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Jane Austen, a moral absolutist?

June 26, 2016
Janet Todd, ed, Jane Austen in context

Janet Todd, ed, Jane Austen in context

In my post on the Jane Austen Festival Australia a couple of months ago, I summarised the various papers presented at their day-long symposium. One of the papers was by a Marcus Adamson and his topic was “The ever absolute Miss Austen”.

Adamson’s paper was a challenge to fully comprehend, partly because he referenced, in a short time, a wide range of philosophers and thinkers from the ancient Greeks on. It was impossible to keep up with the flow of ideas, arguments and connections. Fundamentally, though, he argued that Austen’s novels have a serious moral vision, that they present moral truths and certainties that are innately “known” to us. In other words, she asks, he says, the big Socratic question, “How should I live my life?” I agree with him that Austen’s novels do contain serious commentary about human behaviour, but moral truths and certainties? Moral absolutes? That I was less sure about. My local Jane Austen group decided to make it a meeting topic, so I thought I’d share (document) here my meeting preparation. Bear in mind, though, that I’m not a philosophy student so my ideas are very much of the lay variety.

Many have written about Austen’s moral philosophy, one of the first being her contemporary, the theologian Richard Whately (1787-1863) who described her as a Christian writer, but unobtrusively so. Certainly, none of her books explicitly promote Christianity – though in Mansfield Park, Edmund Bertram does talk about the role of a clergyman in guiding manners and morals.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3. Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713)

Shaftesbury (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

More commentators, in fact, describe Jane Austen as reflecting the philosophical views of Aristotle, and later thinkers like Shaftesbury, Hume and Adam Smith. Some go further to argue that her moral/ethical views are the opposite of the absolutist ideas of people like Calvin. To generalise very broadly, hers is seen as a value system that tries to marry self-interest (or prudence) with sympathy for or kindness to others (or amiability). A recent writer, Rodham, describes her moral philosophy as one of defining a good life in terms of becoming the kind of person who does the right thing at the right time for the right reasons. No wonder I like Jane Austen!

The idea of being flexible – Aristotelian, perhaps – rather than absolute, can be seen in Persuasion, where Anne Eliot wonders regarding Captain Wentworth:

whether it ever occurred to him now, to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to the universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character, and whether it might strike him, that, like all other qualities of the mind, it should have its proportions and limits. She thought it could scarcely escape him to feel that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness as a very resolute character.

It can also be seen in Northanger Abbey, where Henry Tilney tells Catherine Morland, upon realising her wild surmises:

Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you … (Chapter 24)

And so, Catherine comes to recognise the complexity of the moral world versus simplicity/absolutes of the Gothic literature she loved to read:

Among the Alps and Pyrenees perhaps, there were no mixed characters. There, such as were not as spotless as an angel, might have the dispositions of a fiend. But in England it was not so; among the English, she believed, in their hearts and habits there was a general though unequal mixture of good and bad. Upon this conviction she would not be surprised if even in Henry and Eleanor Tilney some slight imperfection might hereafter appear… (Ch. 25)

(I’ll ignore the nationalistic aspect of these comments, for now. They are relevant to a different discussion!)

In Emma, we see many discussions about how to live, how to behave, how to treat people, between Mr Knightley and Emma. And so on through the novels …

The way Jane Austen writes conveys her moral world view, too – not only through authorial comment as omniscient narrator, but also in her language. She speaks frequently of the mind (not of the soul or spirit, for example): “inferior in talent and all the elegancies of mind” (Emma); “a thinking mind” (S&S); “one of those extraordinary bursts of mind” (Persuasion), and so on. Her characters tend to be multi-dimensional, and she describes them, writes Ryle, in terms of their “tempers, habits, dispositions, moods, inclinations, impulses, sentiments, feelings, affections, thoughts, reflections, opinions, principles, prejudices, imaginations and fancies”. These terms are, he writes, more Shaftesbury than those of black-white ethics.

Before I conclude, I must digress briefly. Knox-Shaw refers, during his discussion, to ‘Hume’s remarks on how an irrational and universal “propensity to believe” generates a momentum of its own …’. This brought me up short, and pointed me right at today’s politics, at how easy it is to accept what is said – the three-word slogans, etc – without analysis or thinking, which can result in decisions being made on the basis of unsubstantiated fears rather than true understanding of the issues.

