Today I am pleased to release the recording of my presentation "The Revolutionary Shelley in His Time and Ours". This was delivered on November 15th 2016 as part of the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Shelley Seminar; run under the auspices of The Unbinding Prometheus Project and Penn Libraries. I hope you enjoy it. You will find some introductory notes below.
"I am a lover of mankind, a democrat and an atheist."
When Shelley wrote these words in the hotel register at Chamonix, he was, as PMS Dawson has suggested deliberately, intentionally and provocatively “nailing his colours to the mast”. The thumbnail above is a portion of the actual hotel register page. Shelley's handwriting can be seen in the top line. Here it is in full:
He knew full well people would see these words and that they would inflame passions. The words, however may require some context and explanation. Many people have sought to diminish the importance of these words and the circumstances under which they were written. Some modern scholars have even ridiculed him. I think his choice of words was very deliberate and central to how he defined himself and how wanted the world to think of him. They may well have been the words he was most famous (or infamous) for in his lifetime.
Shelley’s atheism and his political philosophy were at the heart of his poetry and his revolutionary agenda (yes, he had one). Our understanding of Shelley is impoverished to the extent we ignore or diminish its importance.
Shelley visited the Chamonix Valley at the base of Mont Blanc in July of 1816. Mont Blanc was a routine stop on the so-called “Grand Tour.” In fact, so many people visited it, that you will find Shelley in his letters bemoaning the fact that the area was "overrun by tourists." With the Napoleonic wars only just at an end, English tourists were again flooding the continent. While in Chamonix, many would have stayed at the famous Hotel de Villes de Londres, as did Shelley. As today, the lodges and guest houses of those days maintained a “visitor’s register”; unlike today those registers would have contained the names of a virtual who’s who of upper class society. Ryan Air was not flying English punters in for day visits. What you wrote in such a register was guaranteed to be read by literate, well connected aristocrats - even if you penned your entry in Greek – as Shelley did.
The words Shelley wrote in the register of the Hotel de Villes de Londres (under the heading "Observations") were (as translated by PMS Dawson): “philanthropist, an utter democrat, and an atheist”. The words were, as I say, written in Greek. The Greek word he used for philanthropist was "philanthropos tropos." The origin of the word and its connection to Shelley is very interesting. Its first use appears in Aeschylus’ “Prometheus Bound” the Greek play which Shelley was “answering” with his masterpiece, Prometheus Unbound. Aeschylus used his newly coined word “philanthropos tropos” (humanity loving) to describe Prometheus. The word was picked up by Plato and came to be much commented upon, including by Bacon, one of Shelley’s favourite authors. Bacon considered philanthropy to be synonymous with "goodness", which he connected with Aristotle’s idea of “virtue”.
What do the words Shelley chose mean and why is it important? Because here is exactly what I think he was saying: I am against god. I am against the king. I am the modern Prometheus, and I will steal fire from the gods and I will bring down kingdoms and I will give power to the people. This is an incredibly revolutionary statement for the time. No wonder he scared people. But not only did he say these things, he was developing, as we will see, a system to deliver on this promise. Part of his system was based on his innate skepticism, of which he was a surprising sophisticated practitioner. And like all skeptics since the dawn of history, he used it to undermine authority and attack truth claims. "Implicit faith," he wrote, "and fearless inquiry have in all ages been irreconcilable enemies. Unrestrained philosophy in every age opposed itself to the reveries of credulity and fanaticism."
My presentation will discuss his revolutionary programme and its application to our modern era. Enjoy.