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.”
And here I must pause to record my protest against a kind of reading which some persons seem to consider even less objectionable than works of fiction, because they profess to be true histories, the biographies of notorious villains. . . . Those who busy themselves in the production of these biographies may be justly regarded as assuming, in the moral world, a grade only analogous to that of the turkey buzzard, whose office it is to gain a disgusting livelihood by picking up the fragments of spiritual carrion which pollute the community, and gloating over their loathsome particulars with epicurean relish. To the same elevated class must be assigned those writers whose business it is to rake up the crimes of the prisons, the police courts, and the haunts of vice, for the columns of the newspapers. Indulgence in these kinds of reading is unworthy of a mind of the lowest grade of education. It tends to degrade and brutify the taste and feelings. And there is always danger that the wild daring and generosity imputed to the characters of outlaws will tempt the young to look favorably upon their crimes, and even to think of imitating them.
There are some reasons why the evil company of a bad book is even more corrupting and dangerous than that of a wicked living companion. One of these is, that the heroes and heroines, who are painted as defying the rules of good morals in some vital points, are still adorned with many imaginary qualities, such as courage, magnanimity, generosity, wit, and genius, which cause the young and impulsive reader to admire them in spite of their crimes. And from admiring the criminal it is but one step to excusing the vice, so that by this means the moral distinctions are worn out in the mind. . . . And these fictitious villains are more dangerous companions than the bad men of real life, because this union of criminal traits with attractive and romantic qualities, which half atone for their faults in the view of the novel reader, is usually wholly imaginary. In actual life we find no such union, but wicked men appear coarse and repulsive. Vice soon robs their characters of that grace and delicacy which make the fictitious hero so dangerous an example.
These descriptions of moral delinquencies are, therefore, more dangerous to the young than an actual mingling with living vice. In every real scene of wickedness there are usually features of coarseness, brutality, and loathsomeness, which disgust and repel the ingenuous mind. Vice appears in its real ugliness, and excites some of that hatred which it deserves. But in the fictitious painting all these coarser features are concealed, for they would mar the literary beauty of the work and outrage that pretence of decency which the world sees fit to wear. The scene is dressed in the gayest, the brightest, the most alluring garb which the genius of the author can throw around it. . . . Here its picture is gilded by all the skill of accomplished minds. Scenes of licentiousness are enstamped, burned in, upon the youthful imagination and memory by all the fire and force of the author’s genius.
But there are also general reasons why a dangerous book, whether a descriptive and imaginary one or otherwise, is more insidious than any other evil companion. These books present themselves to us as seemingly quiet and passive things. They do not obtrude themselves on us, but stand as our helpless servants, coming only when we call them, and retiring the moment we bid them. They wear nothing of the aspect of assault or antagonism about them; and hence we are completely off our guard, and open to their influences. Again, they are usually read in the hour of retirement, when the mind is withdrawn into itself. Complete mental solitude, united with an absorption of the attention, especially by a work of fiction, produces an overwrought and morbid state of the sensibilities. Those wholesome, though unnoticed, restraints on the impulses of feeling, produced by the presence, the eye, the observation of a fellowman, are absent. No human eye, no public opinion, no fear of ridicule, no sense of the shame of discovery, pierces the secret “chambers of imagery,” where the soul is revelling in its intellectual orgies and spiritual abominations. What wonder that the poison burns more deeply than when we are exposed to the corrupting society of living men checked by the restraints of publicity? . . .
I would, then, exhort all heads of families especially to be inexorable in cleansing their households of all such literary poison. We all know well that, however the young who are in the habit of indulging this dangerous taste may be convinced of its evils, there is little hope that they will be firm enough to wean themselves from it. And in this fact alone there is surely a sufficient argument of its danger, that its fascinations are so great, and its consequences so insidious, that even rational and ingenuous persons, though convinced of the mischief, cannot forego the indulgence. It devolves, therefore, on the heads and guides appointed for youth by God and by nature to protect them from the intoxicating evil, by the strong arm of parental authority. Parents should feel that their station both authorized and required them to remove such evils, as much as intoxicating liquors or opium. Fictions are the intoxicating stimulants of the immortal part. As parents love the souls of their children, they should snatch away the poison more rigidly than those nuisances which deprave and ruin the body. . . .
There is one more reason against fictitious reading, simple, brief and absolutely conclusive. All men who read novels will confess that usually they read them as an indulgence, and not as a means of improvement. Now, it is an indulgence which is not recreation, for it excites, wearies and emasculates the mind even move than excessive mental labor. But every man is responsible to God for the improvement of every hour which is not devoted to wholesome recreation. Novel-reading is the murder of time, and on this simple ground every mind which professes to be guided by religious principles is sternly challenged by God’s authority to forego it. “Redeem the time.” “The night cometh.”
Previous Dabney on Sundays:
Cruelty of Humanitarian Philanthropy
Preaching, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Doctrinal Confessions, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6
Divine Justice, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5
The African Slave Trade
Women Preachers, Part 1, Part 2. Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6
Dangerous Literature, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3