Moral Philosophy, Ethics and Jane Austen
Good philosophers are those who can argue and compare their viewpoints with that of others. Jane Austen created several works with characters that display her ideals on both moral philosophy and ethics. Austen’s characters face ethical issues quite lofty in their themes. In fact, the moral dilemmas they face have been addressed by renowned philosophers such as George Berkeley, David Hume, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes and Rene Descartes. Austen delves in detail on the thoughts and feelings of her characters to portray her vision of the human spirit.
She is often reunited with the character’s personality and on what she portrays and believes in reality (Teachman 2000). Although Austen’s novels received positive reviews even during her lifetime, she was not celebrated as an author. None of the books had her name printed on them, they merely mentioned “By a lady”. But her good friends are aware of her authorship (Wiltshire 1992). Her creation Northanger Abbey, which details Gothic romance, was sold to a publisher for ? 10 in 1803, but it was not published for a long time.
By way of recognizing and respecting her genius, her family members bought it back from the publisher, and it was published posthumously at the end of 1817. Atypical to her writings, she gained popularity through her works like Sense and Sensibility written in 1811, Pride and Prejudice in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814, and Emma in 1816. Persuasion was the last of her works to be published in 1818 after her death, after Northanger Abbey. Her minor works comprise her Juvenilia, the novel Lady Susan and the fragments.
Though most of her works carry juicy content clubbed with tremendous wisdom, she only received modest public recognition in her life (Wiltshire 1992). Different philosophers view moral philosophy and ethics differently. Regardless of what stand a person takes with regard to this, it is better to justify such views by comparing, contrasting and analyzing the difference in beliefs and standpoints. Austen has penned strong stories of comedies and manners. If one were to merely browse through a few pages of her works superficially, they might be led to think that the stories are more on romance and love.
It is only through thorough reading that one can comprehend that the joys and sorrows, prides and humilities of a self-contained world of provincial ladies and gentlemen are described in great depth. Though the society that she portrays is confined to a small group, it is a world full of complications where the finest qualities of human nature are displayed. Race, class and gender prevailing in the society of those times are depicted true to life. Austen is brave enough in expressing her views about moral issues in her stories.
Living in the aristocratic society, Austen got a good chance to study people through the number of social get-togethers, balls, lunches and dinners that she attended in her young days. The characters that she created so brilliantly are close to her heart and she had depicted them from her own experience of people around her. It can be said that she created characters based on some with whom she had felt and lived in several ways. If Austen will be asked why she created such characters and novels, she is bound to answer: “This is what I believe to be true and my moral resolution is at its best.
No one can hinder me from saying things and putting into words what I’ve seen in this world”. “I am like a miniaturist” says Austen about herself. She says that she can write a simple novel that can be depicted in many ways, and that will expose what stupidity is all about and how it destroys the world. “I am also a perfectionist”. Austen was quite conscious of her excellences as well as limitations. She is one of the pioneers of the English novel. Austen’s thoughts are often similar to that of George Berkeley, one of the foremost philosophers of the period.
Similar to Berkeley, Austen is open in discussing the realities of life and in reporting them as they are. One of the great philosophers of his times, Berkeley asserts philosophical immaterialism when he tells men: “Open your eyes so that you will see that truth is everywhere” (Bracken 1974). However, Austen does not openly talk about philosophy not does she indulge in philosophical treatises. It is through her stories and characters that we get to understood her philosophical thoughts.
Her novels are laced with philosophical insights; we can read between the lines of her books an inherent attitude to life, within which a sure “philosophy” becomes evident. Austen’s works follow George Berkeley’s philosophy “esse is percipi” or “to be is to be perceived” (Dancy 1987). They are both idealists in terms of life’s wisdom (Pappas 2000). Her wise thoughts and her brilliant observation of life and people are reflected in her characters and stories. She has transferred what she perceived of the world and its people, to the personalities of the characters portrayed in her novels.
Austen’s persona showcases the typical qualities of psychologists: “I love my characters and I treat them as my friends”. Furthermore, the philosophy that may be read in her books is all the more stunning as well as penetrative since it is unstated. It is implicit rather than explicit or rigid, and it is read through the different responses of her characters to events. What is most typical about the expression of her thoughts, even the most noble and theoretical, is that they are all shown through the picky goings-on of individual lives.
