Scott's sympathetic imagination and the quest for moral order in history

Robinson, Richard Allen, Department of English, University of Virginia
Shannon Jr., Edgar F., Department of English, University of Virginia
Chase Levenson, Karen, As-English-Eng Lit Ops, University of Virginia
Booth, Alison, As-English-Eng Lit Ops, University of Virginia
Havran, Martin, University of Virginia

Walter Scott followed the "philosophical historians" in regarding progress as an equivocal blessing. Looking at eighteenth-century Scotland and revolutionary France, he decided that the development of primitive communities into a modern nation both brought civilization and wealth and impoverished the truths that unified and regulated the old communities. He feared that progress might end in a congeries of isolated, selfish individuals.

Wary of reform divorced from a sense of how communities cohere over time, Scott "Let weel bide" politically, and invented a history to persuade people to rediscover their intimate connections. He showed that while ancient bonds fail, they should give way to "sympathetic imagination"--that faculty explored by David Hume, Adam Smith, and Dugald Stewart which enables men to govern themselves by imagining their acts as would a disinterested observer and by entering into the circumstances of those whom their deeds touch.

Waverley illustrates Scott's history by examining how Edward Waverley learns to express his need for connection not through archaic ideals, but through imaginative sympathy. It also warrants Scott's ethos by making it a step in communal Robinson evolution, a link with the past, and a part of a positive tradition of progress.

Guy Mannering and The Antiguary add epistemological depth to Scott's history. Guy Mannering explores imagination as an escape from the association of ideas and as a vehicle of understanding and morality, and distinguishes imaginative sympathy from the subjectivism of sentimentalism. And The Antiquary shows that while no one escapes solipsism, an ethos of empathy and perspective on the self forms a practicable substitute for tradition.

In Old Mortality Scott extends the antiquity of his ethos and considers traditional communal dogma as an obstacle to humanity--a problem remedied by the individual's learning to accept his intrinsic worth and thus to appreciate others. It also studies the relationship of moral principle and sympathy.

Finally, in Ivanhoe, Scott perfects his historical vision with a philosophical and psychological--albeit mythical-- portrait of the progress from patriarchal truth to sympathetic imagination. He creates a legend to validate his ethos as the goal towards which history has long been moving.

Note: Abstract extracted from PDF file via OCR.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: