In our discussion of civics, we began with a recognition of certain biblical principles (justice, honor, righteousness) that are essential to a truly Christian interaction with the world around us. And though these principles have taken a variety of forms throughout the ages, in our current cultural climate they are often labeled as conservative or traditional. But this sort of conservatism is more than a contemporary political philosophy; its roots go much deeper and broader than our current place in time and space. Of course, much more could be said on this fundamentally ethical view of man, but it is best summarized by Lewis and most thoroughly critiqued by Nietzsche.
We turn now, then, to spend some time with one of my favorite novelists: Jane Austen. Most surveys of civics, of course, would never think to include such a work (much less a romance!) into their discussion, so at first, this may seem like a detour. Austen, however, has some important lessons for us on ethics, relationships, education, and even the economy, that will be of use to us in months to come. What is more, her works can legitimately be named among some of the most conservative stories written in recent history. As Wiker points out, the Austen family lived a very conservative life as “devout Tories and equally devout Anglicans” (225), and this life is reflected clearly in the writings of its most prominent member.
For our discussion, we will focus mainly on her most popular work, Pride and Prejudice, before sharing our thoughts of some of her more important ideas. If you are not a reader, however, you can still get a fairly good idea of her novels by watching the miniseries or film-length version of Pride and Prejudice (the first is by far the better) or the fantastic 1995 film Sense and Sensibility (which is actually what Wiker discusses in his book).
But for those who do not know, Pride and Prejudice relates the joys and struggles of the five Bennett sisters, the “principle residents” of a small English village, focusing mainly on the eldest Misses Bennets (Jane and Elizabeth), who struggle to find love in an age when marriage was usually the product of economic rather than emotional or moral sentiments. The title of the work itself, however, points the reader to the relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy (a much wealthier gentleman) through whom we witness the roles of pride and prejudice played out most fully.
These themes run throughout Austen’s work and are not only used to demonstrate an important point about relationships, but also about the relationship of feelings, reason and morality. This is best seen in Elizabeth’s response to Darcy’s letter, in which he defends himself against her accusations concerning her sister, as well as Mr. Wickham.
She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.
Though in most things Lizzy is the most reasonable of the characters, she allows her limited knowledge and first impressions of Mr. Darcy to determine her view of his character. Taken together, we learn the following: (1) though reason is superior to mere feelings, it must be understood that one does not always have all the facts and that, because of this, (2) it is just as wrong to judge someone without knowing such things as it is to refuse to judge when such facts are known.
Having watched both versions of Pride and Prejudice before reading the book itself, I was most surprised while listening in on Austen’s treatment of Darcy’s judgment. He states his own view in chapter 35, in his letter to Elizabeth: “That I was desirous of believing her [Jane] indifferent is certain—but I will venture to say that my investigation and decisions are not usually influenced by my hopes or fears. I did not believe her to be indifferent [toward Bingley] because I wished it; I believed it on impartial conviction.”
Such a statement may not at first seem very striking to one who has seen the film adaptations, but when considered in light of the fact that both Elizabeth and Austen seem to concur with his view, it seems the movies might have left off an important point: neither Darcy nor Elizabeth are entirely correct; each is only half right. The solution, however, is not cold rationality or blind affection, but instead prudence.
Prudence is good moral judgment in our particular circumstances; it means training feelings by habit and reason. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, the question is not what feelings anyone happens to have, but what feelings he should have, and so the great task of education is to train our thoughts and feelings to correctly reflect the actual moral order. (Wiker 236)
The reference to Lewis comes from The Abolition of Man, which Wiker addresses earlier in his book, and which we also looked at recently. Therein, Lewis refers to what he calls “ordinate love” (11), stating that, “The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head” (13-14).
To Austen, this is merely good sense, however uncommon it may be. Thus, as the titles of her most prominent works insinuate, we cannot merely choose between Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, but must instead learn to subject both the heart and the head to each other. And this is why her works continue to inspire, and why they are rightly called conservative.