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.