The great Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney has been mentioned a number of times on this site. It is a very telling indication of our times that such a visionary man is so little known, and usually slandered when mentioned at all. You can find the entire collection of his written works at the Dabney Archive, all of which are well worth reading. However, such a massive undertaking can be a bit overwhelming, and so on Sundays I will post bite-sized excerpts from Dabney’s works, with perhaps a little bit of my own commentary. This will be done in hopes of promoting wider readership for this great man. You can find links to all the previous “Dabney on Sunday” posts at the bottom of this post.
The following excerpt is taken from Dabney’s article which appeared in The Watchman and Observer (Richmond, Va., 1849), entitled “On Dangerous Reading.”
The habitual contemplation of fictitious scenes, however pure, produces a morbid cultivation of the feelings and sensibilities, to the neglect and injury of the active virtues. The purpose for which fictions are read, and the drama is frequented, is to excite the attention and the emotions. They must be animated and full of incident, or they will not be popular. The reader who indulges much in them soon becomes so accustomed to having his sensibilities excited, and the labor of attention relieved by the interest of the plot, that he is incapable of useful reading and business. The just, natural, and instructive pages of history seem to him too flat, and he dozes over the most noble exertions of intellect which literature offers. His debauched mind is as unfit for useful studies as the tremulous and enervated arm of the drunkard the morning after his orgies for wholesome labor.
But there is also an injury to the moral character as well as to the habits of mental industry, which is a necessary result of the fundamental laws of feeling. Exercise is the great instrument ordained by God to strengthen the active principles of the heart. On the other hand, all the passive susceptibilities are worn out and deadened by frequent impressions. Illustrations of these two truths are familiar to every one; but there is one well-known instance which offers us at once an example of the truth of both of them. It is that of the experienced and benevolent physician. The active principle of benevolence is strengthened by his daily occupations until it becomes a spontaneous and habitual thing in him to respond to every call of distress, regardless of personal fatigue, and to find happiness in doing so. But at the same time, his susceptibilities to the painful impressions of distressing scenes are so deadened that he can act with nerve and coolness in the midst of suffering, the sight of which would at first have unmanned him.
Now, all works of fiction are full of scenes of imaginary distress, which are constructed to impress the sensibilities. The fatal objection to the habitual contemplation of these scenes is this, that while they deaden the sensibilities, they afford no occasion or call for the exercise of active sympathies. Thus the feelings of the heart are cultivated into a monstrous, an unnatural, and unamiable disproportion. He who goes forth in the works of active benevolence among the real sufferings of his fellow creatures will have his sensibilities impressed, and at the same time will have opportunity to cultivate the principle of benevolence by its exercise. Thus the qualities of his heart will be nurtured in beautiful harmony, until they become an ornament to his character and a blessing to his race. This is God’s “school of morals.” This is God’s plan for developing and training the emotions and moral impulses. “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” And the adaptation of this plan of cultivation to the laws of man’s nature shows that the inventor is the same wise Being who created man. It is by practicing this precept of the gospel that man is truly humanized. But the beholder of these fictitious sorrows has his sympathies impressed, and therefore deadened, while those sympathies must necessarily remain inert and passive, because the whole scene is imaginary. And thus, by equal steps, he becomes at once sentimental and inhuman. While the Christian, whose heart has been trained in the school of duty, goes forth with cheerful and active sympathies in exercises of beneficence towards the real woes of his neighbor, the novel reader sits weeping over the sorrows of imaginary heroes and heroines, too selfish and lazy to lay down the fascinating volume and reach forth his hand to relieve an actual sufferer at his door.
I chose this article of Dabney’s for two primary reasons: its great applicability to other modes of entertainment, and the certainty that it will arouse some sort of opposition in most readers. Most today recognize that the prolonged, habitual viewing of television and movies is degrading both to the intellect and to the affections, so no effort is necessary to perceive how Dabney’s words likewise condemn the idolatry of such entertainment today. But a scant few would also attribute this degradation to fiction; rather, many would be quick to assert that voluminous book-reading is the solution to our image-saturated culture. I am one of those people, so I myself was taken aback by Dabney’s arguments, viewing them as a seeming attack on all fiction, an attack which would, prima facie at least, serve as the argument’s own refutation. But the premises Dabney employs are too powerful to discard so glibly.
Precisely because Dabney has composed a formidable challenge to my extolment of fiction, he has caused me to consider how a number of topics intersect with his argument — that is, to consider the extent to which fiction-reading is defensible, and what the implications are in taking various positions to defend fiction. He has caused me to conceive of the different ways in which children and adults are affected; of the various ways in which we can truly indulge in various forms of recreation, and whether such indulgence is always degrading towards virtue; of the sufficient amount of reading that would constitute a sinful excess, and how this applies to other recreational activities; of the Bible’s own presentation of stories and of evil men, and how that might differ from the effects of fiction-reading; and so on.
In short, Dabney’s arguments cause a healthy reflection upon what we once took for granted — the self-evident permissibility of voluminous fiction-reading — and our mental exercise in honestly dealing with Dabney’s argumentation has value in itself, even if we end up holding contrary positions. This is the very sort of application and mental exercise we ought to perform in sanctifying this world and reinstituting Christendom. It is precisely the kind of morally and epistemologically self-conscious critique of modern culture in which we ought to be engaging. If Dabney can apply the laws of feeling and of active soul-principles to fiction-reading, then certainly there are goldmines of biblical application in our world which await our sanctified Christian evaluation.
Now, I wish to make a point entirely separate from the foregoing thoughts. Dabney’s premise regarding the cultivation of active principles through habitual exercise also guides us to an analogous conclusion regarding gender roles. In the same general way that habitual moral effort “humanizes” us, to use Dabney’s term, there are also certain actions which cultivate within us ideals more specified than the overarching category of humanity: namely, masculinity and femininity. Within God’s ordained social design, there are certain activities which men ought to do habitually for the cultivation of masculinity, and there are certain activities which women ought to do habitually for the cultivation of femininity. This is part of the moral design with which God has imbued us, and it is among the moral grounds for His commandments concerning patriarchal authority and feminine domesticity. Many other topics can be explored from this perspective of ideal-cultivation (e.g. how career women are demeaning their own femininity in the same way that Mr. Moms are), but for now I must leave you with the unapplied principle.
Previous Dabney on Sundays:
Dangerous Literature, Part 1