A Stoic practice of Sentiment: Eighteenth-century moral theory and the subjectivation of habit

Date of Completion

January 2008


Philosophy|Literature, English




This dissertation analyzes the seemingly incongruous relationship between Stoic ethics and Sentimental moral theory in the eighteenth century. Focusing on philosophers such as Lord Shaftesbury, David Hume, and Lord Kames, I argue that Sentimental Moral theory engages in a discursive relationship with philosophies of Stoic ethics that were pervasive in early-modern print culture. In such writers as Richard Steele, Ann Radcliffe, Colley Cibber, and William Congreve, I argue that literature functioned as a vanguard in the assimilation of Stoic ethics into the culture of feeling that attended the rise of sensibility in the eighteenth century. Stoic philosophy offered a powerful rhetorical device from which to launch the Whig political and cultural agenda, most prominently in publications such as The Spectator. By operating at the limit of a discursive exchange with Stoic philosophy, writers invested in an ethic of feeling faced a difficult task balancing an inherent conflict between the ascetic ideal of Stoicism and the affectation of Sentiment. This relationship has been overlooked critically, resulting in a fundamental misreading of sentimental theory and literature. I argue for the central importance of this exchange between Stoic and Sentimental modes of thought. Rather than trace out the influence of individual writers and works, this study seeks to open up a space for considering the practice of feeling as a technique that both challenges and conforms to Stoic notions of restraint and withdrawal. ^