Jane Austen and moral philosophy

I’m one of the panelists on the Ask Philosophers website. And I’m amused to notice that three particular favourites of mine happen to be the topics of my last three responses, namely the philosophy of maths, wine, and Jane Austen.

And how, you ask, does Austen come in for a mention? Well, someone who’d evidently enjoyed reading Camus’ The Plague was asking for suggestions of other novels with “philosophical underpinnings”. So — perhaps not at all the sort of answer s/he was expecting — I first offered Jane Austen (perhaps setting aside Northanger Abbey, any of her novels will do, though my favourite is Emma). Now,

I am not going to try to make out that Jane Austen was a philosopher or even a philosopher manquée. But … she was interested from the south side in some quite general or theoretical problems about human nature and conduct in which philosophers proper were and are interested from the north side.

The very titles of some her novels indicate their moral concerns. Thus

Sense and Sensibility really is about the relations between Sense and Sensibility or, as we might put it, between Head and Heart, Thought and Feeling, Judgement and Emotion, or Sensibleness and Sensitiveness.

And there are correspondingly thematic framings in other novels, even those without abstract nouns in their titles. Thus

If cacophony had not forbidden, Emma could and I think would have been entitled Influence and Interference. Or it might have been called more generically Solicitude. Jane Austen’s question here was: What makes it sometimes legitimate or even obligatory for one person deliberately to try to modify the course of another person’s life, while sometimes such attempts are wrong? Where is the line between Meddling and Helping? Or, more generally, between proper and improper solicitude and unsolicitude about the destinies and welfares of others? Why was Emma wrong to try to arrange Harriet’s life, when Mr Knightley was right to try to improve Emma’s mind and character? Jane Austen’s answer is the right answer. Emma was treating Harriet as a puppet to be worked by hidden strings. Mr Knightley advised and scolded Emma to her face. Emma knew what Mr Knightley required of her and hoped for her. Harriet was not to know what Emma was scheming on her behalf. Mr Knightley dealt with Emma as a potentially responsible and rational being. Emma dealt with Harriet as a doll. Proper solicitude is open and not secret. Furthermore, proper solicitude is actuated by genuine good will. Improper solicitude is actuated by love of power, jealousy, conceit, sentimentality and so on.

The minor characters in Emma too are ‘systematically described in terms of their different kinds or degrees of concernment or unconcernment with the lives of others.’ And Austen’s treatment of her themes is guided by what we might call an Aristotelian conception of the gradations of the many virtues as opposed to a black and white, saint vs sinner, Calvanist morality.

[T]he Aristotelian pattern of ethical ideas represents people as differing from one another in degree and not in kind, and differing from one another not in respect just of a single generic Sunday attribute, Goodness, say, or else Wickedness, but in respect of a whole spectrum of specific week-day attributes. A is a bit more irritable and ambitious than B, but less indolent and less sentimental. C is meaner and quicker-witted than D, and D is greedier and more athletic than C. And so on. A person is not black or white, but iridescent with all the colours of the rainbow; and he is not a flat plane, but a highly irregular solid. He is not blankly Good or Bad, blankly angelic or fiendish; he is better than most in one respect, about level with the average in another respect, and a bit, perhaps a big bit, deficient in a third respect. In fact he is like the people we really know, in a way in which we do not know and could not know any people who are just Bad or else just Good.

Jane Austen’s moral ideas are, with certain exceptions, ideas of the Aristotelian and not of the Calvinist pattern. Much though she had learned from Johnson, this she had not learned from him. When Johnson is being ethically solemn, he draws people in black and white. So they never come to life, any more than the North Pole and the South Pole display any scenic features. Jane Austen’s people are, nearly always, alive all over, all through and all round, displaying admirably or amusingly or deplorably proportioned mixtures of all the colours that there are, save pure White and pure Black. If a Calvinist critic were to ask us whether Mr Collins was Hell-bound or Heaven-bent, we could not answer. The question does not apply. Mr Collins belongs to neither pole; he belongs to a very particular parish in the English Midlands. He is a stupid, complacent and inflated ass, but a Sinner? No. A Saint? No. He is just a ridiculous figure, that is, a figure for which the Calvinist ethical psychology does not cater. The questions Was Emma Good? Was she Bad? are equally unanswerable and equally uninteresting. Obviously she should have been smacked more often when young; obviously, too, eternal Hell-fire is not required for her.

You can tell from persons being “he” and the cheery talking of smacking that that the essay from which all those sane and insightful quotations are taken wasn’t written quite yesterday. But the piece is by a good philosopher who is perhaps less read now than he should be. For a treat, for those who don’t know his wonderful essay ‘Jane Austen and the Moralists‘, which argues in particular for the influence of Shaftesbury, I’ve linked to a PDF. (And if after reading further, you still don’t recognize the author’s voice, then a quick Google search will reveal him.)

Exercise: now write in Austenian style brief reflections on the morality of thus further expediting the circulation of an old piece that is already only a couple of clicks away from any knowledgeable searcher.

1 thought on “Jane Austen and moral philosophy”

  1. An Oxford philosopher who had an eye on Cambridge. It is a wonderful essay by a philosopher who usually had something interesting to say. Alas, those days before footnotes.

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