Making morals matter: Moral beauty, embodiment, and eighteenth-century British aesthetics
Bodway, Jacob A.
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"Making Morals Matter: Moral Beauty, Embodiment, and Eighteenth-Century British Aesthetics" reorients the debates over the relation of ethics and aesthetics during the long eighteenth-century by tracing the emergence of "moral beauty" as a solution to Hobbesian moral relativism. Moral philosophers saw moral beauty as a solution to moral relativism because it represented morals not by verbal definitions, but rather by the sensuousness and the visibility of an individual's moral character. Indeed, a rigorous historical examination of texts by Lord Shaftesbury, Samuel Richardson, William Hogarth, Johann Caspar Lavater, and Mary Shelley reveal that moral beauty furnished an idiom for talking about a somatic and social experience where beauty and morality converged upon the surface of bodies. This embodied view of morality, I contend, recognizes the tactile moments of ethics and aesthetics, upending the assumption that the eighteenth-century understood these disciplines as divorced from anatomy. The importance of this claim cannot be overstated, for "moral beauty" is deeply rooted within patterns of thought we now label the "social sciences," patterns which manifest themselves within theories of physiognomy and Franz Joseph Gall's work on phrenology, and more recently, within the various iterations of social Darwinism and the early twentieth-century's flirtation with eugenics and racial profiling.