4: Pride and Prejudice: The Enlightenment and the Virtue of the Other

Part of the Studies in Peace and Wisdom seminar series.

Chris Dornan, Tuesday 11th March, 7-9pm, Bodhi Garden

This talk will look at 18th century Enlightenment philosophy and Jane Austen’s alternative.

The Enlightenment

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!”—that is the motto of enlightenment.

—Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment? (1784)

We in the West see ourselves as have having reached a new level of intellectual maturity in the 18th century Enlightenment, and critical changes to our society and its philosophy took place in this period. Perhaps the most significant and immediately visible change was the extravagance of the conceit! The 18th century intellectuals certainly weren’t the first to start thinking for themselves (but it might be a good idea to understand why they thought they were).

Studying the philosophers of the Enlightenment can be quite a technical undertaking but we are only concerned with the big picture, the changes underway in European thinking that were catalyzed by their writing. These trends are much easier to grasp and surprisingly close to the surface in their most famous aphorisms.

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

—David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, §2.3.3

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.

—Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, §1.1

I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith.

—Immanuel Kant, Preface to the second edition of A Critique of Pure Reason

The trend that will interest us the most is the chasm that appeared at about this time between the head and heart, a division that was not nearly so marked in earlier Christian thought nor in, for example, classical Buddhist and Greek thinking (the Sanskrit citta and Greek ψυχή typically translated as mind-heart and mind/self/soul, respectively). With the triumph of the Newtonian Synthesis it was, in hindsight, predictable that Western philosophers would seek to argue that the new sciences, with their seemingly boundless ability to explain and transform the natural world, should form the basis of our philosophy (and Kant and Hume acknowledge this quite explicitly in their prefaces). This is reflected by Hume and Rousseau who insist that happiness is to be found by using our ingenuity to transform the environment to satisfy our passions (by perfecting political institutions in Rousseau’s case). Kant takes this further, using epistemological scepticism to argue that we lack all knowledge about some things that we really care about—e.g., the nature of the self and the cosmos, whether God exists, or whether we have an immortal soul or not. These should properly be objects of (pure) faith – and this disdain for reasoning and reality in matters of the heart found resonance with the Romantics and has never left us.

Jane Austen

“… There is great truth, however, in what you have now urged of the allowances which ought to be made for him, and it is my wish to be candid in my judgment of every body. Willoughby may undoubtedly have very sufficient reasons for his conduct, and I will hope that he has. But it would have been more like Willoughby to acknowledge them at once. Secrecy may be advisable; but still I cannot help wondering at its being practiced by him.”

—Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, Vol. I, Chap. XV

“How despicably I have 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 mistrust! 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.”

—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Vol. II, Chap. XII (36)

Jane Austen was sceptical about this rush to sunder the head and heart, the theme reflected clearly in the title of her first-published novel, Sense and Sensibility (1811). In it the heroine, Elinor, successfully combines the extremities embodied in the selfish utilitarian realism of her rival Lucy Steele and the selfish romantic idealism of her sister Marianne. She achieves this with a philosophy that achieves stability and happiness through a Christian stoicism that attends to the needs of others, so avoiding selfish fixation.

It is scarcely possible to properly understand these novels (as the above passages illustrate) without understanding the revolutions in the meanings of candour/candid. According to the Oxford English Dictionary candour is derived from the Latin candor—dazzling whiteness, brilliancy, innocence, purity, sincerity, and this is how the word is used from the 15th century until the 17th century when it gets split into three related meanings: a character of purity, integrity and innocence, and a disposition that is free from mental bias (impartiality, openness and justice) and a disposition that is kindly and free from malice. In the late eighteenth century we see the modern meaning of openness, frankness, ingenuousness and outspokenness (according to the OED the meaning of fairness and impartiality remains, but according to the Paperback Oxford English Dictionary, candour means only ‘the quality of being open and honest’).

The Virtue of the Other

Candour (in its original sense) is the quality that Elinor Dashwood and Jane Bennet possess from the start in Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, but which Marianne Dashwood and Elizabeth Bennet must acquire. It requires us to focus on the virtue of the other and to constantly question our own virtue.

Jane Austen understood the challenges of modernity and synthesized the great Eighteenth century English novelists (Defoe, Swift, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne and Burney) to give us the modern novel. But she also understood the philosophical underpinnings old world on which our civilisation is based. She may have much to teach us in the art of peaceful, compassionate and contented living.


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