Pride and Prejudice: Self-Knowledge and Moral Seriousness

3
Share the News


Photo courtesy WikiMedia Commons.
Photo courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

With Valentine’s Day tomorrow, we thought we’d share with you this smart essay from St. John’s College Tutor Adam Schulman about the relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, the main characters in Jane Austen’s classic novel of love, manners, marriage, morality and more, “Pride and Prejudice”.  The essay was originally published in “Apples of Gold in Pictures of Silver Honoring the Work of Leon R. Kass”. We invite other local scholars to share their writings with our readers. – The Eds.

Preface: This essay grew out of an impression I have formed while teaching for some years at St. John’s College in Annapolis. My sense is that Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, the hero of Pride and Prejudice, is widely and warmly admired by the women of St. John’s, students and tutors alike, to whom he seems a paragon of male virtue, and that if Darcy were to spring to life and ask one of them to marry him, she would—assuming her affections were not otherwise engaged—be hard pressed to refuse him. I have it on good authority that, at a senior oral examination on Jane Austen not long ago, one of the examiners asked, “Is there any woman in this room who is not in love with Darcy?” I am told that the ensuing silence spoke volumes.

Even apart from that memorable academic incident, I sense general approval of Elizabeth Bennet’s judgment that marriage with Darcy would “teach the admiring multitude what connubial felicity really is”. It seems to me that most of my students and fellow tutors put down the book with the expectation that Darcy and Elizabeth can look forward to a happy marriage between true equals, who understand one another perfectly and who see eye to eye on all the most important questions. In this essay I would like to call that expectation into question, by pointing to some noteworthy differences between Elizabeth and Darcy, differences that may even be said to reveal Elizabeth as Darcy’s superior in the decisive respect. My purpose, I hasten to add, is not to undermine the general affection for Darcy or the belief that he would make an ideal husband, but rather to strengthen and deepen the reader’s appreciation of Darcy’s virtues by making it more thoughtful and more true to Jane Austen’s understanding.

Self-Knowledge and Moral Seriousness in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

The plot of Pride and Prejudice is easy to summarize. Elizabeth, a spirited and intelligent young woman, who is perhaps too confident in her powers of judgment, meets Darcy, a rich, handsome, and clever gentleman, who is perhaps excessively proud of his superiority. Their first meeting does not go well, and obstacles arise, notably the prejudices of one and the pride of the other, that seem destined to keep them apart forever. Only when Elizabeth’s prejudices have been corrected, and Darcy’s pride humbled, do they realize that they are perfectly suited to each other, and so find love and happiness in marriage.

Darcy and Elizabeth are easily the most attractive and impressive man and woman in Pride and Prejudice, and we are quite likely to find ourselves hoping that they will eventually get together. In temperament they are by no means similar: Elizabeth is said to have a “lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous,” whereas Darcy is described as “haughty, reserved and fastidious”. But there are other differences between Darcy and Elizabeth, far deeper than those of temperament, that I believe go to the heart of what Jane Austen is trying to teach us in Pride and Prejudice.

The first and most striking difference is that, while Darcy falls ardently, even violently, in love with Elizabeth, Elizabeth never falls in love with Darcy. Soon after meeting her, Darcy finds himself bewitched by Elizabeth’s “sweetness and archness” and by “the beautiful expression of her dark eyes”. Elizabeth, for her part, does not like Darcy at all for much of the novel; but when, with the removal of her prejudices, her active dislike for him is softened, it is replaced, not at once by love, but by respect, esteem, and gratitude, by a real interest in his welfare, and by the wish for that welfare to depend upon herself, for the happiness of both. Austen comments, “If gratitude and esteem are good foundations of affection, Elizabeth’s change of sentiment will be neither improbable nor faulty”. Elizabeth does indeed come to love Darcy, but she does not fall in love with him. Instead, her love grows out of milder, steadier feelings of esteem and gratitude, together with the reasoned conviction that she and Darcy could be very happy together.

Now you might suppose that this merely reflects a difference of temperament between Darcy and Elizabeth; that, unlike Darcy, Elizabeth is simply incapable of falling precipitously in love. But that is not quite the case: for Austen, after referring to love at first sight “even before two words have been exchanged,” tells us that Elizabeth had “given somewhat of a trial to the latter method, in her partiality for Wickham”. Elizabeth seems to have learned from her unfortunate experience with the handsome and dashing Wickham to mistrust this more romantic and interesting mode of attachment.

After recovering from her mild infatuation with Wickham, Elizabeth seeks to conform her conduct, even in love matters, to the pursuit of what Austen calls “rational happiness”. It appears to be Elizabeth’s considered opinion that the lover as such is an irrational creature who cannot be trusted to keep his own good clearly in mind. To her aunt Gardiner, she speaks jokingly of love as a “pure and elevated passion” that drives the jilted lover to “detest [the beloved’s] very name and wish him all manner of evil”. To Darcy, at the end of the novel, Elizabeth says, “You knew no actual good of me—but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love”. When Darcy’s friend Bingley, newly engaged to Elizabeth’s sister, sings Jane’s perfections to Elizabeth and declares how happy he expects her to make him, Austen notes that, “in spite of his being a lover, Elizabeth really believed all his expectations of felicity to be rationally founded”.

When Jane asks her how long she has loved Darcy, Elizabeth gives the famous answer, “I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley”. Jane treats this answer as a joke and begs Elizabeth to be serious, whereupon Elizabeth satisfies her sister with “solemn” assurances of her attachment. But the initial, worldly answer contains more than a grain of truth. When Elizabeth saw Pemberley for the first time, Austen commented: “At that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!”  Even or especially in love matters, Elizabeth seems unabashedly ready, as she declares to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, to “act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me”.

