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Aristotelian Ethical Ideas in the Novels of Jane Austen

THERE IS NO EVIDENCE THAT Jane Austen ever read the works of Aristotle. Nevertheless, many of the ethical theories Austen puts forth in her novels are Aristotelian in nature.  Some critics have argued that Austen’s Aristotelian ethical ideas were derived from reading popular philosophical, didactic, and religious works of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Some suggest that she may have been educated in the classics and thus directly exposed to Aristotle.  Still others argue that Austen is simply a “natural” Aristotelian, and that “Aristotle’s ethics can be read as an uncanny anticipation of hers” (Gallop 98).1

Yet, despite the uncertainty as to what extent Aristotle directly influenced Austen, and despite the fact that Austen and Aristotle wrote in completely different political, geographic, and social contexts, Austen’s and Aristotle’s ethics are undoubtedly similar in four main respects:  both propose a multiplicity of virtues and have similar ideas as to what those virtues are; both suggest that there is a process to learning virtue and becoming moral; both maintain that virtue is a mean or intermediate between extremes; and both view ethical life as teleological in nature, with the practice of virtue aiming towards a higher good.  These similarities, however, are not without qualification.  Austen’s ethical ideas are similar to Aristotle’s in the aforementioned ways, but Aristotle’s ethical ideas are much more masculine, secular, and related to the state and public life, whereas Austen’s notions of virtue and morality are more Christian, traditionally feminine, and oriented around the private or domestic sphere of life.  While previous authors have explored the question of transmission from Aristotle to Austen as well as some specific commonalities between the two authors’ moral theories,2 a more comprehensive overview of the relationship between Austen’s and Aristotle’s ethics is needed.  This essay attempts to define what seem to be the four major similarities between Aristotle and Austen’s ethical theories as well as the key differences in their theories’ scope and audience.

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In order to compare the ethics of Austen and Aristotle, it is important first to understand how Austen may have been exposed to Aristotelian philosophical ideas.  Ryle argues that Austen’s Aristotelianism is a result of her being influenced by the writings of Sir Anthony Ashley-Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury.  He claims that “Austen’s specific moral ideas derived, directly or indirectly, knowingly or unknowingly, from Shaftesbury” (298), unique among eighteenth-century moralists for his “secular and aesthetic Aristotelianism” (299).  While acknowledging that Austen may not have studied the writings of Shaftesbury himself, he notes that their shared aesthetic and vocabulary indicate that Austen may have been involved in the same “small, sophisticated circles in which ‘Deist’ was not a term of abuse and in which one could refer without explanation or apology to Locke and Descartes, Hobbes and Aristotle, Epicurus and Spinoza” (299). 

Emsley, expanding upon Ryle’s hypothesis, contends, “Austen may have absorbed her knowledge of Aristotelian thought by reading Aristotle himself, through the poetry of Dante, Chaucer, or Spenser, or through the works of Shaftesbury or Butler, but she certainly knew Shakespeare, Johnson, and Fielding” (20).  Citing Mary DeForest’s argument that Austen probably learned Greek, Latin, and possibly Italian from her father, a clergyman, Emsley states that Austen could have read Aristotle’s Ethics and Dante’s Divine Comedy either in the original languages or in translation (18).  She also notes that “we do know [Austen] read Shakespeare, . . . and her ethical standpoint is strongly influenced by the reading of his work” (19).  In addition, Emsley names Samuel Johnson, whom she claims “provides an account of the neglect of the classical and Christian virtues in ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’ (1749)” (19), and Henry Fielding, whose novel Tom Jones (1749) includes “frequent references to Aristotle and Plato” (20), as probable sources of Aristotelian ethical thought for Austen.  Both Johnson and Fielding “made the virtues . . . vivid in contemporary writing” (19) in a way that many writers of the day did not, and they seem to have influenced not only the structure and style but also the content and characterization of Austen’s novels.  It thus seems that a combination of classical and eighteenth-century secular texts could have contributed to Austen’s understanding of Aristotle’s ethics as well as to her own moral outlook. 

