Jane Austen and Ethical Life VII (last part)

In Austen’s world those who fail to show charity to their fellows beyond minimal gestures and appearances are failures moral agents. Fitzwilliam Darcy is worthy of a  marriage that combines attraction with moral development when he makes considerable efforts to anonymously assist the Bennett family in bribing George Wickham into marrying Lydia Bennett after their elopement. This requires not just financial sacrifice but a considerable sacrifice of Darcy’s time and energy along with his much prized dignity. Hşis marriage to Elizabeth Bennett is only possible when he is ready to show charity in sociability with those inferior to him or status or irritating in personal qualities. We know that Anne Elliott is worthy of a marriage of love and moral richness with Captain Wentworth, because of the efforts she makes of behalf of Mrs Smith with sacrifice of time, energy and dignity. Wentworth’s assistance in the same case also shows his readiness. Austen heroes endure  situations which show a capacity to learn and grown during marriage. Despite Darcy’s many admirable qualities as a meritorious member of the aristocracy, he still needs Elizabeth Bennett to humble him before and after marriage to exist as a truly ethical individual in the community. The plots of Sense and Sentiment, Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion are all stimulated by stories of failures to act to support relatives beyond the bare demands of the law and most unavoidable customary restraints. Obedience to law and custom is never enough, there must always be a genuine work to support those who need support, and most particularly where family members are involved.

There is not much of the kind of turn towards matters of theology and the immortal soul in Austen, which can be found in Kierkegaard. The difference is not so great though still real, when we are suitably conscious of how far Kierkegaard approaches these matters through our attitudes towards community, love, and family. It is important here to think about how Austen’s characters encounter death, emptiness and despair, the issues Kierkegaard thinks drive us towards God. Marianne Dashwood nearly dies and experiences weeks in bed debilitated. There is an element of descent into hell in Darcy’s search for George Wickham in the less desirable parts of London. Fanny Price experiences something hell like in the descent of Mansfield Park into a form of pandemonium in Mansfield Park, as she also does when insisting to Thomas Bertram that she will not marry Henry Crawford and is sent back to Portsmouth. Catherine Morland experiences deep fears in Northanger Abbey which are absurd but no less real to her. As has already been mentioned, the military and naval characters are innately close to death whether through the constant possibility of war or the dangers of the sea.

Austen’s ideal characters are ideal communities look a lot like they would for Kierkegaard, if we exclude overt religiosity. This is a significant difference, but for Kierkegaard Christianity shows itself when we treat others as our neighbour, when our erotic love and friendship relations take that as the guiding point for their own ethical richness. While it would never be appropriate to see Austen as writing novels that exemplify Kierkegaard’s ethics, there is a great deal that can be appreciated about the ethical world of her novels if Kierkegaard’s writing is brought into play.

Jane Austen and Ethical Life VI

There is a strong disdain in Austen  for London, as a centre of immorality, and a preference for small rural communities, partly because the church minister can then live amongst his parishioners and give them constant moral guidance. There is no question here of giving the church legal and state backed authority over private lives, but there is a belief that civility is not enough to hold a society together. Church ministers of exceptional moral and intellectual quality are essential to flourishing communities, which must in general preserve a moral order. Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility and Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey are not the most striking examples of intense preachers of the Christian message, but they are exemplary men who can influence a community in the right way. The humour with which Austen mocks inadequate churchmen on various occasions including William Collins in Pride and Prejudice and Philip Elton in Emma should not distract from the serious disdain with she regards them.

The ways in which ethics, religion and literature come together in Austen can be best understood with regard to Søren Kierkegaard with regard to his writings as philosopher, theologian, and literary author. Kierkegaard’s life only overlaps by about four years with Austen, but is nor far removed in its experience of a northern European Protestant society in the wake of the Enlightenment,  Romanticism, German Idealism, and the French Revolution. His way of writing literary narrative makes full use of the epistolary form which was a major influence on Austen. Issues of interpreting and influencing other people’s behaviour and intentions appear in Kierkegaard’s fictional writings in ways reminiscent of Austen. Kierkegaard’s literary fictions comprise Either/Or, Repetition and Stages on Life’s way, a considerable body of work since Either/Or and Stages on Life’s Way, which are connected texts, are both very long.

