Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues

In Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues (Palgrave, 2005), I examine Austen’s novels in relation to her philosophical and religious context, to show that the combination of the classical and theological traditions of the virtues is central to her work. Most of Austen’s heroines — except for Lady Susan — engage in philosophical contemplation about what constitutes the virtuous life, and learn to confront a fundamental ethical question: “How should I live my life?” Instead of defining virtue only in the narrow sense of female sexual virtue, Austen opens up questions about a plurality of virtues. Her complex imaginative representations of the tensions among the virtues engage with and expand on classical and Christian ethical thought.

Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues[Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues] suggests that although great writing can exist in an age of doubt, the tradition of the virtues must fade and diminish—and thus that the coherent complexity of the virtues has never since been surpassed or equaled. Nor has it hitherto been fully explicated with Emsley’s admirable blend of clarity, precision, erudition, and plausibility.

—Peter W. Graham, JASNA News

Read part of my discussion of the virtue of charity here, in an article published in Persuasions On-line.

Chapter Six, “Learning the Art of Charity in Emma,” was reprinted in Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Jane Austen, New Edition, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 2009): 279-95.


JASNA News (Summer 2006)

Nineteenth-Century Literature 61.2 (2006): 245-49

The Dalhousie Review 86.3 (2006): 477-8

Eighteenth-Century Fiction 20.1 (2007): 115-18

“The Jane Austen Catch-Up Project: Sarah Emsley” (www.deborahyaffe.com)

From the Introduction to Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues: “How Should I Live My Life?”:

. . .  I dedicate to You the following Miscellanious Morsels, convinced that if you seriously attend to them, You will derive from them very important Instructions, with regard to your Conduct in Life.

—Jane Austen, To Miss Jane Anna Elizabeth Austen, Volume the First (Minor Works)

Near the end of Pride and Prejudice, there is a well-known scene in which Elizabeth Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh clash in a battle of wills. The pompous and self-righteous Lady Catherine demands that Elizabeth promise not to marry her nephew Mr. Darcy, and the independent and strong-willed Elizabeth refuses to promise, asserting that “‘I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me’” (PP 358). Does this statement, coming as it does from one of Austen’s best-known and most-loved heroines—the character who many critics agree comes closest to articulating what may be Austen’s own lively opinions—does this mean that Jane Austen sees the happiness of her heroines as a matter of independence, dependent, that is, only on their own rational determination of what is good for them? Is this a selfish, or at least self-centered, notion of happiness? Is Elizabeth the model of the enlightened individual in pursuit of her own happiness? While Elizabeth does pursue happiness, Jane Austen’s idea of what constitutes happiness is not dependent solely on either a comfortable marriage as the goal of life, or on the personal fulfillment of the individual.

What Elizabeth says is not simply that she will act “without reference to you or to any [other] person,” but instead “without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me,” thereby suggesting that when she considers her own happiness, she will do so in the context of people who are connected with her. Like Anne Elliot in Persuasion, who finds hope and a degree of happiness in her involvement with the Musgrove family group when she goes to visit at Uppercross, and like Emma Woodhouse, in Emma, who suffers initially from “intellectual solitude,” but becomes happier when she is engaged in social life, Elizabeth values the community of those she cares about. Although she has a strong and independent mind, she does not act in accordance with her own reason alone, but instead learns to make decisions through, at different times, the help of dialogue with Jane, or the good sense of her uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, or the information offered by Mr. Darcy. While working out how to live her own life, Elizabeth learns to think and act within her community—what in Emma is called “the small band of true friends” (E 484). She learns not to rely on her own critical (or at times cynical) judgment alone, but to work through ethical problems with a combination of her own analysis and the authority and judgment of others. She may question authority, but she doesn’t reject it outright, as sometimes the careful judgments of others can help her to know what her own happiness is.

This distinction between the easy acceptance or rejection of authority, and the complicated process of contemplation that helps determine when authority is right and when individual judgment is right, is at the heart of my argument about Jane Austen’s approach to philosophy. In this book I suggest that Jane Austen’s heroines confront the fundamental ethical question “How should I live my life?” and that the novels explore possible answers to this question. In contrast to critics who have argued that Austen’s novels are conservative in a relatively straightforward way—in that they argue for the value of tradition and are skeptical of reform—and in contrast also to those who have argued that the novels subvert patriarchal authority and advocate political change, I argue that Jane Austen is conservative, yet flexible. The ethical standpoint that Austen’s novels exemplify, therefore, is best understood in reference to the philosophical tradition in which the full range of the virtues is integral to character, and the process of negotiating the ethical life is challenging, but possible. The virtues are high standards, precise points, but they are also flexible and must be exercised to be learned—they must become habits. I argue that characters in the novels offer what may be termed “living arguments” for the classical and theological traditions of the virtues, and that the virtue of faith is what makes it possible for these characters to practice the range of the virtues.

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