Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Reading Jane Austen as a moral philosopher

Jane Austen wrote delicious romantic comedies about middle-class girls looking for a good husband among the landed gentry of Regency England. But if that were all there was to it we wouldn't take her any more seriously now than the genre hacks published by Mills and Boon. In this essay I want to explain what I think makes Austen so special. She was a brilliant moral philosopher who analysed and taught a virtue ethics for middle-class life that is surprisingly contemporary. Appreciating this can help us understand why she wrote the way she did and how we should read her today.

Austen is justly celebrated as a literary icon both for her genius and for her role in inventing the modern novel. Her first novel, Northanger Abbey (though by a quirk, not actually published until after her death) must particularly delight the modern literature academic with its recursive irony and playful subversion of established rules and genres. Austen goes so far as to integrate a running discussion of the form, role, and importance of 'the novel' into the book, though the casual (or modern) reader would miss most of the references, allusions and parodies of her contemporary literary world. That exuberant display of literary genius was somewhat curtailed in Austen's later works, as she sought to balance literary style with popular (commercial) appeal.

The style Austen developed in her later works was distinctive for its very conventionality, or 'social realism'. In a famous review, Sir Walter Scott wrote glowingly of the ordinariness and realisticness of her characters and situations, which he contrasted positively to the competitive excesses of the romantic style. (Speaking of which, Charlotte Brontë rejected the "commonplace" and "confined" lives Austen described: "no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck".)  As Scott saw it, there was real literary value and art to writing well about familiar lives and characters: 

The author’s knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize, reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting. The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand; but they are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader. 

All this certainly makes Austen an important figure in the history of literature - the modern psychological novel comprising 'events in the mind of an imaginary person' originates in such a focus on ordinary lives. But I don’t think that is what makes her a classic who deserves to be read in the present in her own terms. To be blunt but brief, we can't read Scott's Austen anymore because the world and literature have moved on. In particular, she can no longer be considered realistic, not only because present readers can't relate to the situation of the Regency landed gentry, but also because she doesn't meet contemporary literary standards.

Consider her characters. Once considered so real, now, in contrast to the subtle psychological realisticness of modern novelists like Ian McEwan, they look like what they are: complexes of particular moral dispositions rather than plausible human people whom one can take seriously in their own right. This is not to say her central characters aren't complex, nor that they don't capture something true about human nature, only that they do not have the psychological completeness we would nowadays expect.

In a modern literary novel, the plot is driven forward by the characters, and this is how it should be because it is the characters-as-persons with whom the reader is actually concerned. The reader is provided with direct access to internal events in the minds of the characters and can understand the plot as unfolding naturally from these. Not so in Austen. Her focus is on how her characters react to events, not on their capacity to cause them, and the happy endings, like the intermediate trials and tribulations, are always dei ex machinis (also, of course, a standard feature of the romance genre in general). The plot is author driven - according to what Austen wants to say, not what her characters want to do. So unexpected things are continuously happening. The characters are always doing strange things offstage like jilting lovers or eloping (or, equally powerless, falling into terrible illnesses) that seem not at all realistic in terms of following from what we have been told of their motivations and dispositions.

So Scott's Austen looks like a period piece, not a classic. But there is something timelessly brilliant about Austen's novels, inescapably intertwined with their literary character but quite distinct from their literary merit. For without a doubt Austen was a brilliant moralist from whom we still have much to learn today. Austen's books are deeply serious morality plays underneath the veneer of romantic comedy that helped them sell. They are a moral education masquerading as entertainment.

It is often argued, by philosophers like Martha Nussbaum, that literature has an important but indirect role in moral education by helping readers develop and practice the central ethical skill of empathising with other people's lives and perspectives. In The Better Angels of our Nature, the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker even credits the spread of novel reading with reducing violence in what he calls the 'humanitarian revolution' of the 18th and 19th centuries: by providing us with vicarious access to the feelings of other, even imaginary, people, we became less cruel as a society (think of this as the opposite of the Jack Bauer effect). But Austen's moral education is far more direct. She takes full advantage of the fact that, aDr Johnson noted, fiction can “convey the knowledge of vice and virtue with more efficacy than axioms and definitions”. Her novels analyse and teach a virtue ethics for bourgeois life, the kind of life that most of us live today.

