticipate, in the recreations which he encourages, that period when these diversions shall be regarded as indicating one of the intermediate stages between the ferociousness of mental darkness and the purity of mental light.


  These criticisms might be extended to many other species of amusement; and it is humiliating to discover that the conclusion will very frequently be the same,—that the evil out balances the good, and that there are no grounds upon which a good man can justify a participation in them. In thus concluding, it is possible that the reader may imagine that we would exclude enjoyment from the world, and substitute a system of irreproachable austerity. He who thinks this is unacquainted with the nature and sources of our better enjoyments. It is an ordinary mistake to imagine that pleasure is great only when it is vivid or intemperate, u a child fancies it were more delightful to devour a pound of sugar at once than to eat, an ounce daily in his food. It is happily and kindly provided that the greatest sum of enjoyment is, that which is quietly and constantly induced. No men understand the nature of pleasure so well or possess it so much as those who find it within their own doors. If it were not that moral education is so bad, multitudes would seek enjoyment and find it here, who now fancy that they never partake of pleasure except in scenes of diversion. It is unquestionably true, that no community enjoys life more than that which excludes all these amusements from its sources or enjoyment. We use therefore the language, not of speculation but or experience, when we say, that none of them is in any degree necessary to the happiness of life.

1 Wilberforce: Practical View, c.4, s.5.
2 See also Essay ii, c. 1.

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