Date of Award

2011

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

History

First Advisor

Michael Zuckerman

Abstract

This dissertation deals with ideas and assumptions about human nature in the cultural life of the eighteenth-century British Atlantic world. Most scholars see in this period a decline of the traditional Western dualism in the understanding of human nature. Empiricist philosophy, we are told, increasingly denied the possibility of distinguishing between the body and reason, much less between the body and "soul." Moralists now tended to locate social and moral reactions in sensation and sensibility rather than in reason. The cultural status of physical pleasure was greatly enhanced. I challenge this wide consensus. I find in eighteenth-century British and colonial culture an alternative story of marginalizing the body and downplaying its role in moral and social life. I see persistent efforts to assert the soul as an independent source of feeling and action, with the activity of spirit defining specifically human relations at all levels from intimate to economic. I analyze eighteenth-century perceptions of love, marriage, and companionate family and find a wide-spread conception of essential difference between the spiritual emotion of love-friendship and physical desire. I argue that desire was often perceived to be a mechanical, secondary, and extrinsic component of love and marriage, rather than the genetic root of both. Since the family was commonly conceived as the foundation of social life, this segregation of desire was a crucial part of a wider social imaginary that did not include the body as an active structural component in interpersonal relations. Society, like marriage, could be seen as a compact of souls and minds, with the body being an object, rather than agent, of social relations. Finally, I interpret eighteenth-century conceptualizations of racial difference as attempts both to acknowledge and to eliminate the body as an agent in its own right. Constructing a progression of human bodies from a crude and active animal presence to a pliant and delicate instrument of the soul helped to assert the essential freedom of human spirit at the top of the hierarchy - in the white race.

Included in

History Commons

Share

COinS