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Lester H. Hunt THE SCARLET LETTER: HAWTHORNE'S THEORY OF MORAL SENTIMENTS Nathaniel hawthorne begins The Scarlet Letter by telling us that it is set in a peculiar sort of community. Early Boston, he tells us, was originally planned by its founders as a "Utopia," a community based on someone's conception of "human virtue and happiness" (p. 39). 1 It would be difficult to imagine a work of fiction set in such a place which did not comment in some way on communities of this kind. This fact suggests the possibility that The Scarlet Letter, like The Blithedale Romance, is to some extent a political work. Hawthorne also deals with a Utopian community in The Blithedale Romance and his treatment of the Blithedale community certainly seems far from neutral. His characterization of Hollingsworth, whose high-minded plans ruin one human life and change others for the worse, puts one in mind ofAdam Smith's severe comments, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, on "the man of system," the individual who is "so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government" that he cannot acknowledge the fact that each member ofthe community contains his own "principle of motion," which is likely to be "altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon" him. Hawthorne seems to agree with Smith's claim that, if the principles involved are indeed different, then "society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder" (p. 234). Society has a natural order which is mutilated when an artificial order is imposed on it. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne is primarily interested in old Boston as an example of a particular sort of Utopian plan: one in which human life is reorganized in an attempt to base it entirely on moral ideas. His response to this sort of plan is indeed an unfavorable one, but it is based on ideas which are different from the conception of natural order implied by Smith's well-known comments on "the man of system." Nonetheless, I propose in what follows to shed light on Hawthorne's response to moralistic utopianism by relating it to certain other, though equally well-known ideas from The Theory of Moral Sentiments: namely, Smith's conception of the relationship between morality and sympathy. I will 75 76Philosophy and Literature attempt to bring the notions of morality and sympathy embodied in The Scarlet Letter into the open by interpreting them as a criticism of Smith's ideas on the same subjects. It will be found, I think, that the criticism thus produced is acute and interesting in its own right. What is more central to my purposes here is the fact that this criticism will enable us to understand the radically non-Smithian nature of Hawthorne's objections to the form of utopianism which Hawthorne thought he found in old Boston.2 Finally, I will suggest how these objections might very naturally be generalized into an argument against utopianism as such, an argument which, it seems to me, is very much in the spirit of Hawthorne's way of thinking. I In various ways, Hawthorne's position will be easier to appreciate if one first understands the rudiments of Smith's position. Sympathy, for Smith, is our tendency to feel what others feel when we perceive their expressions of those feelings (as when we hear someone crying) or become aware of the circumstances which cause them (as when we hear someone dragging his fingernails across the blackboard) (pp. 9, 1O).3 For our purposes, we can understand well enough what he says about this human trait by grasping the following six theses, all of which he holds: (1)Sympathy is an entirely natural trait (see pp. 9, 10). We do not experience the suffering of others upon seeing signs of their suffering as a result of being taught that we ought to feel such things; sympathy is not the result of culture or training. (2)Sympathy "is the source of our fellow-feeling for the misery of others" (p. 10). When we care about the feelings of others, it is for the same reason that we...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 75-88
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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