Character in Acting

To 18th-century Britons and Americans who devoted any serious thought to the subject of human nature—and a great many did—the conventional starting point was the theory of the passions, or drives for self-gratification. Rousseau to the contrary, man was not naturally good but was ruled by his passions, both primary (fear, hunger, lust) and secondary (cravings for money, power, certainty, status). Reason could curb the passions only rarely and temporarily, and normally served merely as an agent of their fulfillment. Religion was still considered to be a necessary restraint upon them, but it was no longer thought to be a sufficient one. Given such a premise, the inevitable question arose, can man learn to comport himself morally, and therefore be free, or is he so thoroughly depraved that he is doomed to be oppressed by priests and tyrants?

Among those who contrived to reach an optimistic answer, perhaps the most common means was to posit a second premise, namely that the social instinct is one of the primary passions: The desire to secure the approval or at least to avoid the animosity of one's fellows ranks as strong as the need to satisfy physical appetites. This belief underlay the 18th-century's intense preoccupation with what the adolescent George Washington described as "rules of civility." Every kind of social interaction—from ballroom dancing to warfare, from forms of address to the complementary...

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