Hannah More

On dissipation

Doglie certe, allegrezze incerte!
   —Petrarca
[Certain pains, uncertain joys!]

As an argument in favour of modern manners, it has been pleaded, that the softer vices of Luxury and Dissipation, belong rather to gentle and yielding tempers, than to such as are rugged and ferocious: that they are vices which increase civilization, and tend to promote refinement, and the cultivation of humanity.

But this is an assertion, the truth of which the experience of all ages contradicts. Nero was not less a tyrant for being a fiddler: He* who wished the whole Roman people had but one neck, that he might dispatch them at a blow, was himself the most debauched man in Rome; and Sydney and Russel were condemned to bleed under the most barbarous, though most dissipated and voluptuous, reign that ever disgraced the annals of Britain.

*The Emperor Caligula.

The love of dissipation is, I believe, allowed to be the reigning evil of the present day. It is an evil which many content themselves with regretting, without seeking to redress. A dissipated life is censured in the very act of dissipation, and prodigality of time is as gravely declaimed against at the card table, as in the pulpit.

The lover of dancing censures the amusements of the theatre for their dulness, and the gamester blames them both for their levity. She, whose whole soul is swallowed up in “opera extacies” is astonished, that her acquaintance can spend whole nights in preying, like harpies, on the fortunes of their fellow-creatures; while the grave sober sinner, who passes her pale and anxious vigils, in this fashionable sort of pillaging, is no less surprised how the other can waste her precious time in hearing sounds for which she has no taste, in a language she does not understand.

In short, every one seems convinced, that the evil so much complained of does really exist somewhere, though all are inwardly persuaded that it is not with themselves. All desire a general reformation, but few will listen to proposals of particular amendment; the body must be restored, but each limb begs to remain as it is; and accusations which concern all, will be likely to affect none. They think that sin, like matter, is divisible, and that what is scattered among so many, cannot materially affect any one; and thus individuals contribute separately to that evil which they in general lament.

The prevailing manners of an age depend more than we are aware, or are willing to allow, on the conduct of the women; this is one of the principal hinges on which the great machine of human society turns. Those who allow the influence which female graces have, in contributing to polish the manners of men, would do well to reflect how great an influence female morals must also have on their conduct. How much then is it to be regretted, that the British ladies should ever sit down contented to polish, when they are able to reform, to entertain, when they might instruct, and to dazzle for an hour, when they are candidates for eternity!

Under the dispensation of Mahomet’s law, indeed, these mental excellencies cannot be expected, because the women are shut out from all opportunities of instruction, and excluded from the endearing pleasures of a delightful and equal society; and, as a charming poet sings, are taught to believe, that

For their inferior natures
Form’d to delight, and happy by delighting,
Heav’n has reserv’d no future paradise,
But bids them rove the paths of bliss, secure
Of total death, and careless of hereafter.
—Irene.

These act consistently in studying none but exterior graces, in cultivating only personal attractions, and in trying to lighten the intolerable burden of time, by the most frivolous and vain amusements. They act in consequence of their own blind belief, and the tyranny of their despotic masters; for they have neither the freedom of a present choice, nor the prospect of a future being.

But in this land of civil and religious liberty, where there is as little despotism exercised over the minds, as over the persons of women, they have every liberty of choice, and every opportunity of improvement; and how greatly does this increase their obligation to be exemplary in their general conduct, attentive to the government of their families, and instrumental to the good order of society!

She who is at a loss to find amusements at home, can no longer apologize for her dissipation abroad, by saying she is deprived of the benefit and the pleasure of books; and she who regrets being doomed to a state of dark and gloomy ignorance, by the injustice, or tyranny of the men, complains of an evil which does not exist.

