Against Better Judgment
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176 pages

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Robinson Crusoe recognizes it is foolish to leave for the open seas; nevertheless, he boards the ship. William Wordsworth of The Prelude sees the immense poetic task ahead of him, but instead of beginning work, he procrastinates by going for a walk. Centering on this sort of intentionally irrational action, originally defined as " akrasia" by the ancient Greeks and "weakness of will" in early Christian thought, Against Better Judgment argues that the phenomenon takes on renewed importance in the long eighteenth century.

In treating human minds and bodies as systems and machines, Enlightenment philosophers did not account for actions that may be undermotivated, contradictory, or self-betraying. A number of authors, from Daniel Defoe and Samuel Johnson to Jane Austen and John Keats, however, took up the phenomenon in inventive ways. Thomas Manganaro traces how English novelists, essayists, and poets of the period sought to represent akrasia in ways philosophy cannot, leading them to develop techniques and ideas distinctive to literary writing, including new uses of irony, interpretation, and contradiction. In attempting to give shape to the ways people knowingly and freely fail themselves, these authors produced a new linguistic toolkit that distinguishes literature’s epistemological advantages when it comes to writing about people.



Publié par
Date de parution 17 juin 2022
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9780813947310
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 1 Mo

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Against Better Judgment
Winner of the Walker Cowen Memorial Prize for an outstanding work of scholarship in eighteenth-century studies
Against Better Judgment
Irrational Action and Literary Invention in the Long Eighteenth Century
Thomas Salem Manganaro
University of Virginia Press
Charlottesville and London
University of Virginia Press
© 2022 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America on acid‑free paper
First published 2022
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Manganaro, Thomas Salem, author.
Title: Against better judgment : irrational action and literary invention in the long eighteenth century / Thomas Salem Manganaro.
Description: Charlottesville : University of Virginia Press, 2022. | Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2021043726 (print) | LCCN 2021043727 (ebook) | ISBN 9780813947297 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780813947303 (paperback) | ISBN 9780813947310 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH: English literature—18th century—History and criticism. | English literature—Early modern, 1500 to 1700—History and criticism. | Act (Philosophy) in literature. | Philosophy of mind in literature. | Philosophy, English—17th century. | Philosophy, English—18th century.
Classification: LCC PR448.P5 M35 2022 (print) | LCC PR448.P5 (ebook) | DDC 820.9/005—dc23/eng/20211013
LC record available at
LC ebook record available at
Cover art: David Garrick as Macbeth. Copperplate engraving from John Bell’s edition of Shakespeare, 1776. (Alamy Stock Photo)
To Lidia, Salem, and Bowie
1. Akrasia and Explanation in Enlightenment Philosophy
2. Some Encounters with Akrasia in Eighteenth-Century Prose Fiction: Defoe, Haywood, Sterne
3. Akrasia and Free Indirect Discourse in Romantic-Era Novels: Godwin and Austen
4. Akrasia, Life Writing, and Interpretation: Johnson and Rousseau
5. Akrasia and the Poetry of Antinomies: Wordsworth and Keats
Epilogue: The Story of Akrasia
Against Better Judgment
moll flanders went through with it anyway. It is true, she was now “in good circumstances” and out of the state of poverty that had previously warranted her stealing, but, as they say, old habits die hard. Stealing was fun, the acquisition of riches immensely satisfying. Pangs of regret were sure to follow, she knew that, especially when taking from those in need. When, in an earlier encounter, the thought had crossed her mind to murder the young child she had stolen from, she had also begun to wonder what kind of a person she was becoming. This wasn’t a good sign. Nonetheless, these worries could be shrugged off. Plus, she had built a sort of business for herself, and wouldn’t it be a shame to throw away the skills she had accumulated? In the end, Moll “could not forbear”: she returned to the trade. 1
The above is a rewriting of the consciousness of the titular character from a late scene in Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel Moll Flanders. Defoe didn’t write it in quite this way. In my reconstruction, provided in third-person omniscient narration, I have made use of free indirect discourse, a technique that allows the narrator to momentarily perform the consciousness of the character while still in the guise of the third-person narrator. This has allowed me (the narrator) to present some of the falsity of the character’s reasoning without explicitly drawing attention to it (“wouldn’t it be a shame . . . ?”). Defoe’s novel, meanwhile, is told in first-person retrospective narration, which offers us different angles for understanding Moll’s sense of her own guilt. In Defoe’s version of the scene, Moll the narrator tells us, repentantly, “O! . . . I had still leisure to have look’d back upon my Follies, and have made some Reparation.” This perspective leaves the reader with some ambiguity—namely, it is unclear whether the repentant attitude is that of the character at the time of the scene or that of the narrator. Did Moll in the midst of the scene wish she could reverse her course, or is it just the narrator