This is not in fact the first time that Elizabeth has suggested that there is nothing wrong, in matters of love, with pursuing one’s own good. Earlier, when her aunt Gardiner suggests that there is something mercenary in Wickham’s pursuit of the young heiress Miss King, Elizabeth answers, “Pray, my dear aunt, what is the difference in matrimonial affairs, between the mercenary and the prudent motive? Where does discretion end, and avarice begin?” To be sure, Elizabeth was shocked when her friend Charlotte agreed to marry the odious Mr. Collins; she cannot believe that her friend “would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage”. Elizabeth does at first seem to find Charlotte’s engagement to Collins disgraceful and humiliating. But her objection to Charlotte’s conduct is not so much that it was mercenary as that it sacrificed the chance of a real happiness for the mere assurance of a comfortable home and a steady income. Elizabeth is left with the distressing conviction that her friend, though possessed of an excellent understanding, had agreed to marry a stupid man with “not one agreeable quality, and neither manner nor sense to recommend him”, so that it was “impossible for her friend to be tolerably happy in the lot she had chosen”.

Now let us consider Darcy’s view of love and happiness. We have noted that Darcy is altogether more violently in love with Elizabeth than she is with him. He says so himself: “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you”. Darcy’s proposal does not find favor in Elizabeth’s eyes, in part because he has just done his best to ruin the happiness of her beloved sister Jane by discouraging his friend Bingley from marrying her. Darcy freely admits that he did everything in his power to detach Bingley from Jane, moved chiefly by repugnance at the thought of Bingley marrying into a family as ill-mannered as the Bennets have mostly shown themselves to be. To explain how it was that such repugnance did not also prevent Darcy from proposing marriage to Elizabeth, he tells her that “towards [Bingley] I have been kinder than towards myself ”. This revealing remark is worth pondering. Darcy sees himself as prepared to act on an impulse of love that will, in some measure, do him harm. He seems proud of having, in matters of love, looked out for his friend’s interest more than for his own. In other words, he appears to view love as in fact a “pure and elevated passion” that leads us beyond and above our own self-interest. Love is for Darcy a devotion to another that, at its most sublime, may require self-sacrifice. Darcy’s view of love is, in this respect, the opposite of Elizabeth’s. Where he admires love for its transcendence of self-interest, she is prepared to subsume all under the pursuit of rational happiness and to question the distinction between the prudent and the mercenary motive in matrimonial affairs.

Perhaps it is no accident that Darcy, with his exalted view of the purity and elevation of love, also experiences the anticipated requital of that love with a feeling of transcendent happiness. When Elizabeth at last indicates to Darcy that his renewed attentions would be received with pleasure and gratitude, Austen comments, “The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had probably never felt before; and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do”. Of Elizabeth, on the contrary, later that evening, Austen tells us that “she rather knew herself to be happy, than felt herself to be so”.

These hints that Jane Austen offers of a divergence between Darcy’s and Elizabeth’s ideas and experience of love help to bring into focus the world of difference between their moral perspectives on life. One of those differences—Darcy’s seriousness vs. Elizabeth’s playfulness—turns out to have a deeper ground than a mere divergence of temperament. In their first extended conversation at Netherfield Park, Elizabeth encourages others to tease Darcy and to laugh at him. Darcy expresses concern that “the wisest and best of men, nay, the wisest and best of their actions, may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke.” Elizabeth assures him that she never intentionally ridicules what is wise or good. Darcy goes on to say that “it has been the study of my life to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong understanding to ridicule.” When pressed by Elizabeth, he agrees that vanity is one of those weaknesses. Darcy admits to having faults, but he believes they are not faults of understanding, but of temperament or character. Putting all this together, we may say that Darcy considers himself to be a man of “superior mind” who, like other such men, may be tempted by their very superiority to indulge in petty moral vices, including vanity, that would expose them to ridicule. It is the study of Darcy’s life to avoid such vices and the ridicule they provoke. Suffice it to say that Darcy takes himself very seriously, and it is a matter of some importance to him that he not act in such a way as to deserve to be laughed at. To borrow a phrase from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Darcy is a perfect exemplar of the spoudaios man, i.e., the morally serious man, who considers moral virtue a subject of the utmost seriousness, and who takes himself, as a gentleman, extremely seriously. As Aristotle suggests, it is characteristic of the morally serious man to judge that actions in accordance with virtue are not merely good, i.e., conducive to happiness, but also noble, i.e., worthy of reverence and therefore not to be laughed at. While Elizabeth insists that she is not the sort of person who would laugh at the wise and the good, she does not say whether she would laugh at the noble, or at the self-importance of the morally serious man.

Elizabeth on the whole does not seem to take herself as seriously as Darcy takes himself. After overhearing Darcy make an insulting remark about her looks, Elizabeth is light-hearted enough about the incident to tell the story with great spirit among her friends and to say afterward, “I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine”. As for vanity, and whether it is a moral failing or a failure of understanding, Elizabeth’s view seems quite different from Darcy’s, as is quietly suggested in a much later scene when she is tempted to reveal to Jane that Darcy had made her a proposal of marriage. Such a disclosure, Austen tells us, would not only astonish Jane but would “highly gratify whatever of [Elizabeth’s] own vanity she had not yet been able to reason away”. The difference here is subtle but telling. If vanity can be reasoned away, it is at least in some measure a defect of understanding, requiring instruction, and not simply a moral failing, deserving of reproach. It is notable that here, as elsewhere, Jane Austen appears to share Elizabeth’s consciousness and, tacitly at least, to approve of her opinions.