It is a question frequently in the mouths of illiterate and dissipated females—“What good is there in reading? To what end does it conduce?” It is, however, too obvious to need insisting on, that unless perverted, as the best things may be, reading answers many excellent purposes beside the great leading one, and is perhaps the safest remedy for dissipation. She who dedicates a portion of her leisure to useful reading, feels her mind in a constant progressive state of improvement, whilst the mind of a dissipated woman is continually losing ground. An active spirit rejoiceth, like the sun, to run his daily course, while indolence, like the dial of Ahaz, goes backwards. The advantages which the understanding receives from polite literature, it is not here necessary to enumerate; its effects on the moral temper is the present object of consideration. The remark may perhaps be thought too strong, but I believe it is true, that next to religious influences, an habit of study is the most probable preservative of the virtue of young persons. Those who cultivate letters have rarely a strong passion for promiscuous visiting, or dissipated society; study therefore induces a relish for domestic life, the most desirable temper in the world for women. Study, as it rescues the mind from an inordinate fondness for gaming, dress, and public amusements, is an [oe]conomical propensity; for a lady may read at much less expence than she can play at cards; as it requires some application, it gives the mind an habit of industry; as it is a relief against that mental disease, which the French emphatically call ennui, it cannot fail of being beneficial to the temper and spirits, I mean in the moderate degree in which ladies are supposed to use it; as an enemy to indolence, it becomes a social virtue; as it demands the full exertion of our talents, it grows a rational duty; and when directed to the knowledge of the Supreme Being, and his laws, it rises into an act of religion.

The rage for reformation commonly shews itself in a violent zeal for suppressing what is wrong, rather than in a prudent attention to establish what is right; but we shall never obtain a fair garden merely by rooting up weeds, we must also plant flowers; for the natural richness of the soil we have been clearing will not suffer it to lie barren, but whether it shall be vainly or beneficially prolific, depends on the culture. What the present age has gained on one side, by a more enlarged and liberal way of thinking, seems to be lost on the other, by excessive freedom and unbounded indulgence. Knowledge is not, as heretofore, confined to the dull cloyster, or the gloomy college, but disseminated, to a certain degree, among both sexes and almost all ranks. The only misfortune is, that these opportunities do not seem to be so wisely improved, or turned to so good an account as might be wished. Books of a pernicious, idle, and frivolous sort, are too much multiplied, and it is from the very redundancy of them that true knowledge is so scarce, and the habit of dissipation so much increased.

It has been remarked, that the prevailing character of the present age is not that of gross immorality: but if this is meant of those in the higher walks of life, it is easy to discern, that there can be but little merit in abstaining from crimes which there is but little temptation to commit. It is however to be feared, that a gradual defection from piety, will in time draw after it all the bad consequences of more active vice; for whether mounds and fences are suddenly destroyed by a sweeping torrent, or worn away through gradual neglect, the effect is equally destructive. As a rapid fever and a consuming hectic are alike fatal to our natural health, so are flagrant immorality and torpid indolence to our moral well-being.

The philosophical doctrine of the slow recession of bodies from the sun, is a lively image of the reluctance with which we first abandon the light of virtue. The beginning of folly, and the first entrance on a dissipated life cost some pangs to a well-disposed heart; but it is surprising to see how soon the progress ceases to be impeded by reflection, or slackened by remorse. For it is in moral as in natural things, the motion in minds as well as bodies is accelerated by a nearer approach to the centre to which they are tending. If we recede slowly at first setting out, we advance rapidly in our future course; and to have begun to be wrong, is already to have made a great progress.

A constant habit of amusement relaxes the tone of the mind, and renders it totally incapable of application, study, or virtue. Dissipation not only indisposes its votaries to every thing useful and excellent, but disqualifies them for the enjoyment of pleasure itself. It softens the soul so much, that the most superficial employment becomes a labour, and the slightest inconvenience an agony. The luxurious Sybarite must have lost all sense of real enjoyment, and all relish for true gratification, before he complained that he could not sleep, because the rose leaves lay double under him.

Luxury and dissipation, soft and gentle as their approaches are, and silently as they throw their silken chains about the heart, enslave it more than the most active and turbulent vices. The mightiest conquerors have been conquered by these unarmed foes: the flowery setters are fastened, before they are felt. The blandishments of Circe were more fatal to the mariners of Ulysses, than the strength of Polypheme, or the brutality of the Læstrigons. Hercules, after he had cleansed the Augean stable, and performed all the other labours enjoined him by Euristheus, found himself a slave to the softnesses of the heart; and he, who wore a club and a lion’s skin in the cause of virtue, condescended to the most effeminate employments to gratify a criminal weakness. Hannibal, who vanquished mighty nations, was himself overcome by the love of pleasure; and he who despised cold, and want, and danger, and death on the Alps, was conquered and undone by the dissolute indulgences of Capua.

