The Perfectibility of Man
in Late Eighteenth and Early
Nineteenth Century Writing
TIME: Wednesday 4:30 - 6:10 P.M.
Room, 2nd floor [NOTE CHANGE!], Van Pelt-Dietrich Library
THE SUBJECT OF THIS CLASS
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.
PARTICIPATION, PAPERS, AND GRADING
- Its instructors envision this class as a seminar. It
therefore requires students' active participation in
discussions. A full 25% of your final grade will be based on your
- Assignments include one short paper (ca. 10-12
pages; 25% of final grade) and one long final paper (ca.
15-20 pages; 50% of final grade). Papers can be submitted by email as
attachments (tell us they are coming IN ADVANCE!).
- The instructors reserve the right to give spot quizzes if it
appears that class participants are failing to get assigned reading
completed in time for full and general class participation in discussions.
If we have to give such quizzes, grading percentages will be modified
- Because your participation in class discussion matters,
unexcused lateness with papers and more than three unexcused
absences from class meetings will be penalized. Your final
grade will reflect that penalty.
- The instructors plan no final examination.
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:
- the Rossiter edition of The Federalist
- Rossiter's text includes both The
Federalist Papers and a good deal of ancillary materials, all brought
together in one convenient place;
- Hogg's Private Memoirs:
- in the first place,
Hogg's is a book with many textual difficulties and a vexed printing
history, but Peter Garside's edition does an exceptionally
thoughtful job of resolving them and prints a readable and sensible text;
Garside also provides a useful introduction and notes;
- Mary Shelley's
- Frankenstein exists in two very
different versions; Butler's edition prints the first (or earlier)
of them. If you are not careful you may wind up with an edition that
reprints the (much more commonly reprinted) second edition (also --
note this warning! -- available from Oxford's World's Classics
series: you must make certain that it is Butler's edition you acquire),
which is a different book.
- Jane Austen, Persuasion (1818), ed. Claude Rawson (Oxford
World's Classics $4.95) -- ISBN 0192833618
- Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719), ed. John Richetti
(Penguin $8.00) -- ISBN 0141439823
- The Federalist Papers (1788), ed. Clinton Rossiter, intro.
and notes Charles R. Kesler (Mentor $7.99) -- ISBN 0451528816
- Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography (Dover $2.00) -- ISBN
- William Godwin, Caleb Williams (1794), ed. Gary Handwerk and
Arnold A. Markley (Broadview $14.95) -- ISBN 1551112493
- RECOMMENDED: Albert O. Hirschman, The Rhetoric of
Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy (Harvard $15.50) -- ISBN
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), ed. J. C. A. Gaskin (Oxford
World's Classics $8.95) -- ISBN 0192834983
- James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified
Sinner, ed. Peter Garside (Polygon $11.00) -- ISBN 0748663150
- John Locke, Essay on Human Understanding (1690), ed. Roger
Woolhouse (Penguin $14.95) -- ISBN 0140434828
- Joseph de Maistre, Considerations on France, ed. Richard A.
Lebrun, intro. Isaiah Berlin (Cambridge University Press $21.00) -- ISBN
- Alexander Pope, Essay on Man and Other Poems (Dover $2.00)
-- ISBN 0486280535
- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus: The 1818
Text, ed. Marilyn Butler (Oxford World's Classics $6.95) -- ISBN
- Herschel Baker, The Dignity of Man: Studies in the Persistence
of an Idea (Harvard, 1947; later editions, as well)
- Martin Foss, The Idea of Perfection in the Western World
(Princeton University Press, 1946)
- Albert O. Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity,
Futility, Jeopardy (Harvard, 1991) -- also ordered as a
- John Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man (Scribner's, 1970;
new edition, Liberty Fund, 2000)
READINGS AND SCHEDULE
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.
- Week 1 -- September 3
Introduction to the
Handouts (to be read at leisure at home):
Pico della Mirandola, "Oration on the Dignity of Man," trans. Elizabeth
Livermore Forbes, intro. Paul Oskar Kristeller [The Renaissance
Philosophy of Man, ed. Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and John
Herman Randall, Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), pp.
- from William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 2.2.292-317 [the
Arden Shakespeare, ed. Harold Jenkins (London: Methuen, 1982), pp.
- Alexander Pope and John Arbuthnot, "Of the discoveries and
works of the great Scriblerus . . . ," from Memoirs of the
Extraordinary Life, Works and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus
(London: Hesperus, 2002), pp. 94-98
- Colin Renfrew, "Lubbock's returns"
[review of Steven Mithen, After the Ice: A Global Human History,
20,000-5,000 BC (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2003)], TLS
(August 29, 2003), p. 9
- Week 2 -- September 10
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
(1651), ed. J. C. A. Gaskin
- Assignment: "Of Man,"
- Recommended (if time and interest permit): more of
Leviathan . . .
- . . . and Gaskin's prefatory and introductory
materials (through p. lv)
- Week 3 -- September 17
John Locke, An Essay on Human
Understanding (1690), ed. Roger
- Assignment: Book I, pp. 55-107; Book II,
Chapters 1 and 2, pp. 109-123, Chapter 21, paragraphs 41 et seq., pp.
238-261; Book III, Chapters 1-2, pp. 361-367; Book IV, Chapters 1-4, pp.
467-508, Chapter 12, pp. 564-573, Chapter 20, pp. 623-634
(if time and interest permit): more -- all? -- of Book IV . . .
- . . .
and, in addition to Woolhouse's "Introduction" (pp. ix-xxiv), Locke's
prefatory materials, pp. 3-15
- Week 4 -- September 24
Alexander Pope, "An Essay on
- Week 5 -- October 1
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe,
ed. John Richetti
- Week 6 -- October 8
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.
- How did Pope read and misread John Locke's Essay?
- In turn, how MIGHT John Locke have read Pope's famous tag, "Whatever Is, is
- 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.
- 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?
- Week 7 -- October 15
The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton
- Week 8 -- October 22
The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton
- The Federalist for today's class
- Week 9 -- October 29
William Godwin, Caleb
Williams, ed. Gary Handwerk and Arnold A. Markley:
at least half
of Caleb Williams for today's class
- Week 10 -- November 5
William Godwin, Caleb Williams, ed. Gary
Handwerk and Arnold A. Markley:
- Caleb Williams for
- Week 11 -- November 12
James Hogg, The Private Memoirs
and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, ed. Peter Garside
- Week 12 -- November 19
Jane Austen, Persuasion,
ed. Claude Rawson
- Week 13 -- November 26 -- THANKSGIVING: NO CLASS
- Week 14 -- December 3
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or,
the Modern Prometheus: The 1818 Text, ed. Marilyn Butler
- 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).
FINAL PAPER TOPICS
- 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
- 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
- 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 email@example.com and
firstname.lastname@example.org . Please send us an email SAYING that the attachment is
coming; we will worry about viruses if you don't.
- 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.
- If, according to Maistre, "order is the natural element of man," why is it opposed to
"perfectibility"? How might Godwin have read this contrast?
- 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
- In his introduction, Sir Isaiah Berlin remarks that Maistre's great target was the
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?