Growing up, I heard the word "judging" used frequently -- often pejoratively by those telling others in the church to stop worrying about other people's dress, adornment, and behavior. My mother would earnestly rejoin that while we cannot judge the heart, we must judge between right and wrong. What often got left out of these discussions was the necessity of careful judgment in pursuing justice. In Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues Sarah Emsley explores the role of judgment in treating others with justice.
Like Sense and Sensibility, Emsley views P&P as exploring the vital question of "how to be truthful and civil simultaneously" (83). However, the latter novel's dramatic plot combines Elizabeth's livelier personality to heighten the tensions of the virtues, and to present what Emsley considers the best of Austen's "living arguments".
As "light, bright, and sparkling" as P&P is, it is a controversial novel. Feminist critics have devalued Austen's marriage plots as humiliations to the heroines and "complicit in bourgeois ideology" (85), while a host of male critics have been more appreciative. Nevertheless, every Janeite has at some point encountered the complaint that a novel set around the Napeolonic wars contains no politics. Emsley points to Aristotle's teaching that the question "How shall our life together be ordered?" is the "central issue of politics" (84). In this light, Austen is highly political in a way that trascends her time and touches the politics of our own. Ultimately, Emsley believes critics are a little too ready to take Austen's word on the "light, bright and sparkling" question, and fail to realize that this is actually "the most serious of Austen's novels..." (84). This view is reinforced by Plato's theory that the genius of tragedy is the same genius as that of comedy.
Emsley's explores righteous anger that seeks to "set things right"(89) and both enables, and springs from, the Christian love and joy displayed in the novels. Again, danger lies on both sides of the mean of good temper. Emsley contrasts Lady Catherine and Mr Collins as opposites -- he overreaches the mean with his obsequiousness, she with her cantankerous impertinence. Personally, I would argue that both are manifestations of their extreme selfishness, directed into seemingly opposite channels by their widely different social positions. An example of those who keep to the mean -- exercising judgment in their anger and civility -- are the Gardeners. They are willing to believe good of Mr Darcy quite readily, but are justly angry with Lydia when she arrives at their home, unrepentant and still-thoughtless.
Especially perspicacious is Emsley's explication of beneficial prejudice (perhaps comparable to proper pride) which leads Elizabeth to reject Mr Collins, while Jane, "apt to like people", might conceivably have accepted him. Elizabeth does not, after all, become so changed by her "just humiliation" as to become unjudgmental like Jane. Rather, Elizabeth and Darcy's early judgments are condemned because both both "judge others before they judge themselves" (95). Correct judgment involves looking closely at situations, judging one's self before judging others, and judging one's self more strictly. This process of correct judgment is an art, and therefore "harder to achieve than the correct execution of technical skill" (97). Emsley effectively demonstrates that "good judgment does not by any means come easily to Elizabeth" following her moment of discovery, but she does become less hasty in her pronouncements as the novel progresses (101).
We few, we happy few, we Janeites are especially fortunate in being able to enjoy Austen's balanced perspective on judgment. Characters in her novels who judge hastily and without humility are educated through their mistakes, but judgment remains vital to the heroines who navigate deceptions and pitfalls to achieve happy endings. Judgment is also the prerequisite to appreciating Austen's finely tuned sense of irony, which relies on the difference between what ought to be and what is. Lastly, judgment is vital to Austen's equally subtle sense of morality. Emsley concludes that critics Maskell and Robinson "are right that Jane Austen goes further than Socrates does in his suggestion that 'The unreasoned life.. is not worth living'; for Austen, 'a life without judgment... would not be a human life at all'" (105).