Essays and treatises: on several subjects. By David Hume, Esq; In four volumes. ... [pt.3]
Hume, David, 1711-1776.
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'TIS evident, that there is a principle of con|nexion between the different thoughts or ideas of the mind, and that in their appearance to the me|mory or imagination, they introduce each other with a certain degree of method and regularity. In our more serious thinking or discourse, this is so observ|able, that any particular thought, which breaks in upon this regular tract or chain of ideas, is immedi|ately remarked and rejected. And even in our wildest and most wandering reveries, nay in our very dreams, we shall find, if we reflect, that the imagination ran not altogether at adventures, but that there was still a connexion upheld among the different ideas, which succeeded each other. Were the loosest and freest conversation to be transcribed, there would immedi|ately be observed something, which connected it in all its transitions. Or where this is wanting, the per|son, who broke the thread of discourse, might still Page  30 inform you, that there had secretly revolved in his mind a succession of thought, which had gradually led him away from the subject of conversation. Among the languages of different nations, even where we cannot suspect the least connexion or communication, 'tis found, that the words, expressive of ideas, the most compounded, do yet nearly correspond to each other: A certain proof, that the simple ideas, com|prehended in the compound ones, were bound toge|ther by some universal principle, which had an equal influence on all mankind.

THO' it be too obvious to escape observation, that different ideas are connected together; I do not find, that any philosopher has attempted to enumerate or class all the principles of association; a subject, how|ever, that seems very worthy of curiosity. To me, there appear to be only three principles of connexion among ideas, viz. Resemblance, Contiguity in time or place, and Cause or Effect.

THAT these principles serve to connect ideas will not, I believe, be much doubted. A picture natu|rally leads our thoughts to the original*: The men|tion of one apartment in a building naturally intro|duces an enquiry or discourse concerning the others: And if we think of a wound, we can scarce forbear Page  31 reflecting on the pain which follows it*. But that this enumeration is compleat, and that there are no other principles of association, except these, may be difficult to prove to the satisfaction of the reader, or even to a man's own satisfaction. All we can do, in such cases, is to run over several instances, and exa|mine carefully the principle, which binds the different thoughts to each other, never stopping till we render the principle as general as possible. The more in|stances we examine, and the more care we employ, the more assurance shall we acquire, that the enume|ration, which we form from the whole, is compleat and entire. Instead of entering into a detail of this kind, which would lead into many useless subtilties, we shall consider some of the effects of this connexion upon the passions and imagination; where we may open a field of speculation more entertaining, and per|haps more instructive, than the other.

As man is reasonable being, and is continually in pursuit of happiness, which he hopes to attain by the gratification of some passion or affection, he sel|dom acts or speaks or thinks without a purpose and intention. He has still some object in view; and however improper the means may sometimes be, which he chuses for the attainment of his end, he never loses view of an end, nor will he so much as Page  32 throw away his thoughts or reflections, where he hopes not to reap any satisfaction from them.

IN all compositions of genius, therefore, 'tis requi|site that the writer have some plan or object; and tho' he may be hurried from this plan by the vehe|mence of thought, as in an ode, or drop it carelesly, as in an epistle or essay, there must appear some aim or intention, in his first setting out, if not in the composition of the whole work. A production with|out a design would resemble more the raving of a madman, than the sober efforts of genius and learn|ing.

As this rule admits of no exception, it follows, that in narrative compositions, the events or actions, which the writer relates, must be connected together, by some bond or tye: They must be related to each other in the imagination, and form a kind of Unity, which may bring them under one plan or view, and which may be the object or end of the writer in his first undertaking.

THIS connecting principle among the several events, which form the subject of a poem or history, may by very different, according to the different designs of the poet or historian. OVID has formed his plan up|on the connecting principle or resemblance. Every sabulous transformation, produced by the miraculous Page  33 power of the gods, falls within the compass of his work. There needs but this one circumstance in any event to bring it under his original plan or intention.

AN annalist or historian, who should undertake to write the history of EUROPE during any century, would be influenced by the connexion of contiguity in time and place. All events, which happen in that portion of space, and period of time, are compre|hended in his design, tho' in other respects different and unconnected. They have still a species of unity, amidst all their diversity.

BUT the most usual species of connexion among the different events, which enter into any narrative composition, is that of cause and effect: while the historian traces the series of actions according to their natural order, remounts to their secret springs and principles, and delineates their most remote conse|quences. He chuses for his subject a certain portion of that great chain of events, which compose the his|tory of mankind: Each link in this chain he endea|vours to touch in his narration: Sometimes unavoid|able ignorance renders all his attempts fruitless: Some|times, he supplies by conjecture what is wanting in knowledge: And always, he is sensible, that the more unbroken the chain is, which he presents to his read|ers, the more perfect is his production. He sees, that the knowledge of causes is not only the most sa|tisfactory; this relation or connexion being the strong|est Page  34 of all others; but also the most instructive; since it is by this knowlege alone, we are enabled to con|troul events, and govern futurity.

