Enlightenment Invention of the Modern Self

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

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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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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Your professor

Leo Damrosch

About Your Professor

Leo Damrosch, Ph.D.
Harvard University
Dr. Leo Damrosch is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature Emeritus 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...
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Enlightenment Invention of the Modern Self is rated 4.9 out of 5 by 31.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A fantastic course. I was a bit reluctant to purchase this course because it seemed so much of the material had been covered before in other lecture series. However I am very glad I did give this course a chance. I enjoyed the entire series of lectures immensely. Professor Damrosch is an engaging, entertaining and though provoking lecturer who manages to make even well covered material seem fresh and exciting. If there is one think I would have liked from the course that I didn't get it would be a lecture that arrives at the self in its modern conception. But that aside I can't imagine how someone could not find this course a rewarding experienceand
Date published: 2017-11-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Some good stuff about the so-called self I wasn't sure if I had a modern self, or a pre-modern self, or a post-modern self, or maybe no self at all. After listening to this course, it seems like I've got a modern self, but you never know. Anyhow, look at all these high reviews. I saw that 100% of reviewers would recommend this course, so I asked myself, "would I"? Yes, I would, and probably for similar reasons, although to be honest, I only skimmed those reviews, probably like you're skimming this one (hello, there). What's so great about it? First, source materials: Voltaire, Laclos, Johnson, Boswell, Blake. There don't seem to be a lot of Germans represented, but what are you going to do? Mostly French, British, and one American (Franklin). Second, Leo is a good presenter. Clear and cogent. Nice voice. I wonder why this is the only course that he has. Maybe the Great Courses said, "Hey, Leo, do you want to record another course?" And Leo said, "No thanks, guys. I've got some other stuff going on." I did notice that he wrote a book about Rousseau, which I want to read after listening to this course. Also, he had one lecture on Rousseau's Reveries of a Solitary Walker, which I read. It's pretty short and pretty great. And pretty. Seriously, it's a good book that this course introduced me to. I don't know what else to say, so I think I should conclude this review. p.s. this course goes well with Alan Kors's course called "Birth of the Modern Mind". I haven't reviewed that course yet, but I plan to at some undefined point in the future. Maybe tomorrow.
Date published: 2016-12-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Flies in the face... I had just finished the excellent lecture series about the philosophical evolution of the Enlightment by Dr Kors (Birth of the Modern Mind: The Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries), and was interested in finding out a bit more from a different set of eyes...literary eyes in this case. I was initially a bit disappointed and lost in the first two lectures, until I read more thoroughly the scope of the course and got out of the Kors-inspired materialistic mode and tried to think more like a poet/author. This was a time (1670-1790) in which there was a great deal of change in the air...the world was struggling out from under the yoke of oppressive religious dogma and turning to nature and the mind of man. The world was being defined by from a purely empirical point of view...everything involved employing the scientific method of observation and replication of experiments. Decartes gave way to Newton, Pascal and Bunyon to Diderot and Voltaire. The world had changed. These new ideas flew in the face of the establishment. But for some this materialistic philosophy just didn't cut it...what about the individual...the self? The truly enlightened rejected the dualism of mind and body...the mind, they said, was just another part of the body, deeply rooted in the physicality of the whole. This concept flew in the face of a few (and growing) groups of individuals who became quite influential...folks like Rousseau, Boswell and our old friend Diderot began to produce literary works that proved that the immaterial mind...the self...is very much alive and well, thank you very much. It's here in the lecture series, starting with the discussions about Boswell, Diderot and Rousseau where Dr Damrosch hits his stride and really captured my attention (I'll admit here that I will re-listen to the first few lectures with a much more discerning eye). These were truly gifted writers whose stories are as interesting as the works they create. The series end with fascinating discussions about Ben Franklin, Adam Smith and Choderlos de Laclos, the author of 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' ('Dangerous Liaisons'). Needless to say, these authors have created works, both in life and literature, that flies in the face of our ideas about the enlightenment and leads the world into the Romance period. Highly recommended...Dr Leo is the perfect lecturer...witty and articulate. Avoid those flies and get this one on sale with a coupon.