Austen deepens the contrast between Darcy and Elizabeth by showing us their very different attitudes toward friendship. Each of them has one close friend: Bingley is Darcy’s, and Elizabeth’s is Charlotte. Charlotte is introduced early in the novel as “a sensible, intelligent young woman” who is Elizabeth’s “intimate friend”. Charlotte and Elizabeth treat each other very much as equals, and it is not hard to see why. The core of their relationship is a sustained albeit intermittent conversation about love, friendship, and happiness, to which both contribute many thoughtful observations, speaking frankly and without reservation. The friendship is pleasant and advantageous to both of them, and one would be hard pressed to say who benefits more. Only when Charlotte shocks and disappoints Elizabeth by contriving to secure Mr. Collins as a husband does the friendship falter. Once Charlotte becomes Mrs. Collins, Elizabeth expects their intimate friendship to end, as it will no longer be possible to speak to each other with the same candor, when one friend thinks the other’s husband “a conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man”.

Darcy’s friendship with Bingley is of an entirely different kind. Austen describes it as “a very steady friendship, in spite of a great opposition of character”. Darcy is far superior in understanding and in force of personality; Bingley is endeared to Darcy not by his intellect but by “the easiness, openness, and ductility of his temper.” Bingley looks up to Darcy and has complete faith in his benevolence and his superior judgment. And indeed, after Bingley falls in love with Jane, Darcy has very little difficulty persuading his friend first to give up the attachment when Darcy thinks it unwise, and then to renew it once Darcy has given his approval. To Elizabeth, the inequality of their relationship does not reflect well on either of them. She thinks almost with contempt of Bingley’s “easiness of temper” and “want of proper resolution” that “made him the slave of his designing friends, and led him to sacrifice his own happiness to the caprice of their inclinations”. Now if the slave can trust the master to know and do what is best for him, it is clear what he gets out of the relationship; but in the case of Darcy and Bingley, what does the master get out of it? Why would Darcy prize his friendship with Bingley so much as to follow him into Hertfordshire and put up with the worthless company that county has to offer? Perhaps Darcy would say that “men of superior mind” owe it to those of weaker intellect and character to look after them and guide them to such happiness as they are capable of. But one cannot escape the conclusion that Darcy enjoys the sensation of being looked up to as a superior and of being Bingley’s noble benefactor instead of being indebted to his friend for his own happiness. At any rate, Darcy seems content with his unequal friendship with Bingley and does not seek out the company of those who are his equals in strength of mind and character. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, until he met Elizabeth, he was never seriously tempted by friendship with an equal.

Elizabeth does come close, at the end of the novel, to suggesting to Darcy that there is more of utility and less of selfless devotion in his friendship with Bingley than he might be ready to acknowledge: “Elizabeth longed to observe that Mr. Bingley had been a most delightful friend; so easily guided that his worth was invaluable; but she checked herself. She remembered that he had yet to learn to be laughed at, and it was rather too early to begin”. Elizabeth recognizes that, to a man such as Darcy, nothing is so abhorrent as to undermine his dignity.

Austen shows us other differences between Darcy and Elizabeth on moral questions, as for example on the permissibility of deception. Darcy early on declares that “whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable,” and when he proposes to Elizabeth he tells her that “disguise of every sort is my abhorrence”. Elizabeth, for her part, on returning home from Rosings where Darcy had made his proposal, says to herself, “how much I shall have to conceal”. Later, contemplating how she might learn the secret meaning of Darcy’s presence at the hastily arranged wedding of Lydia and Wickham, Elizabeth says, once again only to herself, “my dear aunt, if you do not tell me in an honorable manner, I shall certainly be reduced to tricks and stratagems to find it out”. This is not to say that Elizabeth is a dishonest person comfortable with lies and deception. But she does not share Darcy’s visceral repugnance toward disguise and cunning, and she takes an altogether more light-hearted view of the fact that some situations in life demand that we stoop to such stratagems.

But the greatest difference between Elizabeth and Darcy is revealed in the way each of them recovers from the serious errors that all but prevented them from ever coming together. Elizabeth’s recovery is presented to us dramatically as she reads and rereads the letter that Darcy wrote in his own defense after she had rejected his proposal. She begins reading the letter with “a strong prejudice against everything he might say”. But that prejudice is gradually overcome as she starts to see that mere vanity had strongly colored her judgment of the characters and actions of Darcy and Wickham. She begins to understand that her cherished opinion of Wickham’s worth had more to do with his dashing good looks and with his flattering attentions to her than with an impartial weighing of the evidence. Elizabeth had once said, of Wickham, that there was “truth in his looks”. But now she reconsiders: “As to his real character, had information been in her power, she had never felt a wish of enquiring. His countenance, voice, and manner had established him in pos- session of every virtue”. As for her contempt for Darcy, she comes to see that it was entirely unreasonable, fed by wounded pride from their very first meeting at the Meryton ball, where Elizabeth had happened to overhear Darcy describing her looks as “tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me”. These reflections are extremely mortifying:

She grew absolutely ashamed of herself.—Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.

“How despicably have I acted!” she cried.—“I, who have prided myself on my discernment!—I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity, in useless or blameable distrust.—How humiliating is this discovery!—Yet, how just a humiliation!—Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly.—Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.”

“Blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd”—In this passage, the dramatic peak of the entire novel, Elizabeth sets herself on the road to self-knowledge by realizing that the very ability she had valued most—the faculty of rational and impartial judgment—had failed her when put to the decisive test, and that she had allowed mere vanity, flattered by the attentions of one suitor and insulted by the indifference of the other, to distort her judgment in regard to the most important decisions of her life.

Elizabeth, however, quickly recovers from the shame and mortification of these discoveries about herself. Her statement—“Till this moment, I never knew myself.”—is an indication that she sees her fault as, in some measure, an error of understanding. Whatever vexation and regret she feels at her own errors is moderated by the sense that such errors are correctible, through introspection and the calm, rational appraisal of one’s opinions and passions. Self-knowledge in this important but limited sense now seems within her reach. Whether Elizabeth achieves self-knowledge in the fullest sense of the term, and what that knowledge would consist of, are questions we shall return to later.