She apparently tries to imbue these otherwise simple and ordinary lives with significance, by discussing their finer feelings and emotions added with a touch of her own delicate care as well as attention. Conceivably, only Anton Pavlovich Chekhov has come close to expressing such completely applied wisdom since Austen moderately than philosophizing more self-consciously as in soliloquies . “I always challenge the reader’s judgement through my works,” says Austen. It is one way of showing how much she loves her characters because she sees to it that there are “after lives” for them.
She accomplishes this by giving details of what really happens to them even long after the end of her actual stories—and this is something unique of Austen. Though it seems extreme, it could perhaps be this aspect that gives her characters the authenticity that they carry. It seems incorrect to love literary creations, for instance characters, and yet perhaps this is what is required to add flesh to their complete humanity (Todd 2005). With regard to the Science of Man philosophy of David Hume, Austen is able to show how the power of reasoning is used. Human nature is full of reasoning.
One way or another, the characters in Austen’s novels have classical ideas of ethics. Most protagonists are full of innocence and several issues arise that make them suffer conflicts. This is connected to Hume’s notion of causation, where reasons are made out of constantly conjoined events. Hume argues that “Reason without action is dead”. His ethics also focus on human motivation. A person is driven by his/her moral in doing things and this is the best type of reasoning. A good novel by Austen that interprets Hume’s philosophy is Pride and Prejudice, where the characters are in pursuit of their desires.
There are also reasons for them to produce or prevent actions. Written in 1796, Pride and Prejudice was Austen’s first novel, but it was originally named First Impressions. Austen uses multiple forms of irony and wit in this novel (Bloom 1987). She is concerned with the maturity of her characters and avoids extreme sentimental feelings in portraying them. The conflicts that arise between the all-knowing, hard-headed Mr. Darcy and the curious, good-natured Elizabeth are simply due to their own feelings towards each other and their increasing growth of self knowledge. Austen keeps the story true to life and interesting at the same time.
She subtly displays the presence of self-knowledge in other lesser characters in the novel as well. Austen was only 21-years-old when she created Pride and Prejudice, but her wonderful human nature, together with the brilliant observations she had made in her life, helped her in creating such a magnificent piece. “I wrote this so that I can identify virtue and its flawlessness of form and to balance it with expressing human content. ” As in Sense and Sensibility, the twin abstractions of the title are familiarly associated with the protagonists, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Elizabeth is responsible for being prejudiced against the aristocratic Darcy, and he, on his part, displays excessive pride in his cold and unbending approach toward Elizabeth, her sister Jane, as well as to other members of the Bennet family (Devlin 1975). The novel illustrates how impressions are formed upon the first encounter, and how they change through time. It features the unforgettable Elizabeth Bennet as its protagonist. The story begins with the Bennet family, where the Bennets have five daughters—Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia—all of whom are unmarried.
That is why the Bennet household was delighted upon the arrival of Charles Bingley, a rich young lad who is seen as a potential husband for any of the Bennet sisters. All the girls attend the ball where Bingley is expected to be present. Bingley finds himself absolutely smitten with Jane that evening, while his friend Darcy declines a dance with Elizabeth. As time moves by, the relationship between Jane and Bingley blossoms, while Darcy starts to realize his fondness for Elizabeth. However, Bingley’s sister, Miss Bingley is not so fond of Elizabeth.
She has special feelings for Darcy, and she does not like to see him attracted towards Elizabeth. And, Mr. Collins who arrives is supposed to inherit the Bennet estate because there are no male heirs in the Bennet family (Douthat n. p. ). He is attracted to Elizabeth, but when he asks her hand in marriage, she refuses him. After some time, Elizabeth finds out that her friend Charlotte Lucas is engaged to be married to Collins because of his money. After a brief hiatus, Bingley continues to pursue Jane, and much to his sister’s chagrin, he asks her hand in marriage.
On the other hand, Darcy and Elizabeth see each other again. He reveals his feelings for her, and when he asks her hand in marriage, Elizabeth accepts. Even though they had a rough start, Darcy and Elizabeth manage to overcome their first impressions and develop tender feelings for one another. This is what makes their love story endearing to millions of readers. The story is made more memorable with the conflicting personalities of the two lovers. The title can be interpreted using both characters. It is Elizabeth’s prejudice that is responsible for her erroneous impression of Darcy.
