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Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.1 (2002) 112-115
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Ethical and Moral Reflections
Catherine Cusset. No Tomorrow: The Ethics of Pleasure in the French Enlightenment(Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1999). Pp. xv + 208. $35.00 cloth.
Blakey Vermeule. The Party of Humanity: Writing Moral Psychology in Eighteenth-Century Britain(Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000). Pp. xii + 250. $42.00 cloth.
In the conclusion to No Tomorrow, her study of the "ethics of pleasure" in the French libertine novel, the novelist and critic Catherine Cusset defends a certain view of irony propounded in the stories she has discussed, a "libertine irony" that is "directed against the moral and metaphysical impulse, which is always privileged over that other dimension, denied and repressed: pleasure" (170). "Always privileged," that is, by literary critics and ordinary readers, who refuse to see how a novel about sex and the pleasures of the flesh can be serious, liberating, even "philosophical." Libertine novels, according to Cusset, are serious (and [End Page 112] ironic) because they "mock and frustrate the reader's desire for morals and metaphysics": they show us that, even though the mind may aspire to a life free from complications, the body keeps bringing it down to earth. Above all, they refuse to totalize, to attempt to resolve all contradictions in the lives of their characters or the minds of their readers. No Tomorrow and Blakey Vermeule's admirable meditation on eighteenth-century moral psychology, The Party of Humanity, have much in common: they are almost old-fashioned in their ahistoricalness, favoring the close reading over the contextual one; they treat philosophers as writers and writers as philosophers; and they turn disreputable doctrines (libertinism in pre-revolutionary France, and egotism in eighteenth-century England) into profound reflections on the way we live today. Cusset's distinction, however, is a useful way to say how they differ, for if her book is deftly ironic, Vermeule's is weightily metaphysical.
Vermeule is persuaded by the contemporary theory that she terms, alternatively, evolutionary psychology, empiricist ethics, evolutionary ethics, or just plain naturalism. That theory holds that human beings are motivated exclusively by self-interest, and what may look to us like disinterestedness or altruism is really self-interest in disguise. A parent who sacrifices herself for her child is therefore really preserving (and "selfishly," as the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins would put it) her gene pool; an individual who (in the words of George C. Williams) "maximizes his friendships and minimizes his antagonisms" may enjoy a reputation as a good guy, but he will also be developing "an evolutionary advantage" and proving himself fittest to survive (7). Vermeule's thesis is that this insight of evolutionary psychology was anticipated by the great eighteenth-century moralists on whom she centers her study: Pope, Johnson, and Hume. They suspected that calls to put the good of the whole above the good of self or of party may be doubly beneficial for the person doing the calling; contemporary evolutionary psychology confirms that we ennoble sacrifice not because there is something innately good about it, but because nature compels sacrifice to preserve the species. Yet, while Pope and the others exposed the self-interest at the heart of human behavior, they also aspired to join what Vermeule calls, after Hume, the "Party of Humanity" (18): that group of gentlemen that habitually places the group above the self.
The decision to read these moralists as early evolutionary psychologists yields some fresh insights. Nearly half of Vermeule's book is given over to Pope, and she shows how that poet's moralistic scolding of his aesthetic inferiors was his way of elevating his own interests to the status of timeless truths ("truths" and aesthetic values that were subsequently adopted by generations of admiring critics). Vermeule's analysis of the Dunciad—its relative "failure"—is especially keen in this light: Pope wanted the poem to have real effects in the world, to advance his allies and to embarrass his enemies, but found himself, in the first version of the poem, defeated by its dizzying number of...