Romantic Conscience: Conscience Formation and the Social Emotions in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Wordsworth, and Percy Shelley

by Roche, Thomas G., Ph.D., UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SANTA BARBARA, 2012, 279 pages; 3545125


My dissertation examines the idea of conscience in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and in two English romantic poets, William Wordsworth and Percy Shelley, whose thinking about conscience grows out of a dialogue with Rousseau. I concentrate primarily on shame and guilt and other emotions associated with conscience, following Rousseau's definition of conscience as a moral sentiment, although not to the exclusion of other aspects such as self-reflection. Throughout, I address three broad issues: I demonstrate the influence of Rousseau's thinking about conscience on Wordsworth and Shelley; I elaborate these three formulations of conscience and their relation to Enlightenment and psychoanalytic concepts of the mind; and I examine the role of these formulations in each author's reflections on writing and the modes of self-representation and self-reformation that writing entails.

I argue that the double or split consciousness commonly ascribed to the narrators of Rousseau's Confessions, Wordsworth's Prelude, and Shelley's Alastor bears a particular relation to the notions of conscience that emerge in these texts as they revise traditional concepts of guilt and authority. In fact, a major claim of this dissertation is that Rousseau's cultivation of internal divisions within the psyche—in particular of a consciousness of such divisions—is one of his major legacies to the thought of English romanticism. On a deeper level, I also suggest that the self-division by which the writer judges, and thus gains distance on, his own or his society's guilt is one of the devices that allows him to re-access affects that are the means of liberation or change. By this I mean not only the recentering of conscience on shame, rather than guilt, which follows from the general diffusion of agency that characterizes notions of selfhood in Rousseau and Shelley, if not Wordsworth. I also mean that each writer desires to reconnect with affects that speak to, because they emerge from, something analogous to Rousseau's l'homme de la nature or natural man. Their project of recreating conscience includes an attempt to root conscience more securely in the emotions, such as compassion, that Rousseau associates with l'homme de la nature. It thus radically reconfigures shame and guilt and the other social emotions, so that they are guided by this reformatory affect and by an aversion to harming the other, rather than by a more superficial concern for one's image in the eyes of the other, such as typically motivates envy and the desire for revenge.

The narratives about conscience formation that I discuss typically comprise a two-part process, in which a moment of rebellion is followed by a hesitation or reassessment. After checking his rebellion, each writer articulates a new form of authority or a new constitution of the social. My project revises the dominant treatment of the second part of this process, which associates it primarily with political reaction or retreat, especially in the case of Wordsworth, and a return to convention. The moment of reengagement with the social, I argue, is an attempt to recreate conscience so that less punitive and more vital and compassionate than censorious or sin-based models. The trajectory of my project also describes a gradual enlarging of the scope of possible models for conscience, from family and small communities in Rousseau to nation in Wordsworth to Shelley's international community of poets--a community of poets, in the largest sense, of whom Shelley would come to consider Rousseau the paradigmatic model.

AdviserJulie Carlson
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsComparative literature; Romance literature; English literature
Publication Number3545125

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