The Modern Psyche

[This article contains the first two sections of Sentimentalism with the footnotes removed.]

The Critique of Moral Sense Theory

Throughout Sense and Sensibility Austen reminds us that we live in a ‘twilight of probability’, not just in the twist in the plot (such as Elinor’s misunderstanding of the significance of Edward’s ring in Volume I) and the various mixings up of the suitors, but also in a quite striking incidental scene:

I come now to the relation of a misfortune, which about this time befell Mrs. John Dashwood. It so happened that while her two sisters with Mrs. Jennings were first calling on her in Harley Street, another of her acquaintance had dropt in—a circumstance in itself not apparently likely to produce evil to her. But while the imaginations of other people will carry them away to form wrong judgments of our conduct, and to decide on it by slight appearances, one’s happiness must in some measure be always at the mercy of chance. In the present instance, this last-arrived lady allowed her fancy to so far outrun truth and probability, that on merely hearing the name of the Miss Dashwoods, and understanding them to be Mr. Dashwood’s sisters, she immediately concluded them to be staying in Harley Street; and this misconstruction produced within a day or two afterwards, cards of invitation for them as well as for their brother and sister, to a small musical party at her house. The consequence of which was, that Mrs. John Dashwood was obliged to submit not only to the exceedingly great inconvenience of sending her carriage for the Miss Dashwoods, but, what was still worse, must be subject to all the unpleasantness of appearing to treat them with attention: and who could tell that they might not expect to go out with her a second time? The power of disappointing them, it was true, must always be her’s. But that was not enough; for when people are determined on a mode of conduct which they know to be wrong, they feel injured by the expectation of any thing better from them.

Vol. II, XIV (36.6)

Probabilities, chance, appearance, contingency, judgement, conduct and happiness, all compressed into a short comment following an intrusive authorial intervention—the reader can be left in little doubt of the authors epistemological concerns as they relate to ethics, and, as the passage hints, knowledge of right and wrong, especially as it relates to one’s own intentions, is a central issue. On the surface, the novel is about the external twilight of probability, the deceptiveness of appearances in the world and how seductive it is interpret evidence to suit desires and the appalling trouble it can follow if no attempt is made to check this natural tendency—but it would be well to consider whether there might be an analogous internal issue as, like Plato, Austen uses external dramatic narrative to reflect internal ethical problems. Plainly, Marianne, despite her excellent natural abilities and open, affectionate disposition has succeeded in ‘giving pain every moment to her mother and sisters’ (16.1), admits that had she died ‘it would have been self-destruction’ (46.28), and, of course, Elinor ‘suffer[s] almost as much’ but ‘certainly with less self-provocation, and greater fortitude’ (47.46). While all this undoubtedly gets Elinor into much hot water with modern readers we are here trying to focus on the internal epistemological issue.

If it is accepted that we do indeed live in a twilight of probability with regards external phenomenon—and it is difficult to deny this—then why should internal surfaces be taken at face value? If Willoughby appears as an intelligent, refined, sensitive and attractive young man but turns out to be quite the contrary then why should Marianne take it at face value that she is just, considerate, candid and wise if her sentiments tell her that she is. In Volume I we saw Marianne claiming in defence of her visit to Allenham with Willoughby that ‘if there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong’ (13.72)—indicating her commitment to moral sense theory—but her embarrassment on Mrs Jennings blowing her cover shows how untenable this is, and is forced to the conclusion on further reflection that ‘it was rather ill-judged in me to go to Allenham’ (13.76). And we saw that, especially under Willoughby’s malign influence, that there wasn’t a crime that Marianne wasn’t guilty of in some degree that she (and we) censor the vulgarians for, but the reader has to be sharp to see this, for the author skilfully marshals our sentiments into line with Marianne’s in approving of her while condemning their sins; Austen is encouraging us to (mis)read the novel in a way that parallels mistakes made by the sympathetic protagonists, further demonstrating how fickle sentiments are when allowed free play and unchecked by the critical faculties, especially once the ground has been well prepared, which Austen is careful to do.

There is also a suggestion that those with good critical faculties must be especially careful to use them properly otherwise they are liable to be misused. Marianne before her illness egregiously abuses her natural intelligence (as do Lucy and Willoughby throughout) which gives rise to much unhappiness, but after her illness gives her ‘leisure and calmness for serious recollection’ she sees ‘since the beginning of our acquaintance with him last autumn, nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others’ (46.28). Charlotte however is irredeemably silly, lacking any critical faculties whatsoever, but her naturally generosity and warm-heartedness serve her well.