Virtue ethics understands the good life in terms of personal moral character, of becoming the kind of person who does the right thing at the right time for the right reasons. Virtue ethics hasn't been fashionable since the Enlightenment (though there were some late holdouts in Scotland, like Adam Smith) because moral theory these days has a different focus and method.  The academic focus is on developing rational universal theories of right action. In the public sphere morality takes on a political focus, as justice, and concerns big world-changing issues like women's rights, inequality, colonialism, and so on

Virtue ethics isn't like that. It's about how to be rather than what to do. It does not direct its readers to abstract themselves entirely from their own circumstances and adopt the birds-eye perspective of legislators to themselves and the world. Rather it is a ground-level view that concerns itself with the hard fact about the human predicament: we are born into circumstances and entanglements with others that we have no choice over. Its concern is not with how the world should be, but with that other fundamental ethical question, How should I live this life of mine? 

The virtue ethicist's answer is that we should seek to live an excellent life, and that we can do this by identifying the different qualities (the primary colours - the virtues) that make up such a life and learning what they require in different cases (how to paint with them). This is a much more intellectually demanding exercise than generally found in contemporary moral theory, which for all its jargon and wordiness is fundamentally concerned with simplifying moral life rather as a grammar book represents a language. The Enlightenment philosophers emphasised our rational capacity for theorising about right and wrong, but living an excellent life requires practical wisdom (and, it must be said, some luck with regard to circumstances). It requires lifelong learning through reflection on experience, examples (including from fictional dramas), and conversation because there is always room for improvement. In your understanding of complex virtues like honesty. In seeing how they apply to different kinds of situation. In perceiving fine ethical nuances and gradations of excellence.  

To talk about a bourgeois virtue ethics is to talk about the particular constellation of virtues that are most significant to an ethically flourishing life in middle-class circumstances. For example, unlike aristocrats the middle-classes are not free from material concerns and are thoroughly dependent on the goodwill of other people for success. Unlike peasants we are not trapped by a subsistence economy, but have the resources and time - the leisure - to reflect on who we want to be and to make and carry out plans for our future.

Austen celebrates and promotes a solidly middle-class ethics, and this together with her use of narrative (and femininity?), may explain why her moral philosophy is rarely recognised. Success for Austen's women depends on developing a moral character whose central virtues are bourgeois: Prudence (planning one's actions with respect to protecting and furthering one's interests); Amiability (civility to family, friends, and strangers, according to their due); Propriety (understanding and acting on a sense of what virtue requires); and Dignity (considering oneself as an independent autonomous person deserving of respect). 

Austen is particularly unusual among virtue ethicists past and present in according amiability so much importance. But she is right to do so. Amiability is central to most people's lives, since we must work, if nowadays less often live, in close confinement with numerous other people with whom we have to get along. She is particularly shocking for her unromantic attention to prudence. As Auden put it in his Letter to Lord Byron (1937),

You could not shock her more than she shocks me,
Beside her, Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of 'brass',
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

Austen presents these bourgeois virtues as not merely a necessary accommodation to difficult circumstances, but as superior to the invidious vanity and pride of the rich and titled, which she often mocks. So Elizabeth Bennet rejects Darcy's haughty condescension out of hand; the happy ending must wait until Darcy comes to see beyond her lowly connections and unaristocratic manners and fully recognise her true (bourgeois) virtue (P&P). That is a moral happy ending even more than it is a romantic one.

Like any good virtue ethicist, Austen proceeds by giving illustrative examples. This is why her characters are moral rather than psychological constructs. Austen's purpose is not to explore their inner lives, but to expose particular moral pathologies to the attention of the reader. Don't act like this: don't cut off your relatives without a penny after promising your father you would look after them and justify it with self-serving casuistic rationalisations (John Dashwood in S&S). Don't be like this: morally incontinent like Mrs Bennet; or struck through with a single huge flaw, like Mr Bennet's selfish wish to live a private life while being the head of a family (P&P).