The emptiness of a marriage without deep sympathy between both partners and of a life of seduction appear in texts by Austen and Kierkegaard. For both, a successful marriage is a high moral enterprise and should ideally take place in a morally committed community with strong leadership from the local churchman. Both were unmarried for life and both wrote anonymously. The last comparison is the most peculiar since they wrote anonymously for different reasons. Austen withheld her name because of the impropriety of a woman writing novels, while Kierkegaard wrote some of his books anonymously expecting readers to largely know who the author was and  was exploring the possibilities of writing in an assumed authorial voice. Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous texts tend to be earlier and more aesthetic, while his authored texts tend to be later and more religious.

Kierkegaard was also in various ways a more radical thinker than Austen. He argues for a life oriented towards the Christian command to love your neighbour as yourself, which should be clearly placed above friendship and erotic love. One of his longer books, Works of Love is devoted to exactly those concerns. The most important thing in life was to experience yourself as a single individual, in a relation with the absolute, that is God. While intimate communities on the model of antique city states were ethically good, and Kierkegaard sometimes suggests that happily his own city of Copenhagen was like that, he was also committed to the view that the individuation and personal responsibility demanded by Christianity must isolate the individual from the community, so that the individual faces God and death in a state of loneliness. The Christian must separate Christianity from ‘Christendom’, which is how Kierkegaard referred to state churches, and any idea of being a Christian by virtue of living in a particular nation. Christianity must include a faith which accepted some sacrifice of social life, enjoyment and economic welfare. That is the Christian must attend Church regardless of other available diversions, must affirm faith regardless of social reception, and must give to the poor with real generosity.

Taken seriously, and as seriously as Kierkegaard intends, this certainly looks like a very intense and committed Christian life, beyond that suggested in Austen even just looking at her more admirable church ministers. It is still the case that much of this can be found in Austen and thinking about this is a valuable exercise in which we can see that she writes with an ethical point of view that cannot be reduced to Enlightenment civility and moral sentimentalism, or the form of ethical life present in Hegel.

Jane Austen and Ethical Life V

War is a frequent reference in Austen, or at least the possibility of war associated with the military.  Soldiers are dangerously attractive to imprudent young women in Pride and Prejudice while a naval officer is the just object of considered love in Persuasion. Colonel Brandon has a similar role for Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. The army can bring out a tendency noted by Adam Smith for irresponsible short term behaviour due to the more risky behaviour indulged in by those for whom death is imminent. Brandom sets up a more romantic association with death, but has a less romantic association with death when first introduced as he seems very old to Marianne Dashwood, some thing emphasised by his rheumatic tendencies. He later evolves into a sensitive and sympathetic character worthy of mature love, though we never see this through the perceptions of Marianne Dashwood, a gap of a kind Austen does not leave in later novels. His rival for her affections, John Willoughby, is a devoted huntsman while Brandom has a more professional connection with death and one which involves human death. In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth’s naval profession links him with the sea, with death at sea, and the associations between death and the sea which are evident to the Romantic imagination. This is part of the character portrait of him as a worthy of the love of a woman who is prudent and sensitive, Anne Elliott.

He also demonstrates this in his status as clearly a kind of superior male authority replacement for Anne Elliott’s foolish father, bringing us to the issue of inadequate, missing, or non-existent father figures in Austen, for which romantic love seeks a substitute.  This can be seen at work in Fitzwilliam Darcy’s superiority to Mr Bennett. The inadequacy of the paternal authority figure brings up the Hegelian issue of the absolute, the suggestion that ethics requires a foundation lacking in the laws and ethics of ethical life in the Enlightenment era. For Hegel that absolute can be found in religion, but in a conception of religion that is highly historicised and philosophical, so much that it is not clear, at leas to those with any scepticism, about how he thinks religion can ground ethical life except as a kind of re-description of it. The individualism of Protestant Christianity is an element in modern ethical life for Hegel, which seems to disappear entirely into the individualism of the economic actor in commercial society and the citizen of a rights based state. The absolute nature of the state in relation to laws and ethical life, the existential death oriented nature of conflict between states seems to be the nearest thing to God, as religion has dissipated into a philosophical understanding of history as Spirit and of the category of existence. It is certainly unfair to associate Hegel with the excesses of later total states, as he certainly understood the state as based on laws and understood inter state conflicts as limited in scope and duration. It can still be reasonably said that Hegel gave too much of a role to the constitutional state for it to have an easy co-existence with the diversity and individualism of articulated ethical life.