Yet Austen’s theory of morality is also undoubtedly influenced by Christianity and eighteenth-century religious thought.  In her book Jane Austen’s Anglicanism, Laura Mooneyham White explores the ways in which Austen’s upbringing in the Georgian Anglican Church shaped her worldview and her writing. She notes that Austen was “a committed Anglican Christian” (9) and that her “experiences with the clergy, worship, liturgy, doctrine, sacraments, and sermons and other religious reading” influenced her fiction (8).  Many of these religious writings espouse doctrines founded in Aristotelianism.  For example, White mentions that Austen seems to incorporate into her writing the concept of the Great Chain of Being, which, as White points out, is “derived from a mix of Platonic and Aristotelian thought, admixed with a Christian conception of Godhead” (35).  This doctrine, which “places all of creation in a hierarchy, from God and his angels through human beings in their multitudinous stations through animals, plants, and down to the minerals of the earth” (35), implicitly argues that God has “designed social hierarchies” (35) and has put all humans in their proper places.  White notes that Austen’s acceptance of the doctrine of the Great Chain of Being affected her “views of language, social hierarchy, nature, and history,” and that this doctrine is at the foundation of all of her novels (76). 

As White points out, Aristotle is also the first to set out the idea of natural law, or the notion that “everything in creation has a reason and purpose” (79).  St. Thomas Aquinas later Christianizes this doctrine, and it is this revised version of natural law that Austen may have then absorbed through eighteenth-century theologians like Butler, Law, Gisbourne, and Hartley (80).  Austen’s worldview, including her rather Aristotelian view of ethics and morality, is largely shaped by eighteenth-century religious texts and doctrines.  The nature of the transmission of Aristotelian ethics to Austen is key to fully appreciating and understanding the striking similarities in, as well as the differences between, the two authors’ theories of morality.

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Austen and Aristotle both assert that there is a multiplicity of virtues, not just one all-encompassing virtue.  In Book One of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle claims, “Virtue too is distinguished into kinds, . . . for we say that some of the virtues are intellectual and others moral, philosophic wisdom and understanding and practical wisdom being intellectual, liberality and temperance moral” (1:13).  By asserting that virtue is distinguished into two main kinds, Aristotle implies that the virtues are multiple and that there is no single state of character that can alone be called virtue.  Austen likewise adopts this idea of a plurality of virtues, and in her novels represents a range of virtues applicable to both men and women.  These virtues or virtuous states of character echo the ones put forth by Aristotle in Book Two of the Ethics.  Aristotle names courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, proper pride, good-temper, truthfulness, ready wit, friendliness, and modesty as virtues (2:7) and claims that all of them are “intermediate” dispositions between two extremes (2:8).  Austen similarly praises “the virtue of being socially agreeable,” otherwise known as amiability or friendliness, as well as the virtues of practical intelligence, constancy, courage (MacIntyre 241-42), “a balanced temperature of feeling and emotions,” or temperance (Ely 95), and “obedience to the law, honesty, respect for one’s parents, loyalty to friends, and gratitude to benefactors” (Bloom 191).  Tensions between “civility and honesty, charity and justice” pervade Austen’s novels (Emsley 11), as do questions of proper pride, prudence, and modesty. 

Pride and Prejudice particularly exemplifies Austen’s use of these Aristotelian virtues.  The entire novel centers on the question of what constitutes proper pride, and “almost every character exhibits too much or too little pride, pride of a bad or silly sort or pride of a good sort, sham pride or genuine pride” (Ryle 289).  In one of his first interactions with Elizabeth Bennet, the initially proud and haughty Mr. Darcy observes that “‘vanity is a weakness indeed.  But pride—where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation’” (63).  The kind of pride Darcy has in mind is that which Aristotle would call an “intermediate,” and falls somewhere between the extremes of vanity and shame or self-effacement.  It is this kind of proper pride that both Darcy and Elizabeth must learn to achieve and that Austen, like Aristotle, names as one of the key virtues. 

Moreover, in her interactions with Darcy and others, Elizabeth perfectly displays the kind of ready wit or quickness of intelligence that Aristotle identifies as a virtue.  Elizabeth is frequently complimented on her “wit and vivacity” (98) and cleverly mocks the ridiculous and pokes fun at the follies of others.  Yet, her wit does not exceed the bounds of virtue by becoming insensitive or vulgar:  “‘I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good.  Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can,’” Elizabeth declares (62-63).  Pride and Prejudice is also concerned with the difficulty of trying to reconcile courtesy and truthfulness, as is apparent in the scene in which the pompous and ridiculous Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth, and she must “unite civility and truth in a few short sentences” in her rejection of his proposal and then later in bidding him farewell from her family’s home (239). 

