The eighteenth century used to be the “Age of Reason.” But not anymore. Now it has become the “Age of Sen-sibility.” The heart has replaced the head. Everywhere recently literary and historical scholars have discovered that in the so-called Enlightenment feelings seem to have been more important than thought, emotion more important than intellect. Perhaps this recent scholarly tendency is symptomatic of our time, with its often mawkish sentimentality and lots of people, including the President, feeling other people’s pain. Or perhaps it is due to the new interest in gender history and the ways in which feminine feelings asserted themselves in the eighteenth century, particularly in the new form of the novel. But whatever the reasons there is no denying the extent to which scholars have come to regard sentiment and sensibility as the animating moral force of the eighteenth century.
Sensibility meant the receptivity of the senses, the capacity of people to receive impressions through their senses and thereby develop understanding and sensitivity. In the English-speaking world interest in this receptivity grew out of the sensationalist epistemology systematized by John Locke in the late seventeenth century. It is hard for us today to appreciate the intellectual breakthrough represented by Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) and by the radically new value placed on knowledge acquired through the senses. In the late sixteenth century Sir Humphrey Gilbert was certain that there was a western passage through the New World to China. It was true, he admitted, that no one had yet seen the passage. But that did not matter. The difference between brute beasts and men, or between the simple and the wise, Gilbert wrote in his Discourse for a Discovery of a New Passage to Cathay (1576), “is that the one judgeth by sense only and gathereth no surety of anything that he hath not seen, felt, heard, tasted or smelled, and the other not so only, but also findeth the certainty of things by reason, before they happen to be tried.”
A century later no one could put the mind ahead of the senses as assuredly as Gilbert had done. By Locke’s time, the senses, and thus the capacities of ordinary people, had assumed a significance that the succeeding century would only expand, especially as theorists developed a new understanding of neurology. Drawing on Newton’s work on Opticks, physicians and others set forth the idea that sense impressions gathered from the external world excited vibrations that passed along nerve fibers to the brain or the soul and thus affected the character of people. Few revolutions in Western consciousness have been more important than the emergence of the culture of sensibility.
By the middle of the eighteenth century the senses and sensibility had come to dominate the Western world, and reason had become something of a handmaiden to emotion. Indeed, David Hume went so far as to assert that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions; and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Since passions and feelings seemed so much more prevalent and susceptible to manipulation than reason, new possibilities for reforming society opened up. Lockean psychology presumed a world that could be fashioned and made over, if only the impressions and sensations that besieged the senses could be controlled. People became aware, as never before in history, that they might be able to create their own culture. By playing on people’s senses and refining and improving their sensibilities, reformers and moralists could turn growing numbers of them into more loving and more compassionate human beings.
Sensibility now assumed a moral value that it had never had before. People seemed to care for one another in ways they had not in the past, and they began to feel the pain of other beings, including animals. Sympathy and compassion and the avoidance of cruelty became the measure of one’s humanity. Tears were everywhere, and shedding them became the sign of a true and tender heart. Diderot declared that a people who wept could never be wicked, and Voltaire judged the value of his plays by the tears they created. Sentimental novels flourished, and writers like Samuel Richardson and Laurence Sterne became identified with the cult of sensibility. Thomas Jefferson was no great novel reader, but he loved Sterne. How much he appreciated Sterne’s humor is unclear, but he certainly admired his moralism; indeed, he concluded that Sterne’s works “form the best course of morality that ever was written.” He kept seeking ever smaller copies of Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey so he could carry it with him when he traveled.
Jefferson’s admiration for Sterne is not surprising, for Jefferson was one of the most enthusiastic of eighteenth-century American moral reformers. Like other American revolutionary liberals, Jefferson believed in the equality of all men, and this belief grew out of his basic understanding of people’s sensibilities and their instinctive capacity for moral judgments. Perhaps only a few people were capable of reason and intellectual achievement, but all people had senses and were capable of having their feelings refined and their hearts enlarged. Indeed, Jefferson believed that a plain unlettered person at times might even have a greater sense of right and wrong than an educated gentlemen. “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor,” he said; “the former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.” This is essentially what Jefferson and other Americans meant when they claimed in 1776 that all men partook of the same common nature.
