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.

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