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  • War and Sentimentalism:Irony in Voltaire's Candide, Sterne's Tristram Shandy, and Lessing's Minna von Barnhelm1
  • Andrea Speltz

The period from the mid-1750s to the mid-1760s was marked by the Seven Years' War, a proto-nationalistic military conflict that saw a death toll of over a million, as well as the rise of sentimentalism, an intellectual movement based on the principles of sympathy, benevolence, and humanity.2 The clash of these two historical phenomena finds expression in some of the century's most canonical works of fiction, including Voltaire's Candide, ou l'optimisme (1759), Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67), and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Minna von Barnhelm, oder das Soldatenglück (1767). All three of these texts use various forms of irony (verbal, situational, structural, and historical) to explore the tensions and affinities between the inhumanity of the Seven Years' War and the affective ethics of sentimentalism. In all three cases, it is not a satiric irony that destroys its target, but a productive irony that probes truth through a dialogic interaction of said and unsaid. Ultimately, the ironic treatment of the relationship between war and sentimentalism emerges as a backdrop for a discussion of the nationalist and cosmopolitan paradigms.

British sentimentalism, French sensibilité, and German Empfindsamkeit are closely related intellectual movements within the European Enlightenment. The philosophy of sentimentalism (developed in Britain by Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith) defines morality as a product of sentiment rather than reason, a result of "an immediate feeling and finer internal sense" rather than "argument or induction" (Hume 3). Philosophical sentimentalism (also known as moral sense theory) emerges, in part, as a response to Thomas Hobbes's view of human behaviour as essentially selfish. The sentimentalists counter Hobbes's egoism by arguing that the human creature is naturally benevolent, that its "merit arises from its tendency to promote the interests of our species, and bestow happiness on human [End Page 282] society" (Hume 12). As indicated by this passage from Hume's Second Enquiry, the doctrine of sentimentalism extends to the entire human species, not just to one particular nationality, social class, or gender. In a similar vein, Louis de Jaucourt describes sensibility as the mother of humanity ("la mere de l'humanité") (Jaucourt). The philosophical movement thus has strong cosmopolitan implications.3 Literary sentimentalism, however, loses much of its cosmopolitan thrust, because characters withdraw into domestic spaces, thereby limiting their sphere of influence (cf. Brewer 32). The question therefore arises: what happens when sentimentalism moves from the boudoir to the battlefield, when it takes on an explicitly political dimension?

Voltaire's Candide, Sterne's Tristram Shandy, and Lessing's Minna are not sentimental texts, but rather are texts that engage with sentimentalism, promoting and challenging it in various ways. All three authors endorse the sentimental principles of sympathy, benevolence, and humanity. Yet they show these principles to be (in the best case) at odds with and (in the worst case) complicit in the prevailing social realities of the day, most importantly the atrocities of the Seven Years' War.

Winston Churchill famously referred to the Seven Years' War as the first world war (Bowen 7). On the European continent, the war played out as a clash between Prussia and Austria (with their respective alliances) for control over Silesia. In British America, New France, the Indian subcontinent, and several other smaller fronts, it was a struggle between Britain, France, and Spain for control over trade and colonies. By the time the enemy parties signed the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the Seven Years' War had claimed over a million lives. It also fuelled the nationalistic ideologies that provided the intellectual climate for the Napoleonic Wars of the nineteenth century and the fascism of the twentieth century.

In theory, the eighteenth-century cabinet wars (Kabinettskriege) were more rational than their seventeenth-century counterparts (Kagel 9). Whereas the Thirty Years' War resulted in massive civilian casualties (approximately a third of the German population) and the destruction of thousands of towns and villages, the violence of the cabinet wars was controlled and circumscribed. Highly disciplined armies faced off on clearly...


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