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WHY TASTES DIFFER.
ASTES are not matters for controversy: De gustibus non est
disputandum! In its ordinary sense the proverb is unquestionable. What we feel to be sweet is sweet to us, however much we may be blamed, despised or envied for feeling it to be so. If a man really prefers Etty to Rafael, or Rigoletto to Lohengrin, no amount of reasoning or objurgation can make him do more than feign the contrary. Our feelings make themselves known to us by their own self-evidence, and, as they are ultimate, and can therefore neither be proved nor disproved, so neither can they be directly and immediately altered. But though our tastes, as facts, are not matters for discussion, much remains to be said about the "how" and the "why" of them.
How ugly and ridiculous those fashions often seem to us which ten or twenty years ago we all admired! Yet we are the same men and can in most cases be sure that our altered feelings are due rather to changes which have taken place about us—changes in our environment-rather than in ourselves. These waves of feeling are also very transient. Bygone fashions of dress, more or less modified, often come again into vogue. The distension of the “hoop” was repeated in the "crinoline," nor would it be unsafe to predict that “Madonna bands” will ere long reappear and smooth down many a fair but now ruffled forehead. The same phenomena may be noted in every department of human activity which is governed by taste. The ceaseless architectural changes which followed the introduction of the pointed arch, exhibited the same spirit of dissatisfaction with the recent facts to which our changes in costume are due. Again and again we have also had architectural revivals and reversions. When pointed architecture had worn itself out in the ornate beauties of the “perpendicular” and “flamboyant ” styles, men turned eagerly to the reproduction of Greek and Roman architecture. When this in turn grew stale, we had that patient and industrious restoration of the pointed or “Gothic" style which has sown broadcast over our land buildings of much, though very unequal, merit, followed by others which show us how a new appreciation of the “Renaissance" has now arisen.
Accompanying and aiding the “Gothic" revival was the "romantic” school of literature, which coexisted with a widespread feeling of contempt for that era of powder and pigtails, the eighteenth century. But “ romanticism" is now out of favor. And if the differences of sentiment which in modern times, amongst ourselves and our neighbors, seem difficult to account for, how much more must be the differences of taste which have existed, or exist, between men of widely different cultures, races and epochs! How comes it that the lip-distortion of the Botacudos, or the head-flattening of Peruvians, could possess charms for any human beings? How is it that the Fuegian, reeking with the hot blubber he has greedily devoured, should be sickened with disgust at a dish of cold meat? Greek art seems to have supplied us with eternal models of human beauty, but they are not models for the Mongol; and while some of us may admire a pair of pouting lips, the fullest lips which European beauties could exhibit, would seem as wanting in fullness to the ordinary Negro as would Venus Kallipyge to the Hottentot.
What is the rational lesson of such divergences ? May it not be said that all loveliness is but in the fancy of him who admireth, and that all positive, absolute, objective beauty is but a dream? The doctrine of evolution may appear sufficient by itself to confirm this view triumphantly. To those who may say that human organization is probably an inheritance from non-human ancestors, it may appear to follow as a matter of course that human feelings, as they are supposed to be similar in kind to those of animals, can but minister in us, as they do in them, to individual or tribal preferences of instinct, appetite or desire. We claim, however, to have shown already' that, though each of us is, as consciousness tells us, truly one being, we have, in spite of our animal nature, another side of our being—whencesoever and however derived—which is more than animal, which is able to apprehend abstract ideas, which can apprehend true things as true, good things as good, and we believe also beautiful things as beautiful. Here some of our readers may be tempted to stop, dreading to encounter a mere restatement of some old view about that well-worn subject, "the beautiful." We venture, however, to think that there are certain considerations, which appeal to experience and common sense rather than to any lofty transcendentalism, which are capable of application to very homely matters as well as to others less familiar, and which, because viewed from a new standpoint, may not be devoid of interest as well as novelty. For writers who have hitherto treated this question have mostly belonged to one or two opposite schools. One set, strongly impressed by conviction of the lofty nature of man's intellect, have followed the high a priori road, paying little heed to the phenomena of our lower sensitive faculties. The other set, convinced that all our psychical phenomena are ultimately referable to sensation, have tried to explain all our perceptions by the aid of our lower faculties only, ignoring what could not be thus accounted for. But our contention has ever been, that, while man has an intellectual side to his being-a priceless quality in which no brute shares-yet, as being truly an animal, he possesses animal feelings, instincts and passions, with all the consequences and limitations thence arising.
1 See “A Limit to Evolution," AMERICAN CATHOLIC QUARTERLY REVIEW, April,
Much of the difficulty and confusion which has attended the study of man's apprehensions of beauty has, we believe, been due to non-appreciation of our duplicity in unity—unity of person, duplicity of nature—and of the complex and various commingling of effects which thence result.
