Religion in the Age of Enlightenment


Book Review, Ethics, Eighteenth Century


For many reasons-including religious reforms and controversies, doubts about the effectiveness of the clergy, the development of scientific advancements and Enlightenment ideologies, and disruptions of class and gender expectations coinciding with the emergence of a consumer economy-it is easy to imagine writers and readers in the eighteenth century searching for a locus of moral authority. The frequency of claims to "entertain and instruct;' a mantra of eighteenth-century prose fiction, indicates a need felt by many authors to address the suspected dangers of novel reading and defend the legitimacy-in part_icular the moral efficacy-of this emergent genre. In The Eighteenth-Century Novel and the Secularization of Ethics, Carol Stewart discusses authors from Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding through Frances Burney and Jane Austen to investigate the intersection between religious, political, and social movements and perceptions of the function and value of fiction. She begins with a carefully researched, thorough overview of essential contextual information, emphasizing, for example, (1) post-Restoration developments in organized religion and doxastic practices, like the Anglican crisis and tensions between the power of church and state; anti-Catholic trends; dissention; and the increasing popularity of concepts of natural religion and Latitudinarianism; (2) casuistry and key spiritual questions (such as the debate between grace and good works as the path to salvation); (3) the import of concepts introduced by philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and the Cambridge Platonists (What is the source of legitimate authority? What is the role of reason, or sentiment, as a guide to virtue?); and (4) the emergence of multiple, often secular, voices offering themselves as guides to moral reform (Societies for the Reformation of Manners, for instance, and periodicals like The Spectator and The Tatler). Toward creating a broad, informative, careful picture of the many threads contributing to the treatment of moral questions in the early English novel, Stewart uses a wide and impressive range of interdisciplinary texts. In addition to major philosophical works, she is well versed in religious, historical, and popular productions. The works of Laud, Hoadly, Whichcote, the Cambridge Platonists, Tillotson, Addison and Steele, Hobbes and Locke, among many others, speak with the journal writings, correspondence, and critical commentary of the authors of fiction who are the focus of Stewart's study to create a multifaceted portrait of the participation of the novel in moral affairs.