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On Moral Personhood: Philosophy, Literature, Criticism and Self-Understanding (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 15, Number 1, April 1991
pp. 166-167 | 10.1353/phl.1991.0078

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166Philosophy and Literature On MoralPersonhood: Philosophy, Literature, Criticism and Self-Understanding, by Richard Eldridge; xiv & 210 pp. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, $27.95. On Moral Personhood is a thoughtful and interesting book. Eldridge describes the individual both as autonomous and as embedded in society and nature. His aim is to show how an appreciation ofthis both complements and is necessary for moral self-realization. Although he admires Kant (whose views are discussed in detail in the second chapter), he rejects the idea of morality as an a priori system ofabstract rules which can be applied mechanically without regard either to the character, passions, and intellect of the agent, or to the social and natural circumstances within which the agent is located. Formulaic theories ofmorality, such as utilitarianism, are questioned on similar grounds. Eldridge characterizes moral self-realization as something lived, as an ongoing , constandy renewed and educated awareness of the integration of self with others in society and in nature through which the individual achieves authenticity, integrity, and proper respect for others. To the extent that we share human characteristics and a common environment, morality is interpersonal , but it cannot be taught or captured by any philosophical formula since the route to moral self-realization always will be conditional on the individual's nature and circumstances. The moral life—How should one live? And how mightone come to know how one should live?—is to be indicated not by precept, but by example. Accordingly, most of the book is concerned with fictional narratives which reveal one or other aspect of the process by which the self achieves autonomy and integrity through its relations to others and to nature. A chapter is devoted each to Conrad's Lord Jim, Wordsworth's poetry, Coleridge 's Frost at Midnight, and Austen's Pride and Prejudice. LordJim considers a case in which a person acknowledges a failure to express his personhood in the world and then recovers to an understanding of appropriate ways to express it. Wordsworth's poetry diagnoses and locates skepticism about the possibility of self-understanding as a natural but temporary stage in the lives ofpersons who can grasp their nature and the on-going activity that is appropriate to it. Autonomy requires community with others through expressiveactivity. FrostatMidnightis interpreted as revealing that our autonomy and our embeddedness are reconciled in activity within the frame of natural and social relationships. Pride andPrejudice shows how happiness and fulfillment in marriage are not matters of compromise and material comfort, but rather matters of attunement and intimacy which are possible, and of the reasonable, principled, cooperative development of persons with integrity. Only in relation to each other are Elizabeth and Darcy able to bring their passions and ideals into alignment and to satisfying fulfillment. Our deep needs as persons can be satisfying only in a community of respect, where there are attunement and a Reviews167 shared purpose—what might be called mutual creative articulation or constructiveness . Happiness in relationships, rather than a mere sensation, is bound up with a lived understanding of oneself and the other and the relationship achieved. While the thought in the introductory chapters is sophisticated and subde, I found the style there uninvitingly dense. By contrast, the later discussion of the literary examples is absorbing, especially in its consideration of Pride and Prejudice. Some contemporary versions of virtue ethics, however, with their emphasis both on the character ofthe agent and on the context ofaction, might be thought to provide a congenial philosophical framework for Eldridge's analysis . It is therefore disappointing that he chooses not to discuss them. University of AucklandStephen Davies The Politics ofLiterary Reputation: The Making and Claiming of"St. George" Orwell, byJohn Rodden; xiii & 478 pp. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, $27.50. "The words of a dead man," Auden reminds us in his elegy, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," "Are modified in the guts of the living." This sea change, the process through which the work of a real author is transformed into the rich and strange alimentary substances that satisfy a bewildering variety of hungers, is the subject ofJohn Rodden's ground-breaking study of literary reputations. His double task is suggested by...