Austen’s novels themselves contain a theme of the absence of Christian leadership from the lives of her characters. While the novels accord with an Enlightenment belief that Christian moral commitments can be found in the evolving moral order of civil society, in the innateness of moral sentiments and the growing tendency to extend their scope, there is also an implicit critique of the Church of England, which has some connection with her emphasis on inadequate father figures. English society often seems to lacks authority from fathers and the church in Austen. The novels certainly do not present a case for the return of say the radical Protestant almost theocratic tendencies of the seventeenth century post- Civil War period, but they do present a case for the church to be more of a living force in English communities, perhaps inspiring fathers to live up to their responsibilities more strongly.

Verene’s Philosophical Companion to Vico and further thoughts on Vico studies

A major moment in Vico studies, Donald Phillip Verene (Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia USA) has recently published Vico’s “New Science”: A Philosophical Commentary (Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY, 2015). That is Giambattista Vico (1668-1774), the Enlightenment thinker in Naples who should be placed alongside the Enlightenment thinkers of Edinburgh, Paris, and Königsberg. He is primarily the author of The New Science (three editions) which most obviously resembles Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws and also anticipates Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality, Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Ferguson’s History of Civil Society. 

The most scholarly edition of The New Science in English is still the Bergin and Fisch Cornell University Press, 1948 edition. It is available online in various forms for free, as far as I can see in perfectly legitimate forms. It cannot be ought of copyright yet, but as far as I can see Cornell University Press is tolerant of online versions circulating. Apologies to Cornell University Press if this is not the case, but online versions are remarkably easy to find if the Press is still asserting its copyright in ways which preclude this.

I have not got hold of the Verene Commentary yet and I would not have time to read it properly if I did. I will purchase a copy and blog on it fully when time allows, which is unlikely to be before the early summer, but if I can reasonably get into it before then I will.

The obvious model for this this book is Samuel Fleischacker’s On Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: A Philosophical Companion (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2005), which is an admirable, detailed and fastidious examination of another great complex Enlightenment classic.

Verene’s status as the leading Vico commentator in the English language over many years in conjunction with the use of Fleischacker on Smith as a model makes the Vico book a work of high promise. At the very least it will provide the reader with the benefits of decades of work and commentary on Vico in what looks like the culminating publication of  longer career in philosophy, with major publications on Hegel and on Vico’s influence on James Joyce, along with the more stand alone scholarship on Vico.

I hope that the Verene companion will be a stimulation to Vico studies. While books are being published which give Vico a place in the history of philosophy (see Amazon website for recent publications where there is reference to Vico), there is very little, in fact nothing as far as I can see, on Vico as a major philosopher worthy of deep study , rather than as a worthy point of reference for comprehensive discussions of wherever Vico may be felt to have made a major contribution, which is a rather broad range of areas. I am under contract myself with Palgrave Macmillan to write a book on the Philosophy of the Novel, which will include discussion of Vico.

As Verene’s own engagement with Vico and Joyce suggests, it is perhaps the literary influence of Vico that is important, not only with regard to the way he is used by literary writers, but the way he has been used by some major figures in literary criticism.

Major figures in literary criticism who have used Vico in some significant way include Erich Auerbach, Haydn White and Edward Said. Moving to those philosophers who have had a big influence in literary criticism, amongst other things, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida discuss Vico briefly but importantly. I may discuss this issue further here when time allows and maybe later in print. James Joyce makes extensive reference to Vico’s New Science in Finnegans Wake in ways which parallel Homer’s Odyssey as a structuring source for Ulysses.

Benedetto Croce (1866-1952), a major figure in Italian Idealist philosophy wrote at length on Vico. Jules Michelet (1798-1874), a major figure in French historiography and republican culture translated Vico. He was certainly know to figures in the German Enlightenment, Idealist and Romantic currents, though at this point we run into difficulties about who knew about Vico’s thought, who read it, and who used it. It looks like Vico should have been read by such people in Germany and across Europe. Rousseau and Montesqueieu both spent time in Italy and both have ideas close to those of Vico, but never mention him and perhaps only resembled him in thought coincidentally.

The history Vico’s influence is a difficult topic as I have suggested above and I have restricted myself to the clearest cases of those who acknowledge an influence while also trying to allude at what was to some a degree a broader influence it is difficult to estimate.

