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Plato’s Phaedrus and Jane Austin’s Sense and Sensibility

Throughout the Phaedrus, the main characters of Socrates and Phaedrus discuss the concept of love: what it means to be in love, its various manifestations and the implications of each. In Phaedrus’ reading of Lysias’ speech, the archetypes of the Lover and the Non-lover emerge and function as the foundation of Socrates’ counter-argument. Jane Austin’s web of amorous personalities in Sense and Sensibility provides interesting case studies of these archetypes at work, specifically in the triangle of Marianne Dashwood, John Willoughby and Colonel Brandon.

A platonic reading of the novel yields insights that can be seen to support the premises of Socrates’ argument. Socrates’ delivers his thesis in opposition to Lysias claims that it’s best to be loyal to one who does not love you (the Non-lover), because the Lover can only be loyal to his desire. Caring nothing for what is best for the objects of his desire, he’ll abandon and betray them once he tires of them, whereas, for a disinterested party, “there is no time appropriate for repentance [of services]…” (Scully, 7) by which he means that a man not in love is driven by his own will to give, and not by a fleeting compulsion.

Sense and Sensibility contains its own situation in which Lysias’ thesis would appear false. Early in the novel, the fate of the Dashwood household is placed in the indifferent hands of the wife of the sole surviving male descendant of the deceased Dashwood senior, a cold, greedy woman who “had no opportunity till the present, of showing them with how little attention to the comfort of other people she could act when occasion required it. ” (Austin, 5) And indeed this inattention reduces the Dashwood women to virtual poverty.

Thus, their future rests on the success of the Dashwood sisters to win the affections of well-to-do suitors who may take up the fiscal reigns of their livelihood. Socrates response to Lysias’ maps out the main challenges the women find themselves facing in their aspirations toward love. He challenges Lysias’ very concept of love, discerning between love that is ruled by “an inborn desire for pleasures,” and “an acquired judgment that aims at its best. ” (Scully, 15) A love in which these two things are in accord is complete, however when these things are not in accord, the love becomes deviant and harmful.

Of the two sisters, Marianne is expressive, romantic and craves an experience of love that is rapturous. She indulges in poetry, music, voices her idealistic notions expansively and with rapturous fervor. She is her own muse, as her capacity to be inspired is apparently bottomless, and she inspires similar romantic feelings in many men around her. “…eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. ” (Austin, 6) Thus her character can be interpreted as a very clear example of the sort of excess to which Socrates refers when he is discussing the two drives at variance.

However, one can also argue that Marianne’s character serves as a symbol for the ecstatic experience of love itself. When Marianne falls desperately in love with the handsome, charming “Willoughby” as she informally refers to him, she abandons propriety and radiates with the mystic fervor Plato describes in Phaedrus, seeming to give herself over to “the irrational desire that [gains] control over any judgment urging a man towards what is correct…” (16).

However, she does not possess the other quality that Plato posits in one “enslaved to pleasure…” which is the proclivity to “always try to make him weaker and less self-sufficient…” (Scully, 17) On the contrary, Marianne harbors no ill will toward him even after he has abandoned and humiliated her, as is evident when Elinor reassures him “she has…long forgiven you. ” (Austin, 276) Thus the character of Marianne appears to be an appropriate metaphor for Plato’s theory of love.

The excesses in each of the two drives Plato sees at work in love are better illustrated in the dispositions and behaviors of Marianne’s first suitor. At first, Willoughby seems an ideal male counterpart to Marianne’s dreamy, idealistic nature. Early on, she hears him “declare, that of music and dancing he was passionately fond…” (Austin, 39) He appreciates love in all of its celebratory mediums: poetry, music, and unfortunately for Marianne: in feminine beauty regardless of who is wearing it.

When he carelessly disgraces her for a wealthy heiress he cares nothing for, his actions characterize the attitudes of the lover who is ruled by desire, and he acts in direct opposition to what is right and good. Colonel Brandon, quietly nursing his unrequited love for Marianne on the sidelines faithfully and dutifully offers his support and assistance at every turn throughout not only her grief over Willoughby, but the series of pitfalls faced by all four of the Dashwood women. “His regard for her,” remarks her mother, “…has subsisted through all the knowledge of dear Marianne’s prepossession for that worthless young man!

And without selfishness, without encouraging a hope! ” (Austin, 276) With little hope that his love will ever be met with reciprocation, desire proves to make little sense as a motivating factor in his continued friendship with her. Drawn to her by her romantic nature, his actions are governed by judgments that lead toward that which is morally just and good. He appears to be a beacon of the balanced love to which Plato refers. Sense and Sensibility yields itself quite easily to a Platonic reading.

While the character of Socrates puts forth a compelling theory of love’s expressions on its own, the characters of Marianne, John Willoughby and Colonel Brandon provide useful insights into their consequences. Within its narrative, the novel also contains some support for Socrates’ counter-claim to Lysias’ belief that it is better for one to appeal to an agent who is without love for favors. As is clear in the case of the younger Dashwood’s wife, this is not necessarily the case. And whether the theory Plato puts forth in the Phaedrus is true or not, the conduct of Colonel Brandon certainly makes it an attractive ideal.

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