McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts
Daniel P. Watkins
Albert C. Labriola
Adam Smith, Ann Yearsley, Joanna Baillie, Scottish Enlightenment, self history, Shaftesbury, Wordsworth
In general, developments in English literature of the mid-eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century tend to place increasing attention on individual experience and greater variety in characters' aims, motives, and desires. Along with this tendency, the literature reflects alterations in the conceptual understanding of benevolence and sympathy that coincide with other significant changes in perspective, particularly a shift in the general understanding of the construction of the world and society. That is, works of the earlier period reflect perspectives and values of a society motivated by similar goals and desires, while those later works tend to portray characters at odds, in limited or more extreme fashion, with the social structures or larger social, political, and economic forces. The literature also reflects a changing awareness of the relationship between the self and history. Characters or the authors' personas first know themselves within a grand design of history with a universal ordering principle; later, they perceive themselves outside of history and submerging themselves in reenvisioned history or in self-history. The effect of the shifts in these larger perspectives is to undermine the essential understanding of sympathy as a shared, bonding, and redemptive experience that underlies all possibility for community. An examination of the varying notions of sympathy in works by Alexander Pope, Jane Austen, Ann Yearsley, Joanna Baillie, Ann Bannerman, Dorothy Wordsworth, and William Wordsworth from 1730 to 1816 reveals a variety of ways in which an understanding of sympathy changes: from a fully integrated and immediate virtue-based response within a functioning social structure -- that is, sympathy as idealism -- to a more self-defining reaction within the chaotic realities of individual imaginative experience.
Understanding the development of and shifts in the concept of sympathy begins, however, with a review of principal statements of four "moral sense" philosophers of the early to mid-eighteenth century -- Shaftesbury, Frances Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith. Subtle differences in the way they describe human response to the circumstances of another reflect an increasing awareness of distinctive rather than shared experience.
Beranek, A. (2004). From Virtue to Sympathy: Perspectives in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century British Literature on the Disintegration of the Social Bond (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University). Retrieved from https://dsc.duq.edu/etd/25