HERE therefore we may attain some notion of that Unity of Action, about which all critics, after ARI|STOTLE, have talked so much: Perhaps, to little purpose, while they directed not their taste or senti|ment by the accuracy of philosophy. It appears, that in all productions, as well as in the epic and tragic, there is a certain unity required, and that, on no occasion, can our thoughts be allowed to run at adventures, if we would produce a work, which will give any lasting entertainment to mankind. It ap|pears also, that even a biographer, who should write the life of ACHILLES, would connect the events, by shewing their mutual dependence and relation, as much as a poet, who should make the anger of that hero, the subject of his narration*. Not only in any limited portion of life, a man's actions have a depen|dance on each other, but also during the whole pe|riod of his duration, from the cradle to the grave; nor is it possible to strike off one link, however mi|nute, in this regular chain, without affecting the Page  35 whole series of events, which follow. The unity of action, therefore, which is to be found in biography or history, differs from that of epic poetry, not in kind, but in degree. In epic poetry, the connexion among the events is more close and sensible: The narration is not carried on thro' such a length of time: And the actors hasten to some remarkable pe|riod, which satisfies the curiosity of the reader. This conduct of the epic poet depends on that particular situation of the Imagination and of the Passions, which is supposed in that production. The imagination, both of writer and reader, is more enlivened, and the passions more enflamed than in history, biography, or any species of narration, which confine themselves to strict truth and reality. Let us consider the effect of these two circumstances, an enlivened imagination and enflamed passions, circumstances, which belong to poetry, especially the epic kind, above any other species of composition; and let us examine the reason why they require a stricter and closer unity in the fable.

FIRST. All poetry, being a species of painting, approaches us nearer to the objects than any other species of narration, throws a stronger light upon them, and delineates more distinctly those minute circumstances, which, tho' to the historian they seem supersluous, serve mightily to enliven the imagery, and gratify the fancy. If it be not necessary, as in Page  36 the Iliad, to inform us each time the hero buckles his shoes, and ties his garters, it will be requisite, per|haps, to enter into a greater detail than in the HEN|RIADE; where the events are run over with such ra|pidity, that we scarce have leisure to become acquaint|ed with the scene or action. Were a poet, therefore, to comprehend in his subject any great compass of time or series of events, and trace up the death of HECTOR to its remote causes, in the rape of HELEN, or the judgment of PARIS, he must draw out his poem to an immeasurable length, in order to fill this large canvas with just painting and imagery. The reader's imagination, enflamed with such a series of poetical descriptions, and his passions, agitated by a continual sympathy with the actors, must flag long before the period of the narration, and must sink into lassitude and disgust, from the repeated violence of the same movements.

SECONDLY. That an epic poet must not trace the causes to any great distance, will farther appear, if we consider another reason, which is drawn from a property of the passions still more remarkable and sin|gular. 'Tis evident, that in a just composition, all the affections, excited by the different events, described and represented, add mutual force to each other; and that while the heroes are all engaged in one common scene, and each action is strongly connected with the whole, the concern is continually awake, and the pass|ions Page  37 make an easy transition from one object to ano|ther. The strong connection of the events, as it fa|cilitates the passage of the thought or imagination from one to another, facilitates also the transfusion of the passions, and preserves the affections still in the same channel and direction. Our sympathy and con|cern for EVE prepares the way for a like sympathy with ADAM: The affection is preserved almost entire in the transition; and the mind seizes immediately the new object as strongly related to that which for|merly engaged its attention. But were the poet to make a total digression from his subject, and intro|duce a new actor, no way connected with the per|sonages, the imagination, feeling a breach in the tran|sition, would enter coldly into the new scene; would kindle by flow degrees; and in returning to the main subject of the poem, would pass, as it were, upon foreign ground, and have its concern to excite anew, in order to take party with the principal actors. The same inconvenience follows in a less degree, where the poet traces his events to too great a distance, and binds together actions, which tho' not entirely dis|joined, have not so strong a connexion as is requisite to forward the transition of the passions. Hence arises the artifice of the oblique narration, employed in the Odyssey AND Aeneid; where the hero is introduced, at first, near the period of his designs, and afterwards shows us, as it were in perspective, the more distant Page  38 events and causes. By this means, the reader's curi|osity is immediately excited: The events follow with rapidity, and in a very close connexion: And the concern is preserved alive, and, by means of the near relation of the objects, continually increases, from the beginning to the end of the narration.

THE same rule takes place in dramatic poetry; nor is it ever permitted, in a regular composition, to introduce an actor, who has no connexion, or but a small one, with the principal personages of the fable. The spectator's concern must not be diverted by any scenes, disjoined and separated from the rest. This breaks the course of the passions, and prevents that communication of the several emotions, by which one scene adds force to another, and transfuses the pity and terror, which it excites, upon each succeeding scene, 'till the whole produces that rapidity of move|ment, which is peculiar to the theatre. How must it extinguish this warmth of affection to be enter|tained, on a sudden, with a new action and new per|sonages, no way related to the former; to find so sensible a breach or vacuity in the course of the pas|sions, by means of this breach in the connexion of ideas; and instead of carrying the sympathy of one scene into the following, to be obliged every moment, to excite a new concern, and take party in a new scene of action?

