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Enlightenment Invention of the Modern Self

Enlightenment Invention of the Modern Self

Professor Leo Damrosch Ph.D.
Harvard University
Course No.  4117
Course No.  4117
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

You are a product of the Enlightenment. In fact, the philosophy behind so much that has created the modern concept of Self—politics, economics, psychology, science and technology, education, art—was invented as recently as the Enlightenment of the 18th century. In The Enlightenment Invention of the Modern Self, literary scholar Leo Damrosch of Harvard University considers the time when ideas about the self were first considered.

Through the eyes of the Enlightenment's greatest writers, you follow the origin of new ways of thinking—ideas we today take for granted but are startlingly recent—about the individual and society.

You see how these notions emerged in an era of transition from a world dominated by classical thought, institutional religion, and the aristocracy to one that was increasingly secular, scientific, skeptical, and middle class. The 18th century was a crucible for new questions that, among other things:

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You are a product of the Enlightenment. In fact, the philosophy behind so much that has created the modern concept of Self—politics, economics, psychology, science and technology, education, art—was invented as recently as the Enlightenment of the 18th century. In The Enlightenment Invention of the Modern Self, literary scholar Leo Damrosch of Harvard University considers the time when ideas about the self were first considered.

Through the eyes of the Enlightenment's greatest writers, you follow the origin of new ways of thinking—ideas we today take for granted but are startlingly recent—about the individual and society.

You see how these notions emerged in an era of transition from a world dominated by classical thought, institutional religion, and the aristocracy to one that was increasingly secular, scientific, skeptical, and middle class. The 18th century was a crucible for new questions that, among other things:

  • Reversed religious notions that human nature and the material world were infected by sin; instead they became beneficial
  • Provided a new rationale for the way we obtain and use knowledge
  • Coined or redefined words—such as humor, sentiment, and sensibility—to reflect new attitudes about feelings and personality
  • Disputed the classical dictum that art should "hold a mirror up to nature" and serve a moral purpose
  • Laid the groundwork for theories of the unconscious
  • Nurtured the development of the novel, with new ways of understanding psychological and social experience
  • Invented the autobiography
  • Raised pre-Darwinian ideas about evolution
  • Suggested that men and women should be treated as equals.

Understand the Enlightenment through its Great Books

These lectures are essentially about ideas and about books—how great ideas are alive and powerful in the pages of significant written works. The guiding premise is that the best way to appreciate the thinking of a given period is to explore its literature.

You note or discuss at length a range of novels, autobiographies, and biographies from the 1670s to the 1790s, including The Pilgrim's Progress, Candide, The London Journal, The Social Contract, Confessions, and Songs of Innocence and of Experience. If you haven't already done so, this is your opportunity to familiarize yourself with this remarkable collection of works.

Professor Damrosch is the perfect teacher to lead you on this literary tour. He served a five-year term as chairman of Harvard's Department of English, and in 2001 was named a Harvard College Professor in recognition of distinguished teaching. His books that explore Enlightenment themes include Samuel Johnson and the Tragic Sense, Symbol and Truth in Blake's Myth, The Imaginative World of Alexander Pope, and Fictions of Reality in the Age of Hume and Johnson.

Through its literature, and with Professor Damrosch as your guide, you explore key themes and issues of the Enlightenment. One of these is the notion of authenticity. Do we have an authentic self, or are we simply the various roles we play? Is there such a thing as truth, or are our values, and even our motivations, arbitrary and artificial?

You consider these questions in the light of such works by Denis Diderot as D'Alembert's Dream, Rameau's Nephew, and the "antinovel" Jacques the Fatalist. The lectures on Les Liaisons Dangereuses, toward the end of the course, examine the potentially explosive implications of such thinking.

Another central issue was the way the Enlightenment revealed a need for new intellectual tools. For example, its main philosophy, empiricism, had no concept of what we would now call the unconscious. It could not account for feelings of conflict or alienation, or for neuroses or obsessions.