There is a distinction, however, between the virtues put forth by Aristotle and those present in Austen’s novels.  While Aristotle “distinguishes two kinds of wisdom, a higher one (sophia) exercised in theoretical inquiry, and a subordinate one (phronesis) exercised in practical life” (Gallop 99), Austen is concerned primarily with what Aristotle calls practical or ordinary virtue.  It is true that some of the heroines in Austen’s novels, like Fanny Price and Elizabeth Bennet, learn to contemplate higher moral and spiritual realities and can thus be said to possess a degree of philosophical wisdom.  Yet Austen’s primary focus is on practical wisdom and intellect exercised in the social world, as is evident in her novels’ emphasis on human relationships and interactions.  In Emma, for example, Austen focuses on the different ways Emma interacts with people of lower social classes like Harriet and Miss Bates, with gentlemen of different characters and intentions like Mr. Knightley, Frank Churchill, and Mr. Elton, with rivals like Jane Fairfax, and with beloved family members and friends like Mr. Woodhouse and Mrs. Weston. Emma is presented with moral dilemmas and must contemplate difficult ethical questions but always in the context of her interactions with and feelings toward other individuals, not in the abstract.  Even Elizabeth, who endeavors to define and understand concepts like pride and vanity, does so in order to better apply these concepts to her daily conversations and interactions with men like Mr. Darcy.  Emma and Elizabeth are not isolated philosophers trying to formulate abstract ethical theories but people living in a world very much defined by social interaction.  Their contemplation and practice of virtue therefore happens in the context of “practical life” rather than “theoretical inquiry.” 

Austen’s virtues are, moreover, more Christian, feminine, and domestically oriented than Aristotle’s.  While critics such as Ryle (297) and Gallop (98) argue that both Austen and Aristotle’s values are secular rather than religious, Austen’s theory of the virtues is in reality very much influenced by Christianity.  This influence is particularly evident in Mansfield Park—a work in which religious piety is a central virtue.  Indeed, the heroine, Fanny Price, upholds and demonstrates Christian principles throughout the novel.  For example, when she pays a visit to Sotherton chapel, Fanny declares, “‘There is something in a chapel and chaplain so much in character with a great house, with one’s ideas of what such a household should be!  A whole family assembling regularly for the purpose of prayer, is fine!’” (101).  Fanny not only speaks of but also practices Christian virtues.  She offers “fervent prayers for [Edmund’s] happiness” (307) after learning of his affection for Miss Crawford, and she takes great interest in Edmund and Mr. Crawford’s conversation about well-delivered sermons (394).  Fanny’s comments and actions embody a kind of Christian ethic that subtly pervades all of Austen’s novels.  Indeed, even Catherine Morland anticipates saying her prayers with Isabella Thorpe “in the same chapel the next morning” (26).  Emsley, too, argues that Austen writes from “a firm foundation of Christian faith” (4) and that in her writing she “reconciles Aristotelianism and Christianity” (10).  She claims that in Austen’s novels, the heroines consistently demonstrate their virtue through their “Aristotelian or Christian moral deliberations and judgment” (18) and can only come to discover happiness through wisdom, grace, faith, hope, and charity—all of which are ostensibly Christian virtues. 