expressing that wish for her former self? Defoe’s narrative differs too in its introduction of the devil as an entity that tempts and holds Moll in a state of wickedness. In a similar scene focused on a theft, she tells us, “The busie Devil that so industriously drew me in, had too fast hold of me to let me go back.” 2 This way of writing Moll’s criminality implies a sense of compromised freedom: the devil keeps her stuck doing the bad things she is doing. In other moments, though, the psychology of Moll is presented in a mode closer to free indirect discourse, which helps to portray her strategizing as freely pursued. As she tells us at one point, “The Resolution I had formerly taken of leaving off this horrid Trade, when I had gotten a little more, did not return; but I must still get farther, and more.” 3 In the last part of this phrase, the narration seems to shift to perform the consciousness of the character (“I must still get farther, and more”), which, as in my rewriting of the scene, momentarily reveals her greedy mentality.
These different techniques used by Defoe and myself all, in different ways, to greater or lesser extents, contribute to conveying something specific about Moll: that she acts against her better judgment. By this I mean, on the one hand, she knows what would be the best thing to do, but, on the other hand, she freely doesn’t do it, or she pursues another course of action. She proceeds intentionally but also wearily. In this sense, she exemplifies what the ancient Greeks called the condition of akrasia (pronounced in English as /ə'kreıziə/). For Aristotle, the “akratic” man is he who knows the virtuous action but does not act on it due to a state of “incontinence” or “weakness.” This person acts badly, but not because of ignorance. He has the knowledge part down; the problem is the follow-through. The concept arises again in a Christian framework as “weakness of the will,” examined most famously by St. Augustine in the fourth-century Confessions. Augustine’s meditations draw upon the condition of the Apostle Paul, who says, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” It is a difficult condition to write out: it sounds like a paradox, but it is the task of the writer to represent it as a plausible fact.
As the above two versions of writing Moll may begin to suggest, for a piece of writing to portray this condition—what I will be calling this “akrasia”—it needs to be careful about phrasing, about the perspectives it takes, about the level of psychology it describes, about the metaphysical paradigms it upholds, about its attention to time, and even about its use of rhythm. The core difficulty lies in the fact that the piece of writing needs to maintain two seemingly contradictory truths at once: first, that the person believes that there is an available course of action that is better to pursue, and second, that the person freely and intentionally pursues a different course of action. As philosopher Donald Davidson has defined it, “In doing x an agent acts incontinently [akratically] if and only if: ( a ) the agent does x intentionally; ( b ) the agent believes there is an alternative action y open to him; and ( c ) the agent judges that, all things considered, it would be better to do y than to do x. ” 4 For the writer, the person’s action needs to be portrayed as in spite of the person’s own beliefs, pursuing x despite knowing it would be better to pursue y. We might say that the portrayal’s success hinges around its mode of conveying the “and yet” or the “anyway.” It is ultimately a portrayal of an undermotivated character. The trick is to depict this undermotivated quality in a way that feels right or true.
This book will argue that this condition is especially difficult to write in Daniel Defoe’s time—or, more broadly, in the period we can refer to loosely as “the long eighteenth century.” This is a period in European history that has long been associated with questions surrounding autonomy and self-governance. Interestingly, however, this same period also witnessed profound transformations in philosophy when it came to explaining, understanding, and depicting human action—changes that put constraints on the ability to make sense of or even articulate akrasia. For the older paradigms that had long informed philosophy and literature—Aristotelian, Augustinian, Scholastic—action is intrinsically connected to the moral, teleological, or normative realm. In those frameworks, to “explain” action means to situate it in relation to a moral state or condition. Although akrasia/weakness of will is puzzling for philosophers like Aristotle or Augustine, these thinkers were nonetheless able to articulate the condition as an example of weak or failing agency. However, with the influence of Baconian and Newtonian premises in the seventeenth century, and specifically the elimination of teleological forms of explanation from philosophical inquiry, we get an altogether different sense of what it means to explain action. In the influential trajectory of philosophers that includes Thomas Hobbes, Benedict de Spinoza, John Locke, and David Hume, action is increasingly understood as an event to be explained by proximate causes, by what we might call strictly efficient rather than formal or final causation. This epistemological shift presents particular challenges to the philosopher who wants to account for akrasia, which, as we will see, leaves literature in a uniquely privileged position to take it up.
Indeed, as will be discussed more fully in chapter 1, during the period known as the Enlightenment, the old concept of akrasia/weakness of will all but disappears from philosophy. From Hobbes through Hume,

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