Date published: 2016-11-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from It Never Gets Old This course was born roughly in the first decade of The Great Courses (né The Teaching Company) and, when I first experienced it, I wasn't certain I could yet comment on it intelligently. I think it was because the content was as deep as it was wide, not in an off-putting way but with a nod to its sensitivity and richness. After my second go-round, I am even more struck that Professor Damrosch has treated his subject not solely in terms of an historic or intellectual epoch, but also by allowing us to experience its principals in a very personal and inward-turning way. This is no mean feat, and Professor Damrosch handles it in a way that others (I make an exception here with Professor Alan Charles Kors of Penn) would find difficult to replicate. By all means, try to read the core texts, but you will be richer even for having applied yourself to the course content alone. A very fine job.
Date published: 2016-04-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Impressive This is a very good course. The professor is consistently interesting and sometimes brilliant. His intellectual journey from the Enlightenment to Romanticism, with his eye ahead to modernism, is one well worth taking. The stage is set nicely in the introductory lessons. We get a good sense of "the old order," especially in religious and philosophical thought, and the meaning and impact of Enlightenment thinking in the transition. What I like most about the course is how much the professor looks past the Romantic era to modern times in foreshadowing ways in which literature and philosophy that grew out of the Enlightenment shaped the modern sense of self. I realize the more I study them, oddly enough, the less I find of value in Rousseau, Boswell, and the writers, La Rochefoucauld, Lafeyette, and Laclos. But, of course, that's not the good professor's fault. And, frankly, it was good for me to get the healthy dose he delivered on them, for I #unhappily# see more of what I find at the core of the modern self in their writing than I do from Franklin, Smith, and the other philosophers. Sadly so, from my admittedly conservative point of view, in that I think there are in many ways more en-dark-enment in the modern self than en-light-enment. One certainly sees the roots of such in much of this "literature." Whether you have my perspective on these matter or not, you'll find value in this course. I recommend it.
Date published: 2016-03-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Delightful This course is dedicated to understanding the evolution of the term “self” as it was being formed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, starting with the reformation and the renaissance as the major catalysts for this process. The interesting angle here is that the subject is covered from a literary angle; Professor Damrosch attempts to build a chronological picture of how people’s concept of the self evolved over this period by analyzing central figures within literary works. So this course is a bit of a cross between literature, psychology and philosophy. Several lectures are dedicated to empiricism and romanticism, but the heart of the course lies definitely in the era of the enlightenment. The coverage of Rousseau was wonderful. It is obvious that Professor Damrosch deeply admires him, and his work is analyzed at some depth over four full lectures. I found these lectures particularly delightful… This is an absolutely delightful course. Professor Damrosch presented the material in a hugely entertaining manner, and I found the subject of how the concept of the self evolved absolutely fascinating.
Date published: 2016-01-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Excellent Vourses on the Enlightenment Audio Download. Professor Damrosch is an excellent lecturer: articulate, witty and with a great depth of knowledge of 17th and 18th Century writers and intellectual history. Professor Damrosch charts the collective Modern Self with its aspirations and discords emerging from its Enlightenment roots through concrete and eloquent analyses of persons and writings: Rousseau and Ben Franklin, the empiricists and Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Diderot and William Blake. He is an inspiring teacher: his lectures are well-organized, colorful, and clearly establish the main ideas and continuing issues he traces throughout the course. He is also extremely balanced in his approach to conflicting sides and in describing the successes and failures of writers and intellectual movements.
Date published: 2016-01-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful lectures This course takes on both the English and French Enlightenment and its values primarily through the prism of literature and writings by the likes a Hume and especially Rousseau. But authors such as Ben Franklin and Adam Smith show different paths to the changing construction of the self. The lectures culminate with a kind of collapse of the psychological and materialist views with a great discussion of William Blake and a clear foreshadowing of the coming explosion of Romanticism. Just a great course and brilliantly taught.
Date published: 2015-03-21
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