The Beautiful Soul: Aesthetic Morality in the Eighteenth Century

The Beautiful Soul: Aesthetic Morality in the Eighteenth Century

The Beautiful Soul: Aesthetic Morality in the Eighteenth Century

The Beautiful Soul: Aesthetic Morality in the Eighteenth Century

Synopsis

For many eighteenth-century European philosophers and writers, the ?beautiful soul? was a symbol of enlightened humanity, carrying with it the possibility that aesthetic beauty and moral goodness would be fused in a new, indivisible unity. In the first book in English on the subject, Robert E. Norton follows the fortunes of this cultural icon, exploring the reasons for both its initial popularity and its subsequent decline as a cultural ideal during the Enlightenment.

Excerpt

Once praised as the epitome of human existence, acclaimed by poets, philosophers, and artists alike as the ultimate achievement of individual endeavor, the "beautiful soul" has by now been all but forgotten. To most ears today the phrase probably strikes faintly discordant tones, evoking paradoxical associations--if any at all. But many during the eighteenth century considered the beautiful soul to be the very symbol of enlightened humanity and devoted a substantial amount of energy to discovering how to attain this widely acknowledged good. Given the temper of the Enlightenment, however, it will surprise no one to learn that not all eighteenth-century observers were equally enthusiastic about the idea, and that some were overtly hostile to it. As the era of illumination began to dim, the accumulated weight of critical pressure that had been placed on the concept of the beautiful soul eventually caused the relatively fragile intellectual structures supporting it to collapse. And after the turn of the century, the literary record of this remarkable cultural icon--composed as it was from a set of beliefs that came to be viewed, like the time that produced them, as compromised by a naive and ill-founded optimism--gradually collected the dust of neglect and has remained virtually undisturbed ever since.

Yet the premise on which the idea of the beautiful soul was based--that a profound affinity exists between beauty and goodness, that there is a point at which aesthetic and ethical values commingle to form a new, indivisible unity--was certainly not unique to the eighteenth century. On the contrary: it has been a theme of European culture for as long as our collective memory can recall. Beginning with the earliest metaphysical speculations of ancient Greek philosophers and extending through medieval Christian . . .

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