Let us now compare this scene to Darcy’s description of his own recovery from moral error, as recounted to Elizabeth shortly after she accepts his renewed professions of love. Darcy tells her that he now sees that he deserved all the abuse with which Elizabeth met his first proposal: “My behavior to you at the time merited the severest reproof. It was unpardonable. I cannot think of it without abhorrence”. Elizabeth gently tries to steer the conversation away from the fruitless question of who was more to blame for what was said that evening: “The conduct of neither, if strictly examined, will be irreproachable; but since then, we have both, I hope, improved in civility.” But Darcy persists in blaming himself severely:

“I cannot be so easily reconciled to myself. The recollection of what I then said, of my conduct, my manners, my expressions during the whole of it, is now, and has been many months, inexpressibly painful to me. Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget: ‘had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.’ Those were your words. You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me;—though it was some time, I confess, before I was reasonable enough to allow their justice.”

Perhaps it is all the more difficult for Darcy to forgive himself for his errors because to do so would contradict what he had told Elizabeth of his character in their earliest conversation at Netherfield Park: “I cannot forget the follies and vices of others so soon as I ought, nor their offences against myself. . . . My temper would perhaps be called resentful.—My good opinion once lost is lost forever”. What Elizabeth calls Darcy’s “implacable resentment” is an exaggerated inclination to divide the world between the virtuous and the vicious and to despise the latter as irredeemable. Elizabeth takes an entirely more charitable view of what she calls the “follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies” of others, so it is less surprising that when she finds these faults in her own opinions she is able to recover quickly from the feelings of mortification and self-reproach.

Darcy also blames himself for the tone of his long letter, which he now believes to have been written in “a dreadful bitterness of spirit.” In answer to this, Elizabeth again assures him that she has long ago recovered from her prejudices regarding Darcy; as to the shame and culpability with which Darcy continues to torture himself, she makes the following suggestion:

“[T]hink no more of the letter. The feelings of the person who wrote, and the person who received it, are now so widely different from what they were then, that every unpleasant circumstance attending it ought to be forgotten. You must learn some of my philosophy. Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.”

One part of Elizabeth’s philosophy seems to be the judgment that errors committed in the past in ignorance of what is good for us, of what would truly make us happy, are to be remembered only insofar as we can learn from them how we might better pursue our rational happiness. But Darcy not only rejects this judgment, he “cannot give [Elizabeth] credit for any philosophy of the kind”. Instead he insists that Elizabeth is able to think of the past with equanimity not because she is philosophical but because she is innocent and has nothing to feel guilty about. As Darcy puts it, innocence is much better than philosophy. And so, once again, he rebukes himself severely for having been “a selfish being all my life,” and such a being he would still be had not Elizabeth taught him a lesson and properly humbled him. Despite Elizabeth’s philosophical advice, Darcy is resolved never to forget his failure to behave “in a more gentleman-like manner.” Implicit in his self-criticism is the boast that he is, now and for the future, no longer a selfish being. Elizabeth, as we have seen, has given some thought to this question and doubts whether it is possible, let alone obligatory, for a rational being to be fundamentally unselfish. On this occasion, however, she makes no further effort to discourage Darcy from remembering and blaming his past errors, nor does she for the time being attempt to teach Darcy any other part of her philosophy.

Elizabeth Bennet’s Philosophy

So far we have seen evidence that Elizabeth Bennet, while still struggling in her own mind for clarity about love, morality, and happiness, is nonetheless a remarkably penetrating and introspective critic of her own prejudices and vanities. Far more than Darcy, she seems well on her way toward self-knowledge in this limited sense of the term. Now, however, I would like you to consider the evidence that Elizabeth is thoughtful in a far deeper sense about the biggest questions of human life. She herself speaks of her “philosophy,” one part of which could be called her philosophy of recollection: “Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.” In this part of my essay, I will elaborate some other important principles of Elizabeth Bennet’s philosophy; then, in the next part, I will speculate as to their possible source. By “philosophy” here I mean something like self-knowledge in the fullest sense of the term, not limited to personal introspection and critical self-appraisal, but encompassing and addressing the deepest questions of human life: What is virtue? What is love? What is a gentleman? What is noble? What is the human good? What is the nature of man?

I must confess that I undertake this exposure of the philosophy of Jane Austen’s heroine with some trepidation. Austen clothes her most profound insights in unobtrusive remarks offered light-heartedly in casual conversation, and I hesitate to pull away this veil of delicate restraint. Her writing has something of the sweetness and archness that, in Elizabeth, captivated Darcy. Softly and without ostentation, she manages to raise all the important questions that are solemnly disputed in the books of the philosophers. Here, with apologies, are three principles of Elizabeth’s philosophy.

First, Elizabeth’s thoughts on the use and abuse of memory are matched by some rather profound musings on our hopes for future happiness, which might be called Elizabeth’s philosophy of anticipation. The occasion that prompts these reflections is the removal of Wickham’s regiment from the neighborhood of Meryton, a separation that she had for a number of reasons looked forward to with great expectations of joy. In the event, her life after Wickham’s departure does not seem so much happier than before. Austen comments:

Upon the whole, therefore, she found what has been sometimes found before, that an event to which she had looked forward with impatient desire, did not, in taking place, bring all the satisfaction she had promised herself. It was consequently necessary to name some other period for the commencement of actual felicity; to have some other point on which her wishes and hopes might be fixed, and by again enjoying the pleasure of anticipation, console herself for the present, and prepare for another disappointment.

