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The Jeffersonian cyclopedia;

a comprehensive collection of the views of Thomas Jefferson classified and arranged in alphabetical order under nine thousand titles relating to government, politics, law, education, political economy, finance, science, art, literature, religious freedom, morals, etc.;

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2994. FICTION, Value of sound.—
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2994. FICTION, Value of sound.—

little attention to the nature of the human
mind evinces that the entertainments of fiction
are useful as well as pleasant. That they
are pleasant when well written, every person
feels who reads. But wherein is its utility,
asks the reverend sage, big with the notion
that nothing can be useful but the learned
lumber of Greek and Roman reading with
which his head is stored? I answer everything
is useful which contributes to fix in the
principles and practices of virtue. When any
original act of charity or of gratitude, for
instance, is presented either to our sight or
imagination, we are deeply impressed with
its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves
of doing charitable and grateful acts
also. On the contrary, when we see or read
of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with
its deformity, and conceive an abhorrence of
vice. Now every emotion of this kind is
an exercise of our virtuous dispositions, and
dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the
body, acquire strength by practice. But exercise
produces habit, and in the instance
of which we speak, the exercise being of the
moral feelings, produces a habit of thinking
and acting virtuously. We never reflect
whether the story we read be truth or fiction.
If the painting be lively, and a tolerable
picture of nature, we are thrown into
a reverie, from which if we awaken it is
the fault of the writer. I appeal to every
reader of feeling and sentiment whether the
fictitious murder of Duncan by Macbeth, in
Shakespeare, does not excite in him as great
a horror of villainy, as the real one of Henry
IV. by Ravaillac, as related by Davila? And
whether the fidelity of Nelson and generosity
of Blandford, in Marmontel, do not dilate his
breast and elevate his sentiments as much as
any similar incident which real history can
furnish? Does he not in fact feel himself a
better man while reading them, and privately
covenant to copy the fair example? We
neither know nor care whether Laurence
Sterne really went to France, whether he was
there accosted by the Franciscan, at first rebuked
him unkindly, and then gave him a
peace offering; or whether the whole be not
fiction. In either case, we equally are sorrowful
at the rebuke, and secretly resolve we will never do so: we are pleased with the
subsequent atonement, and view with emulation
a soul candidly acknowledging its fault
and making a just reparation. Considering
history as a moral exercise, her lessons would
be too infrequent if confined to real life. Of
those recorded by historians few incidents
have been attended with such circumstances
as to excite in any high degree this sympathetic
emotion of virtue. We are, therefore,
wisely framed to be as warmly interested for
a fictitious as for a real personage. The field
of imagination is thus laid open to our use
and lessons may be formed to illustrate and
carry home to the heart every moral rule
of life. Thus a lively and lasting sense of
filial duty is more effectually impressed on
the mind of a son or daughter by reading
King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of
ethics and divinity that ever were written.
This is my idea of well written Romance, of
Tragedy, Comedy and Epic poetry.—
To Robert Skipwith. Ford ed., i, 396.
(M. 1771)