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Jane Austen, Moral Philosopher

Posted by Josh Rothman  February 27, 2012 11:36 AM

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At his always-excellent blog The Philosopher's Beard, Thomas Rodham makes the case for reading Jane Austen as a moral philosopher who proposes "a virtue ethics for bourgeois life, the kind of life that most of us live today." Austen's novels, he argues, only appear to be about marriage, romance, love, and so on -- in fact they're "about the fundamental ethical question, How should I live my life?," as it's asked by middle-class people who, though they aren't "free from material concerns," still "have the resources and time to reflect on who they want to be and to make and carry out plans for their future."

Austen is a moral philosopher whose ideas are firmly rooted in the pragmatic world of middle-class life -- a world which is to a degree self-determined, but which is also constrained by everyday, real-life issues like money, class, and gender. "Success for Austen's women," Rodham writes,

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 (feminist?) among virtue ethicists past and present in according amiability so much importance, even though it is so obviously central to most people's lives working, if not living, in close confinement with others with whom one must and should get along.

I don't agree with Rodham's literary assessment of Austen's characters -- he feels that they're "complexes of particular moral dispositions rather than plausible human people"; I think of Austen's characters as extremely realistic -- but his description of Austen's "moral gaze" is spot on:

[T]here 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.

It's a great essay, well worth it if you've spent any serious time with Austen. Much more at The Philosopher's Beard.

[Image: Watercolor of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra, 1804. Via Wikipedia.]

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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