The suggestion is that we mostly live in the future, not the present, believing that, if only our hopes are realized, a period of actual happiness, such as we have never experienced before, will surely commence. On this occasion, Elizabeth tells herself that it is not good to get everything you wish for; for if all your wishes are fulfilled, and you expect perfect bliss as a result, you are bound to be disappointed. In between regret over past failures and hopes for a felicity not yet attained and perhaps unattainable, we are so imprudent, as Pascal put it, “that we wander in times not our own and do not think of the only one that belongs to us”—the present. I find in these reflections of Elizabeth’s a sound basis for rational happiness in the present, neither tormented by regrets, nor hoodwinked by false hopes of future bliss. Note, by the way, the typically graceful restraint of Austen’s way of writing. Where a philosopher might say, “It is the nature of man, etc.,” Austen writes “Upon the whole, she found what has been sometimes found before.”

Second, there is Elizabeth’s philosophy of education. We have seen that, at the end of the novel, Elizabeth is hopeful that Darcy will one day learn to be laughed at, i.e., learn not to take himself so seriously, but she judges that now is not the time to begin. In general, throughout the book, Elizabeth seems content to observe and reflect on the follies and absurdities of other human beings without trying to instruct them. I believe this reluctance to attempt to teach others is not the fruit of modesty or diffidence but of a considered judgment that Elizabeth expresses to Jane in the following words: “We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing”. What she means, I think, is that the most important and difficult questions, those whose answers would bring not only critical self-awareness but self-knowledge in the fullest sense of the term, can only be learned by oneself, to be sure with the helpful guidance of a mentor, but with most of the heavy lifting of introspection and inquiry carried out on one’s own. The wisest teacher can accomplish nothing if the student is not motivated to learn, and if he is so motivated, he will need only quiet indications of where to look rather than elaborate and systematic instruction.

Elizabeth’s wise observation is, by the way, a remarkably clear and concise statement of the ground on which Socrates declined to be a teacher, on which Plato wrote not treatises but enigmatic dialogues, and on which every philosopher worthy of the name has given his readers at most hints and intimations of his most important teachings. Plato tells us, in his Seventh Letter, that his dialogues are intended “for those who are capable of finding things out for themselves, with the help of little indications (dia smikras endeixeos).” We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing. Sometimes, in idle moments, it strikes me that this quietly profound remark deserves to be enshrined as the motto of St. John’s College, in place of that solemnly boastful and didactic Latin inscription that adorns our official seal: Facio liberos ex liberis libris libraque—“I make free men from children by means of books and a balance.” Perhaps the men who founded our College had more in common with Fitzwilliam Darcy than with Elizabeth Bennet.

Be that as it may, there is finally what might be called Elizabeth’s philosophy of strength, once again summed up in a brief remark she makes in a casual conversation. Addressing Darcy on the subject of poetry and love, Elizabeth says, “Everything nourishes what is strong already” (I.31). Let me explain why this remark strikes me as significant. We have seen how, in Elizabeth’s estimation, the actions and opinions of most human beings are full of folly, inconsistency, and nonsense. She is not as quick as Darcy to judge bad behavior as a sign of incorrigible vice. One who loses her good opinion might gain it back again by returning to the path of prudence and good sense. Indeed it would perhaps not be too strong to say that she interprets most moral failings as blindness and absurdity rather than corruption and moral turpitude. Nonetheless, Elizabeth does not by any means discount the importance of character, and even of something like virtue, for human happiness. But the virtue that she prizes most is a kind of strength of character. It is precisely this quality that she finds missing in Bingley, whose softness and irresolution put him in danger of becoming a slave to his designing friends. It is again this quality that she describes in herself when she says to Darcy, once more in a playful vein, “There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me”. It is finally this quality that enables Elizabeth to stand up to that formidable dragon Lady Catherine de Bourgh, whose bullying personality overpowers almost everyone else in the book.

Strength and weakness of character, one might say, are what remain of virtue and vice when the ordinary belief in moral responsibility is subjected to searching philosophical scrutiny. Strength of character in this sense is a kind of health of the soul that enables it to respond optimally to whatever comes its way. Hence Elizabeth’s dictum, “Everything nourishes what is strong already.” I believe that Elizabeth is here articulating a thought not unlike what Aristotle intends in the Posterior Analytics when he defines greatness of soul as “indifference to fortune good or bad.” A strong character will be undone neither by great misfortune nor by great good fortune.

Before Elizabeth can allow herself to love Darcy, she must be certain in her heart that he is strong in this sense. The question Elizabeth is struggling with is, I believe, akin to what Shakespeare was addressing in his sonnet 94, “They that have power to hurt and will do none.” Genuine strength in a human being is moderate and restrained, rather than vindictive, petty, and cruel. Which of these is the character of Darcy? I think Elizabeth first begins to form a clear answer to this question when she visits Darcy’s estate in Derbyshire. Seeing Pemberley and hearing the character of its master extolled by his housekeeper, Elizabeth reflects in silence:

As a brother, a landlord, a master, she considered how many people’s happiness were in his guardianship!—How much of pleasure or pain it was in his power to bestow!—How much of good or evil must be done by him! Every idea that had been brought forward by the housekeeper was favourable to his character.

The impressive sight of Pemberley gives Elizabeth a sense of the power to bestow pleasure or pain, to do good or evil, that a man like Darcy must wield; and the praise of Darcy’s housekeeper goes very far toward reassuring Elizabeth that her master is fit to be the guardian of other people’s happiness and, in Shakespeare’s phrase, “the lord and owner of his face.”

The Source of Elizabeth’s Philosophy

As for the source of Elizabeth’s philosophical understanding, or at any rate the mentor responsible for turning her in the right direction, I would like now to introduce a figure who has hitherto escaped our attention, viz., Elizabeth’s father, Mr. Bennet. Mr. Bennet is described for us in the first chapter as “an odd mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice”. He seems to divide his time between reading books in his library and making fun of his wife, his daughters, and any other human being whose foolish behavior strikes him as sufficiently amusing. The impropriety of his behavior is one of the reasons Darcy decides to put a stop to the marriage of Bingley and Jane, and his negligence in allowing Lydia to accompany the regiment to Brighton facilitates her elopement with Wickham, with all its disastrous consequences. It would be easy to dismiss Mr. Bennet as a self-indulgent, irresponsible buffoon. But he has an important influence on Elizabeth, and his mind and character deserve a second look.

