English 341.301

The Perfectibility of Man
in Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century Writing

TIME: Wednesday 4:30 - 6:10 P.M.
PLACE: Meyerson Room, 2nd floor [NOTE CHANGE!], Van Pelt-Dietrich Library

INSTRUCTORS: M. Ryan and D. Traister

EMAIL: ryan@pobox.upenn.edu


During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, traditional European and Judaeo-Christian notions of a fallen mankind at the mercy of a just God were increasingly challenged by views of human nature that stressed man's unique ability to improve -- both himself and the world around him. This more positive view formed the core of the Enlightenment. It also provided fuel for the revolutionary movements at the end of the eighteenth century. And it provoked strong and often hostile reactions.

Some writers approved, others disapproved, and others still changed their position. Many writers engaged these issues, however. In this class, we look at a group of works by a variety of writers who consider human nature and societal improvement from several philosophical, political, and fictional perspectives. In addition, some American and French documents from the revolutionary moments themselves also receive attention.



A note about texts: Texts are available at the Pennsylvania Book Center (130 South 34th Street, at Sansom Street). The instructors believe in supporting local independent bookstores but know that you can find many of these books (on the web, new; or used) for less. For most of these texts, the specific edition you use may seem a matter of indifference -- except that (1) we have tried, in the first place, to choose texts that are reliable, with introductions and notes that are useful, and (2) the use of different texts will make it difficult for the class to be on the same page (literally!) during discussions. However, in a few instances we feel that texts do need to be acquired in the editions specified below. Among these are:


  1. Jane Austen, Persuasion (1818), ed. Claude Rawson (Oxford World's Classics $4.95) -- ISBN 0192833618

  2. Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719), ed. John Richetti (Penguin $8.00) -- ISBN 0141439823

  3. The Federalist Papers (1788), ed. Clinton Rossiter, intro. and notes Charles R. Kesler (Mentor $7.99) -- ISBN 0451528816

  4. Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography (Dover $2.00) -- ISBN 0486290735

  5. William Godwin, Caleb Williams (1794), ed. Gary Handwerk and Arnold A. Markley (Broadview $14.95) -- ISBN 1551112493

  6. RECOMMENDED: Albert O. Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy (Harvard $15.50) -- ISBN 067476868X

  7. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), ed. J. C. A. Gaskin (Oxford World's Classics $8.95) -- ISBN 0192834983

  8. James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, ed. Peter Garside (Polygon $11.00) -- ISBN 0748663150

  9. John Locke, Essay on Human Understanding (1690), ed. Roger Woolhouse (Penguin $14.95) -- ISBN 0140434828

  10. Joseph de Maistre, Considerations on France, ed. Richard A. Lebrun, intro. Isaiah Berlin (Cambridge University Press $21.00) -- ISBN 0521466288

  11. Alexander Pope, Essay on Man and Other Poems (Dover $2.00) -- ISBN 0486280535

  12. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus: The 1818 Text, ed. Marilyn Butler (Oxford World's Classics $6.95) -- ISBN 0192833669


  1. Herschel Baker, The Dignity of Man: Studies in the Persistence of an Idea (Harvard, 1947; later editions, as well)

  2. Martin Foss, The Idea of Perfection in the Western World (Princeton University Press, 1946)

  3. Albert O. Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy (Harvard, 1991) -- also ordered as a recommended text

  4. John Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man (Scribner's, 1970; new edition, Liberty Fund, 2000)


A note about the schedule: Two contiguous two-week periods are devoted to one book each (The Federalist Papers, October 15 and 22; Caleb Williams, October 29 and November 5). These are both relatively long books. You would be well advised to begin reading them early in preparation for class.

  1. Week 1 -- September 3
    Introduction to the class

  2. Week 2 -- September 10
    Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), ed. J. C. A. Gaskin

  3. Week 3 -- September 17
    John Locke, An Essay on Human Understanding (1690), ed. Roger Woolhouse

  4. Week 4 -- September 24
    Alexander Pope, "An Essay on Man"

  5. Week 5 -- October 1
    Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, ed. John Richetti

  6. Week 6 -- October 8
    Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography

    PAPER ONE: Two copies of your first paper are due today at the start of class. They may be submitted in printout or as email attachments.


