Immagini della pagina


cision with which we learn to think, when obliged to find intelligible language for our thoughts, but also because the consciousness that we are preparing for a future task, gives a more positive form to the mental operation.


Above all, the aimless wanderings of imagination must for a time be checked. It is not till we have acquired habitual control over our thoughts that we may safely indulge the airy visions of fancy, or allow the mind to seek repose amid the vague images over which, as they float by, a dreamy poetic tinge, a wild fantastic beauty, often throws such an indescribable charm. No such wanderings to fairy-land must be allowed to interrupt the serious discipline of thought for higher purposes, and until this object is accomplished the mind must seek its relaxation in books or conversation, but as seldom as possible loosen the reins of self-govern


It is difficult to reduce general admonitions on such a point to particular rules, and those we have given may seem trivial to many;-but when was general advice ever found sufficient to guide the inexperienced? Those who would ridicule the attempt to lay down rules for learning to reflect, only prove that they know not how difficult it is to think to any purpose, and have never considered how large a proportion of the evil and misery and folly around us, of the weakness of the good, of the sin of the wicked, proceeds from want of thought, from attention being never roused, except by external objects appealing to the senses, never turned to the world within, never used to the control which brings thought under the dominion of the will. As we said with reference to rules for forming other habits, so we repeat here, the details may seem trivial, but the importance of the object gives them value and dignity.


THE principle of Association, which has seemed to some metaphysicians of sufficient importance to account for the most complicated mental phenomena, requires for our purpose no elaborate definition or proof, since it is a subject of consciousness to the most unlearned. Not only do we daily speak of pleasing or painful associations, but even the common rules of politeness and good-breeding are, as Dugald Stewart ingeniously remarks, constructed with attention to the effects of association upon the feelings.*

When we speak then of association, we mean that principle

*Philosophy of the Human Mind, sect. Association.


by which ideas that have once been in any manner connected in our minds, have a tendency to suggest each other again, and the sight of external objects to recall the impressions, the thoughts, or the circumstances which attended our first seeing them. It is owing to this principle that if any spot has been the scene of joy or grief, we cannot revisit it without awakening once more the same emotions. Even in our memory the joy or the grief will be indissolubly connected with the place in which we felt them, so that its very name becomes to us a sound of woe, or a spell of delight. In the same manner, the sight of a book will recall not only the hours spent in its perusal, but the place and the time of our reading it, the thoughts it gave rise to, the opinions it advocated,—one idea suggesting another, till a long train of associations is revived, which a moment before had no place in the memory. But it is needless to multiply instances of a fact so familiar to us all. It is, indeed, this very familiarity which too often makes us overlook its importance. The influence of association is so general, so subtle, and so constant, that we yield to it almost as unconsciously as to that of the atmosphere; yet, if we reflect that all our prejudices, most of our likes and dislikes, our habits of thought, and in great measure, of action, depend upon the nature of our associations, we shall feel the importance of ascertaining how far this principle is within our own control, and how we may direct so powerful an instrument towards the ends of reason and virtue.


It is evident that we can have no control over such accidental associations as those we have mentioned. The place where we have been happy or miserable will remain connected in our minds with our joy or our sorrow, in spite of every effort we may make to break the association. In these cases the will has no power; but it can and does control the far more important class of associations which may be called habitual; those which govern the succession of thoughts, and connect together ideas and feelings, so that the one shall habitually suggest the other. The principle of association like that of habit is always active, whether we are conscious of it or no. It governs the succession of thought at those times when the mind is apparently passive, and vanders without conscious attention from one subject to another. If after a long reverie of this kind we try to trace it back to its starting-point, we shall find that each thought was connected with the previous one by some link of association, and arose at its suggestion, however apparently remote from it. Most of our readers will probably remember having thus traced back for curiosity's sake a long chain of thought, the last link of which seemed wide as the poles asunder from the first. The

[ocr errors]
[blocks in formation]

associations, in such cases, are generally the casual and arbitrary associations of which we have spoken, and which, when the mind is passive, recur more readily than any others. When we engage in serious thought the succession of ideas is still governed by association, but the character of the latter is wholly changed. The mind being alive and active, rejects the casual connexion which would lead it far from its point, and fixes its attention solely on those associations which arise from the real relation of ideas. If this power of the will over the succession of thought be so often exercised as to give to a peculiar class of associations (such as those of real relation, for instance,) a tendency to recur readily and spontaneously, then a habit is formed, which will influence our modes of thought for ever after. The points on which attention is fixed are those which will decide the character of the associations awakened, and the consequent train of thought. In considering any course of action, for instance, we may turn attention to the pleasure or inconvenience likely to arise from it, or to its efficiency as a means towards attaining some ulterior end, or simply to the question of right and wrong; in each case a different class of associations will arise. In the first, ideas of pleasure or pain will alone be suggested; in the second, the relation of means to an end; in the third, ideas of duty. It is at once obvious how these different classes of suggestions will influence the final decision, and also, that if any one class recurs so often as to make the tendency to it habitual, it will also influence character and conduct.