Jane Austen tells us, late in the book, how Mr. Bennet came to live the way he did:

[C]aptivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, [he] had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had, very early in their marriage, put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown.

Mr. Bennet did not seek comfort for his disappointment in disreputable pleasures; instead, writes Austen,

He was fond of the country and of books; and from these tastes had arisen his principal enjoyments. To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement.

Austen explains Mr. Bennet’s choice of pastimes as follows:

This is not the sort of happiness which a man would in general wish to owe to his wife; but where other powers of entertainment are wanting, the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are given.

As far as I know, no other figure in all of Jane Austen’s novels is described as “the true philosopher,” and it behooves us to consider for a moment whether that description of Elizabeth’s father might not in fact be an accurate one. Mr. Bennet’s life is the story of a man who fell in love with a beautiful young woman and married her with the expectation of domestic happiness, only to have all his affection extinguished as he came to appreciate her ignorance and folly. One is reminded of Socrates who, according to Xenophon, used to tell his friends that, when a man marries a beautiful woman in order to be happy, it is unclear whether he will not in fact be made miserable because of her. Is Mr. Bennet like Socrates in more fundamental ways? Perhaps so. He resembles the philosopher in that, once his first extravagantly hopeful encounter with the beautiful ends in disappointment, he does not become hopeless and embittered but instead contents himself with such modest pleasures as are genuinely satisfying and realistically attainable. As Austen writes, “with a book [Mr. Bennet] was regardless of time” (I.3), and she tells us of the “leisure and tranquility” he was able to attain in his library, while being prepared to meet with “folly and conceit in every other room of the house” (I.15). Austen later describes his usual demeanor as one of “philosophic composure”.

If Socrates in the Phaedo is right that “philosophy is the practice of dying and being dead,” it seems fitting that Mr. Bennet is the only character in Pride and Prejudice who speaks matter-of-factly of his own death and who even jokes about the death of his wife and daughter. When a letter arrives from Mr. Collins, Mr. Bennet blandly refers to him as the man who, “when I am dead, may turn you all out of his house as soon as he pleases”. Earlier, when Mrs. Bennet rejoices that Jane has caught a cold and will have to spend the night at Netherfield, Mr. Bennet comments that, “if she should die, it would be a comfort to know that it was all in pursuit of Mr. Bingley, and under your orders”. And later, when his wife is complaining bitterly about the prospect of being evicted from the Longbourn estate by Charlotte Lucas, Mr. Bennet replies, “My dear, do not give way to such gloomy thoughts. Let us hope for better things. Let us flatter ourselves that I may be the survivor”.

Why do these cheerful references to death by Mr. Bennet strike me as significant? Because the real meaning of Plato’s dictum is, I think, that the philosopher, and only the philosopher, honestly faces his death and comes to terms with the meaning of his mortality. He alone has the fortitude to patiently sift through his opinions, reasoning away those vanities and pretensions by which most of us distract ourselves from the fear of death. Only the philosopher lives his life from day to day free of the distortions and diversions by which the rest of us try to disguise and embellish our bleak fate. To quote again from Shakespeare’s sonnet 94, “The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet, though to itself it only live and die.” Chief among those diverting vanities is the specious immortality promised by erotic love and by the virtues of the morally serious man. Vanity of vanities—the theme of all genuinely philosophical literature; and it is no accident that, besides Pride and Prejudice, the other great philosophical English novel of the nineteenth century bears the title Vanity Fair and the subtitle “A Novel Without a Hero.”

I detect the influence of Mr. Bennet’s thoughtfulness about death and mortality in a remark Elizabeth makes to herself late in the novel, when she believes that Lydia’s elopement has doomed any chance that Darcy will renew his courtship. Elizabeth is imagining how Darcy would react if he were to learn that the woman who had proudly spurned his proposals only four months ago would now receive them gratefully and gladly. “He was as generous, she doubted not, as the most generous of his sex. But while he was mortal, there must be a triumph”. Here Elizabeth draws a connection between our mortality and our need for a triumph. Her thought seems an echo of Socrates’s warning to Phaedo that he himself, on account of his impending death, is “in danger of being in a victory-loving (philonikos) rather than a philosophical frame of mind.” Elizabeth’s suggestion about Darcy seems to be that fear of death, and indignation at the felt injustice of our mortality, could tempt even the most generous of men to feel triumphant at the humiliation of a woman whom he loved without being loved in return. She hints at a dark connection between mortality, eros, and moral indignation that we cannot now pause to explore.

Returning from these awful depths to the comic but negligent behavior of Mr. Bennet, it must be confessed that, while quietly deriving amusement from the behavior of his foolish wife and silly daughters, he displays little sense of responsibility for his children’s proper upbringing. As Elizabeth reflects ruefully, “her father, contented with laughing at them, would never exert himself to restrain the wild giddiness of his youngest daughters”. What is especially reprehensible, Austen tells us, is Mr. Bennet’s “continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum,” which “exposed his wife to the contempt of her own children”. Perhaps as a result, the younger daughters grow “vain, ignorant, idle and absolutely uncontrouled”, and Lydia’s elopement with Wickham comes close to bringing ruin upon the entire family, or at any rate on the five daughters.

