- Passion’s Triumph over Reason: A History of the Moral Imagination from Spenser to Rochester
This ambitious book has two goals. The first is to present a historical transition between 1580 to 1680 involving the rehabilitation of passion’s status. From a threatening force that ought to be governed, passion is upgraded into an internal constituent that is progressively recognized as morally important and worthy of cultivation. The second objective is the attempt to bring literary texts into cultural dialogue with broader philosophical concerns. Literature’s capacity to tap “pre-rational” sources of thought works in tandem with its ability to articulate root images that underlie philosophical discourse. Both objectives jointly form literature’s unique contribution to the private and collective moral imagination. Tilmouth pursues these goals through focusing on the moral psychology embedded in texts by Hobbes, Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, and others.
Tilmouth acknowledges other valid, even opposing, depictions of the intellectual map of early modern England. In fact, the picture often offered (e.g., by Berlin’s influential presentation of reason’s centrality in the Enlightenment) is one that underlines a developing rationalism both in England and on the Continent. What accordingly tends to be highlighted are issues such as the consolidation of the scientific method (Descartes), or the increasing centrality of proof and public [End Page 666] verification (Bacon), or the growing influence of Ramist understanding regarding credible persuasion (dialectics) vs. emotional appeals (rhetoric), etc. Nevertheless, the movement Tilmouth traces is for him an integral (though non-exclusive) dimension of any comprehensive understanding of the period’s shifting view of the tension between passion and reason.
The book begins with four traditions of thought that intermingled in the sixteenth century to jointly uphold reason’s primacy over passion: Platonism, Stoicism, Aristotelianism, and Calvinism. Tilmouth is here understandably focusing on the reception of Plato and Cicero rather than the somewhat more nuanced views that they actually held. (Plato’s Phaedrus and Cicero’s advocating of the integrative ideal in rhetoric and the implication of this ideal regarding the status of passion should dissuade imposing on either of them a simplified preference for reason.) He then turns to Spenser through (to my mind) the brilliant move of foregrounding the distinction between intemperance and incontinence and its subtle function in The Faerie Queene’s second book, a distinction that importantly illuminates the nature and development of the knight of temperance’s allegorical adversaries. Spenser, for Tilmouth, manifests the “psychomachic” model of self, which sometimes refers in Tilmouth’s book to a self relentlessly torn between the forces of reason and the debilitating power of the passions, and sometimes to the desired subordination of passion to reason. The drift away from the psychomachic model begins with Hamlet. The Danish prince’s hyperbolic vilification of the flesh would, Tilmouth says, distance his audience from Spenserian fidelity to reason. They would suspect that the flesh and the passions that are its offspring deserve a better hearing than Hamlet’s unmitigated scorn. The book is thus able to gradually construct for us an England that detaches itself from the classical and Calvinist denigration of passion and flesh. The key theorist who explicitly manifests this transition in Tilmouth’s account is Hobbes and his subjection of reason to passion.
When read as individual expository inquiries into the reason-passion relations, Tilmouth’s chapters are brilliant pieces of scholarship: meticulous, detailed, knowledgeable, patient, and philosophically penetrating. I was less convinced by the overarching thesis, for which I see too many counterexamples. Positing an initial primacy of reason in the late sixteenth century does not square with the rising popularity of skepticism during the century. Richard Hooker’s The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594–98) finds it necessary to defend reason against six distinct groups of opposing arguments, claiming that such objections popularize the view that reason is an enemy of religion. Tilmouth is aware of such Calvinist doctrine, but awkwardly (for me) utilizes Calvin both as a source of...