In any case Vico deserves to be studied more than he is with regard to his work which cuts across philosophy of history, social philosophy, political philosophy, cultural philosophy, philosophy of literature, aesthetics, natural law jurisprudence, rhetoric in its philosophical and historical aspects, history of philosophy and so on. There is a growth in the study of Enlightenment and Early Modern thought with regard to the full scope of important work beyond the most obvious classics, including particular emphases on the rhetorical-literary aspect of political thought, and the continuing legacy of natural law, along with Epicurean and Stoic ethics and theories of nature. Vico has an important place just on that account and for many more reasons.

More on this when time and circumstances allow.

Jane Austen and Ethical Life IV

For Hegel, ethical life which is his equivalent to civil society, as a form of social cohesion rests on and implies a greater isolation of families from an integrating social order of the type known in earlier periods. The question of how far that connects with the social history of family life over time may be open, but clearly literature of this era features the topic of choosing a suitable marriage partner more than previously. That is the focus of Austen’s novels and what we also find in Austen is the strong brother-sister relation as in Fitzwilliam Darcy and his sister Georgina Darcy or the related theme of love between cousins brought up together as in Mansfield Park. The brother-sister relation does not have the fundamental role in Austen it has in Hegel, but it is there, and is evidence of a common interest in the interior of family life. The love between sisters is maybe a bigger issue in Austen and the idea of a family life in which sisters can maintain their love for each other after marriage, through marriage to men connected in some way is a very much desired situation, which connects with the role Hegel gives to the family in ethical life. The relation between erotic love and family love is an issue which divides love but can also become a way in which different forms of love are combined, in both Austen and Hegel.

The importance of remaining within the sphere of the property owning classes and within some related areas of propriety is very strong in Austen and can be seen in the context of recognition in Hegel. There is none of the drama of the struggle to the death and the relationship of master and slave, as described by Hegel in the Phenomenology of Spirit in Austen, but the idea of having a master status of some kind is very strong in Austen as is the trauma of losing such a status. A number of female characters hover at the limits of respectability defined by private income, sufficient to avoid paid employment, and membership of the property owning classes. This is a strong theme from the beginning of the first two novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice and can be found very strongly present in Mansfield Park and Persuasion. The female characters are in a particularly sad place with regard to this issue because they are not in a position to act in the economic sphere to improve their economic fortunes and are subject to extreme discrimination in inheritance laws, a big issue in Pride and Prejudice. Persuasion does show Anne Elliott pushing at the limits of these kinds of prohibition though.

The fear of an economic fall destroying the kind of social recognition and life style that includes the leisure to read and enjoy nature, is an anxiety running through Austen’s novels and has as its accompaniment a horror of joining the labouring and serving classes, who are suitable objects of charity and kindly concern, but are never equals. Recognition of the lower end of the property owning classes as equals by he upper end, or in British terms recognition by the aristocracy of the equal status of the gentry, is a theme particularly associated with Elizabeth Bennett’s marriage to Fitzwilliam Darcy against the misgivings of his aunt and social circle. This equal recognition involves a joint disdain for creating commercial wealth as opposed to enjoying its proceeds. Austen deals with the transition from the former to the latter in Pride and Prejudice in a humorous way in the history of the Lucas family who abandon ‘trade’ after award of a knighthood and through the aversion of Charles Bingley’s sister for living near a place of trade.

Jane Austen and Ethical Life III

Mr Bennett’s library bound life, itself reminiscent of Michel de Montaigne’s presentation of himself in the Essays of the sixteenth century as more tied to his library than his family, stands in for the inevitability of a library in the home of the property owning classes who predominate in Austen’s novels. The possession of a room called a library full of books does not itself mean that the inhabitants will read, but does suggest that book collecting and reading were meaningful parts of the lives of many. Fitzwilliam Darcy is shown to have accumulated a large library, though significantly the preservation of old books in the family collection is as important as the addition of new books. Darcy is shown to read frequently, as are members of his family. We do not know what the title of the books that absorb them are and only Mary Bennett is so gauche as to refer directly to what she has read. Reading is presented as important to the life of the better class of people, but not an obvious enthusiasm for what has been read. Jane Bennett and the other heroes, the female ones observed from within and the male ones who generally exist more through their external presentation lived according to Enlightenment civility, which is itself uncomfortable about bringing intense preoccupation with ideas and reflection into spoken discourse and even into serious fiction.

