Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Virtues According to Aristotle, Aquinas, and Austen

Chapter 1: The Virtues According to Aristotle, Aquinas, and Austen

Jane Austen's father was a rector and a teacher of the classics. She had access to all sorts of literature, and inherited a rich philosophical tradition. Now whether she read philosophers and such may be open to debate (I think she did.), but we do know that she enjoyed Samuel Johnson, Shakespeare, and Fielding and through them, at least, had a familiarity with that tradition.

The first record of the idea of the four cardinal virtues is found in Plato's Republic. Aquinas then came along and interprets this classical tradition in light of the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Aristotle categorically (Isn't that his favorite way?) divides the virtues into moral, intellectual, and social.

Emsley shows in this chapter how JA uses the Aristotelian tradition in her writing, "considering moral education and the pursuit of happiness, practical versus philosophical wisdom, and the importance of process, habit, and choice in the practice of the virtues." Using this Aristotelian idea, one has a telos or an end or goal, which is often defined as "happiness" or "human flourishing." In other words, the good life. In contrast to this, Emsley shows us Kant as one who saw moral education at odds with happiness, and often at the expense of happiness. We can clearly see Aristotle's influence in Austen's work. Emma, Catherine, and Marianne come to mind as heroines who through their moral education were able to flourish.

For those only slightly familiar with Austen's novels, the assumption is made that marriage is the end goal. However, only after the characters find fulfillment and happiness through the exercise of the virtues, can they find fulfillment and happiness in marriage. And, yes, eros can certainly spur one on! This exercise of the virtues is not of ordinary virtue (as defined by Socrates) which is only right acting in order to avoid pain or increase pleasure, but the philosopher's virtue which involves wisdom. "Austen suggests that self-sufficiency is part of the equation, as her virtuous characters such as Elinor, Fanny, Anne, or Mr Knightly, are initially self-sufficient, yet they maintain their virtue by constantly exercising good judgment. For Austen it is both a process and a goal."

Austen does not show practicing the virtues as a passive thing, one must be active. Timothy McDermott states, "Christian ethics is above all act-centered and end-centered. The act in which it is centered is an act of passion, Christ's passion, his passover from life to death, to a new life." Religion is not always explicit in JA's novels. One reason may be the "customary Church of England reserve about spirituality." But another may be that for her, it was not necessary to be explicit, because faith was the understood basis. Emsley tells us that for JA, "love is both preceded by and accompanied by faith and the development of the mind." This idea is so different from the other novels of her day where love and love alone was paramount.

Emsley writes, "Jane Austen's heroines discover the necessity of acting according to reason, but for them reason is always understood in relation to faith, hope, and love. The novels are about judgment and discernment, and heroism in the face of folly, but Austen's heroines also learn to practice the theological virtues, and the educative power of love in the novels is related in some degree to Augustine's theory that all the virtues are expressions of love. Aquinas cites Augustine's view that 'the soul needs to follow something in order for it to give birth to virtue. This something is God, and if we follow Him, we shall live the good life.'"

Benjamin Franklin is a prime example of one who saw the virtues as a set of rules to be followed. JA shows that one cannot simply follow the rules, but must be capable of practicing the virtues and skilled at balancing them depending on what is called for in each situation. The virtues are not relative, rather they are flexible. "Following the rules means relying on the judgment of others rather than judging for one's self, and slavishly imitating models of virtue. Practicing the virtues, on the other hand, means negotiating situations as individual cases, judging how best to act in those circumstances." To quote Aristotle, "it is possible to fail in many ways...while to succeed is possible only in one way."

Emsley says, "Austen goes further than Aristotle in exploring the dramatic moments when virtues compete with one another in creative tension. While she sees tensions among the virtues, she also suggests that the unity of the virtues resides in attempts to balance these tensions...the fact that she is writing fiction means that she can do things that philosophers writing treatises cannot: she can take an ethical concept and turn it into a 'living argument.'"

These thoughts are taken from the first chapter (entitled, The Virtues According to Aristotle, Aquinas, and Austen) of Sarah Baxter Emsley's book, Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues. Next up, Chapter 2: Propriety's Claims on Prudence in Lady Susan and Northanger Abbey.


Lydia said...

This is an interesting trail of thoughts. True to other areas of life as well. Like the part about "Following the rules..." you'll have to let me know who said that.

Esther said...

Interesting? Yes, I thought so. The quote you asked about was Sarah Emsley. Anytime I used quotations (while going through her book) w/o explicitly saying who said it, it's her. (Or it could be from a JA novel, but that would be an obvious difference, right?)