Enlightenment Invention of the Modern Self
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You are a product of the Enlightenment. In fact, the philosophy behind so much that has created the modern concept of Self—politics, economics, psychology, science and technology, education, art—was invented as recently as the Enlightenment of the 18th century. In The Enlightenment Invention of the Modern Self, literary scholar Leo Damrosch of Harvard University considers the time when ideas about the self were first considered.
Through the eyes of the Enlightenment’s greatest writers, you follow the origin of new ways of thinking—ideas we today take for granted but are startlingly recent—about the individual and society.
You see how these notions emerged in an era of transition from a world dominated by classical thought, institutional religion, and the aristocracy to one that was increasingly secular, scientific, skeptical, and middle class. The 18th century was a crucible for new questions that, among other things:
- Reversed religious notions that human nature and the material world were infected by sin; instead they became beneficial
- Provided a new rationale for the way we obtain and use knowledge
- Coined or redefined words—such as humor, sentiment, and sensibility—to reflect new attitudes about feelings and personality
- Disputed the classical dictum that art should “hold a mirror up to nature” and serve a moral purpose
- Laid the groundwork for theories of the unconscious
- Nurtured the development of the novel, with new ways of understanding psychological and social experience
- Invented the autobiography
- Raised pre-Darwinian ideas about evolution
- Suggested that men and women should be treated as equals.
Understand the Enlightenment through its Great Books
These lectures are essentially about ideas and about books—how great ideas are alive and powerful in the pages of significant written works. The guiding premise is that the best way to appreciate the thinking of a given period is to explore its literature.
You note or discuss at length a range of novels, autobiographies, and biographies from the 1670s to the 1790s, including The Pilgrim’s Progress, Candide, The London Journal, The Social Contract, Confessions, and Songs of Innocence and of Experience. If you haven’t already done so, this is your opportunity to familiarize yourself with this remarkable collection of works.
Professor Damrosch is the perfect teacher to lead you on this literary tour. He served a five-year term as chairman of Harvard’s Department of English, and in 2001 was named a Harvard College Professor in recognition of distinguished teaching. His books that explore Enlightenment themes include Samuel Johnson and the Tragic Sense, Symbol and Truth in Blake’s Myth, The Imaginative World of Alexander Pope, and Fictions of Reality in the Age of Hume and Johnson.
Through its literature, and with Professor Damrosch as your guide, you explore key themes and issues of the Enlightenment. One of these is the notion of authenticity. Do we have an authentic self, or are we simply the various roles we play? Is there such a thing as truth, or are our values, and even our motivations, arbitrary and artificial?
You consider these questions in the light of such works by Denis Diderot as D’Alembert’s Dream, Rameau’s Nephew, and the “antinovel” Jacques the Fatalist. The lectures on Les Liaisons Dangereuses, toward the end of the course, examine the potentially explosive implications of such thinking.
Another central issue was the way the Enlightenment revealed a need for new intellectual tools. For example, its main philosophy, empiricism, had no concept of what we would now call the unconscious. It could not account for feelings of conflict or alienation, or for neuroses or obsessions.
The problems this created can be seen in the biographies of the time. In his Life of Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson describes Pope’s physical disability but never considers its psychological effects on Pope’s life and work. Similarly, Edward Gibbon, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, fails to recognize that sadism might be the cause of the emperor Commodus’s atrocities. Such blind spots cried out for new intellectual tools to deal with human psychology.
We Talk Like Rousseau, but Live Like Franklin
The Enlightenment identified a psychological conflict that underlies modern life. On the one hand, we have a strong belief in our individual uniqueness and self-sufficiency. On the other hand, we acknowledge that exterior forces—nature and society—have great power to nurture us. One highlight of this course is how Professor Damrosch makes this conflict clear by vividly comparing two highly influential Enlightenment figures: the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and American statesman Benjamin Franklin.
Rousseau was the Enlightenment’s most original thinker. His legacy to us is intellectual and inward-looking: about psychology and education, the value we place on introspection, our need to find and fulfill our unique potential, and the framework we use to discuss our feelings of conflict with society at large.
Franklin was action-oriented and outward-focused. He provides the role model for daily life: optimistic, characterized by disciplined work to create tangible accomplishments, and defined by the belief that involvement in society, for the betterment of society, is the optimal way to live.
In Professor Damrosch’s opinion, we conduct ourselves and understand our lives along a spectrum that runs from Rousseau to Franklin. In fact, he believes that, in general, “Our culture talks the Rousseau line but lives the Franklin life.”
What was, after all, the modern self that the Enlightenment invented? This course suggests that it was a new human insight, one that rejected absolute or easily generalized explanations and embraced the conflict, confusion, and paradox of life. It was a new and dynamic account of human life—one that continues to both benefit and afflict us.
A Partial List of Books You Discuss
This course either takes note of or discusses at length works from the 1670s to the 1790s, including:
- The Pilgrim’s Progress (John Bunyan)
- Pensées (Blaise Pascal)
- Discourse on Method (René Descartes)
- Leviathan (Thomas Hobbes)
- Maxims (François, Duc de la Rochefoucauld)
- La Princesse de Clèves (Mme. de Lafayette)
- An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (John Locke)
- A Treatise of Human Nature (David Hume)
- Candide (Voltaire)
- The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Edward Gibbon)
- Memoirs of My Life (Edward Gibbon)
- The London Journal (James Boswell)
- Encyclopedia of the Sciences, Arts, and Trades (Denis Diderot)
- Jacques the Fatalist (Denis Diderot)
- D’Alembert’s Dream (Denis Diderot)
- Rameau’s Nephew (Denis Diderot)
- A Discourse on Inequality (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)
- The Social Contract (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)
- Reveries of the Solitary Walker (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)
- Confessions (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)
- Autobiography (Benjamin Franklin)
- The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Adam Smith)
- The Wealth of Nations (Adam Smith)
- Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Choderlos de Laclos)
- Songs of Innocence and of Experience (William Blake)
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (William Blake)
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