Austen’s feminine identity and domestically oriented perspective, combined with her Christian ethic, make her theory of the virtues quite distinct from Aristotle’s.  Indeed, John Ely claims that Austen “not only reworks (in Christian form) a doctrine of the virtues and of happiness through practical ‘activity’ derived from Aristotle, but in the ‘restricted households’ of Austen’s world, we find ‘surrogates for the Greek city-state’ insofar as she establishes a balance of virtues more appropriate to this more limited, more ‘female’ space” (93).  In Austen’s moral theory, certain virtues found in Aristotle’s Ethics are likened or replaced with more feminine virtues.  For example, Austen likens the Aristotelian ethical principle of habit to “the cultivation of feeling” (Ely 95).  While for Aristotle it is important that a man be “brought up in good habits” so that he can “listen intelligently to lectures about what is noble and just, and generally, about the subjects of political science” (1:4), Austen is more concerned that her characters have habitual “practical and emotive concern in the lives of others” (Ely 95).  Austen would agree with Aristotle that “moral virtue comes about as a result of habit” (2:1), yet her idea of habit is the constant practice of “active kindness” rather than good citizenship (Ely 95).  Austen also replaces Aristotle’s virtue of dignity with the more feminine virtue of “tenderness” (95).  This kind of moral substitution is evident in the passage from Mansfield Park in which the patriarch of Mansfield, Sir Thomas Bertram, returns home after a long journey with a changed manner, where “all that had been awful in his dignity seemed lost in tenderness” (208).  His cold propriety and formality give way to kindness and affection, and both Fanny and the reader are gladdened by the change. 

Moreover, Austen’s virtues appear not only to be more feminine than Aristotle’s but more oriented around private life and domestic interaction.  Though much recent criticism has challenged the idea of Austen’s limitation, critics like Bloom assert that Austen’s characters live in a limited world, where there are “no politics, no conspiracies, no high crimes, no wars,” and only interact with a small group of friends and family situated in a sphere of “respectable country life” (192).  If this analysis is valid, Austen’s virtues are necessarily different from Aristotle’s in that they are not meant to apply to great men in positions of public power, as is implied in the Ethics, but rather to husbands and wives, sons and daughters, friends and lovers, living ordinary, private lives.3

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The second key similarity between Austen’s and Aristotle’s ethical ideas is that both recognize that becoming moral is a process and that the individual is not born virtuous but must constantly practice the virtues to perfect them.  In the Ethics, Aristotle claims, “all who are not maimed as regards their potentiality for virtue may win it by a certain kind of study and care” (1:9).  He writes, “Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit” (2:1), implying that becoming virtuous and attaining eudaimonia is a process of learning and practice.  Austen echoes this idea in her novels, as all of her heroines must engage in a kind of moral practice and go through a process of learning in order to attain virtue.  Emsley, too, notes the importance of this process in Austen’s work, claiming that the heroines in Austen’s novels first come to an awareness about the ethical life in “a moment of philosophical illumination,” like Elizabeth’s moment of enlightenment as she reads Mr. Darcy’s letter, and thereafter engage in “a lifetime dedication to practicing careful judgment and considered moral action” (11).  For both Austen and Aristotle virtue is thus a disposition that is gradually acquired and that must constantly be practiced in both thought and action. 

In Pride and Prejudice a key scene between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy illustrates this concept of ethical practice and process.  After Elizabeth chastises Darcy for his anti-social behavior at the Meryton ball, Darcy replies, “‘I certainly have not the talent which some people possess . . . of conversing easily with those I have never seen before.  I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done’” (197).  Elizabeth, as she plays the piano, responds to his remark in a markedly Aristotelian fashion:

“My fingers . . . do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do.  They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression.  But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I would not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman’s of superior execution.”  (197)

In this instance, Darcy lacks the virtue of amiability, and Elizabeth’s solution invokes Aristotle’s discussion of study, habit, and practice as it pertains to the process of learning the virtues. 

The Aristotelian concept of moral education and practice is also present in Emma, a novel primarily about the process of learning to respect and be charitable to others, despite social differences.  At one point in the novel, several characters travel to Box Hill and gather together to enjoy each other’s company.  When Emma and Frank Churchill try to enliven the conversation by declaring that each member of the party must say either one very clever or three very dull things, Emma insensitively pokes fun at the well-meaning but garrulous Miss Bates when she responds enthusiastically to the suggestion.

“Oh! very well,” exclaimed Miss Bates, “then I need not be uneasy.  ‘Three things very dull indeed.’  That will just do for me, you know.  I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I?—(looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on every body’s assent)—Do not you all think I shall?”

Emma could not resist.

“Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty.  Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.”

