The Fate of Eloquence in the Age of Hume
This engaging and insightful book explores the fate of eloquence in a period during which it both denoted a living oratorical art and served as a major factor in political thought. Seeing Hume's philosophy as a key to the literature of the mid-eighteenth century, Adam Potkay compares the staus of eloquence in Hume's Essays and Natural History of Religion to its status in novels by Sterne, poems by Pope and Gray, and Macpherson's Poems of Ossian.
Potkay explains the sense of urgency that the concept of eloquence evoked among eighteenth-century British readers, for whom it recalled Demosthenes exhorting Athenian citizens to oppose tyranny. Revived by Hume and many other writers, the concept of eloquence resonated deeply for an audience who perceived its own political community as being in danger of disintegration. Potkay also shows how, beginning in the realm of literature, the fashion of polite style began to eclipse that of political eloquence. An ethos suitable both to the family circle and to a public sphere that included women, "politeness" entailed a sublimation of passions, a "feminine modesty as opposed to "masculine" display, and a style that sought rather to placate or stabilize than to influence the course of events. For Potkay, the tension between the ideals of ancient eloquence and of modern politeness defined literary and political discourses alike between 1726 and 1770: although politeness eventually gained ascendancy, eloquence was never silenced.