Akrasia and the Aesthetic: Human Agency and the Site of Literature, 1760-1820

Thumbnail Image




Manganaro, Thomas Salem


Pfau, Thomas

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title

Repository Usage Stats



This study focuses on a series of foundational stylistic and formal innovations in eighteenth-century and Romantic literature, and argues that they can be cumulatively attributed to the distinct challenges authors faced in representing human action and the will. The study focuses in particular on cases of “acting against better judgment” or “failing to do what one knows one ought to do” – concepts originally theorized as “akrasia” and “weakness of the will” in ancient Greek and Scholastic thought. During the Enlightenment, philosophy increasingly conceives of human minds and bodies like systems and machines, and consequently fails to address such cases except as intractable or incoherent. Yet eighteenth-century and Romantic narratives and poetry consistently engage the paradoxes and ambiguities of action and volition in representations of akrasia. As a result, literature develops representational strategies that distinguish the epistemic capacities of literature as privileged over those of philosophy.

The study begins by centering on narratives of distempered selves from the 1760s. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions and Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey narrate cases of knowingly and weakly acting against better judgment, and in so doing, reveal the limitations of the “philosophy of the passions” that famously informed sentimental literature at the time. These texts find that the interpretive difficulties of action demand a non-systematic and hermeneutic approach to interpreting a self through the genre of narrative. Rousseau’s narrative in particular informs William Godwin’s realist novels of distempered subjects. Departing from his mechanistic philosophy of mind and action, Godwin develops the technique of free indirect discourse in his third novel Fleetwood (1805) as a means of evoking the ironies and self-deceptions in how we talk about willing.

Romantic poetry employs the literary trope of weakness of will primarily through the problem of regretted inaction – a problem which I argue motivates the major poetic innovations of William Wordsworth and John Keats. While Samuel Taylor Coleridge sought to characterize his weakness of will in philosophical writing, Wordsworth turns to poetry with The Prelude (1805), revealing poetry itself to be a self-deceiving and disappointing form of procrastination. More explicitly than Wordsworth, John Keats identifies indolence as the prime symbol and basis of what he calls “negative capability.” In his letters and poems such as “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles” (1817) and “Ode on Indolence” (1819), Keats reveals how the irreducibly contradictory qualities of human agency speak to the particular privilege of “disinterested aesthetics” – a genre fitted for the modern era for its ability to disclose contradictions without seeking to resolve or explain them in terms of component parts.






Manganaro, Thomas Salem (2016). Akrasia and the Aesthetic: Human Agency and the Site of Literature, 1760-1820. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/12253.


Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.