The problems this created can be seen in the biographies of the time. In his Life of Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson describes Pope's physical disability but never considers its psychological effects on Pope's life and work. Similarly, Edward Gibbon, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, fails to recognize that sadism might be the cause of the emperor Commodus's atrocities. Such blind spots cried out for new intellectual tools to deal with human psychology.

We Talk Like Rousseau, but Live Like Franklin

The Enlightenment identified a psychological conflict that underlies modern life. On the one hand, we have a strong belief in our individual uniqueness and self-sufficiency. On the other hand, we acknowledge that exterior forces—nature and society—have great power to nurture us. One highlight of this course is how Professor Damrosch makes this conflict clear by vividly comparing two highly influential Enlightenment figures: the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and American statesman Benjamin Franklin.

Rousseau was the Enlightenment's most original thinker. His legacy to us is intellectual and inward-looking: about psychology and education, the value we place on introspection, our need to find and fulfill our unique potential, and the framework we use to discuss our feelings of conflict with society at large.

Franklin was action-oriented and outward-focused. He provides the role model for daily life: optimistic, characterized by disciplined work to create tangible accomplishments, and defined by the belief that involvement in society, for the betterment of society, is the optimal way to live.

In Professor Damrosch's opinion, we conduct ourselves and understand our lives along a spectrum that runs from Rousseau to Franklin. In fact, he believes that, in general, "Our culture talks the Rousseau line but lives the Franklin life."

What was, after all, the modern self that the Enlightenment invented? This course suggests that it was a new human insight, one that rejected absolute or easily generalized explanations and embraced the conflict, confusion, and paradox of life. It was a new and dynamic account of human life—one that continues to both benefit and afflict us.

A Partial List of Books You Discuss

This course either takes note of or discusses at length works from the 1670s to the 1790s, including:

  • The Pilgrim's Progress (John Bunyan)
  • Pensées (Blaise Pascal)
  • Discourse on Method (René Descartes)
  • Leviathan (Thomas Hobbes)
  • Maxims (François, Duc de la Rochefoucauld)
  • La Princesse de Clèves (Mme. de Lafayette)
  • An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (John Locke)
  • A Treatise of Human Nature (David Hume)
  • Candide (Voltaire)
  • The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Edward Gibbon)
  • Memoirs of My Life (Edward Gibbon)
  • The London Journal (James Boswell)
  • Encyclopedia of the Sciences, Arts, and Trades (Denis Diderot)
  • Jacques the Fatalist (Denis Diderot)
  • D'Alembert's Dream (Denis Diderot)
  • Rameau's Nephew (Denis Diderot)
  • A Discourse on Inequality (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)
  • The Social Contract (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)
  • Reveries of the Solitary Walker (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)
  • Confessions (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)
  • Autobiography (Benjamin Franklin)
  • The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Adam Smith)
  • The Wealth of Nations (Adam Smith)
  • Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Choderlos de Laclos)
  • Songs of Innocence and of Experience (William Blake)
  • The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (William Blake)
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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Changing Ideas of the Self
    Why study Enlightenment ideas about the self? This lecture presents an overview of the traditional belief system of 1500 to 1700, and how its coherent picture of psychological life began to break down during the Renaissance and Reformation. x
  • 2
    17th-Century Religious Versions of the Self
    This lecture examines two great religious writers, the English Protestant John Bunyan and the French Catholic Blaise Pascal. Enlightenment thinkers would insist on the positive value of this world, would make pride a virtue rather than a sin, and would seek fulfillment in social interaction, not in self-disciplining solitude. x
  • 3
    17th-Century Secular Versions of the Self
    This lecture considers the implications of René Descartes' rationalism and of the empiricism of the British political theorist Thomas Hobbes. Enlightenment thinkers had to reconfigure empiricism to avoid its grimmer aspects—defining competition as constructive and sociability as natural for human beings. x
  • 4
    Lafayette, La Princesse de Clèves, I
    The aristocratic court culture in France at the end of the 17th century held a shrewd but narrow world-view. The pioneering novel La Princesse de Clèves by Mme. de Lafayette. Today's culture aspires to an ideal of truth-telling authenticity, but most 17th-century writers took for granted that we never can know the truth about our own motives. x
  • 5
    La Princesse de Clèves, II
    La Princesse de Clèves, for all its greatness, presented a world-view that was unable to envision the possibility of companionate love, of sexual enjoyment that is not a power play, or an evolving personality as opposed to a static character. x
  • 6
    British Empiricism and the Self, I
    The philosophy of empiricism provided a default framework for psychology throughout the 18th century. Empiricism was an empowering ideology of a middle-class culture that needed value in competition and a secure basis for cooperation in the social self. We discuss empiricist psychology in the immensely influential writings of John Locke. x
  • 7
    British Empiricism and the Self, II
    The Scottish philosopher David Hume exposed some crucial questions that Locke had evaded. Hume's radical skepticism dissolved any possibility of knowing what the self is. The lecture concludes with the poet Alexander Pope, who struggled to make sense of inner conflict in the limiting confines of the empiricist framework. x
  • 8
    Voltaire, Candide
    Voltaire's career and writings reflect the outwardly directed and pragmatism of the Enlightenment. Voltaire dismissed introspection and directed his inspired propaganda at historical events. In the satiric fable Candide he parodies philosophical optimism. x
  • 9
    Voltaire, Johnson, Gibbon-Some Lives
    As an approach to 18th-century ways of understanding behavior, this lecture considers biographies by several major writers to show how hard it was to recognize, let alone to explain, issues that would later become central in biographical explanation. x
