Adam Smith's Simplified Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part 5, Chapter 1a: The Influence of custom on beauty
Chapter 1a: The Influence of customs on beauty
1 The principles of custom and fashion also have a considerable influence on mankind's moral sentiments.
- They are the chief causes of many irregular opinions in different ages and nations about what is blameable or praise-worthy.
- They dominate even our judgments concerning beauty.
2When two objects have frequently been seen together, the imagination acquires a habit of passing easily from the one to the other.
When there is any natural propriety in the union, custom increases our sense of it.
- If the first appears, we assume that the second will follow.
- They naturally put us in mind of one another.
- The attention glides easily along them.
- Even if there should be no real beauty in their union independent of custom, we feel an impropriety in their separation after custom has connected them.
- We think that the one is awkward without its usual companion.
- We miss something which we expected to find.
- The habitual arrangement of our ideas is disturbed by the disappointment.
- For example, a suit of clothes would seem to lack something if they are missing the most insignificant ornament that goes with it.
- We find an awkwardness even in the absence of a haunch button.
Where the conjunction is improper, custom reduces or removes our sense of the impropriety.
- Custom makes a different arrangement appear more disagreeable than normal.
- Those who have been accustomed to see things in a good taste are more disgusted by whatever is awkward.
- Those who have been accustomed to mess, lose all sense of neatness or elegance.
- The modes of furniture or dress which seem ridiculous to strangers, does not offend the people who are used to them.
3 Fashion is different from custom.
- Rather fashion is a particular species of custom.
- This fashion is not the one that everybody wears, but the one worn by people of a high rank or character.
- The graceful and commanding manners of the great, joined to the usual richness and magnificence of their dress, give a grace to the very form they bestow on it.
- As long as they continue to use this form, it is connected in our imaginations with the idea of something genteel and magnificent.
- Because of this relation, it seems to have something about it that is also genteel and magnificent too, even if it is indifferent in itself.
- As soon as they drop it, it loses all the grace it possessed before.
- Now being used only by the inferior ranks of people, it seems to have something of their meanness and awkwardness.
4 Everyone allows dress and furniture to be entirely under the dominion of custom and fashion.
- However, the influence of custom and fashion is not confined just to dress and furniture.
- It extends itself to whatever is the object of taste, music, poetry, architecture.
- The modes of dress and furniture are continually changing.
- The fashion appearing ridiculous today was admired five years ago.
- We are experimentally convinced that it owed its vogue chiefly or entirely to custom and fashion.
Clothes and furniture are not very durable.
- A well-fancied coat is worn out in a year.
- It cannot continue to be fashionable.
- The modes of furniture change less rapidly than those of dress because furniture is more durable.
- However, it generally undergoes an entire revolution in five or six years.
- Every man sees fashion change in many ways.
The productions of the other arts are much more lasting.
- When happily imagined, these may continue to be fashionable for a much longer time.
- A well-contrived building may endure many centuries.
- A beautiful air may be delivered down by tradition through many successive generations.
- A well-written poem may last as long as the world.
- All of them may continue for ages to give the vogue to their own style, taste or manner.
Few men see the fashion in these arts change very considerably in their lifetime.
- Few men have much experience with the different modes from remote ages and nations.
- Few are thoroughly reconciled to them or can impartially judge between the fashion of:
- the distant past and of distant countries, and
- the fashion of their own age and country.
- Therefore, few men are willing to allow that custom or fashion to have much influence on their judgments about what is beautiful in the productions of those arts.
- They think that all the rules for their beauty are founded on reason and nature, not on habit or prejudice.
- However, a very little attention may convince them of the contrary.
- It may satisfy them that the influence of custom and fashion over dress and furniture is not more absolute than over architecture, poetry, and music.
5 For example, can any reason be assigned why:
- the Doric capital should be appropriated to a pillar, whose height is equal to eight diameters?
- the Ionic volute to one of nine?
- the Corinthian foliage to one of ten?
The propriety of each of those appropriations can be founded only on habit and custom.
- The eye was used to see a particular proportion connected with a particular ornament.
- It would be offended if they were not joined together.
- Each of the five orders has its peculiar ornaments which cannot be changed for any other, without offending all those who know architectural rules.
- According to some architects, the ancients had exquisite judgement.
- The ancients assigned the most suitable ornaments to each order.
- However, it seems difficult to believe that:
- these forms should be the only forms which can suit those proportions, or
- there should not be 500 others which would have fitted them equally well prior to the established custom
- However, when custom has established reasonable rules of building, it is absurd to think of altering them for others which are:
- only equally good, or even, and
- naturally a little more elegant and beautiful.
- A man would be ridiculous if he appears in public with clothes different from those commonly worn, even if they were graceful.
- It also seems absurd to decorate a house in a way different from the normal custom and fashion, even if the new ornaments were superior.
Next: Chapter 2: Influence of Custom on the Arts