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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Virtuous discourse : sensibility and community in late eighteenth-century Scotland Dwyer, John


This study explores the moral characteristics of late eighteenth-century Scottish culture in order to ascertain both its specific nature and its contribution to modern consciousness. It argues that, while the language of moral discourse in that socio-economic environment remained in large part traditional, containing aspects from both neo-Stoicism and classical humanism, it also incorporated and helped to develop an explicitly modern conceptual network. The language of sensibility as discussed by Adam Smith and adapted by practical Scottish moralists, played a key role in the Scottish assessment of appropriate ethical behaviour In a complex society. The contribution of enlightened Scottish moralists to the language and literature of sensibility has been virtually overlooked, with a corresponding impoverishment of our understanding of some of the most important eighteenth-century social and cultural developments. Both literary scholars and social historians have made the mistake of equating eighteenth century sensibility with the growth of individualism and romanticism. The Scottish contribution to sensibility cannot be appreciated in such terms, but needs to be examined in relation to the stress that its practitioners placed upon man's social nature and the integrity of the moral community. Scottish moralists believed that their traditional ethical community was threatened by the increased selfishness, disparateness, and mobility of an imperial and commercial British society. They turned to the cultivation of the moral sentiments as a primary mechanism for moral preservation and regeneration in a cold and indifferent modern world. What is more their discussion of this cultivation related in significant ways to the development of new perspectives on adolescence, private and domestic life, the concept of the feminine and the literary form of the novel. Scottish moralists made a contribution to sentimental discourse which has been almost completely overlooked. Henry Mackenzie, Hugh Blair and James Fordyce were among the most popular authors of the century and their discussion of the family, the community, education, the young and the conjugal relationship was not only influential per se but also reflected a particularly Scottish moral discourse which stressed the concept of sociability and evidenced concern about the survival of the moral community in a modern society. To the extent that literary scholars and historians have ignored or misread their works, they have obscured rather than enlightened eighteenth-century culture and its relationship with the social base.

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