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Thread: The Philosophical Parameter

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    Oct 2012

    The Philosophical Parameter

    Some Hardy scholars write that a major parameter of Tess and Hardy's others writings is his philosophical thinking. It's a little hard for us in the twenty-first century to grasp much of this because while philosophy was of much interest a hundred and more years ago, it's not to us now. Obviously, to gather the most complete understanding of Tess requires us to understand Hardy's thinking.

    Without suggesting I'm any kind of authority in this subject, my understanding is that Hardy and many serious intellectuals on his time believed that as society was evolving, man's character was evolving in step. There was a belief that this evolution progressed through phases that were termed religious, metaphysical and sociological. In the sociological, the highest level, people were more in charge of their own fate. Hardy believed, as did Leslie Steven, the philosopher who influenced him most, that within the sociological phase a person should strive for values of "loving-kindness" or "altruism." The idea was for man to put less importance on himself and his own happiness and more into attempts at well-meaning toward others. In this aim, the link we now accept between living a good life and happiness is disconnected. A good (i.e. altruistic) life is one that might be unhappy. In this belief, a variant of the better known Utilitarianism, the altruistic man would see himself as part of all other beings and less an independent social unit for pursuit of his individual happiness with relative indifference to others.

    Regardless of whether we today accept any of this thinking, it does help understand Hardy's characters, particularly his principle characters such as Tess. What may seem unwise behavior in Tess makes more sense if her personal happiness wasn't intended to be her foremost goal. If we can understand her as a person who evolved striving to benefit the lives of those in her world without determined focus on her own happiness, her behavior makes more sense. In the final phase of the novel, Hardy terms it "fulfillment", which seems strange since she's lost her last chance for happiness and her future. Hardy, however, sees her self-sacrifice and final arrangements for Angle, Liza-Lu and, indirectly, her family as an altruistic fulfillment--a phase in which she's used her life to do all the good for others she possibly can. (Some of us might feel Alec got the short end of her benevolence).

    Whether or not any of us find this supposed philosophical parameter of the novel credible, it does seem reasonable that understanding the novel requires more an understanding of what Hardy intended, a product of the thinking of his time, and perhaps less emphasis on the thinking of the twenty-first century, from which we modern readers are a product. Hardy, after all, would probably find it as taxing to understand us and our times and we do him and his times.

  2. #2
    Registered User kelby_lake's Avatar
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    Mar 2008
    Hardy had a thing for Shopehauer, didn't he?

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