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Moralistics is a philosophical genre of literature , the representatives of which observe, describe and interpret the manners ( Latin mores ) and behavior of their fellow human beings.

Historical overview

The literary movement of moral studies has spread from the Italian court culture to Western Europe since the Renaissance . Examples of important representatives of moral studies are Machiavelli and Castiglione in Italy, Montaigne and La Rochefoucauld in France, Francis Bacon and Thomas Browne in England, Quevedo and Baltasar Gracián in Spain or Thomasius and Knigge in Germany.

The philosophical origins of moral studies can be found in the ethics of antiquity and in humanism . The basic realization of the moralists is that humans need not only legal and ethical norms but also social norms of behavior. The latter are crucial for the success and reputation of the individual in their environment. The first moralists were politically involved in the aristocratic court culture. They collected and commented on their interpersonal experiences and observations, initially mainly in essays or aphorisms . The findings could be used as guidelines for “polite” behavior, although the moralists neither systematically analyzed society nor developed behavioral norms for specific life situations. Various ideal types of the determined, yet autonomously thinking aristocrat were developed. For example, these were the “ gentleman ” in England or the “ honnête homme ” in France. Central subject areas that have been taken up again and again in the history of moral studies are, for example, the autonomy of thought, the nature of people, integrity and reason, happiness and transience, social isolation and the general ability of people to relate to one another, for example in marriage or friendship. With the Enlightenment , however, the harsh criticism of society increasingly became the focus of moralism. Various moralists even propagated the detachment from social constraints and the pursuit of success and reputation.

In the 19th and 20th, well-known philosophers such as Schopenhauer or Nietzsche made use of moralistic forms of expression and approaches. However, they can no longer be seen as moralists in the original sense. Rather, they had turned their attention to other areas of philosophy and only practiced the moralistic tradition on the side.

The French moralists

English Enlightenment Morality

In England , it was not until the middle of the 17th century that more and more scholars turned to the new philosophy of moral studies. In the beginning, they too mainly used the form of the essay for the normative description of social processes. Francis Bacon and Thomas Browne , in particular , achieved great prestige for addressing core moralistic issues and are still among the best-known representatives of English literary history.

In 1688 England began to dissolve the absolutist structures earlier than in the continental European countries. As a direct or indirect consequence of the introduction of basic democratic forms, both the consumption and the production of moralistic writings expanded from the closed court culture to large parts of the bourgeoisie . With the establishment of coffee houses and debating clubs, there were also new platforms for the exchange of views between the moralists of the early 18th century. During this time of social disorientation, moral studies experienced a change of direction. Although the core questions discussed from French and early English moral studies remained in the focus of the authors, the variety of media they used expanded. The goal was increasingly to make the knowledge gained accessible to the largest possible audience. New narrative forms were developed or existing ones were adapted for moralistics. As a result, moralistic novels , dramas , poems , travel reports and magazines (so-called periodical essays) were created. Relevant examples of this replacement of "classical" moralistic forms of expression are, for example, Jonathan Swift's novel Gulliver's Travels or the magazine essays by Richard Steele and Joseph Addison in the Tatler and the Spectator . The reflections and stories were increasingly embellished with fictional elements or satirical social criticism. William Hogarth even processed core moralistic themes in paintings and copperplate engravings, thus laying the foundations for today's caricature . In fact, the newly created works hit the nerve of the times and are still very popular with the readership to this day.

See also