Philosophical Beginnings of Early Modern Literature

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

If we look at the emergence of modern literature in France and Britain, we could just as much talk about its origins in works of philosophy, and moral commentary, as in the historical development of literary genres.

Does any ‘purely’ literary figure contribute more to the emergence of French literature than Montaigne, Descartes, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère? A case could be put for Rabelais, but in any case we cannot talk about French literature without talking about these philosophers and moralists. In the case of la Rochefoucauld, we could even see the relations between moral reflections and literature through his private relationship with Madame de La Fayette and his friendship with Madame de Sévigné. The most significant thing is that we can see a big contribution in La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims towards literary style and towards an informal theory of the passions which establishes the themes of French literature.

Literature and philosophy seem less obviously entwined in Britain, if critics put Shakespeare in a philosophical context, they tend to bring in Montaigne. But let us consider the following.

The contribution made to English style by Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke.

The sense in Bacon and Hobbes the existence of the arts depends on the existence of sovereignty, law and the state.

Bacon’s use of utopian fiction in New Atlantis. Bacon’s emphasis on an orientation of the self towards the truth in nature and away from distracting idols. That seems to lead in the direction of an anti-rhetorical abstract philosophical language, but it is also the story of a dramatic struggle of the self with distraction. There is a historical and personal account of the orientation necessary for nature to reveal itself. That account includes the supremacy of law, instituted by a state.

For Hobbes, the existence of the arts depends on the existence of the covenant and the artificial man of the state. He believes in the truth of pure reasoning, but finds it necessary to resort to rhetoric to communicate his truths (as Quentin Skinner has pointed out at considerable length). The covenant and the artificial man is explain in the picture of the giant man made up of smaller people, and discussion of personation in drama and law.

In Hume, Smith and Burke we get theories of taste which incorporate permanent physiological sensation and changeable sociable agreement. Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, has a rhythm governed by the moves from sensation to sociability and back again. Hume offers a theory of the mind as passions, and a theory of taste in which passions are understood as physiological and as formed by the evolution of social agreement. These ambiguities about sensation and sociability enter into Smith’s discussion of taste, of moral sentiments and his discussion of natural and non-natural order in the development of different forms of wealth (as I discussed in a post of 16th August 2009). These are ambiguities about the sentiments, how they affect each other and how they are affected by the external social and natural worlds. Al very germane to the literature of the time.

We might look at early modern British philosophy, as more than the establishment of an epistemological tradition, theories about how ideas of things relate to sensations of things and those things themselves, in which Locke on knowledge of physical is the defining discussion. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but there is a lot to be said for considering other frames, and placing Locke himself in that frame.

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