Now, as we men participate in the nature and vital powers of the lower animals, so animals participate in the nature and vital powers of plants. Almost all the actions of animals are unconsciously directed either towards their own conservation or towards the propagation of their kind, and these also are the unconscious ends of the vital activities of plants. The beautiful forms which foliage leaves exhibit, and the symmetry of the branches which sustain them, may generally be traced to their need of obtaining, under the various conditions to which different species are subjected, as much sunlight and air as they can, that they may be able the better to breathe and grow. The various tints of flowers, their simple or complex shapes, their perfume and their nectar, serve to attract such different insect visitors as are needful to enable them to set their seed. No one pretends that these phenomena of plant-life are accompanied by any distinct feelings. Animals, however, evidently possess sensations, and also appetites and instinctive preferences, which they seek to gratify. The plumage of the hummingbird and the song of the nightingale are said to be due to the competition of countless generations of suitors rivalling each other in brilliance of tint or melody of tone. However this may be, and fully granting that such qualities do exercise a sexual charm, no one pretends that beasts and birds are conscious of such beauties, as beauties, however potent may be the powers of attraction such characters exercise over them. The feelings, instincts and appetites of animals generally lead to acts which are "good" for them as individuals, or "good" for their race, and some of the characters just referred to would generally be allowed to be “ beautiful.” But animals perform such acts no more on account of any perception they have of their “ goodness ” than of their “beauty,” but simply through a blind impulse which would be an end in itself if irrational creatures had any conscious end or aim at all.
As Darwin has shown us, the instincts of animals are not absolutely invariable, and they are, within narrow limits, modifiable
by circumstances. Such modifications may be seen in the nestbuilding of captive birds, and in the actions of woodpeckers which have migrated to regions where there is no wood to peck.
Acquired instincts and preferences may also be sometimes inherited. This is manifest from the different actions of the different breeds of domestic dogs. They are various, and have been variously acquired; but they are, nevertheless, inherited.
Now, man, considered merely as regards the animal side of his being, must be, as we all know he is, impelled fundamentally by the same actions as are the brutes. However “good” for the species or the race such actions may be, and whatever the “ beauty " they may elicit or be accompanied by, they are commonly performed without advertence to such qualities.
We cannot doubt that our lower feelings and preferences may, like those of other animals, slightly vary, and that such slighter variations may be inherited. However much we may wish to “ let the ape and tiger die,” we must ever continue to share in the conditions necessary for animal life. We must feel the remote effects of the instinctive impulses of the brute ancestors of our corporeal frame, and experience various tendencies and solicitations founded upon those which are common to the animals which most nearly resemble us in structure. So much must be conceded respecting the influences which most conflict with the notion that there can be any absolute, objective beauty or goodness in man or in the irrational world over which he presides.
Let us now turn to the consideration of the higher aspect of our being. Every one must concede that somehow or other we have now got the idea of “beauty,” whether or not it refers to something more than individual taste. However obtained, we have come to possess that abstract idea, and abstract ideas are admitted to be parts of man's intellectual possessions-peculiar to him as compared with other animals which admittedly do not possess them. A brief consideration of the other two cognate ideas, "goodness" and “truth" (which have been before referred to as belonging to our intellectual nature), may serve to throw some light on the problem whether beauty can be known to us as existing objectively, that is, independently of the mere tastes which individuals or communities may possess.
That “truth " at least exists as a real quality of statements and beliefs, must be admitted by all who have not some eccentric theory to maintain. John Stuart Mill distinctly affirms that the recognition of the truth of any judgment we make, “is not only an essential part, but the essential part of it as a judgment.” “ Leave that out,” he tells us, “and it remains a mere play of thought in which no judgment is passed.” But it is impossible for any consistent follower of science to doubt that truth is not a mere quality recognized as belonging to a judgment by him who emits it, but has a real relation to external things. Were this not the case, it is plain that science could make no progress. We do not base scientific inductions and deductions on our knowledge of beliefs, but of facts; and, without a foundation of facts, beliefs are worthless. “Truth” is the agreement of “thought" with “things—of the world of beliefs ” with the world of "external existences.” “Truth,” therefore, cannot be merely that which "each man troweth," but must be “that which a man troweth when he troweth in conformity with real external coexistences and sequences, and with the causes and conditions of the world about him.” Thus, “truth” is and must be both subjective and objective. It is subjective when regarded as the quality of his own thought by him who thinks it. It is objective when regarded as the quality of the thought of any one else.
1 Such a woodpecker is found on the plains of La Plata.
But can truth be attributed to things themselves apart from and independently of all and every human mind? All persons who feel convinced of the reasonableness of Theism, must affirm that it can be so attributed. For if we may conceive of what, for lack of a better name, we may call intelligent purpose as underlying nature, then each object in so far as it corresponds with such purpose may with justice be spoken of as “true.” It is another, though widely different, conformity between thought and thingsnamely, their conformity with the thought which is Divine. The independence and objectivity of “truth” should be especially manifested at a period in which, to our eternal honor, the unconditional pursuit of truth is more eagerly engaged in than it ever was before, and when a profound reverence for truth is ardently professed by the leading men of each department of science, and is certainly on their lips no idle boast. There is one characteristic of truth which it will be worth our while to note: It essentially expresses the idea of a relation between two distinct things. Nothing is or can be true in itself, but only in relation to something else with which it conforms. Truth is thus one kind of conformity. The essence of all truth is "likeness." But what is " conformity” or “ likeness"? We can only reply that such words express an ultimate idea which can neither be defined nor explained. The terms “likeness” and “unlikeness ” express so simple a perception that reasoning or exposition would be thrown away on any one who could not understand them. It is plain that everything cannot be explained. However we may reason, we must at last come to what, as simple and ultimate, carries its own meaning and evidence with it. On such ideas all reasoning