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.

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