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.

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