- The Fate of Eloquence in the Age of Hume
With the memory still fresh of Jerome Christensen’s Practicing Enlightenment, I experienced no small anxiety on reading Adam Potkay’s first acknowledgment, to Prof. Christensen and his “provocative seminar” on Hume. I finished a third of The Fate of Eloquence in the Age of Hume before the overt nod, when Potkay spotlights the essayist Hume’s appeal to a female readership: “Within this doux commerce, the figures of classical eloquence are entirely too priapic—too ‘swelling . . . monstrous and gigantic’—to be admitted” (p. 75). However, Hume’s self-castration wound is mercifully left unprobed, and the priapus doesn’t come up again until Potkay’s own prosopopoeia, “ancient eloquence’s priapic energy” (p. 158). Although he follows Christensen’s equation of polite letters with effeminacy, Potkay treats gender more materially than metaphorically. Although attending to his poststructuralist debts with such observations as “Hume, the unmoved mover, observes the spiritual implosion of one whose passions cannot, like his own, be alleviated through voyeurism” (p. 125), Potkay ultimately fulfills his promise to draw his insights from “a history of eighteenth-century reading and reception” (p. 22). In a clear prose he conveys his focused argument, about “the fate of eloquence” in the modern [End Page 244] reconfiguration of society, through a variety of illustrations; as a result, the book has broad appeal to readers interested in literary contexts of rhetoric, gender, and culture.
Situating Hume as the center of shared interest and assumption, Potkay defines an “Age of Hume,” a constellation of writers responding to and producing a tension between an ideal of classical eloquence and modern codes of politeness. Boldly establishing this tension “as the characteristic theme of the era,” Potkay makes a compelling case for politeness as the primary means of class stratification for emergent capitalist society. (Paul Fussell has also applied an eighteenth-century literary mind to contemporary sociology in his Class: A Guide Through the American Status System.) In his epilogue, Potkay brings his thesis home, to the ironies of academic publishing elitism and the “peculiarly American commitment to civic equality.”
Several ruling assumptions guide Potkay’s treatment of the eloquence/politeness dualism. Reading high-canon writers and moral philosophers, Potkay defines eighteenth-century Britain as an age “that does not want its passions inflamed” and suspects eloquence of aiming to seduce the masses with rhetorical figures and physical gesture. Equated with popular government, eloquence threatens to manipulate “our untutored responses”—passions unmediated by moral and social education—within an exclusively “masculine” political economy. Echoing Christensen, Potkay finds “a characteristic irony” of the new “sentimental commerce” in the “polite restraint of the sexual passions that covertly fuel it” (p. 147). Writers must adapt to the paradigm shift of a new commercial and literary economy which included a sentimental ideal of woman as social sovereign—a model of polite literacy and civility which Hume described in his initial piece, “Of Essay Writing.”
Potkay diffuses his gender-based thesis over a broad political and philosophical perspective. Politeness redressed the conflict between masculine populism (Bolingbroke) and effeminate luxury (Walpole) and “served to compensate for virtue lost through commercial progress” (p. 194). Potkay points out the ultimately political association of eloquence with vulgarity: savages, children, and the insane speak a language “thought to abound in figures”—a convenient habit in those whom a ruling class would exclude from “mature, rational discourse” (p. 68). (Here, Potkay elides the more complex “woman” from the above marginalia, for immediate reasons of either obviousness or neatness.)
On the philosophical front Hume variously affirmed and problematized a “topos of eloquence as error.” Treatise-lovers may regret that he simmered this passionately figurative text down into the duller and drier Enquiries in order to fulfill a polite—and commercial—demand for the replacement of oral with written culture, of emotional gesticulation with “rationality, abstraction, logic” (p. 63). Potkay’s arguments suggest a ruling irony in this paradigm-shift: the association of eloquence (masculine) with emotionalism and politeness (feminine) with rationality and...