Conclusion

Austen’s moral or ethical view seems, from my reading of her novels, to be complex, nuanced. We don’t see many absolutes, but we do see characters, particularly her protagonists, juggling awareness of others with self-preservation. She wants her characters to recognise context and the need for moral discrimination. In other words, I, and I think many of us, decided that Austen doesn’t present moral absolutes, or certainties, but that she is interested in how to live a decent (ethical) life.

Some of my sources:

  • Knox-Shaw, Peter. “Philosophy” in Todd, Janet (2005), Jane Austen in context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rodham, Thomas. “Reading Jane Austen as a moral philosopher” in philosophy.org
  • Ryle, Gilbert. “Jane Austen and the moralists”, reprinted from The Oxford Review (1), 1966
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22 Comments leave one →
  1. Teresa Pitt permalink
    June 26, 2016 7:44 pm

    This is a fascinating, insightful and very thoughtful post, WG – it makes me want to read JA all over again, and I’m not a particularly dedicated JA fan.

    • June 26, 2016 8:27 pm

      Wow, thanks Teresa! That’s a great commendation. I was rather nervous about writing this as my understanding of formal philosophy is very shaky, but I do know what I like about Jane Austen!

  2. June 26, 2016 7:54 pm

    I do think she thinks, and writes, about how to be ‘good’, though of course she has a very English view of what ‘good’ is. My memory is that she allows Henry Tilney a considerable platform for discussing, lecturing really, on the duties of a clergyman. I’m sure this arises at least partly out of the novels frivolous/sermons serious dichotomy of the time.

    • June 26, 2016 8:38 pm

      One commentator specifically talks about her “morality” in terms of middle class lives – and suggest that that’s what makes her still relevant today. I think you are right about a degree of Englishness, but I suppose there’s also a more universal (particularly in terms of western life anyhow) application to her ideas?

      But yes, Henry Tilney does get to lecture on a few things! I wonder it is also because this novel marks the transition from her youthful over the top juvenilia to her more mature works?

      • June 26, 2016 8:54 pm

        Much as I love her, I think JA represents the moral views of her class (if I were a christian I think I would be a Calvinist, or maybe a Quaker) and I’m sorry she didn’t, for instance, take the opportunity to repudiate slavery, or take the interest in the working classes that Mrs Gaskell did not much later.

        • June 26, 2016 9:48 pm

          Ah, but she was a different sort of writer, Bill. Do we expect every contemporary writer to write about asylum seekers for example, or climate change? I don’t. I love Mrs Gaskell, too, and Dickens, but Austen’s understanding of human nature and her ability to gently skewer pretensions, falsities, hypocrisies, just keep her up there for me.

        • June 26, 2016 9:58 pm

          An interesting conversation to be having while watching Death at Pemberley (I’m visiting mum). JA was different, and moral, and wickedly funny, but also of her nation and class.

        • June 26, 2016 10:34 pm

          Ah yes, Bill, we’re not watching it as we saw it first time around. And yes, to all that re Austen.

  3. June 26, 2016 9:59 pm

    Jane Austen has a moral vision. I’m not sure we should say “moral absolutist”, but I think the most important qualities that she stresses over and over again in her novels are:
    – Kindness and good intentions
    – Self-reflection and self-awareness, as well as an understanding of other people’s feelings
    – Balance
    The last point hasn’t been discussed much, I feel. It doesn’t only refer to balance between sense and sensibility, between emotional display and restraint, between love and financial considerations in marriage… as people often say, discussing Jane Austen’s works, but to balance in everything. I often say that her 6 novels can be divided into 2 groups: the 3 early ones (Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice) and 3 late ones (Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion); the 3 early ones are Jane Austen’s responses to contemporary literature (the sentimental novel and the Gothic novel) and the 3 late ones are responses to her own early works. Fanny Price, for example, is an opposite of Elizabeth Bennet and Mary Crawford is a deliberate reaction to Elizabeth- on the surface she’s similar, but Elizabeth’s wit, vivacity and prejudice is pushed to the extreme in Mary Crawford that she has a quick mind but no self-reflection and therefore can’t become a better person. Louisa Musgrove in Persuasion is, in my opinion, also Jane Austen’s response to the heroine of Pride and Prejudice– Elizabeth Bennet is often admired for her independence, but that quality is pushed to the extreme in Louisa and becomes stubbornness, a fault. Jane Austen’s last book, as we see, stresses the balance between a resolute character and a persuadable temper.
    This blog post of mine, a defence of Mansfield Park, discusses that point:
    http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2014/12/reading-misreading-mansfield-park.html

    • June 26, 2016 10:41 pm

      Welcome Di, and thanks for joining the conversation. You make some good points. I think we can – and do – talk forever about Austen’s characters and how they relate to each other across the books. At least my group does.

