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Fiction and the Philosophy of Happiness: Ethical Inquiries in the Age of Enlightenment
     

Fiction and the Philosophy of Happiness: Ethical Inquiries in the Age of Enlightenment

by Brian Michael Norton
 

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Fiction and the Philosophy of Happiness explores the novel’s participation in eighteenth-century “inquiries after happiness,” an ancient ethical project that acquired new urgency with the rise of subjective models of well-being in early modern and Enlightenment Europe.Combining archival research on treatises on happiness with illuminating readings

Overview

Fiction and the Philosophy of Happiness explores the novel’s participation in eighteenth-century “inquiries after happiness,” an ancient ethical project that acquired new urgency with the rise of subjective models of well-being in early modern and Enlightenment Europe.Combining archival research on treatises on happiness with illuminating readings of Samuel Johnson, Laurence Sterne, Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Godwin and Mary Hays, Brian Michael Norton’s innovative study asks us to see the novel itself as a key instrument of Enlightenment ethics. His central argument is that the novel form provided a uniquely valuable tool for thinking about the nature and challenges of modern happiness: whereas treatises sought to theorize the conditions that made happiness possible in general, eighteenth-century fiction excelled at interrogating the problem on the level of the particular, in the details of a single individual’s psychology and unique circumstances. Fiction and the Philosophy of Happiness demonstrates further that through their fine-tuned attention to subjectivity and social context these writers called into question some cherished and time-honored assumptions about the good life: happiness is in one’s power; virtue is the exclusive path to happiness; only vice can make us miserable. This elegant and richly interdisciplinary book offers a new understanding of the cultural work the eighteenth-century novel performed as well as an original interpretation of the Enlightenment’s ethical legacy.

Editorial Reviews

Adam Potkay
Fiction and the Philosophy of Happiness is an excellent comparatist study of changing ideas of happiness in both philosophy and the novel, as sure-footed with the French as with the English texts it examines. Norton reveals a productive tension in the eighteenth century between happiness understood as the categorical “good life”—the virtuous life that is right for all rational agents—and happiness conceived as “being pleased with one’s life” in subjective and infinitely various ways. Impeccably researched and crisply written, this book will be of enduring importance.

CHOICE
Norton's book is an excellent read and an important study of new constructions of happiness in the 18th century. During the Enlightenment, Norton shows, happiness became desynonymized with virtue; in philosophy and literature, happiness and associated questions of 'the good life'–even the very conception of the summum bonum–diverged sharply from both Aristotelian ethics and the Christian anticipation of happiness hereafter. Norton explores the ways in which relativist and subjectivist delimiting of individual happiness as a state of personal contentment rather than as an ethical pursuit shape the rhetoric of fiction in Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Diderot's Rameau's Nephew, Rousseau's Julie, Godwin's Caleb Williams, and, particularly welcome, Mary Hays's Emma Courtney. The book is well informed by Enlightenment philosophy, in particular some unfamiliar 18th-century treatises on happiness . . . [T]he close readings Norton provides are incisive, accessible, and rewarding, and each chapter is brilliantly conceived and executed. An important contribution to the growing body of work on literature and ethics, this volume suggests approaches for other works not considered here. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above.
Eighteenth-Century Life
[This book] is an important and thoughtful contribution. . . .Norton’s readings . . . are sure-footed, philosophically attentive, and ultimately compelling. . . .Without fanfare, through deft and attentive readings, Norton helps us appreciate how essential fiction is for enabling the transition between otherwise incompatible notions of happiness. . . .[The book provides] a valuable corrective to the largely epistemological and sociological approaches that have dominated the study of the eighteenth-century novel. . . .Norton’s book makes a valuable contribution . . . as much for teaching us to read the novel this way, as for providing us substantive insights into how the novel treats the highest ethical end: happiness.
1650-1850: Ideas
In this succinct, substantive study, Brian Michael Norton offers an engaging, accessible, and revealing reckoning of philosophical and novelistic discourse on happiness in the eighteenth century. . . .Norton’s approach to Denis Diderot’s Le Neveu de Rameau is especially provocative in its discussion of the implications of this shift in focus and practice. . . .His [Norton's] study is sophisticated and persuasive.
Novel: A Forum On Fiction
So accepted, and dissected, is the belief in the related rise of the novel and the emergence of the modern individual that the modest shift Brian Michael Norton undertakes in his new study comes as a breath of fresh air . . . [This book] is an admirably focused monograph that opens up new expanses of critical terrain by simply shifting our gaze from epistemology to ethics. . . .This is a sharp and nuanced discussion. . . . Beautifully written and consistently insightful, Norton’s monograph makes contributions to intellectual, cultural and literary history; especially valuable is its meticulous demonstration of the influence of Stoic thought on eighteenth-century conceptions of happiness. Most promisingly, this book reorients novel studies in the direction of ethics, making a new case for the novel’s role in the making of the modern world.
The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation
In a concisely woven and densely packed argument, Norton offers careful readings of texts as well as a range of references that speak to deep learning in both the philosophical and the literary traditions he engages. As a result, his book presents an intellectually compelling and utterly convincing treatment of the theme of happiness in the philosophical fiction of the eighteenth century.
Eighteenth-Century Fiction
There can be no doubt that Norton’s work is timely. . . .Norton’s choice of texts attests to his willingness to examine a range of material both formally and thematically. From Sterne and Diderot, to Rousseau, Godwin, and Hayes, he follows the patterns of challenge that the fictions—in comic and satiric form, in dialogue and narrative—insist on.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781611484304
Publisher:
Bucknell University Press
Publication date:
10/18/2012
Series:
Transits: Literature, Thought & Culture, 1650-1850 Series
Pages:
168
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Brian Michael Norton is assistant professor of English and comparative literature at California State University, Fullerton.

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