Personal Justice and Homicide in Scott’s Ivanhoe:

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Personal Justice and Homicide in Scott’s Ivanhoe

Abstract: Scott’s Ivanhoe reveals a conflict between our innate concept of justice as personal justice and the impersonal justice which is imposed on us by the modern nation-state. This conflict causes the split between the proper hero, who affirms the order of impersonal justice, and the dark hero, who acts according to personal justice, in Scott’s work.

In Evolution and Literary Theory, Joseph Carroll provides a paradigm for the integration of literary criticism with evolutionary psychology. First, he argues that literary critics should learn to understand and respect the evidence for the basic contention of evolutionary psychology, namely, that the human mind is not a blank slate which receives all of its content from an external culture, but that human cognition and the culture that is based on it are highly constrained by innate psychological mechanisms, which evolved in the environment in which humans spent most of their evolutionary history, the hunting-gathering bands of Pleistocene Africa. Humans evolved a rich array of specialized mental mechanisms for dealing with this environment, including mechanisms for determining mate value (see Buss), for protecting kin (see Daly and Wilson, 17-121), for social exchange (see Cosmides and Tooby 1992) and many others. These psychological mechanisms collectively form the human nature which underlies the production and consumption of literary texts. However, the scope of an evolutionarily informed literary analysis is not limited to simply finding these human universals in literary texts. Rather, many of these psychological mechanisms are “open programs” which permit of a wide range of cultural and individual variation (Carroll 152). Carroll identifies the three levels at which a literary criticism informed by evolutionary psychology should work: human nature, cultural order, and individual identity (150). While human nature constrains all cultural productions, “cultural forms are themselves the product of a complex interaction among various innate dispositions and between innate dispositions and variable environmental conditions” (152). Evolutionary psychology enables us to understand not only literary universals, but also the complex and often conflicting relationship between human nature, culture, and the individual.

In their book Homicide, evolutionary psychologists Margo Wilson and Martin Daly identify one such conflict between human nature and the contemporary cultural order. They argue that humans have an innate concept of justice which is based on the idea of personal revenge. According to this concept of justice, it is legitimate and even praise-worthy for people to whom a wrong has been done to avenge the wrong-doing themselves.

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