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Reading, Writing, Thinking
Reading Jane Austen as a Moral Philosopher
Thomas Rodham keenly observes Jane Austen’s exacting ethical expertise.
Jane Austen (1775-1817) wrote delicious romantic comedies about middle-class girls looking for good husbands among the landed gentry of Regency England. But if that were all there was to it we wouldn’t take her any more seriously now than the genre hacks published by Mills and Boon. What’s so special about her novels that we are still reading them today? It’s not just their literary quality. Austen was also a brilliant moral philosopher who analysed and taught a virtue ethics for middle-class life that is surprisingly contemporary. Appreciating this can help us understand why she wrote the way she did, and how and why we should read her today.
Austen’s Literary Situation
Austen is justly celebrated as a literary icon both for her genius and for her role in inventing the modern novel. Her first novel, Northanger Abbey (by a quirk, not actually published until 1818, after her death) must particularly delight the modern literature professor, with its recursive irony and playful subversion of established rules and genres. She goes so far as to integrate a running discussion of the form, role, and importance of the novel into the book, although the casual modern reader would miss most of her references, allusions and parodies. This exuberant display of literary genius was somewhat curtailed in Austen’s later works, as she sought to balance literary style with popular (i.e. commercial) appeal.
The style Austen developed in her later works was distinctive for its very conventionality, or ‘social realism’. In a famous review, Sir Walter Scott wrote glowingly of the ordinariness and realisticness of her characters and situations, which he contrasted positively to the competitive excesses of the contemporary romantic style. (Speaking of which, Charlotte Brontë rejected the ‘commonplace’ and ‘confined’ lives Austen described: “no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck.”) As Scott saw it, there was a real value and art to writing well about familiar lives and characters:
“The author’s knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize, reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting. The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand; but they are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader.”
(The Quarterly Review, 1815)
This certainly makes Austen an important figure in the history of literature: the modern psychological novel, comprised of events in the mind of an imaginary person, originates in such a focus on ordinary lives. But I don’t think that is what makes her a classic author who deserves to be read in the present in her own terms. To be blunt but brief, Scott’s praise of Austen is out of date because the world and literature have moved on. In particular, she can no longer be considered ‘realistic’, not only because present readers can’t relate to the lives of Regency landed gentry, but also because she doesn’t meet contemporary literary standards.
Consider her characters. Once considered so real, nowadays, in contrast to the subtle psychological realism of modern novelists like Ian McEwan, they look like what they are: complexes of particular moral dispositions rather than plausible people. This is not to say that her central characters aren’t complex, nor that they don’t capture something true about human nature, only that they do not have the psychological completeness we would now expect.
In a modern literary novel, the plot is driven by the characters, and this is how it should be, because it is their fictional inner lives with which the reader is concerned. The reader is provided with direct access to events in the minds of the characters and can understand the plot as unfolding naturally from them. Not so in Austen. Her focus is on how her characters react to events, not on their capacity to cause them. The happy endings, like the intermediate trials and tribulations, are always dei ex machinis (also a standard feature of the romance genre in general) – that is to say, they ring somewhat false. This is because Austen’s plots are author-driven – they proceed according to what she wants to say, not according to what her characters want to do. So unexpected things are continuously happening: the characters are always doing strange things offstage (like jilting lovers, or eloping, or falling into terrible illnesses) that seem not at all realistic in terms of following from what we have been told of their motivations and dispositions.
So Walter Scott’s Austen looks like a period piece, not a classic. But there is something timelessly brilliant about Austen’s novels – inescapably intertwined with their literary character but quite distinct from their literary merit. For without a doubt, Jane Austen was a brilliant moralist from whom we still have much to learn today. Underneath the veneer of romantic comedy that helped them sell, her novels are deeply serious morality plays. They are moral education masquerading as entertainment.
Austen’s Moral Vision
It is often argued by philosophers like Martha Nussbaum that literature has an important but indirect role in moral education by helping readers develop and practice the central ethical skill of empathising with other peoples’ lives and perspectives. In The Better Angels of our Nature (2012), psychologist Steven Pinker even credits the spread of novel reading with reducing violence in what he calls the ‘humanitarian revolution’ of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: by providing us with vicarious access to the feelings of other (even imaginary) people, we became less cruel as a society.
Austen’s moral education is far more direct. Her novels analyse and teach a virtue ethics for bourgeois life – the kind of life that most of us live today.
Virtue ethics is the approach to moral philosophy that understands the good life in terms of the development of personal moral character: in terms of becoming the kind of person who does the right thing at the right time for the right reasons. It is therefore a response to the fundamental ethical question, How should I live my life? Answering that question involves identifying goals – what are the virtues you should develop? – and the path to achieving them. To talk about a bourgeois virtue ethics is to talk about the particular constellation of virtues that are most significant for an ethically-flourishing middle-class life. For example, unlike aristocrats, the middle-classes are not free from material concerns, and are thoroughly dependent on the goodwill of others for success. Unlike peasants, the bourgeoisie are not trapped by a subsistence economy, but have the resources and time – the leisure – to reflect on who they want to be, and to make and carry out plans for their future.