  • 10
    Boswell, The London Journal, I
    The London Journal, a diary kept by the young James Boswell in 1762–1763, gives valuable insight into problems of the self as experienced by an actual person. The problems he raises are important symptoms, exposing issues that the culture as a whole will have to acknowledge and try to deal with. x
  • 11
    The London Journal, II
    Boswell strives impressively to reconcile his conflicted feelings. We use a modern perspective to clarify what he has trouble understanding: his role-playing, euphemistic language, attraction to prostitutes, his "melancholy" or bipolar disorder. Empiricist psychology had no way of addressing the psychological suffering that Boswell experienced. x
  • 12
    Diderot's Dialogues
    Diderot played a central role in the public mission of the Enlightenment. He was editor of the Encyclopédie, which aspired to promote open inquiry and make technological knowledge available to all. x
  • 13
    Diderot, Jacques the Fatalist, I
    In this novel Diderot presents a world in which the narrator can never be trusted to tell a reliable story. Jacques the Fatalist refuses to be "realistic" and develops a metafictional perspective on the way we normally try to find "truth" in works of fiction. x
  • 14
    Jacques the Fatalist, II
    The fatalism of his title refers to the idea that everything is determined by an unbreakable chain of causes, but as Diderot also acknowledges, human beings cannot help believing in freedom. x
  • 15
    Rousseau, Inequality and Social Contract
    Empiricism left each individual trapped in a private subjectivity. Rousseau's response to this dilemma was to consider that, perhaps, we do have an authentic self that has been covered over and distorted by a lifetime of social conditioning. x
  • 16
    Rousseau, The Confessions, I
    Rousseau began the Confessions to assert his personal integrity and to recover the meanings in childhood experiences that haunted his memory. In doing so, he reveals fundamental patterns in his psychic life. x
  • 17
    The Confessions, II
    The episodes recounted in Confessions implicitly confirm Rousseau's theory of natural man and his deformation by civilization. He presents a critique of the assumptions of empiricism with respect to particularity and generality, the self and memory, and the value of the imagination. x
  • 18
    Rousseau, Reveries of the Solitary Walker
    Detaching himself from society, Rousseau invokes nature as his god-term and becomes a major contributor to the current of thought later known as Romanticism, in which human beings receive spiritual sustenance from external phenomena. x
  • 19
    Franklin, Autobiography
    In Franklin's Autobiography we return to the optimism, practicality, and sociability of the empiricist model that has continued to influence our culture to this day. Franklin embodied the American ideal of being well adjusted and, in his own time, was seen as the quintessential American. x
  • 20
    Franklin and Adam Smith
    This lecture examines the psychological and economic writings of Adam Smith, which advance a powerful theoretical foundation for the values that Franklin exemplified in his life. x
  • 21
    Laclos, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, I
    This lecture introduces the most compelling and thought-provoking novel of the 18th century. Written as a series of letters, it makes the truth about human motives seem unknowable: Most of the characters are so skilled at duplicity; even their attempts at self-knowledge are doomed to failure. x
  • 22
    Les Liaisons Dangereuses, II
    Les Liaisons challenges us to find a moral perspective in a hermetically closed society, where power is the only value, but refuses to give us a place to stand and remains disturbingly ambiguous throughout. x
  • 23
    Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience
    The final two lectures look back at the Enlightenment from the perspective of the Romantic movement that succeeded it, focusing on William Blake's imaginative works that brilliantly reconceive the central issues of this course. x
  • 24
    Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
    Written in response to the excitement of the French Rev¬olution, Blake's book uses a medley of genres to explore interrelated themes in psychology, politics, and religion. With Blake, we take a retrospective view of what the Enlightenment achieved in understanding the self and of what it left undone. x