At the same, her pride also contributes to their unlikely relationship. On the other hand, it is Darcy’s prejudice against the social standing of Elizabeth that clouds his perspective of her, while his pride makes him refuse to dance with her (Hirsch 1972). They still overcome negativity and their affection for each other overtakes all other negative feelings. The novel also points out how social issues can be hindrances to potential relationships. For instance, there is Miss Bingley’s indifference towards Elizabeth, which has more to do with social class than with her interest in Darcy.
While Austen establishes that love has the capacity to transcend obstacles, she also points out how one can marry without love, as proven by Charlotte’s marriage with Collins. Hume may very well tell Austen that “freewill, determinism and responsibility can be reflected in your characters and it is similar to my philosophical beliefs”. The characters in Austen’s novels are expressive of what is seen in real life. They are dialectical novels, where ethical principles are expressed in the relations of realistic characters.
The resolution of the main plot with the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy symbolizes a reconciliation of conflicting moral extremes. The value of pride is affirmed when humanized by Elizabeth’s warm personality, and so is the value of injustice affirmed when associated with Darcy’s standards of conventional honour. It is their determination that makes them fulfil their responsibilities. Religion is not apparent or obvious in the novels of Austen. The ideas of John Locke are recognizable in Austen’s works, especially the empiricist theory of self.
“I write in between snatched moments of solitude in such a way that it didn’t obstruct with the rest of my family duties. ” From here, Austen conforms to Locke’s British empiricism because she believes that she is not a victim of fate. Rather she has her free will of choosing what she wants to do and perform it in a good or bad manner. If a member of her family is to enter into the same room as she is in, she would just put her writing away and get on with her needlepoint. She who wrote great epic stories, reacted like one who could not compete with this magnificence to a family member.
It is because she was describing what she knew, a sight of domesticity so small that, rather than an open picture, it was more like painting a complex design on the enamel of a broach. Her books talk about what in fact is a universal experience—that life is eventually small, since it is particular, furthermore within a very precise context (Ferguson 1991). “I am a faithful believer of social responsibility” says Austen. I see to it that in my novels, I explain something about social class differences and how each person must partake in being responsible for the welfare of others.
Locke answers Jane by explaining social contract based on reason. In the end, both their points of view appear to be linked with each other: The desire for change, social mobility and the upheaval of the society. Immanuel Kant is the proponent of duty ethics. If only he can judge the works of Austen, he will be happy to conclude that she was able to comply with the categorical imperative. According to Austen, “I am happy to dwell where I am and because I am surrounded by people whom I love most”.
She proves this point by taking them commonly as the models for her study, often employing the names of loved ones or associates for character names in her works. Austen sees what someone trying to draw the great political as well as sociological movements of an age would have missed. For example, she clearly sees the way one peace symbolized unconcern, whereas another symbolized love (Southam 1987). Austen is able to apply the single moral obligation of Immanuel Kant, otherwise known as the categorical imperative. She is able to fulfil her social obligations, the moral value of which is reflected on her works.
She writes not only for the sake of literature but also for the sake of devoting herself to the people around her. Without admiring the particular consequences of the sciences, it would be impossible to build up consistent as well as empirical universal laws of nature; similarly, without noticing details and the minutiae of life, it would be impractical to set up any universal moral norms. Since Austen is so down to earth, that she is so realistic a guide to the understanding implied in moral philosophy. Francis Bacon is known for his methods of developing philosophy.
“I believe in inductive reasoning from fact to axiom to law” says Bacon. In this world people differ in terms of character and the way they decide on things. In the case of Austen’s work, she makes it a point to create characters that manifest various personalities. Readers can find themselves in the nature of one of the characters in her novels. They can personally associate with the characters, and this aspect makes her novels more enticing to read. A good novel of Austen that discusses character differences is Sense and Sensibility.
Elinor Dashwood and her sister Marianne are the two main characters of this novel, which was drafted in 1795. Its first title was Elinor and Marianne derived from the two main characters’ names. “In 1797 I decided to rewrite it to something that will reflect the novel as a whole. I named it Sense and Sensibility” says Austen while she describes her newly added revisions to the book. It was finally polished in 1811 and was released in the market. The novel describes the importance courtship and marriage for the women in the upper class English society.
