#ReadWithMe: Ritchie Robertson’s The Enlightenment Part 4: Sympathy and Sociability

science enlightenment

Amy Willis for AdamSmithWorks

How do public lectures, salons, and reading narrative fiction influence the Enlightenment?. Amy Wills continues to explore Ritchie Robertson's book in part 4 of her summer #ReadWithMe series. 
“What kind of creatures are human beings, and what kind of creatures should they try to become?” (261)

Ritchie Robertson starts off Chapter 6, "Science and Sensibility” with this question and it's the guiding question for the sections covered in this post. Chapters 6 and 7 are my favorites yet. To me, our social lives are the most interesting focus of study- whether during the Enlightenment or today. These chapters are also the most “Smithian” thus far, replete with concepts familiar to AdamSmithWorks readers. Robertson begins with a discussion of self-love and sympathy, bringing together many familiar thinker- Adam Smith, David Hume, Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper), and Bernard Mandeville, to name a few. Remember, dear reader, one of Robertson's main goals is to correct false notions about the Enlightenment. His discussion of self-love and self-interest will offer no surprises to readers here so I will highlight other interesting nuggets, and pose questions for thought.

Public Lectures Get Upgraded

Robertson credits Shaftesbury’s philosophy of sociability as the primary inspiration for the Scottish Enlightenment, beginning with Frances Hutcheson. This is a good place to start. Robertson offers a deft account of the scholarly interaction between Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Smith, and Hume but he emphasizes the largely impersonal and asynchronous demand for public lectures, in which Hutcheson and Smith figured particularly. Further, notes Robertson, these lectures were delivered in the vernacular—more evidence of the Enlightenments' egalitarian tone. Robertson returns to this theme in Chapter 7. Here he discusses the emergence of the Republic of Letters, highlighting the role of this “virtual public sphere” (374) during “the sociable century.” As accustomed as we are to hearing about the novelty of “social networks” and virtual programs, it’s jarring to be reminded that this is not wholly new. 

Salons (& Maybe Women) Get Downgraded
We are also reminded of the vital role of places for conversation during the Enlightenment, from lectures to libraries to coffee houses to salons. Robertson’s discussion of salons I found particularly interesting, couched as it was in a section of the “Science of Woman.” Here, Robertson suggests that the renowned salons of the 18th century deserve less credit for Enlightenment thinking than they typically receive, and for two reasons. The first is a confusion of civility with equality. Says Robertson, 

“We often find it assumed that because women in European society were treated with civility, and not confined in harems or compelled to dig the fields, they had as much equality as they needed.” (297) 

Robertson also reminds us that the same period sees the beginnings of the “separate sphere” argument about the proper role of women in society. In other words, women may have been seen as the guardians of civilized life, but were more needed for their role in the domestic sphere. Robertson suggests the role of the philosophes in 18th century salons has been overemphasized. While many of the luminaries of the Enlightenment were indeed omnipresent in salons, their role was as “decorative accessory” rather than philosophical gadfly.

Reading Revolution
The final nugget I’ll point to is Robertson’s engaging discussion of empathetic fiction and the “reading revolution.” There is a mini-revival in calls for reading more fiction today, many of which center on fiction’s ability to inspire empathy in the reader. This plays prominently in Robertson’s account, too. He recounts Enlightenment era reading as a shared activity (like this post! and here too!), sparked in part by these virtual and in-person conversations happening simultaneously. He argues both that people read more and became more involved with fictional worlds. The introduction of the first-person singular as a narrative device and the proliferation of epistolary novels both helped foster this reader engagement; 

“We are invited to feel the humanity even of those we dislike, and we are encouraged to feel more intensely the sufferings of persecuted victims.” (324)  

Fiction provided “training” in sympathy and heralded the arrival of a new “culture of feeling,” which Robertson credits with an increase in charitable activity and greater motivation to oppose social ills like slavery.

As I hope is evident, these chapters were both very enjoyable and particularly thought-provoking for me, as someone who is “in the business” of virtual conversation about ideas. I’d be particularly glad to hear your thoughts! 

Questions For Us
1- What is the equivalent of the salon or coffee house today? Is it still as sociable as the spheres Robertson describes as having existed during the Enlightenment?

2- How do you see the difference between “virtual” communities during the Enlightenment and today? How might you compare the advantages and disadvantages of each? Should scholarly conversation occur “virtually,” and if so, how? And what, then, should the role of the public be?

3- Have we emphasized civility to the detriment of equality in today’s world?

4- What, if anything, does rampant incivility in public discourse today suggest about equality?

5- What was the last fictional world you became immersed in? What made it so engaging?

Related Links:
Last summer’s #ReadWithMe series on Frances Hutcheson’s An Essay on the History of Civil Society at Speaking of Smith

Carl Oberg, The 18th Century and Social Networking, at Speaking of Smith

Shannon Chamberlain, Clarissa Explains It All: Adam Smith and the Eighteenth-Century Novel in Letters, at AdamSmithWorks

Janine Barchas on the Lost Books of Jane Austen, an EconTalk podcast

ASW advisory board's list of Best introductory books on the Scottish Enlightenment

Liberty Fund Conference Information Conversations Worth Having
"[E]ducation a free society requires a dialogue among active minds freely engaging with the ideas that have shaped human civilization in general and the free society in particular."