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  • Locke, Haywood, and Consent
  • Jonathan Brody Kramnick

Few words cut so neatly across social and intimate relations as consent, a category central to modern democracy and sexuality alike. One consents to be governed or taxed, to have sex or marry, and in so doing one joins one's innermost self to an outside entity or another person, at least for as long as consent lasts. Anything else would be injustice or a crime, a violation of deeply held ideas of political rights and personal autonomy. The assumptions that lie beneath these ideas are sometimes hard to see, precisely because they are so foundational for modern living. It is indeed difficult to imagine existing in a social or sexual order that is not founded on consent, on a willingness to be governed or to partner with other people. But what kind of action is consent and how are we to specify its forms? The question bedeviled theorists of consent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries because it tested the ability to understand the thoughts that belong to other people and even to oneself. To argue that the political order ought to be founded on consent assumes that one can grasp the eagerness of a people to be ruled. Similarly, to argue that marriage or sex should be voluntary assumes that one can understand what passes in someone else's mind (or in one's own). Both present a root paradox: consent dwells in the mind, and can only be inferred in practice; it is at once elemental to legitimacy and autonomy and beguilingly inaccessible.

This arguably perennial dilemma arose with special poignancy at the turn of the eighteenth century, when questions of political legitimacy, the architecture of the human mind, and the relations between the sexes were all given a new turn. One way of describing this turn is to observe that each called upon a notion of personal depth or what Charles Taylor has called inwardness.1 Government based on the consent of the governed, as it is formulated paradigmatically in the writings of John Locke, invokes a psychology of individual agency as the ground of political authority. Marriage and sex based on the voluntary wishes of both partners, as they become foundations of the modern novel, turn into matters of psychological as well as narrative intrigue.2 Liberal theory and the early novel draw upon and help to create a new language of depth and expressivity, one in which the internal deliberations that [End Page 453] feed into acts of consent may be articulated with appropriate weight and significance. Yet, for as much as we might expect consent to be the sign of purposive interiority, a zero degree of untrammeled selfhood, the literature of consenting agency during the period regularly confronts the mind's opacity, the difficulty of ascertaining thoughts that lie beneath and before agency. Consent becomes the special case of interiority and its remoteness. Precisely when we expect to proceed from the self to the world it inhabits, we find that the self is accessible only through the world of social forms. Even in the literary genre said to evoke the reaches of human consciousness, consent is readable in one's actions more than in one's thoughts, insofar as thoughts are in some sense always up for grabs and actions are things one sees. Or to put the matter another way, the problem of consent turns out to be the problem of moving backwards from the external world to the inner self, just when the self has the most at stake.

My goal in the present essay is to discuss two revealing instances of this quandary: the epistemology and social theory of John Locke and the early fiction of Eliza Haywood, in particular her popular novel Love in Excess (1719) and her masquerade story Fantomina (1725), a work that has recently attracted a great deal of critical attention. We might begin by observing that the language of consent appears early on in Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) when he attempts to locate the provenance of moral virtue. We have no innate ideas of how to act morally, Locke argues; simply look at the world...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6547
Print ISSN
0013-8304
Pages
pp. 453-470
Launched on MUSE
2005-06-21
Open Access
No
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