The title of the novel shows the contrasting nature of the two sisters. Elinor’s life is ruled by her personal poise and calmness, and the first part of the title portrays this quality. Contrastingly, Marianne is open about her feelings and thoughts and does not have any control over her emotions, and the second part of the title portrays this quality. Elinor maintains her composure amidst strains of issues, especially when she comes to know that the man she loves, Edward Ferrars, is involved with another woman. She accepts him despite becoming aware of the fact that he is materialistic.
Marianne is infatuated with Willoughby, their new neighbour who turns out to be quite a rogue. Some unpleasing moral revelations are presented through her actions since her infatuation makes her obsessed with him despite his leaving for London. She follows her love interest and later on feels disenchanted by the way he carelessly treats her. This makes her give up all her dreams about what romance is and settles down to marry a middle-aged suitor. The plot of the story favours sense over sensibility. Moral complexity is also stressed in this novel where it focuses on human relationship and the need to understand and be understood.
By analyzing Sense and Sensibility, readers can find themselves comparing the philosophies of Francis Bacon and Jane Austen. It is obvious that free will is somehow hindered by certain beliefs. Regardless of the type of behaviour that the two characters of Austen portray in this novel, they both establish a habit that directs their will towards the good. This is in line with Bacon’s De Augmentis Scientarim (1623), which states that no universal rule governs the morality of a person since in every situation the characteristics of people always differ from each other.
Considering Sense and Sensibility as a basis for the badness in human nature, one can easily draw parallels between Thomas Hobbes and Jane Austen, both of whom share similar philosophies and ethical beliefs. There are character trains implied in the novel that show how a person behaves according man’s inherent nature of badness (Teachman 2000). There are events in the novel where the passion for pessimism is exposed. This drives a person to do something bad, unethical or immoral. According to Hobbes “What I do depends on the situation in which I find myself.
During instances of political authority, my duty seems to be straightforward to obey those who are in power”. Applying this notion to Austen’s novel, Ellinor is overwhelmed when she finds out that Edward is free. She knows that it is a joyous moment and she could have exposed it by behaving awkwardly by shouting or dancing with joy, but she opts to stay composed as a young lady. There is always badness lurking within human beings, but authority and laws prevent them from showing off. “Thought cannot be separated from me, therefore, I exist”.
These words of Rene Descartes take an effect on Austen. It is his principles on externalities that Austen utilizes in making things good in most of her novels. Her Northanger Abbey written in 1797–98 was published posthumously and this novel manifests some of Descartes’ philosophy. Of all of Austen’s works, this one is most literary in the sense that it showcases most of eighteenth century gothic potboilers such as locked rooms, mystery, romance, tyrannical fathers et al. However, typical of Austen the novel has a satirical twist to it.
Austen’s attitude towards work can be attributed to Descartes comment that “The simple meaning of the phrase is that if one is sceptical of existence that is in and of itself proof that he does exist. ” Regardless of its excellent characteristic, Northanger Abbey was not included among Austen’s major works. In the following years, her The Watsons, which is similar to the mood of Mansfield Park was published. Another minor work of Austen Lady Susan, written in 1804 was also published. Majority of Austen’s works represents her views about ethics, politics and religion.
When she wrote Mansfield Park in 1811, she made the story more detailed, and that is why it took her three more years before it could be published in 1814. The story is about Fanny Price, whose character can be compared to that of Cinderella’s. Price is raised in a poor home at Mansfield Park where she lives with her relative Sir Thomas Bertram. She is brought up along with her cousins, the children of Sir Thomas. Regardless of this, her social rank remains at a lower level. Even though they are raised in an austere manner, the Bertram children turn out to be caught up in marital and extramarital tangles.
This brings out tragedies and near-disasters to the family. On the other hand, Fanny’s righteous character guides her through her own affairs with dignity. (Galperin 2003) “I put more focus in the varying classes” said Austen when she was asked what technique she had used in writing Mansfield Park. Members of the upper class are given more focus in the novel. In portraying their meanness, Austen paves the way for the poor people to gain sympathy from the readers. It describes the reality of the times and the way wealth and corruption was evident during that period.
Emma is another novel by Austen published in 1816. Emma Woodhouse is the resident matchmaker of Highbury. Her first match, Weston and her governess, is a successful one. This encourages her to resume her matchmaking efforts, this time with her friend, Harriet Smith. She assumes that the clergyman, Elton is the best match for Harriet considering his social status, even if Harriet has tender feelings for the farmer, Robert Martin. Unfortunately, Emma turns out to be the object of Elton’s affection. Because of Emma’s refusal and Elton’s disdain towards Harriet, Elton leaves and marries someone else.