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Leo Damrosch
Ph.D. Leo Damrosch
Harvard University
Dr. Leo Damrosch is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature at Harvard University, where he has been teaching since 1989. He earned a B.A. from Yale University, an M.A. from Cambridge University, where he was a Marshall Scholar, and a Ph.D. from Princeton University. At Harvard, Professor Damrosch was named a Harvard College Professor in recognition of distinguished teaching. He has held National Endowment for the Humanities and Guggenheim research fellowships and has also directed National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminars for college teachers. Dr. Damrosch is the author of several books, including Tocqueville's Discovery of America, Samuel Johnson and the Tragic Sense, Symbol and Truth in Blake's Myth, The Imaginative World of Alexander Pope, Fictions of Reality in the Age of Hume and Johnson, and The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus: James Nayler and the Puritan Crackdown on the Free Spirit. He also published a biography, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius, which was one of five finalists for the 2005 National Book Award in Nonfiction, and won the PEN New England/Winship Award for best work of nonfiction.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by 23 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Exceptional & Insightful AUDIO DOWNLOAD This is yet another great TC course. I have long had an interest in the Enlightenment and am familiar with most of the authors and writings analyzed, but not from the perspective of explaining human motivation and behavior. I have learned a good deal more about my old favorites and something quite significant about several new ones. Professor Damrosch is an excellent guide to how the concept of the ‘self’ evolved over the course of the 18th century. He clearly shows that empiricism’s objective and outward-directed outlook (“…the default form of explanation in the 18th century”, most notably represented by David Hume’s radical skepticism, denying the ability to even know the self and “…reduc[ing] human life to an endless game of role playing’, Course Guidebook, page 24), led to the Romantic reaction which “tend[ed] to stress imaginative perception or intuition and a return to spiritual values that the Enlightenment denigrated”, page 86). Professor Damrosch, however, also shows how our understanding of the ‘self’ incorporates “… concepts and terms that we have inherited from the 18th century Enlightenment” (page 1). One of the many excellent aspects of this course is Professor Damrosch’s lectures on 17th century traditional religious and secular views of human motivation and behavior, against which the Enlightenment rebelled. I especially enjoyed his detailed treatments of John Bunyan, Blaise Pascal, and Rene Descartes. On the other side of the subject, Professor Damrosch does a good job in bringing Thomas Hobbes into better relief, showing his continuing influence into 18th century treatments of the self, most notably and, for me, surprisingly, on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In some important respects, this could have been alternatively titled ‘Rousseau and the Invention of the Modern Self’ or even ‘On the Road to Romanticism’. Rousseau is really key in both regards, as he counters the “activist” Enlightenment in its blindness to “…the conflicted and dynamic nature of physic life” (p.39). Rousseau’s presentation of the self in its complexity and subjectivity, primarily in his ‘Confessions’ (though Professor Damrosch also treats his other writings and dispels many popular misconceptions about them), serves as an Enlightenment counter model to the objective, skeptical, pragmatic, behaviorist, and socially-oriented nature of the prevailing empiricism. Even more fundamental, however, is what Professor Damrosch identifies as a key failure of the Enlightenment “…in doing away with the concept of evil, which it saw as the product of a mistaken religious system, [it was] left without an explanation for the very things the concept of evil was meant to explain” (page 32). The fitting end of the course then comes in the two lectures on Choderlos de Laclos’ ‘ Les Liaisons Dangereuses’, which “…implicitly rejects empiricist psychology as inadequate to explain human treachery and self-deception” (page 70) and two lectures on Blake, who provides a Romantic perspective on the Enlightenment in his attempts to “…recover the depth of understanding that the religious tradition provided before the Enlightenment displaced it, while establishing conflict and energy as essential to human life rather than as threats to be subdued” (page 76). Professor Damrosch’s lectures are well organized and very easy to follow. The professor’s delivery is excellent in every way, and he fully describes the works selected and quotes liberally from them, so previous knowledge of the authors and their works is not required to appreciate this course. There is so much more to this richly detailed course that I could go on about, but this review is already too long. Enjoy! October 23, 2013
Rated 4 out of 5 by Captivating! In this series of lectures, Professor Damrosh offers a fascinating concoction of philosophy and literature focusing on the evolving concept of the self in the 17th and 18th centuries. Reading the literary works prior to listening to the lectures makes these all the more worthwhile. They truly add depth to some productions that may appear per se somewhat mundane and superficial, for instance ‘Boswell’s Journal’. Professor Damrosh provides a profound analysis of Jean-Jacques Rousseau although his own appreciation may not necessarily be transferred to the listener. Surprisingly, and interestingly, he contrasts him with Benjamin Franklin who comes out as a refreshingly positive thinker. The only drawback to this series is its abrupt ending, as if Professor Damrosh had run out of time to draw a conclusion _ though one may surmise that he prefers not to conclude himself on such a multifaceted topic and let the listener think things out by himself. This course is definitely recommended to all willing to invest time and thought on the evolution of philosophy at this pivotal period. Some may also be interested in a very serious and rigorous Teach12 complement to this course: ‘Birth of the Modern Mind’ by Professor Alan Charles Kors. January 6, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Get this course - it's fantastic Silly me, I thought this would be a boring course! I bought it on big discount, thinking every educated person "should" know this stuff. On the contrary, the course is interesting, fun, "uber" engaging, and (forgive me) enlightening. The lecturer has a top top notch speaking voice: respectful, playful, excellent use of inflection. He keeps you enthralled, both with his speaking style and his content. Something I loved about this course: it is filled with detailed examples of the points he made. (I had been afraid it would be too conceptual and abstract. Silly me.) He spends quite a bit of time on written works that I had never heard of, making it particularly engaging. Exciting, actually. He made me want to read the works he talks about. So, mea culpa to me for having pre-judged this *outstanding* course. A last statement on the subject: You *can't go wrong* with this course, either for you or as a gift to an enlightened friend. December 17, 2012
Rated 5 out of 5 by 10star course-Please make it available! This is an outstanding course, not only because of the quality of the professor (the best Harvard has to offer) but because of its unique interdisciplinary blend of literature and philosophy. It appeals to all ranges of abilities, including gentle introductions to graduate level scholarship while offering accessibility to the literature novice. Why then limit the course to downloads? Please: a transcript and a DVD or at least a CD version. April 27, 2012
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