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.”
I have proceeded hitherto upon the supposition that these books are pure in sentiment and description. But they are very rarely so. The vast majority, besides being liable to the objections formerly stated, in their full force, lie under the still more damning charge of moral impurity. Many of them are, in truth, systems of error, covertly embodying and teaching ruinous falsehoods. Some are written for the secret purpose of teaching infidelity, and some to teach the epicurean philosophy. Many of them are the aimless effusions of a general hatred against every thing correct and pious. There may be no professed attack on right principles, probably no didactic discussion at all, in the whole book, and yet the whole may be false philosophy or heresy, teaching by fascinating incident and example. To the thoughtless young, in search of entertainment, it seems to be a tale constructed to amuse, and nothing more, and yet every character represented in it, and all the plan of the book, may be designed to place religion, morality and right principles in a contemptible attitude, and to present the characters who advocate error in an attitude of superiority. How delusive this mode of teaching is, as a test or evidence of truth, can be easily seen. It is perfectly easy to draw two sets of characters, of which those embodying and representing error shall wear the superior, and those representing truth the inferior aspect, when the characters are all fictitious, and the painter is the errorist himself. When the lion and the man, in the old fable, travelling together, came to the picture of a man bestriding a conquered lion, the lion said to his human companion: “Had a lion been the painter of that picture the figures would be inverted.” So it is perfectly easy to paint truth at the bottom and error at the top when falsehood holds the brush.
By this means of teaching, treacherous as it is, when regarded as a vehicle of evidence, subtle error is often insinuated into inexperienced minds, which have been educated in the love of truth, and would repel the open approaches of falsehood. . . . Indeed, we shall lose nothing by passing a general condemnation upon that whole school of modern French novels whose cheap translations, stitched in colored paper covers, circulate through all our railroad cars and book stalls, and even in the parlors of our people. They are, usually, foul with the concentrated moral filth that is collected and putrifies among the dregs of the great atheistical metropolis. They are rank with those poisonous errors in social concerns, politics, morals and religion, whose results are now seen in the agrarianism, the profligacy, the barricades, and the murderers of republican Paris. Every lady of decent fame should blush to have one seen upon her parlor table or to acknowledge that she had read one. Every head of a family should devote them to the flames, however fashionable, or however fascinating, however foplings, male or female, may simper that ignorance of their contents would exclude one from the “ton” as inexorably as he would the foul rags of a beggar who had died of the small pox on his premises.
But these books, whether intended to teach heresy and false philosophy or not, are generally guilty also of representing to the reader supposed scenes of crime and vice, thus subjecting his heart to a danger similar to that of associating with bad company. They are, in a word, obnoxious to all the objections of evil company in their strongest form. Does the youth hear oaths and blasphemies in the tavern bar-room? He hears them in the scenes of the novelist. Does he become benefitted by witnessing brawls and duels? He witnesses them in the novel. Is his lust excited by beholding the arts and the gratifications of licentiousness in the house of ill-fame? He beholds them also in the novel. Now some have argued, that it is desirable to make the young familiar by their own observation with all the forms of vice, because in after life they must be exposed to their temptations. But such a policy shows a great ignorance of man’s nature. Not so judged the Psalmist when he prayed, “Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity.” Not so judged the wisest of men when he urged, “Avoid it, pass not by it; turn from it, and pass away.” Not so judged Paul, nor even the prudent heathen whom he quoted, when he taught that, “Evil communications corrupt good manners.” All human beings, however amiable, have in their hearts, until sanctified, the dormant seeds of all the vices. Who does not know that the contemplation of such vices tends to awaken those seeds into life? It is just thus that evil companions and evil example tend to corrupt those who were previously innocent. It is dangerous to become familiar with wickedness, even by contemplating it in others.
“Vice is a monster of so frightful mein
As, to be bated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”
It were to be desired that the young should never know anything of vice by their own observation, except its retributions. How dangerous, then, the habitual reading of those works whose interest consists in the faults and vices of their imaginary personages?
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