Tears in Paradise: The Revolution of Tender Conscience
by Esther Yu
The essay begins:
Early modern readers familiar with the Genesis account would have been surprised to find in the pristine, unfallen world of Paradise Lost something no literary antecedent had ever envisioned there before: guilty tears. They are Eve’s, and they follow a dream Satan insinuates by night before she has ever sinned. Eve’s tears suggest her possession of what the seventeenth century would have recognized as a tender conscience—a hasty sensitivity to wrongdoing that stirs even in the absence of any sinful activity. It was no untroubled act of piety for John Milton, in 1667, to ensconce in the very heart of Paradise this exquisite sensitivity. The tender conscience had grown in the 1640s into a shared political principle that provided the moral grounds for political resistance. This conscience, whose force crucially derived from its claims to weakness rather than strength, soon gained a reputation as the affective regime underwriting regicide. Critics in the wake of Charles I’s death in 1649 denounced the violent proclivities of the discourse of “tenderness”; the credibility of conscientious discourse was thereby called into question. By the Restoration, neither the persistence nor the divine provenance of the tender conscience could be safely assumed. The hasty sensitivity of the tender conscience at the close of the English Revolution seemed in need of an origin story, one that would secure its future.
The conscience that remade Britain’s political landscape did so by binding a complex set of experiences and assumptions—not least of all, the responsibility of ethical feeling—into a single, shared identity. The resulting discourse effectively lowered the threshold of ethical sensitivity even as it prescribed a restrained response to expressions of vulnerability. English writers in the early decades of the seventeenth century had set out to cultivate an ideal of spiritual sensitivity; the emotional norms they created carved the channels through which the more familiar political history flows. The successful challenge to episcopacy and the leadership of Archbishop Laud in the 1640s turned on the newfound authority of an affective discourse that motivated collective action across what seemed an ever-expanding range of cultural fields. With the finely attuned interdependence it posited and the comprehensive, systemic form it increasingly assumed across multiple domains of social life, the tender conscience enlarged into something like an affective ecology. Within its supple moral order, citizens gained political voices by becoming tender; a constitutional crisis ensued. In liberalism’s formative age, the fragility of the tender conscience was both a regulative public ideal and the very condition of political voice.
Through the discourse of the tender conscience, the early modern public becomes familiar with a body given over not to sensuous appetites but to sensitive perception. The century that sees both the Puritan struggle of flesh with spirit and the empiricist reliance on the senses becomes more comprehensible in light of a shared enthusiasm for morally valuable sensitivity. Much remains to be said about the Enlightenment’s subsequent adoption of sensitivity as an epistemological premise, but such work awaits an account of the tender conscience as a moving political force. Laudian episcopacy would succumb to the pressure of dissent; soon after, however, the united front of tender consciences fell apart. Sectarian groups began to vie with each other for the position of privileged delicacy, characterizing opposition from other parties as cruel violations. Thus seemingly liable to the claims of any and all parties, the conscience became the target of increasing suspicion. With the execution of Charles I, the tender conscience reached its high-water mark. Its credibility plummeted thereafter. After the Restoration, the survival of the tender conscience—both as a privileged affective disposition and the spirit of the “Good Old Cause”—was very far from certain.
Milton, as this essay’s final section argues, fully perceives the magnitude of this crisis, and undertakes in his poetry an audacious interpretation and defense of the tender conscience. The project of repairing its credibility grows ever larger for Milton until, in Paradise Lost, he reverse-engineers the whole universe to show the tender conscience woven into every part of the created fabric. Milton’s epic mounts an unlikely defense of the tender conscience by suffusing it into the slightest bits of poetic matter, dispersing it altogether until readers participate in its restoration as a fundamental assumption that invites neither notice nor comment. This essay discovers in Milton’s images a forceful affirmation of the tender conscience’s participation in history. The most monumental of English poems engages in the supremely delicate task of restoring to a nation its vision of a fragile, fading conscience. It is the tenderness of surpassing strength that characterizes both the celestial might and conscientious resilience that Milton, in defiance of Restoration sentiment, upholds for its capacity to reform entire worlds. (Continue reading … )
In this essay Esther Yu shows how the “tender conscience” of seventeenth-century British discourse redirected the course of political history and the history of the emotions. In the 1640s, the unimpeachable repute of the tender conscience as a spiritual identity provided lay citizens with the authority needed to voice political dissent. The growing antiprelatical movement found in the tender conscience a ready-made resistance theory. For John Milton, the work of defining this conscience is so closely tied to arguments for the legitimacy of revolutionary action that his oeuvre can be read as a protracted struggle to establish its boundaries.
ESTHER YU is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of California, Berkeley. She is completing a dissertation entitled Experiencing the Novel: The Tender Conscience in Early Modern England.