The Moral in Phutatorius's Breeches: Tristram Shandy and the Limits of Stoic Ethics
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The Moral in Phutatorius’s Breeches:
Tristram Shandy and the Limits of Stoic Ethics

At first glance, the improbable accident involving the piping-hot chestnut and the aperture in Phutatorius's breeches might seem to be a peripheral event in Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759–67). Phutatorius, after all, is a minor character in the novel, and the entire episode is narrated in three brief chapters. Yet we should be wary of dismissing any of Sterne's "sunshiny" digressions, especially one that concerns this particular piece of anatomy. Given the monstrous wound Uncle Toby received at Namur, as well as Tristram's own mishap with the sash-window, Phutatorius's misadventure warrants special attention.

This scene offers a condensed and highly detailed look at the relation between the Shandean subject and the external world, an issue that has preoccupied philosophical readings of Tristram Shandy since John Traugott, fifty years ago, observed the "ontological vast abrupt, the abysm between ideas and reality" in the novel. 1 This scholarship, though diverse in philosophical and critical orientation, has tended to frame the issue in similar ways. Taking Sterne's references to Locke as a point of departure, these critics not only see the novelist as a [End Page 405] perceptive and creative reader of the philosopher, but suggest that Tristram Shandy, like Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), explores more fully the epistemological implications of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) than Locke himself seemed willing to do: if we can never get around the screen of our own sensory impressions, how can we ever be sure our ideas are accurate reflections of what exists outside the mind? And given this isolation, how can ideas in one mind faithfully be communicated to the mind of another? 2

This scholarship has contributed immeasurably to our understanding of the philosophical ideas at play in Sterne's novel. Collectively, however, it has also worked to overstate the novel's interest in matters of epistemology. The reading I am proposing here re-examines the relation between the perceiving subject and the object of perception as an ethical problem, and suggests that the thematic focus of Tristram Shandy has less to do with the epistemological question of how accurately our ideas reflect reality than with the ethical one of how they affect our ability to bear it. 3 Because ours is a world of squeaky hinges and swiftly falling sash-windows, the good life must always be a long shot. But the novel as a whole never loses sight of the project, sharing in Walter Shandy's persistent fascination with the "secret springs" and "hidden resources" by which the "mind is enabled to stand it out, and bear itself up" against such overwhelming forces. 4 Indeed, Tristram Shandy itself is born out of this struggle: just as Tristram seeks as an author to "counterbalance" the many misfortunes that have befallen him as a man, Sterne's own dedication at the beginning of volume 1 [End Page 406] enlists the book in his effort to "fence against" the minor evils of daily living and add "something to this Fragment of Life."

The Phutatorius episode provides a case study for examining this dynamic, revealing the novel's opposition of mind and world to be as informed by Stoic ethics as by Lockean epistemology. That arguably the most successful exponent of sensibility of the period would be enticed by the ethical possibilities of Stoicism may sound unlikely. But the values of affective sentiment and Stoic impassiveness were in no way incompatible in eighteenth-century thought, as is evident in the works of Shaftesbury, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to cite a few examples. My argument in this article, at any rate, is not that the Anglican priest was secretly a Stoic, but that this scene adopts a specifically Stoic framework to work through the possibilities and limitations of living well on this "scurvy and disastrous" planet (1:8). This, to be sure, is a decidedly unorthodox Stoicism, in which Epictetan thought mingles promiscuously with Montaignean subjectivism, empiricist psychology, and Christian doctrine. What this strange episode essentially...