One might conjecture that the dreary spectacle of their parents’ shipwreck of a marriage would have left those daughters mistrustful of love and cynical about the possibility of marital happiness. There may be some truth to that, but Austen takes pains to suggest that a failed marriage does not inevitably blight the children’s view of love. After all, it is Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte who expresses the bleakest and least romantic view of marriage: “Happiness in marriage,” she says, “is entirely a matter of chance. . . . It is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life”. Later Austen describes how Charlotte, “without thinking highly of either men or matrimony,” pursues the goal of marriage not with the hope or expectation of happiness but merely as the most pleasant “preservative from want”. As for Elizabeth, Austen does tell us that from her own family “she could not have formed a very pleasing picture of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort”. Nevertheless, somehow Elizabeth does end up thinking highly of both men and matrimony.

To account for his shocking negligence, one could speculate that Mr. Bennet, like a true philosopher, has reached the conclusion that there are limits to the good we can do for others; that to acknowledge these limits is itself a sign of strength; that when all is said and done we are not responsible either for the condition of the world we live in or for the fate of our fellow man; and that most souls fare more or less as they should, whether we interfere in their lives or not. Mr. Bennet may have concluded that there was little hope of correcting the folly and conceit of his wife and younger daughters, and not much point in trying. As for Lydia in particular, with her “wild giddiness,” “volatility,” and “high animal spirits,” certainly no one could teach her what she was unable to learn. Yet it seems, on the other hand, that Mr. Bennet has taken some care for the benefit of others, in the form of the education he has given to his two eldest daughters, and especially to his favorite, Lizzy. With her “delight in anything ridiculous”, she is truly her father’s daughter; and Austen emphasizes that Elizabeth respected her father’s abilities.

Contemplating Elizabeth, the skeptical student of human folly, inconsistency, and absurdity, one cannot help but see a reflection of her father’s detached amusement at the human comedy. But I also detect the influence of Mr. Bennet’s ideas in the quiet audacity of Elizabeth’s statement to Lady Catherine de Bourgh: “I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me”. That is the philosophy of rational happiness, captured in a sentence. Furthermore, no one appreciates Elizabeth’s strength of mind as does Mr. Bennet; after her fears about Lydia’s wildness prove prophetic, her father says to her, “Lizzy, I bear you no ill-will for being justified in your advice to me last May, which, considering the event, shows some greatness of mind”. Clearly Mr. Bennet must have recognized in Elizabeth a young woman of extraordinary discernment and intellectual courage.

My suggestion is that, whatever selfishness and negligence one may censure him for, Elizabeth is indebted above all to her philosophical father for the breadth and depth of her inquiry into the human condition: If she more than any other character in Jane Austen’s novels attains something like self-knowledge—regarding love, friendship, morality, and the pursuit of happiness—it is by traveling along an arduous road that her father first invited her to set out on intrepidly. Obviously Mr. Bennet would know that by far the greater part of her education must be carried out by Elizabeth herself, and that whether she truly comes to know herself will depend on the strength of mind and character she is able to bring to bear on all the vicissitudes of a full human life, not least in love and marriage.

There is, finally, the interesting question of Jane Austen herself and her relation to Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s philosophy. Sometimes, as we have noted, the author appears to share her protagonist’s consciousness and to lend at least tacit assent to her judgments. On rare occasions, Austen offers mild and circumspect criticism of a conclusion reached by Elizabeth. Are we to conclude that the thoughts on love, friendship, morality, and happiness enunciated by Elizabeth are in fact the principles of Jane Austen’s philosophy? One is tempted to say that in Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen is unfolding for us her own moral and intellectual development, by presenting, in Elizabeth, a younger version of herself, still struggling for self-knowledge and still in the grip of “whatever of her own vanity she had not yet been able to reason away.” It is well known that Jane Austen herself never married, but whether that was because no eligible Darcy ever presented himself to her cannot be answered with certainty.

The Two Men in Elizabeth’s Life

I promised at the start of this essay that I would leave you with a renewed appreciation for the virtues of Darcy, and I hope I will not disappoint you. In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet is confronted with two very different paradigms of male excellence, in the form of her father, Mr. Bennet, and her eventual husband, Mr. Darcy. Mr. Bennet, I have tried to show, is an exemplar of what might be called “philosophical irresponsibility.” He practices to a fault Elizabeth’s precept—“to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me”—only he leaves out the last part. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Mr. Bennet’s solicitude is reserved for those connected to him, not by the accident of biological descent (his children) or by the errors of youthful eros (his wife), but by the genuine bond of a shared openness to philosophy. His lack of concern for the well-being of his wife and his younger children reminds us of the legendary indifference displayed by Socrates toward his wife and children while he kept company with the likes of Plato and Xenophon—except that in this novel, Jane Austen has contrived to provide the philosopher with one quite remarkable daughter.

Darcy, on the other hand, takes the principle of moral responsibility to the opposite extreme. Recall his “implacable resentment” not only at the vices but even at the follies of others, to say nothing of their offenses against himself. Darcy’s good opinion, once lost, is lost forever. To his own conduct he ap- plies a standard that is, if anything, even more exacting. One may even say that it is characteristic of Darcy to assert personal moral responsibility for things that he manifestly is not responsible for. Nowhere is this more striking than in his reaction to the elopement of Lydia and Wickham. After he learns of this shocking event, he devotes heroic efforts and considerable expense to tracking down the wayward lovers and persuading Wickham to marry Lydia, even witnessing the revolting wedding ceremony himself, the whole operation being smoothed over by the transfer from Darcy to Wickham of some thousands of pounds sterling. Now there is a grain of truth to Darcy’s insistence that, had he not kept his knowledge of Wickham’s worthless character mostly to himself, “it would have been impossible for any woman of character to love or confide in him”. Yet surely the wild behavior of Lydia and Wickham had other causes, and it is quite a stretch for Darcy to “generously impute the whole to his mistaken pride.” One might even say that it is in a fit of mistaken pride that he obstinately insists on his sole responsibility for everyone else’s misconduct and his obligation to solve their problem entirely on his own. As Elizabeth’s aunt puts it, “Nothing was to be done that he did not do himself ”.