As Joseph Butler says,

Acting, conduct, behaviour, abstracted from all regard to what is, in fact and event, the consequence of it, is itself the natural object of the moral discernment; as speculative truth and falsehood is of speculative reason.

Joseph Butler, Dissertation II—Of the Nature of Virtue, p. 305

In neo-Butlerian terms, natural science concerns itself primarily with external, physical phenomena while ethics concerns itself primarily with internal mental phenomenon, especially intentions. However, it makes no more sense to accept sentiments at face value than, for example, to accept that a straight object partially immersed in water becomes bent because it appears so. The test of science is the ability to make good predictions, and in Austen’s and Butler’s ethics the same principals apply.

“Colonel Brandon’s character,” said Elinor, “as an excellent man, is well established.”

“I know it is”—replied her mother seriously, “or after such a warning, I should be the last to encourage such affection, or even to be pleased by it. But his coming for me as he did, with such active, such ready friendship, is enough to prove him one of the worthiest of men.”

“His character, however,” answered Elinor, “does not rest on one act of kindness, to which his affection for Marianne, were humanity out of the case, would have prompted him. To Mrs. Jennings, to the Middletons, he has been long and intimately known; they equally love and respect him; and even my own knowledge of him, though lately acquired, is very considerable; and so highly do I value and esteem him, that if Marianne can be happy with him, I shall be as ready as yourself to think our connection the greatest blessing to us in the world.

Vol. III, Ch. IX (45.15-7)

It is perhaps understandable that Elinor should become a little didactic given her mother’s apparent failure even at this stage to see her failure. Up until the catastrophe we see Elinor urging caution to Marianne and their mother and trying to get meaningful character references for Willoughby. Elinor is trying to make predictions about the future conduct of someone before they gain absolute power over a young woman—Will they continue to treat their partner with respect when the relationship comes under strain? Will they live responsibly, respectably within their means? And so on. Of course the only way to reliably answer such questions is to study the history of the person concerned, which means getting character references from trustworthy people with whom they have ‘been long and intimately known’ as was the case with Colonel Brandon and Mrs Jennings, the Middletons and even Elinor herself.

Hume’s Sentimentalism

It is said that David Hume had Joseph Butler in mind in preparing his A Treatise of Human Nature.

To approve of a character is to feel an original delight upon its appearance. To disapprove of it is to be sensible of an uneasiness. The pain and pleasure, therefore, being the primary causes of vice and virtue, must also be the causes of all their effects, and consequently of pride and humility, which are the unavoidable attendants of that distinction.

But supposing this hypothesis of moral philosophy shou’d be allow’d to be false, ’tis still evident, that pain and pleasure, if not the causes of vice and virtue, are at least inseparable from them. A generous and noble character affords a satisfaction even in the survey; and when presented to us, tho’ only in a poem or fable, never fails to charm and delight us. On the other hand cruelty and treachery displease from their very nature; nor is it possible ever to reconcile us to these qualities, either in ourselves or others. Thus one hypothesis of morality is an undeniable proof of the foregoing system, and the other at worst agrees with it. But pride and humility arise not from these qualities alone of the mind, which, according to the vulgar systems of ethicks, have been comprehended as parts of moral duty, but from any other that has a connexion with pleasure and uneasiness.

§2.1.7, Of Vice and Virtue, pp. 347-8

Nothing is more usual in philosophy, and even in common life, than to talk of the combat of passion and reason, to give the preference to reason, and assert that men are only so far virtuous as they conform themselves to its dictates. […]

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.

§2.3.3, Of the Influencing Motives of the Will, p. 460-2

Thus the course of the argument leads us to conclude, that since vice and virtue are not discoverable merely by reason, or the comparison of ideas, it must be by means of some impression or sentiment they occasion, that we are able to mark the difference betwixt them. Our decisions concerning moral rectitude and depravity are evidently perceptions; and as all perceptions are either impressions or ideas, the exclusion of the one is a convincing argument for the other. Morality, therefore, is more properly felt than judg’d of; tho’ this feeling or sentiment is commonly so soft and gentle, that we are apt to confound it with an idea, according to our common custom of taking all things for the same, which have any near resemblance to each other.

