How, in a book for free spirits, should there be no mention of Laurence Sterne, whom Goethe honoured as the most liberated spirit of his century! Let us content ourselves here simply with calling him the most liberated spirit of all time, in comparison with whom all others seem stiff, square, intolerant and boorishly direct.
Nietzsche (1968) Human, All Too Human, p. 238.
From ABC National Radio’s Philosopher’s Zone (2006) The philosophy in Tristram Shandy. “Tristram Shandy” is a novel that plays, not only with form (the unique handmarbled page, the typography, the fact the narrator digresses so much that he only completes the story of his birth in volume 3), but with philosophy, particularly that of Locke.
For a transcript of the programme and further information, please click here.
Further Reading and Listening
Glasgow University Library (2000) Book of the Month October 2000: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (online)
Karen Harvey (2014) “Nose to nose with Laurence Sterne and Tristram Shandy” OUP Blog (online)
BBC Radio 4: In Our Time (2014) Tristram Shandy (online). Featuring podcast with guests Judith Hawley, John Mullan and Mary Newbould and links to further information.
“A Sentimental Journey” (1768) shows how the language of sensibility became increasingly interiorized in the eighteenth century. Throughout the work Sterne’s interest in his surroundings and in his fellow beings is subordinate to the interior riches they provide him with: the sentimental journey is first and foremost an inner journey, through which “a large volume of adventures may be grasped” and nothing should he missed that “he can fairly lay his hands on”. If the terms here reflect the discourse of acquisitiveness and self-interest, they more generally reveal the self-reflexivity of his perception.
From Christine Levecq Slavery and Sentiment: The Politics of Feeling in Black Atlantic Antislavery Writing, 1770-1850, p. 74.
The term “sentimental”, meaning “emotion-full”, was popularised by Laurence Sterne (24 November 1713 – 18 March 1768) and can be seen of a development of ethical sentimentalism, where feelings of benevolence or sympathy are the motive force for virtue. For Sterne, feelings almost become a virtue in themselves. The benefit of emotions, then, becomes subjective experience rather than outward action.
With the exception of Shaftesbury, none of the moralists we have been examining was English. In fact, the English are in as short supply among this group as they are in the ranks of so-called English literary modernism. Almost all of the thinkers we have been discussing stemmed from the Gaelic margins of the metropolitan nation, a fact that may not be insignificant. Gaels like Burke, Hume, Hutcheson, Smith, Fordyce and Ferguson, along with figures like Goldsmith, Steele, Brooke and Sterne who were born in Ireland or of part-Gaelic provenance, were no doubt more inclined to the cult of sentiment and benevolence than their Anglo-Saxon counter-parts. This is not because Gaels are genetically more genial than the English, but because Scotland and Ireland both had powerful traditions of clan- or community-based allegiances.
It is true that kinship structures, binding customs, unwritten obligations and so-called moral economy had long been under siege in both nations from a colonially imposed system of contractual relations and possessive individualism. But aspects of this traditional way of life survived precariously alongside more modem institutions, and in the political militancy of
small tenants, crofters and labourers could offer such modernity some ferocious resistance throughout the Age of Reason.
From Terry Eagleton (2008) Trouble with Strangers, p. 77.
The first section of this book explores Sentimentalism, also known as Moral Sense Theory. Moral sentimentalists argue against the theory that human motivation is based on self-interest but also deny that morality can be derived from pure reason. Instead they hold the position that morality and altruism are based in sentiment: in the feelings human beings have for one another and their concern for each others welfare.
Of the names Eagleton mentions, Burke, Hutcheson, Goldsmith, Steele,Brooke and Sterne are Irish-born (all links to the Irish Compendium of Biography, 1878). How happy the Scottish philosophers Hume, Smith, Fordyce and Ferguson would be to be called “Gaels”, I am not entirely sure.