Recent scholarly work by Jürgen Habermas, Judith Butler, and others posits a new cultural domain that is simultaneously religious and secular. Drawing on the sermons of John Tillotson and the fiction of Henry Fielding, this paper examines literary sentimentalism in this “post-secular” light. It aims to show that sentimentalism affirmed Christian virtues such as charity and chastity, but it radically transmuted and displaced those virtues. In particular, it argues that sentimental fiction imaginatively negotiated the difficulties of practicing Christian virtue in a rapidly changing, commercial society heading into what Charles Taylor has recently called the “immanent frame.” Its heroes and heroines are best understood as virtuous Christians beset by new temptations, misunderstandings, seductions, which they generally, in the end, overcome. In this light, sentimentalism might be defined as a practice of Christian virtue without teleological ends or rewards. The rewards of virtue would appear to become virtual and immanent, available in the act of reading itself. And this is to merge religion with literature so that together they enter the logic of post-secularity.
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Lisa O'Connell; Literary Sentimentalism and Post-Secular Virtue. Eighteenth-Century Life 1 April 2017; 41 (2): 28–42. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00982601-3841348
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