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.

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