Emma’s friend, Knightley, is aware of Emma’s matchmaking activities and he reprimands her for her intervention with Harriet’s life. Frank Churchill, the son of Weston, arrives at Highbury and Emma develops a friendship with him. This is not the case with Jane Fairfax, another visitor in Highbury. Just when everyone thinks that Emma and Frank is a pair, Emma refutes this by saying that she only sees Frank as a potential match for Harriet. However, Frank loves Jane and asks her hand in marriage. One day, Harriet reveals to Emma that she has fallen in love with someone from a higher social standing.
Emma is shocked to find out that Harriet is referring to Knightley, since it is just about the same time that she discovers her love for him as well. In the end, Knightley reveals his love for Emma, and Harriet and Robert Martin get married. The story is essentially about the social implications of marriage. Austen highlights how social status greatly affects one’s decision to marry. Weston finds the perfect match in Emma’s governess because they are more equal in terms of social standing. While marrying someone who is higher in the social ladder can prove to be beneficial, it can also be problematic.
During Austen’s time, a woman resorts to marriage to improve the quality of her life. Obviously, the woman would look for someone wealthier. Nonetheless, the inequality of classes presents a range of dilemmas brought about by internal differences. For instance, Frank had to conceal his engagement to Jane because his wealthy family would surely object to his choice of wife. Another example is Elton’s disregard for Harriet, whom he does not consider as his equal. (Honan 1987) Austen is the kind of author who explains, identifies and illustrates all at the same time.
More than entertainment, her works are focused on illustrating the pleasures of virtue by creating heroes and heroines who possess noble and pleasing characteristics. Most of her characters do noble things that imply love and connection with other people (Grey 1986). Another aspect of her book is courtship and marriage. Austen indirectly criticizes the eighteenth century rural society through the different marriages depicted in some of her stories. For instance, in Pride and Prejudice she clearly shows that marriages are most of the times mad, not for the right reasons and can affect the family adversely in the future.
This is apparent in the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Bennett in which Mrs. Bennett’s nature takes an overwhelming presence and results in a near disaster when informed of Lydia’s behaviour. Mr. Bennett tries to be a silent authority, but fails. However, it is only in the end that he sees the results of his lack of intrusion and how it has affected his daughters’ lives. (Fergus 1991) Moral philosophy and ethics are two vital components of every society. Without one of the other, people will suffer from misunderstandings and a lot of complications may arise.
But through Austen’s works, readers are enlightened on the different concepts of philosophy and moral ethics. Though it is not explicitly shown, philosophy is indeed visible in her novels. The Pleasures of Virtue explains Austen’s characters against her political thoughts. It explains the timeless exposition of the human capacity for reason as well as virtues and values that lead to happiness and other pleasures of life. Being constant to philosophies and principles may require one to do the necessary sacrifice, but none of the heroes or heroines of Austen’s works is a saint.
As an alternative they are created as humans with their follies, brave in speech, kind in action, as well as rewarded by joy for having virtues (Le Faye 2003). Austen is a loving creator of her characters. She even made it a point that her characters are resurrected from the previous novel to the new one. She dedicates herself in giving her characters authentic personalities and attitude so that readers can find themselves united with the characters’ thoughts and feelings. Her wisdom is full of might since she always sees to it that details given on her stories imply moral philosophy and ethics.
Austen finds herself united in thoughts with great philosophers who made their respective notions on moral philosophy and ethics. The aesthetic and ethical discourse of the eighteenth century often takes precedence in the characters portrayed by Austen. Austen’s stories and characters portray her disheartened spirit at the decay of the eighteenth century aristocratic society. By unveiling a storybook romance that takes the reader to a familiar setting, she delves into deeper depths of human psyche to reveal the dilemmas and conflicts the characters face in trying to remain good.
Lovers are often shown to be separated by social class and the society they live in; however, they never fail to convey the moral conflicts and issues that haunted the society of that period. Austen seems to address the apparent emptiness that prevailed in the aristocracy of the times, and she effectively drives home her point.? Works Cited Alexander, Christine and Juliet McMaster, eds. The Child Writer from Austen to Woolf. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-521-81293-3. Austen, Henry Thomas. Biographical Notice of the Author. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
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