The French Revolution Debate in English Literature and Culture

By Lisa Plummer Crafton | Go to book overview

about the beliefs of major figures. We are invited to wonder, then, why these authors were not more explicit about their most basic assumptions. For although both the Reflections and Rights of Man reflect a strong religious culture, Burke and Paine were both more reticent about religion than they needed to be. Wollstonecraft, on the other hand, explicitly articulated the theology and political agenda of rational Dissent and emphasized the reliance of her argument on notions of God. In her reading of the Reflections, she points to the religious assumptions at the heart of Burke's argument--and indeed, of most eighteenth-century thought. These texts, and the Revolution debate as a whole, were largely shaped by the expression in political terms of religious belief and by the coalitions formed among faith communities.

All political argument rests on fundamental assumptions about human nature and the world's possibilities--leaps of faith, if you will. Arguments that link religion and politics simply make those assumptions explicit. The modern corollary is, perhaps, the painfully detailed confession of one's theoretical assumptions that must now preface works of literary scholarship. Religion is a "theory" in this sense--not a method of automatically reaching prejudiced or illogical conclusions, but a set of basic assumptions from which argument can begin. Our knowledge of an author's religion, whether we mean personal conviction or inherited culture, helps us situate ourselves as we begin to listen.


Acknowledgments

One sign of good teaching comes when a student honestly cannot determine which ideas are her own and which her teacher's. There is much in this essay that David Bromwich, the director of the 1991 NEH Summer Seminar, would not agree with, but I would like to thank him in advance for any readings I have borrowed without acknowledgement.


NOTES
1.
"Shall Louis XVI Be Respited?" The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, ed. Philip S. Foner, 2 vols. ( N.Y.: Citadel, 1945), 1:558. Further references are to this edition. I should note that in the following I am not concerned with the actual motivation of the real-life Marat, but rather with his comments as rhetorical gestures.
2.
J. C.D. Clark, English Society 1688-1832: Ideology, Social Structure and Political Practice During the Ancien Regime ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 277.
3.
See, for example, Anthony Lincoln, Some Political & Social Ideas of English Dissent 1763-1800 ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938); Michael R. Watts, The Dissenters from the Reformation to the French Revolution ( Oxford, Clarendon, 1978); and James E. Bradley, Religion, Revolution, and English Radicalism ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

-38-

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The French Revolution Debate in English Literature and Culture
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Recent Titles in Contributions to the Study of World Literature ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Introduction ix
  • Notes xv
  • Chronology xvii
  • Burke's Perception of Richard Price 1
  • Notes 21
  • Religion and Politics in the Revolution Debate: Burke, Wollstonecraft, Paine 27
  • Notes 38
  • The "Ancient Voices" of Blake's The French Revolution 41
  • Notes 53
  • Arguing Benevolence: Wordsworth, Godwin, and the 1790s 59
  • Notes 76
  • "Great Burke," Thomas Carlyle, and the French Revolution 83
  • Notes 103
  • Politics of the Episteme: The Collapse of the Discourse of General Nature and the Reaction to the French Revolution 107
  • Notes 118
  • Representations of Revolutionary Women in Political Caricature 123
  • Notes 131
  • Postscript: The French Revolution and Romanticism 137
  • Select Bibliography 145
  • Index 149
  • About the Contributors 155
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