Elements of Criticism is Kames’s most influential work. When it first appeared, in 1762, it was the most comprehensive philosophical work on “criticism” in English, and it was published in five editions during Kames’s lifetime and another forty editions over the next century. In America, Elements of Criticism served as a standard text for college students of English.
In Elements, Kames sets out his argument that the “science of criticism” is a “rational science”; it is “a subject of reasoning as well as of taste.” By examining human reactions to art and literature, Kames believed that we could enhance our understanding of the human mind, just as an understanding of the mind could enrich our responses to the arts. Volume one explores the nature and causes of the emotions and passions.
Volume two delineates principles of rhetoric and literary appreciation, ending with a discussion of the formation of a standard of taste. Kames illustrated both volumes with a vast range of examples from classical literature and the arts of his own day.
With this publication, Liberty Fund makes a modern version of this influential work available for a wide readership. The Liberty Fund edition is based on the text of the sixth edition of 1785, which was the last edition, authorized by Kames himself.
"As it appears to me, dignity and meanness are founded on a natural principle not hitherto mentioned. Man is endued with a SENSE of the worth and excellence of his nature: he deems it more perfect than that of the other beings around him; and he perceives, that the perfection of his nature consists in virtue, particularly in virtues of the highest rank. To express that sense, the term dignity is appropriated. Further, to behave with dignity, and to refrain from all mean actions, is felt to be, not a virtue only, but a duty: it is a duty every man owes to himself. By acting in that manner, he attracts love and esteem: by acting meanly, or below himself, he is disapproved and contemned.
According to the description here given of dignity and meanness, they appear to be a species of propriety and impropriety. Many actions may be proper or improper, to which dignity or meanness cannot be applied: to eat when one is hungry, is proper, but there is no dignity in that action: revenge fairly taken, if against law, is improper, but not mean. But every action of dignity is also proper, and every mean action is also improper."
Henry Home, Lord Kames
Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696–1782), one of the leaders of the Scottish Enlightenment, was a judge in the supreme courts of Scotland and wrote extensively on morals, religion, education, aesthetics, history, political economy, and law, including natural law. His most distinctive contribution came through his works on the nature of law, where he sought to combine a philosophical approach with an empirical history of legal evolution.