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.


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