Hegel built on Scottish Enlightenment thinking (Herzog, 2013) as well as the thought of Kant, itself strongly influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment and pays attention to some of the issues that appear in Austen’s novels, and which are not so much part of Enlightenment civility. For Hegel, the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, taken very broadly, were correct to see history as progressive, as accumulating collective experience of individuals living in communities according to increasing rule of law, division of labour, property rights, contractualism, ethical concern, and cultivation. He labels these characteristics as the ethical life of the moderns, distinct from antique life which does not think of the evolving nature of customs and laws. He differs from the Scottish Enlightenment way of thinking in suggesting that what they value rests on: struggle for recognition, death, conflict between civil and natural law, kinds of individualism and subjectivity on the verge of insanity and self-destruction, the constant threat of death and war, the denial of sexual energy. These themes are more present in Hegel’s 1807 text Phenomenology of Spirit than the 1820 Philosophy of Right, the text more explicitly concerned with the ethics, law and politics of Hegel’s time.

The break is not a complete one and the theme of constraining desire is more explicit in the latter text, where Hegel suggests that ethical life rests on family life, itself resting on the denial of desire between brother and sister. Of course not all families include a brother and sister, but for Hegel the brother-sister relation sums up something fundamental to the ethical nature of the family. The human family is ethical, because it imposes some constraint on animal desire, which Hegel thinks is best understood with regard to a relationship between brother and sister, which is close but not sexual.

This has an antique precedent for Hegel, in his account of the Sophocles tragedy Antigone, in which Antigone dies from a willingness to struggle against the king for the correct burial of her brother, deemed a traitor by that king. The brother-sister relation gets a more important role in later historical development, because according to Hegel, the whole sphere of ethical life becomes more important as it becomes more articulated and more autonomous in relation to the state community. As the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers had also thought, Hegel suggests that the most ideal ancient states were republics in which  with social life understood as what came out of the laws of that personalised state, which did not differ much from its customs and religious obligations, particularly as these states had hardly any bureaucracy so were essentially assemblies of citizens, which is the picture we get from Aristotle’s writings on ethics and politics as well as historical sources.

The issue of how to maintain  social unity of some kind in the context of larger states, or at least states with less personalised forms of government, was a major issue for the Scottish Enlightenment. Those thinkers drew on existing ideas of virtue in ethics, natural law in public affairs, and a divinely ordered system to nature, along with awareness of increasing civill society to develop view of moral sentiments and political economy in which a system could be maintained which rested on a spontaneity and harmony of order for a society of invention and change in manners, commerce, and government.

Nietzsche as Political Philosopher now available online

Nietzsche as Political Philosopher (Walter de Gruyter), which I co-edited with Manuel Knoll, has been available in print form since 2013. It is now available online 



Manuel Knoll and Barry Stocker

Introduction: Nietzsche as political philosopher 1

I. The Variety of Approaches to Nietzsche’s Political Thought

Rolf Zimmermann

The “Will to Power”: Towards a Nietzschean Systematics of Moral-Political Divergence in History in Light of the 20th Century 39

Rebecca Bamford

The Liberatory Limits of Nietzsche’s Colonial Imagination in Dawn 206 59

Nandita Biswas Mellamphy

Nietzsche’s Political Materialism: Diagram for a Nietzschean Politics 77

II. Democratic, or Liberal, or Egalitarian Politics in Nietzsche Paul Patton

Nietzsche on Power and Democracy circa 1876–1881 93

Lawrence J. Hatab

Nietzsche’s Will to Power and Politics 113

Barry Stocker

A Comparison of Friedrich Nietzsche and Wilhelm von Humboldt as Products of Classical Liberalism 135

Donovan Miyasaki

A Nietzschean Case for Illiberal Egalitarianism 155

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vi Contents

III. Aristocratic, or Anti-Liberal, or Non-Egalitarian Politics in Nietzsche

Renato Cristi

Nietzsche, Theognis and Aristocratic Radicalism 173

Don Dombowsky

Aristocratic Radicalism as a Species of Bonapartism: Preliminary Elements 195

Phillip H. Roth

Political and Psychological Prerequisites for Legislation in the Early Nietz- sche 211