But as well as excoriating such obvious and conventional moral failings, Austen attends carefully, and with a fine brush, to illustrating the fine detail and fine-tuning that true virtue requires. To show us what true amiability should be, she shows us what it isn't quite. Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park, is so excessively amiable as to put her own dignity and interests at risk, so self-effacing that her true love almost doesn't notice her (until events intervene). Mr Bingley's amiability is perfect in pitch, but fails to discriminate between the deserving and undeserving (P&P). Emma, meanwhile, is very discriminating, but she is a snob about it: she is rather too conscious of her social status and does not actually respect others as she should (which of course, gets her into trouble).

Then there are the illustrations of what virtuous conduct looks like. Here one sees why the plot is so firmly in the author's hands, not the characters'. Austen is primarily concerned with setting up particular scenes - moral trials - in which we can see how virtuous characters behave in testing circumstances. These moral lessons to the reader are the parts she gave the most exacting attention to; where her words are perfectly chosen and sparkling with intelligence and deep moral insight. These are the parts that she really cared about. The rest - the rituals of the romantic comedy genre and 'social realism' - is just background.

We see Austen's characters navigating the unpleasant attentions and comments of boors, fools, and cads with decorum and dignity: "Indeed, brother, your anxiety for our welfare and prosperity carries you too far”, Elinor chastises John Dashwood, ever so politely (S&S). In every novel we see Austen's central characters working through moral problems of all kinds, weighing up and considering what propriety requires by talking it through to themselves or trusted friends. We see their moral development, for example in the way Elizabeth and Darcy both learn from their early mistakes about pride and prejudice. We even see them engaging in explicit, almost technical, moral analysis, such as debating to what extent Frank Churchill should be considered morally responsible for his lifelong failure to visit his father (Emma), to the evident boredom of the less morally sophisticated characters stuck in the same room.

Austen carries out her mission of moral education with flair and brilliance, while charitably respecting the interests and capacities of her readers (which is why she is so much more readable than most moral theorists who, like Kant, seem often to write as if understanding is the reader's problem). Yet there is one further striking feature that sets Austen's novels apart: her moral gaze. The omniscient author of her books sees right through people to their moral character and exposes and dissects their follies, flaws, and self-deceptions. I cannot read one of her novels without thinking - with a shiver - about what that penetrating moral gaze would reveal if directed at myself.

This is virtue ethics at a different level - about moral vision, not just moral content. Austen shows us how to look at ourselves and analyse and identify our own moral character, to meet Socrates' challenge to "Know thyself". We have all the information we need to look at ourselves in this way, to see ourselves as we really are - we have an author's omniscient access to the details of our own lives - but we generally prefer not to open that box. 

Here again I think Austen has much to teach the professional philosopher as well as the casual reader about moral philosophy. Academic moral philosophers since the enlightenment have collaborated with our natural aversion to introspection by collectively turning their attention away from uncomfortable self-examination and towards elaborating coherent systems of rules that any agent should follow. Yet reading Austen shows the ultimate ineffectiveness of this strategy. I do not believe that all the sophisticated Kantian and utilitarian theory in the world could shield you for long from Austen's moral gaze.


We should read Austen today because she is wise as well as clever, and because she teaches us how to live well not just how to love well. We should read beyond the delicious rituals of her romantic comedy storylines to her deeper interests and purposes in creating her morally complex characters and setting them on display for us. We should read beyond her undisputed literary genius, and her place in the history of literary innovations and influences, to her unrecognised philosophical genius in elaborating and advancing a moral philosophy for our bourgeois times.

Further reading
Gilbert Ryle's beautiful philosophical essay (from 1966) on 'Jane Austen and the Moralists'

Rose Woodhouse's critical discussion of this post over at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, focussing on whether Austen is a better psychologist than I give her credit for. 