    1. How did Pope read and misread John Locke's Essay?

    2. In turn, how MIGHT John Locke have read Pope's famous tag, "Whatever Is, is RIGHT"?

    3. Crusoe and Franklin both make -- or re-make -- themselves. Compare the experiences of the fictional and the autobiographical characters, and what their developmental trajectories suggest about their writers' view of human potential.

    4. Is Franklin's autobiography the self-examination of someone who sees his own life as exemplary, one in which he found the will, the energy, and the freedom to make himself as perfect as possible? Or does Franklin the author tell the story of Franklin the autobiographical character ironically?

  7. Week 7 -- October 15
    The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter:

  8. Week 8 -- October 22
    The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter:

  9. Week 9 -- October 29
    William Godwin, Caleb Williams, ed. Gary Handwerk and Arnold A. Markley:

  10. Week 10 -- November 5
    William Godwin, Caleb Williams, ed. Gary Handwerk and Arnold A. Markley:

  11. Week 11 -- November 12
    James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, ed. Peter Garside

  12. Week 12 -- November 19
    Jane Austen, Persuasion, ed. Claude Rawson

  13. Week 13 -- November 26 -- THANKSGIVING: NO CLASS

  14. Week 14 -- December 3
    Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus: The 1818 Text, ed. Marilyn Butler

  15. FINAL PAPER -- December 17

    FINAL PAPER (PAPER TWO): Two copies of your final paper are due December 17 in the instructors' offices (or as email attachments).



    • TOPICS -- ONE: the suggestions that follow ask you to look at Maistre and ONE other writer or work from the course in some detail. If you want, now and again, to refer to other writers we have read during the semester, without going into great detail about them, feel free to do so -- but if you do make such references, please be as precise as possible.

    • TOPICS -- TWO: if none of the topics you see below speaks to you, then please speak to us! Open your mouth (or your email), suggest an alternative, or ask for explanations.

    • LENGTH: this paper should be about 2/3 the length of the assignment as stated on the syllabus. That is, rather than a 15-page paper, write instead a shorter paper of ABOUT 2500 words/10 pages. Do make it a more tightly-argued paper this time than papers of the same length tended to be last.

    • DUE DATE: the original syllabus (above) says "17 December." We have already told some of you who have come to see us -- and now tell you all -- that we are not wedded to this date. If you can make it, fine. If you cannot, fine. December 22 would be acceptable. If you have issues even with that date, speak to us. The object of the game is to get you through this process (a) with something learned and (b) without pain, angst, or anguish.

    • SUBMISSION: you can drop off TWO COPIES in the Rare Book Reading Room. Or you can submit your paper as a Word attachment to both ryan@pobox.upenn.edu and traister@pobox.upenn.edu . Please send us an email SAYING that the attachment is coming; we will worry about viruses if you don't.


    1. Compare and contrast either Hogg or Shelley with Maistre on the prospects for human perfectibility. Develop an argument that analyzes convergences and differences between Maistre and your chosen writer.

    2. If, according to Maistre, "order is the natural element of man," why is it opposed to "perfectibility"? How might Godwin have read this contrast?

    3. Jane Austen and Joseph de Maistre in the same class!? -- is there any respect in which these two writers illuminate one another at all, let alone with respect to issues of "perfectibility"? This is not a question about which of them is "right" or "wrong." Rather, what do their varied perspectives suggest about how perfection might be imagined?

    4. In his introduction, Sir Isaiah Berlin remarks that Maistre's great target was the entire edifice of "eighteenth-century rationalism" (p. xvi; xxii-xxiii). Neither a reactionary nor an anti-rationalist, Berlin seems rather to admire Maistre anyway, concluding that "liberty needs its critics as well as its supporters" (p. xxxiv). How might Maistre have criticized the views on liberty and perfectibility embodied in The Federalist?