Fiction and the Philosophy of Happiness

Brian Michael Norton

Ethical Inquiries in the Age of Enlightenment

178 pages
ISBN 9781611484304

Now in paperback ISBN: 978-1-61148-589-9 $45.99

Fiction and the Philosophy of Happiness explores the novel's participation in eighteenth-century "inquiries after happiness," an ancient ethical project that acquired new urgency with the rise of subjective models of well-being in early modern and Enlightenment Europe. Combining archival research on treatises on happiness with illuminating readings of Samuel Johnson, Laurence Sterne, Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Godwin and Mary Hays, Brian Michael Norton's innovative study asks us to see the novel itself as a key instrument of Enlightenment ethics. His central argument is that the novel form provided a uniquely valuable tool for thinking about the nature and challenges of modern happiness: whereas treatises sought to theorize the conditions that made happiness possible in general, eighteenth-century fiction excelled at interrogating the problem on the level of the particular, in the details of a single individual's psychology and unique circumstances. Fiction and the Philosophy of Happiness demonstrates further that through their fine-tuned attention to subjectivity and social context these writers called into question some cherished and time-honored assumptions about the good life: happiness is in one's power; virtue is the exclusive path to happiness; only vice can make us miserable. This elegant and richly interdisciplinary book offers a new understanding of the cultural work the eighteenth-century novel performed as well as an original interpretation of the Enlightenment's ethical legacy.

"Norton's choice of texts attests to his willingness to examine a range of material both formally and thematically. From Sterne and Diderot, to Rousseau, Godwin, and Hayes, he follows the patterns of challenge that the fictions - in comic and satric form, in dialogue and narrative - insist on."
-Eighteenth-Century Fiction 28, No. 3

"The book is well-informed by Enlightenment philosophy, in particular some unfamiliar 18th-century treatises on happiness...the close readings Norton provides are incisive, accessible, and rewarding and each chapter is brilliantly conceived and executed. An important contribution to the growing body of work on literature and ethics"
-Choice (September 2014)

"In this succinct, substantive study, Brian Michael Norton offers an engaging, accessible, and revealing reckoning of philosophical and novelistic discourse on happiness in the eighteenth century. The novel genre emerges at a historical moment preoccupied with happiness and its attendant perplexities, Norton argues, and an early catalogue of more than a dozen representative treatises and essays vividly illustrates the density and difficulty of the debates that occurred in the midst of this cultural ferment."
-1650-1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era Volume 21, (2014)

"Without fanfare, through deft and attentive readings, Norton helps us appreciate how essential fiction is for enabling the transition between otherwise incompatible notions of happiness. Fiction and the Philosophy of Happiness is so rich and illuminating that one hesitates to quibble with its argument. Much remains to be done in order to fill out our picture of the novel as one of modernity's key modes of ethical reflection, but Norton's book makes a valuable contribution to this goal, as much for teaching us to read the novel this way, as for providing us substantive insights into how the novel treats the highest ethical end: happiness."
-Eighteenth-Century Life, Volume 39, Number 2, (April 2015)

Read a review in Recent Studies in the Restoration and Eighteenth Century here.

Read the University press article here.

About the author:

Brian Michael Norton is assistant Professor of English and comparative literature at California State University, Fullerton, where he teaches courses on the literature of the long eighteenth century. His ongoing research examines the intersections of form and ideas in Enlightenment Europe.


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