Jane Austen and the Sin of Pride

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All (four heroines) realize that the cause of deception lay within; Catherine, that she had brought to the Abbey a mind "craving to be frightened," Marianne, that "her own feelings had prepared her sufferings," Elizabeth, that she has "courted ignorance," and "driven reason away," Emma, that she has been practising deceptions on herself.

--C. S. Lewis (qtd. in Watt: 27)

The problem is to accommodate inside moral philosophy, and suggest methods of dealing with the fact that so much of human conduct is moved by mechanical energy of an egocentric kind. In the moral life the enemy is the fat relentless ego. Moral philosophy is properly, and in the past sometimes has been, the discussion of the ego and of the techniques (if any) for its defeat. In this respect moral philosophy has shared some aims with religion.

--Iris Murdoch (52)

This essay attempts a translation of Jane Austen's moral "sense" or "philosophy," from her imaginative form--dramatic prose--into an expository one. The translation will locate her fiction at a moment in Western thought, with traditional Christian metaphysics and moralism immediately behind her, and an amoral behaviorist-existentialist view of human conduct (to be elaborated later) before her. Novels like Sense and Sensibility and Emma, in short, seem to argue the necessity of a Christian ethic, but not a personal God. In claiming that certain moral principles are salient to Austen's fiction (namely, that pride is the original, and deadliest sin), I will be following a tradition in Austen criticism. Richard Simpson, in the nineteenth century, claimed that "intelligent love" was the ideal around which her mature work was built (Southam 256). He described Austen as a critic who developed herself into an imaginative writer, a "prose Shakespeare." Rather than attempting to translate her fiction, as I will, he claimed that it was already a translation. He was interested in where it came from; I am interested in where it leads. In our own century, C. S. Lewis followed Simpson's lead and explored the sources of Austen's literary morality. He thought that her recurrent use of certain theological terms--"penitence," "amendment," "self-destruction," "my God"--"made explicit the religious background of the author's ethical position" (qtd. in Watt: 27). That Austen's father was a vicar intensified Lewis' Christian interpretation of her work. He also saw her as the philosophical daughter of the "classical English moralists," whose "great abstract nouns" she "unblushingly and uncompromisingly used": "good sense," "courage," "fortitude," etc. Her backgrounds in "religion" and "classical English moralism" are thus seen as distinct but overlapping.

Lewis' "A Note on Jane Austen" is a starting point for my essay. I think this brief piece tells us the truth about Austen and her morality--but not the whole truth. It tells us, to repeat myself, where she came from but not where she goes to. A good model for where Austen leads--an excellent expository translation of her dramatic prose--can be found in the philosophical essays of Ihs Murdoch. She codifies the atheism which I find anticipated in Austen; and it is Murdoch who draws the frightening portrait of behaviorism-existentialism in its logical and currently fashionable extreme, which Austen's fiction far surpasses for suppleness and insight. So we can think of Murdoch as explaining how and why my version of the philosophical Austen fits between C.S. Lewis' version of the pious Austen, and contemporary moralists like Sartre. Austen prefigures Murdoch, I will argue, in two important ways. First of all, in spite of their author's religious convictions, Austen's novels prefigure Murdoch's dogged secularism, her insistence that no supernatural aid is necessary (or available) to human beings striving for moral perfection. Secondly, Austen's novels effectively dramatize Murdoch's conviction that introspection is necessary to moral development, and that any moral philosophy which fails to recognize the importance of interiority is therefore doomed. …