The power which attention exercises over association is daily exemplified in the different associations which the same event or object will awaken in men whose character or profession have led them to fix their attention on different points. The anatomist examines with eager interest the dissected corpse from which another man turns away in horror. He pays no attention to all the loathsome accompaniments which make the spectacle sickening to unaccustomed eyes, and the ideas it suggests to him are not of disease and death, but of wonderful skill, of power, and of future benefits to mankind. If we suppose the object exciting such different emotions to be one connected with virtue or with vice, we see at once the great moral importance of that power which enables us to control the nature of our associations, and on which it therefore depends, whether vice shall appear to us loathsome, or virtue attractive.

This is strongly exemplified in the case of certain faults, which not bearing that distinct character of evil that alarms conscience at once, are therefore too often indulged even in well-principled minds, till the seemingly venial failing has become scarcely less



injurious than positive vice. Indolence is one of these. Apparently harmless in its beginnings, it increases with indulgence, spreading from the body to the mind, from dislike to active pleasures and exercise, to dread of active pursuits or business of any kind, till the reluctance to exertion interferes with duties and social obligations; and family interests are neglected and forgotten amid the stagnation that has rusted mental power and impaired worth of character. Such is the ruin which might have been prevented had a different train of early associations been formed; had the mind been accustomed to connect the active exercise of all its powers and means of usefulness with the idea of duty and responsibility for the use of time. The whole natural history of prejudice lies in the strength of early association, which triumphs over reason, over conviction, nay, sometimes even over passion itself. Hence the danger of false associations, and hence also the almost indestructible force of virtuous habits founded on the associations of childhood. There are few storms, even in the most tempestuous life, violent enough to break down such associations, formed ere the mind was conscious of the impression, in the home where all was dear, where wisdom and truth, religion and love, became linked with the remembrance of a mother's smiles and blessings, and where the idea of vice was rendered insupportable by the thought of blame from those lips, reproach from those eyes, whose approval had ever been the first and dearest reward.

The influence of our habits of association on the intellect, is only second in importance to that which they exercise over our moral feelings. Their different effects upon the mind arise from the difference between local association, or associations of mere contiguity of time and place, and philosophical association, or that arising from analogy and the real relations of things. To illustrate this difference, let us suppose two persons of these opposite habits of mind reading the same history. The one whose habits of association

The account given by Macaulay, in the beginning of the second chapter of his History of England, of the state of opinion and manners in the different parties at the time of the Restoration, is singularly illustrative of the power of association. It is curious and melancholy to see how at that period, profligacy, baseness, and treason to national honour, were tolerated by good and patriotic minded men on the Royalist side, merely because the opposite virtues were associated with the hated adherents to different political principles; while the Puritans separated religion from all that might make it beautiful in the eyes of man, and abhorred the refinement of mind and manners, and the social enjoyments which were in like manner associated with the hated and despised Cavaliers. There cannot be a stronger exemplification of the principle alluded to above.


are merely local, will observe the dates and places of events, and these will suggest other events which occurred at the same time, or which resembled them in their external and accidental circumstances. The other, whose mind is influenced by habits of philosophical association, will seek the relations of cause and effect, trace analogies of character, rather than of external circumstances, between the events he is reading of, and others with which previous reading had made him acquainted, and thence be enabled to draw his own conclusions, and correct or confirm previous opinions. The former has only burdened his memory with a few more useless facts; the latter has gained a step in real knowledge.

It is obvious that our habits of association are closely connected with our mode of observing. Those points in any object to which our observation is directed, are naturally those with which its image will be associated in our minds, and which will suggest each other. In observing a fine tree, for instance, one person will remark only its value as a piece of timber; another will observe its peculiar growth, structure, foliage, and the soil best adapted to it; a third will dwell on its beauty and stateliness as it resists the wintry blast, or bears aloft its foliage in the summer breeze. The associations of these three minds with the image of the tree, will necessarily be as different as the character of their observations. To these differences may be traced much of what is termed originality of mind. The same facts are before us all; the same objects are presented to our senses; the poet, the philosopher, the great inventor, live not in different worlds, are not furnished with more acute bodily organs than the common herd; but the latter see only the external and casual relations of things, the former trace out their finer and more subtle analogies,* and reveal to us under this new aspect of our common earth, beauty and truth unsuspected before.


In attempting to form right habits of association, the spirit of method will prove of great value. By its influence in teaching the mind to pursue every object systematically, and in keeping certain aims and principles steadily in view as the main lines by which our course is to be guided, it checks the wandering of the thoughts from one casual association to another, and gives a steady direction to observation, attention, and, consequently, association. In the methodical mind every fresh observation, every acquisition of knowledge, is classified according to certain relations, and tends to strengthen at once the particular association by which that classification is made, and to increase in the mind the apti

*See Dr. Brown's Philosophy of the Human Mind.-Tait's Ed. Edin., 1834, p. 237.

« IndietroContinua »