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The dangerous prevalence of imagination.
166 DISORDERS of intellect,” answered Imlac,“ happen much more often than superficial observers will easily believe. Perhaps, if we speak with rigorous exactness, no human mind is in its right state. There is no man whose imagination does not sometimes predominate over his reason, who can regulate his attention wholly by his will, and whose ideas will come and go at his command. No man will be found in whose mind airy notions do not sometimes tyrannise, and force him to hope or fear beyond the limits of sober probability. All power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity ; but while this power is such as we can controul and repress, it is not visible to others, nor considered as any depravation of the mental faculties : it is not pronounced madness but when it be, comes ungovernable, and apparently influences speech or action.
“ To indulge the power of fiction, and send imagi. nation out upon the wing, is often the sport of those who delight too much in silent speculation. When we are alone we are not always busy ; the labour of excogitation is too violent to last long; the ardour of inquiry will sometimes give way to idleness or satiety. He who has nothing external that can divert him, must fiud pleasure in his own thoughts, and must conceive
himself what he is not ; for who is pleased with what he is ? He then expatiates in boundless futurity, and culls from all imaginable conditions that which for the present moment he should most desire, amuses his desires with impossible enjoyments, and confers upon his pride unattainable dominion. The mind dances from scene to scene, unites all pleasures in all combinations, and riots in delights which nature and fortune, with all their beauty, cannot bestow.
“ In time some particular train of ideas fixes the attention, all other intellectual gratifications are rejected, the mind, in weariness or leisure recurs constantly to the favourite conception, and feasts on the luscious falsehood whenever she is offended with the bitterness of truth. By degrees the reign of fancy is confirmed ; she grows first imperious, and in time despotic. Then fictions begin to operate as realities, false opinions fasten upon the mind, and life passes in dreams
rapture or of anguish.
This, Sir, is one of the dangers of solitude, which the hermit has confessed not always to promote goodness, and the astronomer's misery has proved to be not always propitious to wisdom.”
“ I will no more,” said the favourite, “ imagine myself the queen of Abissinia. I have often spent the hours, which the Princess gave to my own disposal, in adjusting ceremonies and regulating the court ; I have repressed the pride of the powerful, and granted the petitions of the poor ; I have built new palaces in more happy situations, planted groves upon the tops of mountains, and have exulted in the beneficence of
royalty, till, when the Princess entered, I had almost forgotten to bow down before her.”
“ And I," said the Princess, “ will not allow myself any more to play the shepherdess in my waking dreams. I have often soothed my thoughts with the quiet and innocence of pastoral enjoyments, till I have in chamber heard the wiuds whistle, and the sheep hleat; sometimes freed "the lamb entangled in the thicket, and sometimes with my crook encountered the wolf, I have a dress like that of the village maids, which I put on to help my imagination, and a pipe on which I play softly, and suppose myself followed by my flocks.”
“ I will confess," said the Prince, an indulgence of fantastic delight more dangerous than yours. I have frequently endeavoured to image the possibility of a perfect government, by which all wrong should be restrained, all vice reformed, and all the subjects preserved in tranquillity and innocence. This thought produced innumerable schemes of reformation, and dictated many useful regulations and salutary edicts. This has been the sport and sometimes the labour of my solitude; and I start when I think with how little anguish I once supposed the death of my father and my brother.” Such,"
,” said Imlac, are the effects of visionary schemes : when we first form them we know them to be absurd, but familiarize them by degrees, and in time lose sight of their folly.”
They discourse with an old Man.
The evening was now far past, and they rose to return home. As they walked along the banks of the Nile, delighted with the beams of the moon quivering on the water, they saw at a small distance an old man, whom the prince had often heard in the assembly of
“ Yonder,” said he, “is one whose years have calmed his passions, but not clouded his reason: let us close the disquisitions of the night, by inquiring what are his sentiments of his own state, that we may know whether youth alone is to struggle with vexation, and whether any better hope remains for the latter part of life.”
Here the sage approached and saluted them. They invited him to join their walk, and prattled a while as acquaintance that had unexpectedly met one another. The old man was cheerful and talkative, and the way seemed short in his company. He was pleased to find himself not disregarded, accompanied them to their house, and, at the Prince's request, entered with them. They placed him in the seat of honour, and set wine and conserves before him.
“ Sir," said the Princess, “ an evening walk must give to a man of learning, like you, pleasures which ignorance and youth can hardly conceive. You know the qualities and causes of all that you behold, the laws
by which the river flows, the periods in which the planets perform their revolutions. Every thing must supply you with contemplation, and renew the consciousness of your own dignity.”
Lady,” answered he, “ let the gay and the vigorous expect pleasure in their excursions ; it is enough that age can obtain ease. To me the world has lost its novelty : I look round, and see what I remember to have seen in happier days. I rest against a tree, and consider, that in the same shade I once disputed upon the annual overflow of the Nile with a friend, who is now silent in the grave. I cast my eyes upwards, fix them on the changing moon, and think with pain on the vicissitudes of life. I have ceased to take much delight in physical truth ; for what have I to do with those things which I am soon to leave?"
“ You may at least recreate yourself,” said Imlac, « with the recollection of an honourable and useful life, and enjoy the praise which all agree to give you."
“ Praise,” said the sage with a sigh, “ is to an old man an empty sound. I have neither mother to be delighted with the reputation of her son, nor wife to partake the honours of her husband. I have ontlived my friends and my rivals. Nothing is now of much importance ; for I cannot extend my interest beyond myself. Youth is delighted with applause, because it is considered as the earnest of some future good, and because the prospect of life is far extended: but to me, who am now declining to decrepitude, there is little to be feared from the malevolence of men, and yet less to be hoped from their affection or esteem. Some