Lines of Equity

Lines of Equity: Literature and the Origins of Law in Later Stuart England

Elliott Visconsi
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 232
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    Lines of Equity
    Book Description:

    The late seventeenth century was a period of major crises in science, politics, and economics in England. Confronted by a public that seemed to be sunk in barbarism and violence, English writers including John Milton, John Dryden, and Aphra Behn imagined serious literature as an instrument for change. In Lines of Equity, Elliott Visconsi reveals how these writers fictionalized the original utterance of laws, the foundation of states, and the many vivid contemporary transitions from archaic savagery to civil modernity.

    In their writings, they considered the nature of government, the extent of the rule of law, and the duties of sovereign and subject. They asked their audience to think like kings and judges: through the literary education of the individual conscience, the barbarous tendencies of the English people might be effectively banished. Visconsi calls this fictionalizing program "imaginative originalism," and demonstrates the often unintended consequences of this literary enterprise.

    By inviting the English people to practice equity as a habit of thought, a work such as Milton's Paradise Lost helped bring into being a mode of individual conduct-the rights-bearing deliberative subject-at the heart of political liberalism. Visconsi offers an original view of this transitional moment that will appeal to anyone interested in the cultural history of law and citizenship, the idea of legal origins in the early modern period, and the literary history of later Stuart England.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5990-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. CHAPTER ONE Cultivating Equity, Disciplining Race: The Fictional Method and the Origins of Law in Later Stuart England
    (pp. 1-34)

    This is a book about the fictionalization of the origins of law in later Stuart England. My focus is on crucial literary texts such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost and John Dryden’s Indian Emperour, works devoted to demanding of their audience a set of structured interpretive deliberations about the first principles of government, the charismatic utterance of law, and the transition from savagery to civility. At the heart of such an intellectual program is the norm and practice of equity, that merciful inclination and “gentle art of particular perception.” ¹ Equity is a moral principle (equal justice, fairness), an interpretive...

  5. CHAPTER TWO The Endless Jar of Justice: John Dryden and the Theater of Judgment
    (pp. 35-74)

    In a panegyric written to curry favor with a new political regime, it might normally be thought strange and surprising to compare the poem’s powerful subject to a flooded mine. Yet in “To the Lord Chancellor Hyde, Presented on New-Years Day 1662,” this is one tack that John Dryden pursues as he solicits the patronage and approbation of the immensely powerful Earl of Clarendon. ¹ In this poem, Dryden harps on a string he had tuned in “Astrea Redux,” a coronation poem for Charles II—in both works he reads the restoration of the Stuart line as a historical inauguration of...

  6. CHAPTER THREE Equity Restored: John Milton and the Origins of Law
    (pp. 75-112)

    Toward the very end of Book Twelve of Paradise Lost, the archangel Michael describes a political landscape in which the “unfaithful herd” betray God, revel in Sin, and persecute the few just followers of divine law. Michael’s “grievous wolves” exploit the “sacred Mysteries of heav’n” in the service of “lucre and ambition,” to their false priesthood “join secular power,” and force false laws “on every conscience” (XII, 508–21). Milton is talking about more than Roman Catholicism here; the condition of fallen humanity is punctuated by false lawgiving and rigorous orthodoxy, especially when sacred and secular powers are entangled. The tyrannical...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR Reviving Liberty: Writing the English Republic after 1660
    (pp. 113-154)

    It is no great surprise to find the arch-Whig G. M. Trevelyan describing the later Stuart period as a bloody “reign of terror,” and the English polity as a state haunted by the unpredictable oscillation between tyranny and decadence. The years between the killing of Charles I in 1649 and the revolution of 1688—the “reign of terror”—provided generations of political activists in England and most famously in the American colonies with a rhetoric, a political language, and a pantheon of heroes. ¹ John Adams, for instance, in his 1765 Dissertation on Feudal and Canon Law, described Charles II...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE Universal Wolves: Aphra Behn and the English Race
    (pp. 155-184)

    As we saw above, the myth of diasporic origins upon which Dryden’s Troilus and Cressida rests its political argument is a national romance, and the Brutus legend is at its core an assertion of a civil pedigree—a choice of inheritance from a tragic culture that lends to its English progeny the qualities of glorious antiquity. It is also quite deliberately a refutation of the barbarous ethnic identity with which the inhabitants of the British Isles had been saddled since at least the writings of Tacitus. The later Stuart kings were not particularly interested in the Brutus myth, and their...

  9. Coda: Robinson Crusoe between Facts and Norms
    (pp. 185-194)

    In his reading of Robinson Crusoe, Ian Watt suggests that Defoe’s novel “annihilated the relationships of the traditional social order” by proposing the life of an ordinary person as the vehicle of a largely secular individualism. For although the novel borrows the form of the spiritual autobiography and is supplied with plenty of appeals to divine Providence, Watt contends rightly that religion has no special status in the novel, which is profoundly secular and worldly in its outlook. ¹ Beyond Robinson Crusoe looms Watt’s broader thesis— that the English novel rises to prominence and prestige in relation to the emergence...

  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 195-208)
  11. Index
    (pp. 209-216)