Page  39 BUT tho' this rule of unity of action be common to dramatic and epic poetry; we may still observe a difference between them, which may, perhaps, de|serve our attention. In both these species of compo|sition, 'tis requisite that the action be one and simple, in order to preserve the concern or sympathy entire and undiverted: But in epic or narrative poetry, this rule is also established upon another foundation, viz. the necessity, that is incumbent on every writer, to form some plan or design, before he enter on any discourse or narration, and to comprehend his subject in some general aspect or united view, which may be the constant object of his attention. As the author is entirely lost in dramatic compositions, and the spec|tator supposes himself to be really present at the ac|tions represented; this reason has no place with re|gard to the stage; but any dialogue or conversation may be introduced, which, without improbability, might have passed in that determinate portion of space, represented by the theatre. Hence in all our ENG|LISH comedies, even those of CONGREVE, the unity of action is never strictly observed; but the poet thinks is sufficient, if his personages be any way re|lated to each other, by blood, or by living in the same family; and he afterwards introduces them in particular scenes, where they display their humours and characters, without much forwarding the main action. The double plots of TERENCE are licences of the Page  40 same kind; but in a less degree. And tho' this con|duct be not perfectly regular, it is not wholly unsuit|able to the nature of comedy, where the movements and passions are not raised to such a height as in tra|gedy; at the same time, that the fiction or represen|tation palliates, in some measure, such licences. In a narrative poem, the first proposition or design con|fines the author to one subject; and any digressions of this nature would, at first view, be rejected, as absurd and monstrous. Neither BOCCACE, LA FON|TAINE, nor any author of that kind, tho' pleasantry be their chief object, have ever indulged them.

To return to the comparison of history and epic poetry, we may conclude, from the foregoing rea|sonings, that as a certain unity is requisite in all pro|ductions, it cannot be wanting to history more than to any other; that in history, the connexion among the several events, which unites them into one body, is the relation of cause and effect, the same which takes place in epic poetry; and that in the latter com|position, this connexion is only required to be closer and more sensible, on account of the lively imagina|tion and strong passions, which must be touched by the poet in his narration. The PELEPONNESIAN war is a proper subject for history, the siege of ATHENS for an epic poem, and the death of ALCI|BIADES for a tragedy.

Page  41 As the difference, therefore, between history and epic poetry consists only in the degrees of connexion, which bind together those several events, of which their subject is composed, 'twill be difficult, if not impossible, by words, to determine exactly the bounds which separate them from each other. That is a matter of taste more than of reasoning; and perhaps, this unity may often be discovered in a subject, where, at first view, and from an abstract consideration, we should least expect to find it.

'TIS evident, that HOMER, in the course of his narration, exceeds the first proposition of his subject; and that the anger of ACHILLES, which caused the death of HECTOR, is not the same with that which produced so many ills to the GREEKS. But the strong connexion between those two movements, the quick transition from one to another, the contrast* between the effects of concord and discord among the princes, and the natural curiosity which we have to see A|CHILLES in action, after such long repose; all these causes carry on the reader, and produce a sufficient unity in the subject.

Page  42 IT may be objected to MILTON, that he has traced up his causes to too great a distance, and that the re|bellion of the angles produces the fall of man by a train of events, which is both very long and very ca|sual. Not to mention that the creation of the world, which he has related at length, is no more the cause of that catastrophe, than of the battle of PHARSALIA, or any other event, that has ever happened. But if we consider, on the other hand, that all these events, the rebellion of the angels, the creation of the world, and the fall of man, resemble each other, in being miraculous and out of the common course of nature; that they are supposed to be contiguous in time; and that being detached from all other events, and being the only original facts, which revelation dis|covers, they strike the eye at once, and naturally re|call each other to the thought or imagination: If we consider all these circumstances, I say, we shall find, that these parts of the action have a sufficient unity to make them be comprehended in one fable or nar|ration. To which we may add, that the rebellion of the angels and the fall of man have a peculiar re|semblance, as being counterparts to each other, and presenting to the reader the same moral, of obedi|ence to our Creator.

THESE loose hints I have thrown together, in or|der to excite the curiosity of philosophers, and beget a suspicion at least, if not a full persuasion, that this Page  43 subject is very copious, and that many operations of the human mind depend on the connexion or associa|tion of ideas, which is here explained. Particularly, the sympathy between the passions and imagination will, perhaps, appear remarkable; while we observe that the affections, excited by one object, pass easily to another connected with it; but transfuse them|selves with difficulty, or not at all, along different objects, which have no manner of connexion toge|ther. By introducing, into any composition, per|sonages and actions, foreign to each other, an injudi|cious author loses that communication of emotions, by which alone he can interest the heart, and raise the passions to their proper height and period. The full explication of this principle and all its conse|quences would lead us into reasonings too profound and too copious for this enquiry. 'Tis sufficient, at present, to have established this conclusion, that the three connecting principles of all ideas are the rela|tions of Resemblance, Contiguity, and Causation.