Utopias of Paternalism: Timon of Athens and the New Atlantis
To study the expression of self-interest in early modern English literature is more than simply to interrogate the justifications of individual fictional characters struggling for economic identity and position. Thus far, we have examined individual subjectivity and its expression in the turbulent market economy; we need now to pan back to survey broader formulations of economic relationships and pay particular attention to the ways in which self-interest disrupted systems of economic reciprocity between unequal members. Among shopkeepers, artisans, landlords, courtiers, and the king himself in early seventeenth-century England there existed a sense that the self-interest of their subordinates had to be addressed. But the way in which this concern was addressed depended upon an ideal of social harmony. The Lancashire landlord James Bankes of Winstanley, for instance, advised his children, “Be vere kynd and loving unto youre tenantes and so they wyll love you in good and godly sort.”1 Bankes expressed the paternalistic conception of a landlord’s duty in its central formulation: care and generosity were extended with the aim of producing deference and obedience in return.2 Paternalism was a system of governing relations by which a social superior would protect a subordinate. It developed primarily as a strategy of estate management for farmers who, as a form of social control, nurtured relations with their tenants. A reciprocity in unequal obligations, paternalism was based upon the ossified stability of each party’s power. But the growing force of economic self-interest and the increasing number of credit transactions among tradesmen, farmers, and gentlemen alike meant an increasing awareness of the conflict and dissatisfaction such unequal obligations might produce. The social and psychological force of this awareness emerges clearly when we examine the points of strain between traditional concepts of paternalism and newer relationships of contract (and other arrangements involving equal obligations on both sides). A paternalistic system in the
emergent market economy recognized the conflict and insubordination selfinterest sometimes produces.