Manuel Knoll

The “Übermensch” as a Social and Political Task: A Study in the Continuity of Nietzsche’s Political Thought 239

IV. Ethics, Morality, and Politics in Nietzsche

Keith Ansell-Pearson

Care of Self in Dawn: On Nietzsche’s Resistance to Bio-political Modernity 269

Daniel Conway

“We who are different, we immoralists…” 287

Christian J. Emden

Political Realism Naturalized: Nietzsche on the State, Morality, and Human Nature 313

Tamsin Shaw

The “Last Man” Problem: Nietzsche and Weber on Political Attitudes to Suffering 345

V. Physiology, Genealogy, and Politics in Nietzsche

Razvan Ioan

The Politics of Physiology 383

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Tom Angier

On the Genealogy of Nietzsche’s Values 405

Contents vii

Evangelia Sembou

Foucault’s use of Nietzsche 431


Jane Austen and Ethical Life II

The Enlightenment ethics at issue here differed from the Stoic heritage that was still influential at the time in that it allowed for a non-rational aspect to ethics arising from the structure of our mind, the ways in which we are socialised, and the ‘normal’ standards of ethics with which we are confronted in life experience. That is the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers incorporated innate capacities for moral awareness, or to develop such an awareness, into their theories of human mind and action. The basic terms here were virtue and sentiment, along with benevolence and sympathy. The basic point was that to some degree moral goodness is its own reward when we see its impact on others and it is this which enables us to develop the more austere ideas of virtue, duty, and law. The Stoic heritage, maybe best represented by the Discourses of Epictetus, but also transmitted through Cicero, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, emphasised the sovereignty of reason in virtue, so that morality comes from subordinating desire to reason in a quite absolute manner. This was not the only heritage from Pagan antiquity still influential in the Enlightenment era. Aristotle’s virtue ethics, particularly as presented in the Nicomachean Ethics could be considered to present an ethics where the presumed sovereignty of reason is less absolute, given that Aristotle distinguishes ethical reasoning in life from pure theoretical reasoning and given that he allows for the influence of external circumstances, summarised as luck. Aristotle was influential in defining moral reasoning as prudence under the guidance of philosophical theory and in establishing a view of how virtues become part of the habits of properly educated members of a flourishing community. Comparisons between Austen and Aristotle are well established (e.g. Rudeman, 1995) and form a very legitimate area of inquiry.

Nevertheless that will not be the concern here, because whatever is ‘Aristotelian’ in Austen is transmitted through the Scottish Enlightenment and other relevant Eighteenth century writings. Aristotelian ethics has social and subjective aspects which have some strong resonances in the Scottish Enlightenment, continuing through Hegel and Kierkegaard, but is overall guided by a view of ethical judgement which subordinates the life of social interaction to the life of theoretical contemplation and and an associated metaphysics of nature. Even friendship, which sometimes seems to absorb the rules of justice in Aristotle, is subordinated to theoretical contemplation of the self and the priority of admiration of virtues over more particular experiences and interests.

Austen’s writing leans in a direction that is distinct from, even opposed to, the superiority of theoretical reflection. What is given the most value is the life lived according to prudence rather than the use of prudential reason and certainly not the underlying commitments in metaphysics and intellectual rationalism. Prudence requires prudential reason, as is apparent in Austen, but it can only appear in ways in which it is marginalised and even ridiculed.

Mary Bennett, the youngest sister of Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice is perhaps the clearest example. She is the most bookish character in that novel and maybe all the Austen novels and it apparently there for comic relief. Not only does she read excessively and talk too much in the language of the books she reads, she insists on playing the piano too long on public occasions. Elizabeth Bennett is shown to be less tutored in playing, but to me more pleasant to listen to, just as though she has read less than Mary she is better at putting moral reflections into her way of living. Mary Bennett is given a role in articulating discussion of pride and vanity which can be found in Hume and Smith, and which are important for the preoccupations of Pride and Prejudice as the title itself strongly hints, but is ridiculed in the book for such pedantry. There is some way in which Mary must be important to the implied authorial consciousness behind Pride and Prejudice (and probably to Jane Austen herself, but this essay will remain within the Austen novels and only refer to the author implied by the writing). Nevertheless Mary Bennett must be subordinated to Jane Bennett, whose life and conversation shows an implicit engagement with Enlightenment sensibility in conduct, morals and aesthetics.