In part, Darcy seems to have been moved to act in this transcendently generous manner by his transcendent feeling of the “pure and elevated passion” of love. Mr. Bennet, congratulating himself for the “world of trouble and economy” he was saved by Darcy’s gallant expenditures, comments: “These violent young lovers carry everything their own way. I shall offer to pay him tomorrow; he will rant and storm about his love for you, and there will be an end of the matter”.

If resentment is Darcy’s characteristic vice, generosity would seem to be his characteristic virtue, and Austen teaches us through Darcy’s example to regard generosity as the habit of treating one’s own strength as a source of moral obligation to assume responsibility for the fate of others. The generous man sees himself as the guardian of the happiness of those around him. In so doing, of course, he claims for himself the larger share of the only thing he admires: praiseworthy noble action. As Aristotle puts it in Book IX of the Ethics, “in all things that are praised, the morally serious man manifestly distributes more of the noble”—which he takes to be “the greater good”—“to himself,” and in this connection Aristotle speaks of the morally serious man as “a lover of self.” In the novel, on this occasion, Elizabeth prudently refrains from pointing out these subtleties to her future husband.

After their marriage, Elizabeth seems to have wasted no time in beginning to teach Darcy how to be laughed at. And she finds at Pemberley an even more apt pupil in the person of Georgiana, Darcy’s younger sister. Austen writes:

Georgiana had the highest opinion in the world of Elizabeth; though at first she often listened with an astonishment bordering on alarm at her lively, sportive, manner of talking to her brother. He, who had always inspired in herself a respect which almost overcame her affection, she now saw the object of open pleasantry. Her mind received knowledge which had never before fallen in her way. By Elizabeth’s instructions, she began to comprehend that a woman may take liberties with her husband which a brother will not always allow in a sister more than ten years younger than himself.

It is an open question whether, in learning to be laughed at by his wife, Darcy will show himself to be educable in the fundamental sense, i.e., open to questioning his understanding of what a gentleman is.

To return, finally to the question of Darcy’s suitability as a husband: It seems evident to me that if the aims of education are self-knowledge and utmost clarity about such rational happiness as is genuinely available to us, then the virtues of Mr. Bennet are exactly what one would want in a teacher. But I suggest that the prouder, more generous, guardian virtues of Mr. Darcy are what an intelligent woman might plausibly want in a husband. Surely there is a place in this world for men willing to step up to the plate, fight for their honor and the honor of their family, and boldly claim responsibility for things, both good and bad, that they may not actually be responsible for. Such characters make the best statesmen, particularly in rough times that demand a steely eye and a steady hand; in more ordinary times they might also make the best husbands.

***

As a postscript to this essay, and an invitation to further reflection, I would like to try to interpret a perplexing passage from the end of the novel that might, on first reading, seem to call my whole argument into question. The passage is from the scene in which Mr. Bennet questions Elizabeth after Darcy has asked him to consent to their marriage:

“Lizzy,” said her father, “I have given him my consent. He is the kind of man, indeed, to whom I should never dare refuse any thing, which he condescended to ask. I now give it to you, if you are resolved on having him. But let me advise you to think better of it. I know your disposition, Lizzy. I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior. Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage. You could scarcely escape discredit and misery. My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life. You know not what you are about.”

If Mr. Bennet is speaking candidly here, what could he mean by telling Elizabeth that she “could be neither happy nor respectable” unless she “looked up to [Darcy] as a superior”? How could Mr. Bennett, in his philosophic wisdom, wish on his daughter an unequal marriage to a superior husband? Very strange. And yet, if we look at the very next sentence we see that that cannot be what he means. “Your lively talents,” says Mr. Bennett, “would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage.” So which is it that her father recommends, a marriage of equals or of unequals?

The solution to this puzzle is, I think, as follows. Mr. Bennet knows that, by law, by social standing, and by “the kind of man” he is or at any rate thinks himself to be, Darcy will inevitably be the superior of any woman who marries him. The only question is whether, in that position of superiority, Elizabeth will really be able to look up to him. Will she find in him qualities of mind and character that earn him her genuine esteem and respect, and not merely her deference and submission? Or will she, with her lively talents, be constantly tempted to mock the pretensions of a cold, arrogant, supercilious husband, thereby risking social disgrace and conjugal misery? Unbeknownst to Mr. Bennet, Elizabeth had already answered that question to her satisfaction:

His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. It was an union that must have been to the advantage of both; by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved, and from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance. 

In short, Elizabeth marries Darcy confident that theirs will on the whole be a marriage of equals, each superior to the other in different spheres, each looking up to and benefitting from the strengths of the other. If, in the decisive respect, the superiority of Elizabeth—what her father once called her “greatness of mind”—will remain somewhat eclipsed by the brighter luster of Darcy’s guardian virtues, that is a trial that will perhaps nourish a woman who is strong already.

Adam Schulman is a Tutor at St. John’s College, a position he has held for the past 25 years. In recent years, he has also been a visiting professor at MIT and a senior research consultant to the President’s Council on Bioethics. He lives in Roland Park.  The essay was originally published in “Apples of Gold in Pictures of Silver Honoring the Work of Leon R. Kass”, Edited by Yuval Levin, Thomas W. Merrill, and Adam Schulman. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2010

 



Share the News

3 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent piece, Adam! So happy I had a snow day so I could read this at leisure.

    Is it too much to hope that, for next Valentine’s Day, you will have finished your companion piece on the similarly complicated Spock/Kirk relationship?

    Live long and prosper,

    Bill

  2. Great article. Next time I read Pride and Prejudice I will read it with this analysis in mind. Especially like the thought given to Mr. Bennet, a character I had never taken seriously before — thanks, Adam!

Comments are closed.