Anonymous, "Moral Weeping" (1755), in "Man: A Paper for Ennobling the Species"

We may properly distinguish weeping into two general kinds, genuine and counterfeit; or into physical crying and moral weeping. Physical crying, while there are no real corresponding ideas in the mind, nor any genuine sentimental feeling of the heart to produce it, depends upon the mechanism of the body: but moral weeping proceeds from, and is always attended with, such real sentiments of the mind, and feeling of the heart, as do honour to human nature; which false crying always debases.

Moral weeping is the sign of so noble a passion, that it may be questioned whether those are properly men, who never weep upon any occasion. They may pretend to be as heroical as they please, and pride themselves in a stoical insensibility; but this will never pass for virtue with the true judges of human nature. What can be more nobly human than to have a tender sentimental feeling of our own and other's (sic) misfortunes? This degree of sensibility every man ought to wish to have for his own sake, as it disposes him to, and renders him more capable of practising all the virtues that promote his own welfare and own happiness.

We are pleased when our friends are happy, but are proportionably deeper struck to see them weep under affliction. At this sight, our hearts are instantly moved; we weep by sympathy with them; we benevolently hasten to assist them; and find so noble a reward of satisfaction and self-complacency in the action, as assures us it is better to be in the house of mourning, than in the house of mirth.

This essay, signed only with "A.B.," captures the moral doctrine behind the eighteenth-century "man of feeling," as R.S. Crane notes. Virtue is identified with acts of benevolence and still more with feelings of universal good-will; these good affections are assumed to be a natural element in the uncorrupted heart; and stoicism is refuted in praise of sensibility. Tears take on an emblematic significance in this passage--and in the literature that accords with its ideas--as indicators of right feeling.

Note that 'sentimental' in the first passage describes genuine as opposed to spurious feeling and accords such emotion a moral and rational capacity, key elements in sensibility. (See Brissenden.)

Related terms:

a dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography