The principal danger of Novels, as forming a mistaken and pernicious system of morality, seems to me to arise from that contrast between one virtue or excellence and another, that war of duties which is to be found in many of them, particularly in that species called the Sentimental. These have been chiefly borrowed from out neighbors the French, whose style of manners, and the very powers of whose language, give them a great advantage in the delineation of that nicety, that subtilty of feeling, those entanglements of delicacy, which are so much interwoven with the characters and conduct of the chief personages in many of their most celebrated Novels. In this rivalship of virtues and of duties, those are always likely to be preferred which in truth and reason are subordinate, and those to be degraded which ought to be paramount. The last, being of that great cardinal sort which must be common, because they apply to the great leading relations and circumstances of life, have an appearance less dignified and heroic than the others, which, as they come forth only on extraordinary occasions, are more apt to attract the view and excite the admiration of beholders. The duty to parents is contrasted with the ties of friendship and of love; the virtues of justice, of prudence, of oeconomy, are put in competition with the exertions of generosity, of benevolence, and of compassion: And even of these virtues of sentiment, there are still more refined divisions, in which the over-strained delicacy of the persons represented, always leads them to act from the motive least obvious, and therefore generally the least reasonable.
In the enthusiasm of sentiment there is much the same danger as in the enthusiasm of religion, of substituting certain impulses and feelings of what may be called a visionary kind, in the place of real practical duties, which in morals, as in theology, we might not improperly denominate good works. In morals, as in religion, there are not wanting instances of refined sentimentalists, who are contented with talking of virtues which they never practice, who pay in words what they owe in actions; or perhaps, what is fully as dangerous, who open their minds to impressions which never have any effect upon their conduct, but are considered as something foreign to and distinct from it. This separation of conscience from feeling is a depravity of the most pernicious sort; it eludes the strongest obligation to rectitude, it blunts the strongest incitement to virtue; when the ties of the first bind the sentiment and not the will, and the rewards of the latter crown not the heart but the imagination.
That creation of refined and subtile feeling, reared by the authors of the works to which I allude, has an ill effect, not only on our ideas of virtue, but also on our estimate of happiness. That sickly sort of refinement creates imaginary evils and distresses, and imaginary blessings and enjoyments, which embitter the common disappointments, and depretiate the common attainments of life.
I have purposely pointed my observations, not to that common herd of Novels (the wretched offspring of circulating libraries) which are despised for their insignificance, or proscribed for their immorality; but to the errors, as they appear to me, of those admired ones which are frequently put into the hands of youth, for imitation, as well as amusement. Of youth, it is essential to preserve the imagination sound as well as pure, and not to allow them to forget, amidst the intricacies of Sentiment, or the dreams of Sensibility, the truths of Reason, or the laws of Principle.
Mackenzie's premise is that the reading public of the novel is composed, overwhelmingly, of "the young, and the indolent, to whom the exercise of the imagination is delightful, and the labour of thought is irksome". Thus, questions about the educative and moral effects of such literature are of the highest importance.
Mackenzie's argument clearly attacks the fundamental moral assumptions of the literature of sensibility and, paradoxically, it threatens Mackenzie's own literary and moral reputation. Fourteen years before writing this attack on the sentimental novel, Mackenzie published The Man of Feeling, a work that contributed greatly to the definition and popularization of that genre. Of course, The Man of Feeling may, from its sheer simplicity, escape the criticism that it portrays a "rivalship of virtues and of duties," or that it concerns itself with situations in which "[t]he duty to parents is contrasted with the ties of friendship and of love". Harley's sensibility never leads him into catastrophic struggles with family structures or social institutions. Clarissa, however, evidently uses precisely this strategy as part of its moral project; and Richardson's novel must be in Mackenzie's mind here.
Likewise, The Man of Feeling may be said not to contain "that character of mingled virtue and of vice" whom Mackenzie condemns elsewhere in the article (in the style of Dr Johnson's pronouncements in The Rambler, No. 4). But Sterne's Yorick, for whom Mackenzie elsewhere expresses admiration, is certainly such a character.
Whether The Man of Feeling can escape the accusation that novels of sensibility encourage a readership for which feeling is divorced from action is less clear. Of course, there is no indication in the article itself that Mackenzie thinks it can. In any case, this text should be compared with the excerpt from "Eloge de Richardson," listed under "taste." There, Diderot defends Richardson's novels (and, by implication, the tradition of sensibility as a whole) by way of an argument that forms an interesting contrast with Mackenzie's.