Austen celebrates and promotes a solidly middle-class ethics, and this, together with her use of literary narrative (and her femininity?), may explain why her moral philosophy is rarely recognised as such. Yet success for Austen’s characters depends on their developing a moral character. Her central virtues are conspicuously bourgeois: prudence (planning one’s actions with respect to protecting and furthering one’s interests); amiability (civility to family, friends, and strangers, according to their due); propriety (understanding and acting on an acute sense of what virtue requires); and dignity (considering oneself an independent, autonomous person deserving of respect). Austen is unusual among virtue ethicists past and present in according amiability so much importance, but she is right to do so. Developing amiability is central to most people’s lives, since we must work and live (albeit if nowadays less often) in close confinement with others with whom we have to get along. Austen presents these virtues as not merely a necessary accommodation to difficult circumstances, but as superior to the invidious vanity and pride of the rich and titled, which she often mocks. Thus in Pride and Prejudice (1813), Elizabeth Bennet rejects Darcy’s haughty condescension out-of-hand: the happy ending must wait until Darcy comes to see beyond Elizabeth’s lowly connections and unaristocratic manners, and fully recognise her true virtue. That’s a moral happy ending even more than it is a romantic one.
Like any good virtue ethicist, Austen gives illustrative examples. This is why her characters are moral rather than psychological constructs. Austen’s purpose is not to explore their inner lives, but to expose particular moral pathologies. Don’t act like this: don’t cut off your relatives without a penny after promising your father you would look after them, and then justify it with self-serving rationalisations (like John Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, 1811). Don’t be like this: struck through with a single huge flaw, like Mr Bennet’s selfish wish to live a private life while being the head of a family (P&P).
However, as well as excoriating such obvious and conventional moral failings, Austen attends carefully, and with a fine brush, to illustrating the detail and fine-tuning that true virtue requires. For instance, to show us what true amiability should be, she shows us what it isn’t, quite. Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park (1814), is so excessively amiable as to put her own dignity and interests at risk; so self-effacing that her true love almost doesn’t notice her (until events intervene). Mr Bingley’s amiability is perfect in pitch, but fails to discriminate between the deserving and undeserving (P&P). Emma (in Emma, 1815), is very discriminating, but in a snobbish way: she is rather too conscious of her social status, and does not actually respect others as she should, which of course, gets her into trouble.
There are also Austen’s positive illustrations of what virtuous conduct looks like. Here one sees why the plot is so firmly in the author’s hands, not the characters’: Austen is primarily concerned with setting up particular scenes – moral trials – in which we can see how virtuous characters behave in testing circumstances. These lessons to the reader are what she gave the most exacting attention to. This is where her words are perfectly chosen and sparkling with intelligence and deep insight. These are the parts that she really cared about. The rest – the rituals of the romantic comedy genre and ‘social realism’ – is just background.
In every novel we see Austen’s central characters working through moral problems of all kinds, weighing up and considering what propriety requires by talking it through either to themselves or to trusted friends. We see her characters navigating the unpleasant attentions and comments of boors, fools, and cads with decorum and dignity: “Indeed, brother, your anxiety for our welfare and prosperity carries you too far,” as Elinor chastises John Dashwood ever so politely (S&S). We see their moral development; for example in the way Elizabeth and Darcy both learn from their early mistakes about pride and prejudice. We even see them engaging in explicit, almost technical, philosophical analysis, such as debating to what extent Frank Churchill should be considered morally responsible for his failure to visit her father (Emma), to the evident boredom of the less morally developed characters stuck in the same room.
Austen carries out her mission of moral education with flair and brilliance, while charitably respecting the capacities of her readers. This is why she is so much more readable than most moral theorists, such as Kant, who seem often to write as if being comprehensible is not their problem. Yet there is one further striking feature that sets Austen’s novels apart: her moral gaze. The omniscient author of her books sees right through people to their moral character, and then exposes and dissects their follies, flaws, and self-deceptions. I cannot read one of her novels without thinking, with a shiver, about what that penetrating moral gaze would reveal if directed at me.
This is virtue ethics at a different level – it’s about moral vision, not just moral content. Austen shows us how to look at ourselves and analyse and identify our own moral character. She shows us how to meet Socrates’ challenge to ‘Know thyself’. We have all the information we need to look at ourselves in this manner, to see ourselves as we really are – we have an author’s omniscient access to the details of our own lives. But we generally prefer not to open that box.
Here again I think Austen has much to teach the professional philosopher as well as the casual reader about moral philosophy. Since the Enlightenment, academic moral philosophers have collaborated with our natural aversion to introspection by collectively turning their attention away from uncomfortable self-examination towards elaborating coherent systems of rules that any moral agent should follow. Yet reading Austen shows the ultimate ineffectiveness of this strategy. I believe that all the sophisticated Kantian and utilitarian theories in the world could not shield you from Austen’s moral gaze for long.
We should read Jane Austen today because she is wise as well as clever, and because she teaches us how to live well, not just how to love well – as long as we read beyond the delicious rituals of her romantic comedy storylines to her deeper interests and purposes in creating her morally-complex characters and setting them on display for us. We should read beyond her undisputed literary genius and her place in the history of literary innovations and influences, to her unrecognised philosophical accomplishment in elaborating and advancing a moral philosophy for our bourgeois times.
© Thomas Rodham 2013
Thomas Rodham is a philosophy graduate student who blogs at The Philosopher’s Beard.