Bookishness is even a fault of Mr Bennett, who is presented as likeable and intelligent, but as detached from family life and responsibilities, an attitude focused on his wish to retreat into the peace and solitude of his library. The need to exclude the Aristotelian philosopher, and even any kind of philosophical theorising from Austen’s novels, associated with the negative aspects of Mary Bennett and Mr Bennett, is something that can be in part justified with regard to the role of untheorised moral sentiment in individual moral growth for Scottish Enlightenment thinkers along with the accounts of ethical life in Hegel and Kierkegaard.

Jane Austen and Ethical Life I

Evidently not much blogging recently. Unfortunately I could not progress with a series of posts on recently published Foucault lectures because of a combination of teaching and deadlines for other projects, including the current first post in a sequence. I’ve had to finish a draft of ‘Ethical Life, The Individual Self and Austen’ for a multi-authored volume. I do do not want to say more until the book in question is in press. At that point I should be posting a more advanced draft at  my academia.edu account. In the meantime I am posting the present draft in sections of about 800 words. Teaching finishes this semester at the end of next week, so I hope to complete the Foucault posts then, and then go back to an older series of posts which have remained incomplete. First section on Austen below.


Jane Austen’s novels offer a vision of ethical life. This is is true in some very general sense that the novel as a literary form of any seriousness tends to deal with ethical issues. It is true in the more precise sense that the emergence of the novel in modern literature is related to an ethical shift, that is a shift away from the metaphysical form of theological Christian ethics along with the Stoic version of the philosophical virtue ethics of Pagan antiquity, which had a dominant influence on the understanding of ethics in the early modern period. That dominant influence was challenged by major thinkers going back to Michel de Montaigne in the sixteenth century , but still remained as a starting point for ethical reflection. The growth of the novel as a major literary form in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was a major part of the waning of Stoicism, interacting with the philosophical developments. In English literature, there is a relation with the ideas and reasoning of Enlightenment ethics, if not always conducted with regard to much philosophical scholarship on the side of literary writers. Examples include Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne and Samuel Richardson. We can see parallel if distinct processes in French literature including the ways in which Charles-Louis de Secondat Baron de Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Constant were well known novelists as well as social and political thinkers. In Germany, in slightly later phase of cultural growth, the most famous literary works were produced by the polymathic Johann Wolfgang Goethe, a major protagonist of social and intellectual Enlightenment. In Goethe we can see what is widely thought of as a transition from Enlightenment to Romanticism,  though it is really a very ambiguous process in which some of the aestheticist, holist and historicist aspects of Enlightenment displace some of the more rigidly empiricist and materialist aspects of Enlightenment..

The Enlightenment texts in English, by Scottish and Anglo-Irish authors as well as English authors, are the most obvious context for Austen’s novels. There is no account taken here of direct influence, only of overlaps in discourse and moral reflections, of which many can be found. Only the still most widely read of those texts are taken into account, so that there is no attempt here to determine what series of relatively minor and relatively major texts may have influenced Austen. The most obviously relevant and still widely read are Edmund Burke’s Philosophical In Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful; Francis Hutcheson’s An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, the ethical sections of David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Burke’s text text should be read by anyone interested in the literature of the period, including the aesthetic ideas and assumptions in novels, but is not sufficiently concerned with ethics to be referred to here again. Hutcheson, Hume and Smith can be grouped as Scottish Enlightenment thinkers and will be referred to as such where it is convenient to refer to them together. Mary Wollstonecraft is not so significant as those three regarding ethics, but is an important reference with regard to the importance of female education and moral autonomy for Austen.

There is a way of thinking that can be centred round the idea of ‘ethical life’, in a retrospective way since it is a phrase associated with a widespread way of translating a word used by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in the early nineteenth century, Sittlichkeit, which refers to the aspect of morality that appears in social order and customs, rather than reflection. Kierkegaard also used the slightly different Danish word for ethical life, but as we shall see put it in a context different from Hegel’s and which is most important guiding reference for the reading of Austen presented here. This is partly a retrospective imposition, but since Hegel’s idea of ethical life is based in significant part on his understanding of the Scottish Enlightenment and Kierkegaard picked up a lot of those themes, if largely through German thinkers, it is not a purely external imposition.