This post has been substantially rewritten after I was thoroughly and rightly chastised by friends and commenters for failing to do justice to Austen's literary merits. Thanks to David M and Professor Guerrero, among others 

Several people have requested permission to use this essay in English classes. You are very welcome to. This blog post is subject to revision, but Philosophy Now published an earlier version in Jan/Feb 2013 which can be found here


  1. Hi.
    Contemporary novels can get somewhat self conscious. I haven't really read Austen; can the self conscious gaze of say a Kafka be a moral gaze?
    How would you compare Austen with Kafka?
    Thanks That's my comment

    1. Austen and Kafka. Well, Kafka didn't really write novels so he isn't in the same genre. His style is much more fragmentary and his intentions harder to fathom. But he is popular with some existentialist philosophers for his peculiarly penetrating way of looking at the world. And like Austen's moral gaze, Kafka's is very unsettling.

  2. A recent book (Confucius, the Analects, and Western Education - Continuum International) uses the character of Mr. Knoightley in Emma to elaborate the Confucian junzi/gentleman.

  3. Very lucid consideration of Jane Austen as moral educator. Thank you for this.

  4. Sarah Baxter Emsley. _Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues_. Palgrave, 2005. Very fine book.

  5. “because she teaches us how to live well not just how to love well.”
    This distinction's misleading. Austen argues that the central task of living well *is* learning how to love well. I don’t read her for the delicious romantic rituals, but for the masterful, erotically-charged philosophical dialectics of her lovers. Lizzie and Darcy, Emma and Knightly –- these are pairs of witty intellectuals sparring over what and how to do the right thing, their love growing in the exchange. The couples achieve happiness when they recognize the wisdom of each others’ perspectives, analyze and come to trust in the rightness of their emotions, and expand their ability to understand and be compassionate of others. Austen argues that society thrives when intellectually and emotionally intelligent couples lovingly determine together what the virtuous life is; thus she is a bourgeois, empathetic Aristotelian, concluding that life is lived well when head and heart unite and act with love (of wisdom and others).

    1. Great comment! I meant only to distinguish between Austen's moral philosophy content and her romantic comedy structure.

      I agree that the intellectual sparring between the main protagonists (though not exclusively the romantic couples) is a significant feature of Austen's novels, and you put that very well. The best romantic matches are those which will improve both parties - a source for continued moral development rather than just a happy ending.

      I'm not quite so sure about Austen's social orientation or Aristotelianism. First, her ethics is quite individualistic (or, better, 'domestic'), without concern either for the civic virtues like justice or the condition of those outside the limited circle of acquaintances (the poor, the war, the slavery that sustained Mansfield Park, etc). There is also no expectation that everyone can make a good match - i.e. that society as a whole can thrive in this way.

      Second, although a virtue ethicist like Aristotle the content of Austen's account is adapted to the bourgeois post-enlightenment world she lived in. So in contrast to Aristotle's account it is non-metaphysical, egalitarian, and apolitical.

  6. May I please give notes from your article to my high school British Literature class if I cite you? This would be a HUGE help to me as I prepare them to read Sense and Sensibility!

    1. Of course. I would be very glad that my little essay might be of use.

  7. Once I righted myself over the term "romantic comedy" (contradiction in terms), I was gratified to find somebody else out there understands dear Jane as an author of morality plays. From my perspective, her books do not work as romances in the modern definition of the word (the relationship is the central interest in the story, the characters arc their way to a happily ever after). Austen novels read to me like gayly clad sermons, and sometimes not even so gayly clad.

    I stumble over "romantic comedy" because in a classic comedy, the characters typically have no arc. They yuk their way through mistaken identities, misunderstandings, and situational contretemps. Nobody grows wiser or more worthy for having run the gauntlet of happenstance. In a romance, the arc, the maturation of the characters is the greatest point of interest. Growing up is not hilarious--it's scarey and painful. The two genres do not blend often or well. A story is generally one or the other, says me.

    Thanks much for provoking thought.

