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 novels classics that deserves to be read in the present in their 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 coherence 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, that 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 does in representing 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 so 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 others, 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. 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. It relies particularly on developing a sensibility to others' legitimate expectations upon you, which is somewhat more demanding than the mere mastery of good manners but also somewhat more subtle and less doctrinaire than resort to one's foundational moral principles.

But 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 her 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 (PP). The happy ending must wait until Darcy comes to see beyond her lowly connections and unaristocratic manners and fully recognise her true - bourgeois - virtue. 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 SS). 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 (PP).

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 (PP). 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 (SS). 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 - of 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 a shorter version in Jan/Feb 2013 which can be found here