Before the hero of the most beautiful and virtuous romance that ever was written, I mean Telemachus, landed on the island of Cyprus, he unfortunately lost his prudent companion, Mentor, in whom wisdom is so finely personified. At first he beheld with horror the wanton and dissolute manners of the voluptuous inhabitants; the ill effects of their example were not immediate: he did not fall into the commission of glaring enormities; but his virtue was secretly and imperceptibly undermined, his heart was softened by their pernicious society; and the nerve of resolution was slackened: he every day beheld with diminished indignation the worship which was offered to Venus; the disorders of luxury and prophaneness became less and less terrible, and the infectious air of the country enfeebled his courage, and relaxed his principles. In short, he had ceased to love virtue long before he thought of committing actual vice; and the duties of a manly piety were burdensome to him, before he was so debased as to offer perfumes, and burn incense on the altar of the licentious goddess.*

*Nothing can be more admirable than the manner in which this allegory is conducted; and the whole work, not to mention its images, machinery, and other poetical beauties, is written in the very finest strain of morality. In this latter respect it is evidently superior to the works of the ancients, the moral of which is frequently tainted by the grossness of their mythology. Something of the purity of the Christian religion may be discovered even in Fenelon’s heathens, and they catch a tincture of piety in passing through the hands of that amiable prelate.

“Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they be withered,” said Solomon’s libertine. Alas! he did not reflect that they withered in the very gathering. The roses of pleasure seldom last long enough to adorn the brow of him who plucks them; for they are the only roses which do not retain their sweetness after they have lost their beauty.

The heathen poets often pressed on their readers the necessity of considering the shortness of life, as an incentive to pleasure and voluptuousness; lest the season for indulging in them should pass unimproved. The dark and uncertain notions, not to say the absolute disbelief, which they entertained of a future state, is the only apology that can be offered for this reasoning. But while we censure their tenets, let us not adopt their errors; errors which would be infinitely more inexcusable in us, who, from the clearer views which revelation has given us, shall not have their ignorance or their doubts to plead. It were well if we availed ourselves of that portion of their precept, which inculcates the improvement of every moment of our time, but not like them to dedicate the moments so redeemed to the pursuit of sensual and perishable pleasures, but to the securing of those which are spiritual in their nature, and eternal in their duration.

If, indeed, like the miserable beings* imagined by Swift, with a view to cure us of the irrational desire after immoderate length of days, we were condemned to a wretched earthly immortality, we should have an excuse for spending some portion of our time in dissipation, as we might then pretend, with some colour of reason, that we proposed, at a distant period, to enter on a better course of action. Or if we never formed any such resolution, it would make no material difference to beings, whose state was already unalterably fixed. But of the scanty portion of days assigned to our lot, not one should be lost in weak and irresolute procrastination.

*The Struldbrugs. See Voyage to Laputa.

Those who have not yet determined on the side of vanity, who, like Hercules, (before he knew the queen of Lydia, and had learnt to spin) have not resolved on their choice between virtue and pleasure, may reflect, that it is still in their power to imitate that hero in his noble choice, and in his virtuous rejection. They may also reflect with grateful triumph, that Christianity furnishes them with a better guide than the tutor of Alcides, and with a surer light than the doctrines of pagan philosophy.

It is far from my design severely to condemn the innocent pleasures of life: I would only beg leave to observe, that those which are criminal should never be allowed; and that even the most innocent will, by immoderate use, soon cease to be so.

The women of this country were not sent into the world to shun society, but to embellish it; they were not designed for wilds and solitudes, but for the amiable and endearing offices of social life. They have useful stations to fill, and important characters to sustain. They are of a religion which does not impose penances, but enjoins duties; a religion of perfect purity, but of perfect benevolence also. A religion which does not condemn its followers to indolent seclusion from the world, but assigns them the more dangerous, though more honourable province, of living uncorrupted in it. In fine, a religion, which does not direct them to fly from the multitude, that they may do nothing, but which positively forbids them to follow a multitude to do evil.

(1777)

MLA Citation

More, Hannah. “On dissipation.” 1777. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 20 Oct 2008. 17 Oct 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/more/dissipation/>.

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