Chapter 1b

Custom and Fashion in the Arts

by Adam Smith Icon

6 According to the ancient rhetoricians:

  • a certain measure of verse was appropriated by nature to each species of writing
  • each measure was naturally expressive of the writing’s character or feeling.
  • one verse was fit for grave, and another for gay works.

These could not be interchanged without the greatest impropriety. However, modern writing contradicts this principle even though modern writing appears extremely proper. The burlesque verse in English is the heroic verse in French. Racine’s tragedies and Voltaire’s Henriad are nearly in the same verse with:

“Let me have your advice in a weighty affair.”

7 On the contrary, the burlesque verse in French is pretty much the same with the heroic verse of 10 syllables in English. Custom has made the one nation associate gravity, sublimity, and seriousness, to that measure which another nation has connected with the gay, flippant, and ludicrous. The following are most absurd=

  • an English tragedy written in the French Alexandrine verses, and
  • a French tragedy in verses of 10 English syllables.

8 An eminent artist will:

  • create a big change in the established modes of each of those arts, and
  • introduce a new fashion of writing, music, or architecture.

The dress of a high ranking man recommends itself just as an eminent master’s excellencies recommend his peculiarities. His manner becomes the fashionable style in his art. It is soon admired and imitated no matter how peculiar and fantastic.

Within these 50 years, the Italians’ taste in music and architecture has changed greatly. These changes were caused by imitating some peculiarities of some eminent masters in music and architecture. Quintilian accused Seneca of=

  • corrupting the taste of the Romans, and
  • introducing a frivolous prettiness in the room of majestic reason and masculine eloquence.

Others accused Sallust and Tacitus of the same thing but in a different way. Those changes were most concise, elegant, expressive, and even poetical. Quintilian and others pretended that those changes, however=

  • lacked ease, simplicity, and nature, and
  • were products of the most laboured and studied affectation.

How many great qualities must a writer have to render his own faults agreeable?

After the praise of refining the nation’s taste, the highest eulogy for any author is to say that he corrupted it. Mr. Pope and Dr. Swift introduced a new way of written rhyme.

  • Mr. Pope used long verses which replaced Dryden’s rambling freedom and Addison’s correct but tedious languor. All long verses are now written after the way of Mr. Pope’s nervous precision.
  • Dr. Swift used short verses which replaced Butler’s quaintness

9 Custom and fashion also influence our judgments on the beauty of natural objects. What various and opposite forms are beautiful in different things?

The proportions admired in one animal are different from those esteemed in another animal. Every class of things has its own:

  • peculiar conformation which is approved of
  • beauty, distinct from the beauty of every other species

Father Buffier was a learned Jesuit.

He determined that every object’s beauty is in the most usual form and colour to which it belongs. Thus, in the human form, the beauty of each feature lies in a certain middle. This middle is not present in features that are ugly.

For example, a beautiful nose is one that is:

  • not very long,
  • not very short,
  • not very straight,
  • not very crooked,
  • in a middle between all these extremes, and
  • less different from these extremes than these extremes are to each other

It is the form which Nature seems to have aimed at in them all.

She however:

  • deviates from it in many ways, and
  • very seldom hits it exactly.

Those deviations still strongly resemble that form. When a number of drawings are made after one pattern, they will all resemble it more than they resemble one another. The pattern’s general character will run through them all.

The most singular and odd will be those which are farthest from it. The most accurate drawings will bear a greater resemblance to the most careless drawings, than the careless ones will bear to one another.

In the same way, the most beautiful in each species of creatures bears the strongest characters of=

  • the general fabric of its species
  • the greater part of its species

On the contrary, monsters or perfectly deformed things are always:

  • most singular and odd, and
  • the least resemblance to the generality of their species.

Thus the beauty of each species is the rarest of all things. Because few individuals hit this middle form exactly. Yet in another sense, beauty is the most common.

Because all the deviations from it resemble it more than the deviations resemble one another. Therefore, the most customary form is the most beautiful in each species of things

Hence, a certain practice and experience in contemplating each species of objects is needed before we can judge:

  • its beauty, or
  • what is its middle and most usual form

The nicest judgment on human beauty will not help us judge the beauty of flowers, or horses, or any other species of things. Different ideas of beauty prevail in places with different:

  • climates, and
  • customs and ways of living.

Because the generality of any species receives a different conformation from those circumstances. The beauty of a Moorish horse is not exactly the same with the beauty of an English horse. How do different nations view human beauty?

A fair complexion is a shocking deformity on the coast of Guinea. Thick lips and a flat nose are a beauty there. In some nations, long ears that hang down on the shoulders are universally admired. In China, a woman is regarded as an ugly monster if her foot is so large as to be fit to walk on.

Some of the savage North-American nations tie four boards around the heads of their children to squeeze them while their bones are tender to form a near-perfect square.

Europeans are astonished at this absurd barbarity.

Some missionaries have imputed it to the singular stupidity of those nations where it prevails. But they do not reflect that European ladies until recently have been trying for nearly the past century to squeeze their natural shape’s beautiful roundness into the same square form.

Despite the many distortions and diseases caused by this practice, custom had rendered it agreeable among some of the most civilized nations.

10 According to this learned and ingenious Father, the whole charm of his system about the nature of beauty seems to arise from its falling in with the habits which custom had impressed on the imagination.

However, I do not believe that even our sense of external beauty is all founded on custom. Any form’s utility, or its fitness for the useful purposes it was intended for, evidently:

  • recommends it, and
  • renders it agreeable to us, independent of custom.

Certain colours are more agreeable than others. They give more delight to the eye the first time it ever beholds them. A smooth surface is more agreeable than a rough one. Variety is more pleasing than a tedious undiversified uniformity.

Connected variety is where:

  • each new appearance is introduced by what went before it, and
  • all the adjoining parts have some natural relation to one another.

Connected variety is more agreeable than a disjointed and disorderly assemblage of unconnected objects.

Custom is not the sole principle of beauty.

But I agree that there is no single external form that will be so beautiful even if it were:

  • contrary to custom, and
  • unlike whatever we have been used to, or
  • so deformed to be disagreeable if custom uniformly=
    • supports it, and
    • habituates us to see it in every individual.


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