Thomas Albrecht, “‘That Free Play of Human Affection’: The Humanist Ethics of Walter Pater’s The Renaissance” (pp. 486–521)

This essay aims to refute received, persistent misconceptions of Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), and of aestheticism generally, as an asocial and amoral sensualism, and as a deliberate separating of art from human lives and the world. Contrary to these misconceptions, it finds a humanist ethical vision in The Renaissance, specifically in the essays Pater devotes to Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci. Drawing on an established post-Enlightenment, post-Romantic tradition of Victorian secular humanism, Pater defines this vision in terms of human sympathies for the feelings and suffering of other persons. And he defines it in aesthetic terms, in terms of art’s unique capacity to depict human feelings and suffering, and thereby to arouse sympathies in the viewer. At the same time, the essay contends that Pater in The Renaissance also defines his ethical vision in a more unprecedented, radical way. Beyond the solicitation of human sympathies, he frames it in terms of a fundamental uncertainty and unpredictability, a fundamental freedom and singularity, of human ethical relationships and responses. For Pater, this uncertainty and freedom are the qualities that make an ethics genuinely ethical. Pater finds these qualities, and this kind of genuine ethics, epitomized in the unpredictability and freedom of human aesthetic responses, including his own, to art and beauty.

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