The Being of Effort in Early Modernity

Autumn 2016-2017


Tim Harrison

What is effort? How might we describe the experience of expending effort? What ontological commitments subtend conceptions of effort? This seminar will examine the literary, philosophical, scientific, and theological implications of what Michel Henry calls “the being of effort” by focusing on early modernity, a period in which attempts to think through the meaning of effort were particularly fraught. Taking the multiple valences of the term conatus as our leading thread, we will situate poetry and prose by John Donne and John Milton (two writers deeply invested in what effort can and cannot accomplish) in two overlapping contexts that are not usually brought together. First, we will trace the significance of effort as vital self-preservation from the ancient Stoics, through the developing seventeenth-century sciences of life, to Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics and Anne Conway’s Principles. Second, we will examine the multiple ways that conatus or effort ramified in theological debates over the status of the will in works by Augustine, Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, and Arminius. We will also consider philosophical treatments of effort (as it relates both to vitality and the will) in the work of Maine de Biran, Bergson, Levinas, Jonas, and Arendt, among others. (Med/Ren)