Most revolutionary Americans in 1776 certainly believed in Lockean sensationalism, in the capacity of human beings to manipulate their environment in order to reform their society and character; indeed, that belief was central to their faith in the future. But they were not such out-and-out sensationalists that they counted on men and women being able by reason alone to control the environment’s chaotic bombardment of their senses. Something else was needed to structure their sense experiences. Otherwise human personalities, said James Wilson of Pennsylvania, quoting Hume, would become “a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity…in a perpetual flux and movement.” A society composed only of fluctuating sensations was impossible; something had to bind people together intuitively and naturally. As Jefferson pointed out, “The Creator would indeed have been a bungling artist, had he intended man for a social animal, without planting in him social dispositions.”
Americans, following Shaftesbury and other eighteenth-century theorists, modified their stark Lockean environmentalism by positing a natural social disposition, a moral instinct, a sense of sympathy, in each human being. Such a moral gyroscope—often identified with Scottish moral or common-sense thinking and resembling Kant’s categories—was needed to counteract the worst and most frightening implications of Lockean sensationalism and to keep individuals levelheaded and sociable in a confused and chaotic world. If man’s character were simply the consequence of the “impressions” made upon him “from an infinite variety of objects external and internal…,” wrote Nathaniel Chipman, judge and one-time senator from Vermont, “he would be the sport of blind impulses.” There was a “necessity” therefore “for a balance, as well as some arbiter of moral action.” And this balancer or arbiter was not reason, which was too unequally distributed in people, but a common moral sense—a moral intuition existing in every person’s heart or conscience that made possible natural compassion and affection and that bound everyone together in a common humanity.
Even the lowliest of persons, it was assumed, possessed this sense of sympathy, or moral feeling for others. Thomas Robbins, a young divinity student and a schoolmaster in Sheffield, Massachusetts, recounted in his diary in the 1790s the incident of a black boy of about four who asked Robbins about a cut on his thumb. The boy told him, “If I had some plaster I would give you some to put on it.” Robbins was overwhelmed by the boy’s sympathy. “He appears to act from the pure dictates of nature without the least cultivation. If in anyone, I think we can see nature in him.” The conclusion was obvious: “Is there not then in human nature a principle of benevolence?”
Thus, as one American declared in 1791, it was “natural to infer, that a disposition to do good, must, in some degree, be common to all men.” From this assumption flowed the confidence of many late-eighteenth-century Americans in the natural affability and benevolence of people, especially of themselves. They believed that they were the greatest people of feeling in the world.
Andrew Burstein, professor of history at the University of Northern Iowa, is rightly fascinated by this culture of sensibility, and in his book, Sentimental Democracy, he has set out to relate it to the American Revolution, which, he writes, remains “the ultimate source of all American optimism.” He does not have a lengthy description of how this culture arose, but his brief summary of its origins toward the end of his book reveals rather graphically how he tends to treat such matters of intellectual history. “In the end,” he writes, “it was a combination of factors that produced the culture of sentiment and sympathy.” He then proceeds to list these “factors”: “the eighteenth century’s long and grievous experience with seemingly unavoidable tragedies (wars, shipwrecks, mortal diseases, complications attending childbirth), the European Enlightenment that encouraged both humanism and science, and a growing ideal of refinement that asked men and women to behave respectfully and generously.” One cannot quarrel with the last two “factors,” but the first is quite puzzling. Was the eighteenth century’s experience with these tragedies worse than previous centuries’? Whatever the causes of this culture of sympathy, Burstein says, “eighteenth-century Americans helped one another cope with their common distresses,” and eventually “a new emotional system took hold.”
Describing how that “new emotional system took hold” in America in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is the task Burstein has set for himself. He wants to know how Americans developed an emotionally based national identity and why they came to think of themselves as an especially generous, humane, and benevolent people. He wants to explain the origins of that “democratic spirit” and “moral quality” that lie behind Americans’ presumption that “it is right that their country should take the lead in feeding the hungry or rescue earthquake victims elsewhere in the world.” In short, he wants “to narrate the story of America’s romance with itself.”
Lest these ambitions seem too grandiose, however, Burstein immediately manages to tone them down. He does not want, he says, to prescribe or scientifically analyze the minds of the Americans he is investigating. And true to his word, his book is far more descriptive than analytical. In the end he wants “simply to stir the pot of Americans’ passions.”