Virtue and Romance: Allan Bloom on Jane Austen and Aristotelian Ethics

By Garbitelli, Mary Beth; Kries, Douglas | Modern Age, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview
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Virtue and Romance: Allan Bloom on Jane Austen and Aristotelian Ethics


Garbitelli, Mary Beth, Kries, Douglas, Modern Age


Within Allan Bloom's last book, Love and Friendship, stands a chapter on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. (1) The chapter is short--just over seventeen pages in length--but that it exists at all in a volume that features Plato and Rousseau may be surprising to many. Nevertheless, Bloom offers an incisive if unorthodox interpretation of Austen's novel, ultimately suggesting that Austen advances a position that features a unique combination of modern romantic love and ancient friendship. That the translator of Emile sees echoes of modern romanticism in Austen's books is hardly to be wondered at, for her works display many themes that are reminiscent of Rousseau: marriage is the foundation of society and for most, the source of meaning and purpose in life; social barriers such as class often present themselves as unjust obstacles to romantic desire; chastity is the prerequisite of strong romantic attachment; differences between males and females are augmented rather than minimized: the rural is superior to the urban; sentiment tends to be predominant. What is perhaps unexpected, though, is Bloom's insistence on "Austen's classical preferences," on her appearance "as a partisan of Aristotelian rationalism against the dominant principles of modernity," and on her desire "to celebrate classical friendship as the core of romantic love." (2)

Without claiming that Austen actually read Aristotle, we may accept and even extend Bloom's claim that there is a strong Aristotelian element in her work. Indeed, Bloom attributes to Austen a unique and daring synthesis between modern marriage and classical friendship, but does not think that her attempt to reconcile these elements wholly succeeds. Nevertheless, his refutation does not take into account that Austen has anticipated and answered his objections in her fiction. We may, therefore, accept Bloom's interpretation of Austen while rejecting his evaluation.

Smallness and Happiness

Aristotle is of course famous for his comment in the first book of the Politics that man is a political animal. The polis, however, is a city of limited size--one in which there is a good chance that any given citizen will know any other given citizen, or at least have some reasonably reliable knowledge about any other citizen. In his discussion of the life of the polls, Aristotle seems only indirectly interested in how such a city relates to other cities or nations, especially if they are far away. It is not that lie completely ignores foreign affairs, but what makes a polls an important and natural feature of human life is how it promotes human happiness by advancing the virtues of the citizens; this means that Aristotle is principally concerned with how the citizens themselves relate to each other.

This restricted horizon within which human beings work toward their happiness is further limited when one turns from Aristotle's Politics to his Ethics. Certainly, Aristotle advocates the study of the city in the Ethics, but in Books VIII and IX of the work he explains that a circle of friends within a city is actually the very best situation that human beings can hope for. These friends, sharing a noble conception of the good, will practice virtue toward each other, thereby improving each other and leading each other into the true happiness that comes with genuine virtue. It seems that the justice provided by the polls is indeed the natural social horizon for human beings, but within the polls there is an even smaller social circle that provides the context for the best life for the best human beings. "When men are friends,"' Aristotle says, "they have no need of justice, while when they are just they need friendship as well." (3)

Jane Austen's novels share the Aristotelian focus on small social arrangements. If Aristotle prefers a small circle of friends living within a city of restricted size, Austen prefers a small circle of families living within a village of modest size: both, however, emphasize situations in which a handful of people share together a life in which their happiness is intertwined.

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