The next question is, Of what nature are these impressions, and after what manner do they operate upon us? Here we cannot remain long in suspense, but must pronounce the impression arising from virtue, to be agreeable, and that proceding from vice to be uneasy. Every moments experience must convince us of this. There is no spectacle so fair and beautiful as a noble and generous action; nor any which gives us more abhorrence than one that is cruel and treacherous. No enjoyment equals the satisfaction we receive from the company of those we love and esteem; as the greatest of all punishments is to be oblig’d to pass our lives with those we hate or contemn. A very play or romance may afford us instances of this pleasure, which virtue conveys to us; and pain, which arises from vice.

3.1.2 Moral Distinctions Deriv’d from a Moral Sense, pp. 522

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature

With or without its nobler parts there can be little doubt that Butler would have much to disagree with and Sense and Sensibility shows us why. In retrospect it was inevitable that moral sense theory would find favour in the eighteenth century. Gentleman philosophers like Shaftesbury with the means to saturate their environment with exotic and beautiful art would naturally want to establish that this cultivation of their aesthetic sensibilities was the route to becoming a morally better person. Any people that succeed in concentrating wealth around themselves are bound to be tempted by this route, and in many respects many of the middle classes in the industrial world remain in the same situation as the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury.

Further with the rise of science and the triumph of the Newtonian synthesis sweeping aside the medieval cosmos there was a strong sense, reinforced by the great European schism of the reformation, that the old authorities that guaranteed and underpinned the ethical foundations of society weren’t safe, and (lets be honest) provided some space that gentleman scholars sought to occupy. And it should come as no surprise that they chose as inspiration the scientific method that the natural philosophers had used to such good effect to carry all before them, both Hume and Kant saying in the prefaces to their magna opera that they aimed to replicate the success of the scientific method. They were both looking to found a science of, ethics of course.

It is inevitable that a people that has gained unprecedented powers to shape their environment (as those in the modern industrial world have) would want to cultivate an ethic that seeks to place the heart firmly in control of the head. Firstly the power of our intellectual faculties are not a little intimidating and so we naturally don’t want to turn them on ourselves. Secondly, on encountering a collision between the way of things and the way we want them to be that we should cultivate an ethic that encourages a resolution by shaping our environment to meet our expectations.

Further, the natural philosophers succeeded by finding productive ways of breaking reality into simpler parts whose relationships can be explained with mathematical laws, something that Hume was trying to reproduce, though without much success (see The War of Ideas on Gilbert Ryle’s critique). It is at about this stage that the division between head and heart seems to have became much more exaggerated as shown by the clumsiness with which classical concepts like ψυχή and Sanskrit citta (typically translated with some combination of mind/self/soul and mind-heart, respectively).

As I have shown in this book, a close reading of the critical literature on Austen reveals just how powerful this idea is—the pre-eminent role that sentiment has in judgement—with the critics repeatedly confusing judgement and sentiment, how we feel about a character (whether we approve or disapprove) and then trying to rationalise the sentiments and nowhere is this more evident than in the treatment of Marianne. The evidence is that Austen used all the devices of sentimental fiction to get us to take Marianne to our hearts while structuring the plot to show that ‘judgment in serious matters’ (17.39) was seriously awry, and on analysis not much better than the host of vulgarians she (and we) heartily disapprove of. Austen continued to this motif throughout for the remainder of the novels she published, with tension between sentiment and judgement in the pairing of Elizabeth and Jane Bennet, Fanny Price and Mary Crawford and Emma Woodhouse and Jane Fairfax. The cycle of novels demonstrates consistently that sentiment cannot be left unsupervised to judge character, that Hume’s idea that ‘generous and noble character affords a satisfaction even in the survey’ is no more generally true than it is true that straight things half-immersed in water are bent because they appear so. It is often assumed that Austen was interested in ‘every common-place notion of decorum’ (10.5) to the sacrifice of everything else, yet nothing could be further from the truth (see the following section, Ryle’s Moralising Austen). Austen was showing up our preoccupation with surfaces, our reluctance to challenge the sentimental basis of our judgements.

No other work that I am aware of does such a thorough job of exposing the nakedness of Hume’s (and the enlightenment’s and modernity’s) sentimental project, blasting its ethical system into rubble, or at least it ought to have done, for as we know it did no such thing. Hume was a prophet. When he said that ‘Reason is and ought to be a slave of the passions’ he was fixing the philosophy of the enlightenment; Hume’s treatise and everything that flowed from it is self-inoculated and quite immune from any objections founded in ‘vulgar systems of ethicks’ because it offers up a narative that is just too congenial for the modern sensibility.


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