  8. Without nailing down Austen's fullsome philsophical contribution, I would suggest that we could elborate her virtues as a philosopher far further-- in particular I am thinking of the modesty with which she restricts herself to examining a few integral features of a particular lebenswelt rather than running away with the universal abstractions that were rampant in her time. We wouldn't even be comparing her to MacIntyre and Aristotle if their chief insights weren't born of a prudent and modest retreat from more metaphysical ambitions and gestures to focus on the developments of character and then again to even more modestly to focus on the cultivation of a sensibility favoring specific virtues.
    More romantically, I've personally been inspired in the last few years to begin developing the notion of "a sensibility" into a more technically rigorous philsopheme precisely because of the propriety of its scale. Phenomenologically, it isn't as atomic or as intellectual as "phenomena" (it cannot be simply thematized or pre-thematized), but on the otherhand it isn't as cumbersome as a "lebenswelt" which we can't really try on for size, experiment with, or cultivate as a cultivation of our own experience as we can, and must, when cultivating a "sensibility". Cetainly it grounds "sense" in mature and multi-trialed experience far more rigorously than any phenomenology has managed to do. From a values standpoint, a "sensibility" isn't limited to moral character and virtue, but almost always involves a co-development of sensibilities that are at the very least, aesthetic, intellectual, religious, convivial, aporetic aspects of any given sensibility being examined. Not only are values not precluded by appropriate gestalts of analysis, they are not pitted against one another by modest analysis. Finally, historiographically, many of the problems that accrue to the notion of "paradigm shifts" are obviated by focussing on the more modest "shifts in sensibility" that prepare their way, both in conception and for reception. The notion of sensibility, precisely because it is unchracteristically modest (both for philosophy and for romantacism-- the latter typically got ahead of itself simply by speaking for "the Heart"), has a power in reserve.
    Perhaps in the near future it will not seem so odd to think of the last century's philosophy as an attempt to continue a century of romantacism by other means. However, as likely, this century as a phenomenology of the Heart, will find itself returning to Austen for its means in the idea of "sensibility". If she herself did not develop this idea as much as explicitly as we might have liked, she certainly had her sights on the appropriate phenomena: what it means to love with authenticity and integrity people who are worth loving.

  9. The article is much improved from last time. However, there still seems to be a thinness of knowledge, and I query the point or relevance of calling someone who is quite clearly a novelist a philosopher.

    1. Philosophers do not merely rehearse the current beliefs of the time, even if they actually believe in them. They explore, critique, and usually enter into controversy. They will, for the sake of their job if nothing else, seek to at least fine-tune or nuance the consensus. Telling people what the currently accepted way to behave is the work of parents, teachers, possibly clerics, politicians, leader-writers, etc.

    2. Real philosophers will refer to other philosophers, either to support or controvert their views. They will place themselves explicitly or implicitly in what they perceive is their place in the current spectrum of philosophical views, e.g. Kantian, Utilitarian, Christian, Classical, Aristotelian, etc. As a writer of fiction, Austen refers to other writers of fiction, such as Mrs Radcliffe, not philosophers.

    3. They will, or should, announce themselves as philosophers. Austen, by contrast, labels her work quite clearly as a novel. It is true that some religious (or political) people write polemic disguised as literature, but Austen's novels are not in this category. As evidence for this, consider what happens after Marianne delivers herself of this philippic. She solemnly vows never to marry, to become a sort of secular nun confined to the society of her sisters and mother: "The future must be my proof. I have laid down my plan, and if I am capable of adhering to it, my feelings shall be governed and my temper improved. They shall no longer worry others, nor torture myself. I shall now live solely for my family. You, my mother, and Margaret, must henceforth be all the world to me; you will share my affections entirely between you. From you, from my home, I shall never again have the smallest incitement to move; and if I do mix in other society, it will be only to show that my spirit is humbled, my heart amended, and that I can practise the civilities, the lesser duties of life, with gentleness and forbearance." However, within two years she has married Colonel Brandon. Nothing could show more clearly that Austen's focus is not on ethics or philosophy except as the moral framework in which her characters work; her prime interest is, as a novelist's must be, in her characters and the relationships between them. There is a delicious irony in the way the incorrigibly emotional Marianne so soon forgets her solemn vow. Indeed, you could say that there is rich comedy in putting this pompous speech into the mouth of an unschooled and impulsive girl of 17. She has obviously spent a long time preparing it!

