Fear and calculation: The discourse of virtue in eighteenth-century British literature
MetadataShow full item record
This study aims to examine how novelists formed their moral visions of virtue and passion, the key themes of eighteenth-century moral discourse. In this period, virtue, located at the center of contemporary moral discourse, became an issue primarily due to economic and social changes. While the greater concern about morality led to the proliferation of didactic writings, the novelist intervened in the formation of moral discourse. The engagement with morality justified the novel as a respectful genre, and the literary treatment of characters and scenes enabled novelists to develop their own moral visions in a particular way. This study investigates virtue along with passion partly because evils and vices, which were thought to come from passion, make the outline of their correlative, virtue, and partly because the task of curbing passions was regarded as the prerequisite of virtue. As virtue and passion covered a much wider range of meanings in the period, this project does not attempt to offer clear-cut definitions but rather illuminates the principles of organizing moral schemes in literature. Examining Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Francis Hutcheson's early philosophy, Alexander Pope's An Essay on Man, Samuel Richardson's Pamela, Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey, and Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling, I argue that writers depend mainly on fear and calculation to promote virtue. Although Defoe does not propagate virtue in the novel, he participates in the moral debate by exemplifying the way in which Crusoe manages his passions. Hutcheson and Pope, employing the basic sense of calculation for virtue, appeal to fear of moral losses for virtue, and Richardson even enhances fear as virtue for Pamela and demonstrates its moral function in the case of Mr. B's conversion. Sterne continues to explore in a comic mode the moral conflict between private desires and social passions, and Mackenzie attempts to emphasize the importance of virtue by instilling in readers the fear of a self-interested society. In the last decade of the eighteenth century, the discourse on virtue came to an end when it detached from happiness and the management of the passions. When happiness took the place of virtue as the aim of life, the idea of curbing passions was no longer considered a virtue. As a result, virtue lost its status in moral discourse, and the literary investigation of morality entered a new phase.