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6 - Moral Character

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 April 2017

Mark Bevir
Affiliation:
University of California, Berkeley
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Summary

This chapter follows the history of character from the early-Victorian period (focused on rising industry, trade, and social reform) to the more reactionary mid- and late-Victorian decades (invested in the formalization of empire and the containment of democratic socialism). Though the ideal of character remained prominent throughout, the early-Victorian era’s prescriptive notions upheld the plasticity of human moral capacities regardless of descriptive features such as class, nationality, race, or environmental condition. As exemplified by J. S. Mill, such character was rooted in Aristotelian ethics, Enlightenment perfectionism, and German Romanticism. Prescriptive character took a more individualistic form in Samuel Smiles’s popular works and a social democratic cast in T. H. Green’s philosophy. By then, however, character discourse was already subject to social and imperial interests that rejected the notion of human equality across geographic, racial, and socio-economic boundaries. The increasingly racialized descriptive notions of character which came into force in the 1860s were buttressed by the claims to scientific authority of emerging fields such as anthropology and sociology. Whether conceived to address biology, environment, or a blend of the two, descriptive character implied a comparatively limited view of transformative possibility and, thus, a naturalization of relatively fixed social and geopolitical hierarchies.
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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2017

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  • Moral Character
  • Edited by Mark Bevir, University of California, Berkeley
  • Book: Historicism and the Human Sciences in Victorian Britain
  • Online publication: 20 April 2017
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316711286.006
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  • Moral Character
  • Edited by Mark Bevir, University of California, Berkeley
  • Book: Historicism and the Human Sciences in Victorian Britain
  • Online publication: 20 April 2017
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316711286.006
Available formats
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Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

  • Moral Character
  • Edited by Mark Bevir, University of California, Berkeley
  • Book: Historicism and the Human Sciences in Victorian Britain
  • Online publication: 20 April 2017
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316711286.006
Available formats
×