  10. 4. In the case of philosophers one expects to find only one set of views expounded, and one expects them to be the views the philosophers actually hold. If they have changed their mind, they should signal this. In Austen, however, we find a range of views, not all mocked. And we must not jump to conclusions and assume that views expressed in a piece of literature, even by a major character, are the views of the author (for example that Polonius's views in his speech to Laertes are shared by Shakespeare). That is an elementary error often made by unliterary people. It is more than likely that Austen herself was inclined to give religion a larger place in ethics and behaviour than the toehold this speech seems to allow it. After all, common sense suggests that religion is either true or untrue, and if true, then surely infinitely more important than anything else (and if untrue, then to be entirely jettisoned). I believe Austen was intelligent enough to realise this. Marianne says "As for Willoughby, to say that I shall soon, or that I shall ever forget him, would be idle. His remembrance can be overcome by no change of circumstances or opinions. But it shall be regulated, it shall be checked by religion, by reason, by constant employment." If God can cure her problem, she doesn't need reason and employment as well! This relegation of religion to a small corner of life was typical of the spirit of the age, but by all accounts it was not Jane's view. As the daughter of a devout and serious clergyman, she recognised the absolute claims of religion. She shows a strong admiration for people like Edward who bow to the absolute claims of God, over against prudence and other considerations, and often embraces the cause of unattractive 'religious' characters like Fanny Price, to the embarrassment of her humanist fans. So she was a devout Christian who wrote books in which the chief characters were nominal Christians. Her Christian perspective may be deeply embedded in the books, but it is not to be found in any overt moralising. That's just part of the story.

    5. Finally, in general, it is dangerous to widen the reference of a term too broadly. If you want to call a novelist a philosopher, you have to extend the term to anybody who expresses their philosophy in something they do. A recent programme about Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven tried to make out that their works were partly philosophical responses to world events, and to each other. But this is a step too far. There is no doubt that Napoleon was involved in Beethoven's 3rd, but Haydn did not write a symphony in which he agreed with some of Beethoven's phrases and disagreed with others. Musicians write music. You could say that people express their philosophy by the way they paint, work, chat, play sport or drive, but by this time the expression has become meaningless. They paint, etc, and their character comes out in that.

    1. I might quibble with some of these brilliant points - e.g. there are plenty of philosophers who don't show their working and relation to other philosophers explicitly (e.g. the 'continentals', but also many other non-conventional types, like Wittgenstein).

      But I'm going to have to do some serious thinking and revisions in light of what you said. Many thanks!

  11. This is a very well written piece and very engaging. I just wish I could agree!

    I read Dickens and he speaks to us about people and their idiosyncrasies and demonstrates so well how people lived and survived in the Victorian era. He is as relevant today as he was then. For me he is the ultimate Victorian commentator and storyteller in the sense he writes realistically and fantastically in equal measures. Entertains and yet educates.

    Austen in sharp contrast is not at all relevant and I find her work to be repetitive, unoriginal and insipid. Her works is almost passionless, devoid of any real feeling or emotion and I wonder what the appeal is at all in her work. She does not speak to me at all and her characters irritate me.

    At school I read Northanger Abbey and decided to lie about any further Austen I was meant to read as I could not endure further torture. When the time came to discuss her other novels I felt I could talk about them without ever having read them just on the basis of reading one fully and having a skim read of the first half of Sense and Sensibility.

    As an adult I tried again to like her and watched film adaptations and attempted to finish Sense and Sensibility but I found I disliked it to an even greater extent than before! The Austen appreciation society is just one place I will never feel at home.

    If we look at other female writers of the same era then surely the Bronte sisters contribute far more to literature, feminism and society. In the sense of moral education they offer a far greater selection of engaging characters and stories than Austen does.

    She perhaps could be enjoyed as a superficial, comedic author but as anything more deep and meaningful I would argue that she fails miserably.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Prussia. I can go some way with you about Austen's contemporary literary relevance. But her moral philosophy is certainly still "deep and meaningful". Try Sense and Sensibility again from that perspective and maybe you will see what I see in it....


Comments will be moderated for civility and relevance