There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues (Introduction and Chapter 1)

As every true bookworm knows, there are two kinds of books: the ones we read, and the ones that read us. Bronson Alcott described the latter kind when he wrote of The Pilgrim's Progress, "This is one of the few books that showed me to myself." Such a book is Sarah Emsley's Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues. It's a work of literary criticism that I've long been eager to read. I owe my lovely friend Esther an immense debt of gratitude for lending her copy to me (and for not bugging me about why I haven't finished and posted sooner.)

Emsley's theses is that Austen participates in the tradition of "virtue ethics" developed by philosophers and theologians over the centuries. Especially prominent in the development of this tradition is Aristotle, for whom the telos [end or goal] of virtue is "human flourishing". This view is reinforced by the cardinal virtues of the early philosophers: justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude. Combined with the Christian (or Theological) virtues - faith, hope, and love - these present flexible guide to living the good life. Emsley presents the primary concern of Austen's heroines not as "Who shall I marry? but as "How shall I live my life?" Contemplation and practice of the virtues will produce a flourishing life. However, such a life requires practice and effort, since "for Austen, as for Aristotle, virtue is a disposition and is chosen, acquired, and practiced through habit..." (Emsley 18)

Through presenting Austen as concerned with happiness attained through virtue, Emsley immediately confronts popular criticism that emphasizes the humiliation of the heroines as harmful, and strong Christian mores as antithetical to happiness. Gilbert and Gubar were among the feminist critics who spearheaded this view of Austen's universe, leading many subsequent feminist critics to maintain a strong interest in Austen, while disparaging the endings of her novels. However, I'm glad to say Emsley also shows herself sympathetic to true forms of women's equality, through her references to Wollstonecraft's criticism of the "spaniel-like virtues" expected of women in the 18th century.

While Emsley acknowledges the lack of much explicit Christianity in Austen's works, she points out that the tradition of virtues was expanded by Aquinas and Augustine. She suggests that since Protestants tended to "downplay Catholic catalogues of specific vices and virtues" (31), Austen's Catholic sympathies in "The History of England" might extend to her philosophical emphasis on the virtues. Despite her interest in the specific virtues, Austen does not see them as items on a list to be checked off. (An example of this type of thinking is Benjamin Franklin's list of 13 virtues - one to work on each week - which has been described as "secular Calvanism".) Nor does Austen view virtue in the narrow form it was equated with in her day - as female sexual purity, or a "state of being that could be acted on by others" (35). Rather, for Austen, individual deliberation and judgment are vital in all circumstances, for vice may lie on either side of the mean of virtue. "It is the right kind of actions, at the right time, and in the right way, that constitute virtuous behavior..." (40).

Reading the Introduction and first chapter of this book helped to acquaint me more intimately with several philosophers, but it also "showed me to myself" through making me think more deeply about my own judgments of virtues and morals, and about how I walk the mean of virtue.


  1. Jane Austen's ethics are, to say the least, varied. The first two novels focus on "don't rely on first impressions" (yes, even S&S in Marianne's case) and prudence is emphasised over emotions. But she mellows as she ages, especially in Persuasion, which is more Victorian in sentiment than her previous novels. Austen only seems (to me, as an outsider not well-versed in Christianity) overtly Christian in MP and Emma, which is again more Victorian. The Augustans were all about direct moral lessons, such as punishing the proud and vain in the end, and rewarding the virtuous. The Victorians liked to inculcate meek piety and charity, and were interested in social issues. Victorian novels also seem to have heroic vicars. Austen is more complex than either extreme picture, but the first two or 3 novels seem more like moral lessons, and the last more natural scenes of life. While the first two emphasise reason (Lizzie is prejudiced without logic or evidence, Lydia is brainless), the last 2 emphasise charity and emotions (Emma must be tolerant of her social inferiors, Anne remains constant to her first love despite the improbability of marrying him). MP could be the bridge between those two phases. It is extremely moralistic (Regency novels seem to be) but it has the subtlety of character more in tune with the Victorian era. Fanny, despite being a bit of a prig, and rational about the Crawfords' true colours, is also an emotional Romantic. She likes Cowper and Walter Scott, and prefers old architecture (Gothic? Jacobean?) to the then-new neoclassical theme. When you consider that Maria Edgeworth heroines are cool and rational (or learn to be) and that S&S and P&P are encouraged to practise those virtues, Austen's sympathy with Fanny's and Edmund's Romanticism marks a difference. Which is probably why novelists from Austen onwards are popular - because they are heart and soul and they move us, rather than 18th century wit and reason. Ironically Romantic values only really came into full swing in Victorian novels, despite the fact the Romantic era ended near Regency times.

    About the silly Gothic novel. I'll try to review it when I have the time (it really is full of the outdated tropes!) but I'm going to Haworth next week and busy packing now. I got your message. Thanks for the support, that was sweet of you.

    1. Ugh. I wrote a long reply to you on Monday, Caroline, and it seems to have deleted. :( Thanks for your thoughts - perspicacious as always.

      I'm very curious why you think Emma is overtly Christian. MP _is_ the most so - with Edmund's monologue on religion as the arbiter of morals. In S&S Marianne goes through death and resurrection and acknowledges her need of "atonement to my God". P has Anne indicting Mr Elliot's character for being lax of Sunday observance. Personally, I would've thought of Emma as among the least overtly religious, but perhaps you've seen something I've missed. However, I agree with Emsley that although Austen would consider the individual's direct relationship with God not a subject for novels, the virtues explored (in a social or familial context) in the various novels are rooted in the Christian tradition.

      Yes, it's funny that novelists only got Romantic in the Victorian era.

      You lucky girl, going to Haworth! Send my love to the "little cage of Currer Bell".

    2. I'm back from Haworth! Yeah, I often think the Victorians shouldn't be called the Victorians (that is an era rather than a philsophy) but the Postromantics. Rather like the successors of modernism are postmodernists (and modernism was more clearly defined and superior to its successor I believe).

    3. Good term, Caroline. I've got to admit I'm not particularly up on the differences between modernism and postmodernism. :(
      I'll hop over to tumblr soon to see if you've posted any pics of Haworth. ;)

  2. Thanks for writing about my book -- I'm glad to hear you're enjoying it!

    1. Thanks for visiting my humble corner of the internet, Dr Emsley. More importantly, thank you for articulating Austen's ethics in a way that has helped me understand her -- and myself -- better!

  3. This sounds, as it did before, very fascinating. I'm a bit curious, though - does Emsley seem to argue that the humiliation of the heroines is a good thing? And what does she mean by humiliation - is that something that a Gentle Janeite might characterize as a Lewisian epiphany?

  4. Aw, good question. Emsley focuses a lot on the good life as the result of virtue, and also deprecates Marianne's extreme version of penance. She also, of course, basis the virtues in faith. Although she doesn't mention Lewis' essay, yes, I think you could characterize it thus.

    Humiliation is a fascinating word, isn't it? I think it's changed semantically and once linked more directly to humility. There's Bunyan using the term Valley of Humiliation and Austen herself having Elizabeth say, "How just a humiliation!" Even those of us who prize humility are highly uncomfortable with humiliation. (At least I'm assuming from your question that you -- like myself -- are uncomfortable with the term in its modern connotations which might imply the destruction of self-respect/esteem.)

  5. Yup - additionally, I really dislike what I see as at least partially misogynistic connotations in such essays as Mark Schorer's "The Humiliation of Emma Woodhouse." I think there's absolutely moments where the characters (male and female) learn humility, sometimes publically, sometimes privately - but humiliation seems to be something that an external objects effects on the subject (even if sometimes the object is one's own foolishness, like Darcy or Emma).