      • ian darling permalink
        June 27, 2016 6:49 pm

        It sounds like a fascinating and important paper. I wonder how Austen’s moral vision might compare and contrast with Samuel Johnson’s? Certainly a nuanced thinker.

        • June 27, 2016 7:29 pm

          Yes, good question Ian. I don’t know enough about Johnson to comment, though one of the commentators said that Johnson had once called for an end to “morally mixed” characters because, I understand, of their potential impact on the young and impressionable.

  4. June 28, 2016 3:11 am

    Although Austen might not have conveyed moral absolutes (as we define the term in modern day now) in her writing, I feel she did have a strong sense of right and wrong, conveyed through the POV, speech and action of her characters. Sure Mansfield Park is the usual example, also Mr. Knightley in Emma, as mentioned here, or Colonel Brandon in S&S, or the changed Mr. Darcy. The term “moral absolutes” carries the negative connotation nowadays of being narrow minded and dogmatic, therefore even people of faith avoid aligning with such descriptions. I personally feel there’s nothing wrong with holding convictions that we believe are true and right. This is a most interesting topic, WG. And, her rendering of Lady Susan, and Whitman’s more sympathetic portrayal in the film adaptation makes another good discussion topic as well along the line of ‘moral behaviour’, and of course, her sarcastic depictions. Distinguishing sarcasm and her own personal views will also be a good topic. So, what do you and your group think of the film? My opinion is up at Ripples.

    • June 28, 2016 8:29 am

      Thanks for this Arti. Loved your comments. I certainly agree regarding holding convictions, re having a moral code to live by, and I think Austen does too. But I don’t think she’s black-and-white about it, though perhaps that depends a bit on definition too. You are right that “absolutism” has a bad smell these days, and it’s easy to understand why when we see the sorts of things done in its name.

      I saw notice of your review of Love and friendship appear in my inbox but am saving it. The film hasn’t opened here yet — just the trailers.

  5. June 28, 2016 3:18 am

    Typo in my comment, not Whitman but Whit Stillman’s film: “Love & Friendship”. Just for convenience, here’s my review of the book to film adaptation. 🙂

    • June 28, 2016 8:31 am

      Haha Arti, I knew what you meant.

      PS I do agree that she has a sense of right and wrong, of showing us what it is to behave decently.

  6. June 29, 2016 8:41 am

    For sure Austen wrote about good and bad, but no way would I call her ““The ever absolute Miss Austen”. She understood the ways of the world and people, and allowed for mistakes to be made. She recognised that circumstances in life didn’t make people’s actions clear and simple. This blog has made me want to reread Austen.

    • June 29, 2016 10:48 am

      Of course I agree. If you were to re-read Austen, where would you want to start? Do you have favourites?

  7. June 29, 2016 5:28 pm

    Mansfield Park, wasn’t one of my favourites, so I probably should begin there. Pride and Prejudice is my favourite. I reread it a couple of years ago and I would have no trouble in rereading it again.

    • June 30, 2016 12:06 am

      No I know what you mean. It doesn’t have the sparkle but if it’s been a while it might be worth looking at with older eyes. I’m always torn between P&P and Persuasion, but really the one I currently read most recently always seem so well worth re-reading (again!)

  8. August 13, 2016 8:54 am

    Hi Sue, I think you might be a purist when it comes to Jane Austen. However, you might be interested in reading Eligible by Curtis Sittenfield. In no way is it as good as Pride and Prejudice, but if you are in need of some light reading and a laugh, I say give it a read. And afterwards, like me, you will probably want to read Pride and Prejudice again.

    • August 13, 2016 9:01 am

      Ha ha, Meg, I largely am. I’d heard of the Sittenfeld as it’s part of the Jane Austen Project series. I’ll read it if I can.

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