Hobbes, Moral Pessimism and Pride and Prejudice

A recent discussion on the Austen-L mailing list is considering the extent to which Austen’s philosophy is compatible with Hobbes’s ‘moral pesimism’ with Brad Walton suggesting a strong compatibility between the two:

Hobbes’s moral pessimism seems to bear some similarities to Austen’s somewhat dim view of humans as moral agents (for instance, I strongly suspect that Elizabeth Bennet’s remarks to Jane in _PP_, Chapter 24, regarding her evaluation of human beings in general, reflects Austen’s own views). However, I do think that Austen’s take on human nature is somewhat more complex than Hobbes’s.

I would say that not only is her understanding of psychology more acute but so is her ethics. For sure she adhered to the view that we must take a skeptical view of motives, certainly not to take professed motivations at face value, but that doesn’t mean that she was a cynic, and we should be careful about assuming that Elizabeth Bennet’s (and her father’s) cynical wit represent the view of the author with Mrs Gardiner’s warning in Chapter 27, “Take care, Lizzy; that speech savours strongly of disappointment” (27.20) is surely aimed at the reader too. I would argue that Austen is drawing us into Elizabeth’s accretion of the worst aspects of her mother and father that we easily condemn confronted with in the early chapters, viz. her mother’s tendency to hasty judgement and her father’s cynical detachment. While it is easy to condemn it in others it is not so easy to spot in ourselves but by getting us to condemn it elsewhere before joining Elizabeth in indulging these tendencies we too can partake in the eclaircissement in Chapter 36.

“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.” (36.8)

And at the end of the novel, Elizabeth says.

“If you were to give me forty such men, I never could be so happy as you. Till I have your disposition, your goodness, I never can have your happiness. No, no, let me shift for myself; and, perhaps, if I have very good luck, I may meet with another Mr. Collins in time.”

This is not meant ironically. Just as Sense and Sensibility can in some sense be considered a dialectic between the classical Augustan and the new Romanticism, Pride and Prejudice can be seen as a dialectic between the new cynicism of Elizabeth and her candid sister–but be warned, candour in the old sense, not the new. The trick is to unite a healthy scepticism, especially towards our assumptions about our own virtue, with a loving disposition towards the world in general, determination to think well of others and give them the benefit of the doubt. This I think is the dialectic that drives the novel forward.

I can only sketch the argument here, but say a bit more in Candour, Pride and Prejudice, and a lot more in an early, rough draft of my book In Search of Sense and Sensibility.

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