more correspondence from the enlightenment project, this time from the edinburgh/newark bureaus (1985)

Speaking of Richard B. Sher, here’s a nice passage from his earlier Church and University in the Scottish Enlightenment (1985), which addresses the local resonance of terms like “moderation” and “politeness” in the context of mid-century Edinburgh, with all its religious divisions and class stratifications:

From the outset the Moderates were strongly supportive of law and order and eager to prevent a recurrence of the religious and political unrest of their early years.  They believed, as Robertson put it, that “there can be no society”–either civil or ecclesiastical–“where there is no subordination.”  As loyal Hanoverian subjects, they praised the British constitution as a nearly perfect blend of order and liberty and accepted without question the prevailing notion of the inequality of ranks . . . . They were, in short, Whig-Presbyterian conservatives (53, 54).

Besides church patronage and church polity, the emerging Moderate and Popular parties disagreed about numerous matters of piety, style, decorum, and attitude that may be considered parts of a wider controversy over the principle of “politeness.” Formally defined in Adam Ferguson as a “behaviour intended to please, or to oblige,” this elusive term actually had broader connotations.  Polite society meant well-bred people of taste and refinement; polite literature and learning meant the rational, elegant, polished poetry and prose and empirical scientific investigations that appealed to polite society; polite preaching meant the the sensible, restrained religious instruction that polite society appreciated.  The Moderate literati of Edinburgh recognized that the cultivation of politeness was fraught with danger, since it could all too easily lapse into over-refinement or affectation.  Within proper bounds, however, and combined with enlightened principles, politeness was in their view the distinctive mark of a fully civilized individual and the happy medium between “effeminacy” and “enthusiasm” (57).

The first thing that I noticed in these passages was the fierce anti-individualism of these sentiments, along with the insistence that subordination was the necessary basis for the existence of “society,” which appears here  in its sacral/secular double-aspect as “civil or ecclesiastical” society.  (The reality of Presbyterian Edinburgh again).

If, as Lawrence Klein has argued, that the notion of “politeness” in the eighteenth century retains some of its Shaftesburyan flavor even into the late eighteenth century, a dramatic shift in emphasis has accompanied its translation into Edinburgh’s : “moderation” is not merely about self-moderation or some version of stoic self-restraint, but the overt subordination of the vulgar by the “rational, elegant, polished” portion of society, who in turn were expected to remain perpetually on guard against excesses either of “effeminacy” (over-susceptibility to the feminine) or of “enthusiasm” (over-susceptibility to the vulgar, lower-class, and passionate [i.e., “Popular”] forms of religion).  Perhaps this was always assumed by terms like “politeness,” by I do think that when we encounter it in writers like Smollett, it is accompanied with a real hatred and fear of the plebeian.

In such an environment, it’s not surprising to me that Macpherson’s Ossian was received by this group far more favorably than the vernacular poems of Robert Fergusson.  What is interesting to me, however, is how dramatically this set of assumptions gets turned around by the time we reach the eras, respectively, of Burns and then  Scott.



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