Miss Bates, deceived by the mock ceremony of her manner, did not immediately catch her meaning; but, when it burst on her, it could not anger, though a slight blush showed that it could pain her.  (403)

Emma does not immediately realize that she has deeply embarrassed and insulted Miss Bates, who has been nothing but kind to her.  Yet she is later educated and reprimanded by Mr. Knightley, who says to Emma, “‘I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance.  How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates?  How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?’” (407).  He points out the ways in which Emma’s conduct has been at fault so that she can understand how her action was wrong and thus be able to change her behavior in the future.  The shame and grief Emma feels upon recognizing her cruelty to Miss Bates serves as an educational force, steering her towards embracing the virtues of friendliness and respect in future interactions.  Emma acquires the virtues of respect and kind charity, as Aristotle states, “by learning or by habituation or some other sort of training” (1:9)—in this case through Mr. Knightley’s chastisement and her own subsequent reflection. 

This process of moral development in Austen’s novels, apparent as various individuals succeed or fail in getting beyond “first impressions,” reflects the Aristotelian concept of virtue as a process rather than as a final state to be achieved.  Indeed, the fact that the original version of Pride and Prejudice, written around 1796, was entitled “First Impressions” (Bree 58) gives some clue to Austen’s interest in the Aristotelian idea that morality is an ongoing exercise with many emotional and cognitive stages.  One must look beyond initial judgments and actions and learn from them in order to make more virtuous decisions in the future.  To do this, one must not only learn about others and the outside world but also examine one’s self, one’s own knowledge, and one’s own prejudices.  Such is the case in Pride and Prejudice, where, after Darcy reveals his feelings for Elizabeth and the bases for his judgments and actions, Elizabeth must learn to look beyond her initial preconceived notions of Darcy and rethink her judgment of him as a proud, cold, and arrogant man.  By looking past her first impressions of Darcy, Elizabeth is able to eventually practice the kind of careful judgment that is part and parcel of virtue and see his character as it truly is.  One can also see an illustration of this step-by-step process of Aristotelian morality in Sense and Sensibility, in which Marianne Dashwood must undergo a kind of education in love, passion, and moderation before she is able to fully appreciate and reciprocate affection for the man who truly loves her.  She first experiences a period of wild ardor and affection for the young but irresponsible and untrustworthy John Willoughby, followed by a time of dejection, grief, and illness when he leaves her.  After her illness, she begins to understand the value of restrained sensibility and increased sense, and by the end of the novel demonstrates that she has been educated and is ready to practice the virtue of moderation in both her judgments and affections. 

Both Austen and Aristotle agree, moreover, that the moral educational process involves learning not just to practice the virtues but also to practice them in the right place, at the right time, and with the right people.  In the Ethics Aristotle claims that one must exercise virtue “to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way” in order to truly be good (2:9).  Similarly, Austen’s characters must practice careful moral judgment and consideration in all of their social interactions and learn to choose the correct words and actions for each unique context and situation.  For both Austen and Aristotle, virtuousness is thus an ongoing process in which one must constantly and prudently exercise one’s judgment to find the ethical balance or mean in both public and private life.

To fully practice the virtues in the right place, at the right time, and with the right people, both Austen and Aristotle recognize the necessity of having some kind of financial means or stability.  The moral educational process must be accompanied by a certain kind of wealth if one wishes to perfect the practice of virtue.  As Aristotle writes in the Ethics

[I]t is impossible, or not easy, to do noble acts without the proper equipment. In many actions we use friends and riches and political power as instruments; and there are some things the lack of which takes the lustre from happiness, as good birth, goodly children, beauty; for the man who is very ugly in appearance or ill-born or solitary and childless is not very likely to be happy.  (1:8)

 This same idea is exemplified in Austen’s novels, where all of the characters who attain perfect virtue and happiness, such as Mr. Darcy and even Elizabeth Bennet and Fanny Price, are attractive, financially stable, and have the material conditions Aristotle deems necessary for the practice of virtue.  While many of Austen’s heroines, like Fanny and Elizabeth, are not as wealthy or well-connected as characters like Darcy, still they are all able to meet the basic necessities of food, shelter, and clothing, as well as afford some small luxuries like ribbons and books.  The characters who achieve virtue in the Aristotelian sense do not live in poverty, and very often come from the class of landed gentry or at the very least from fairly prosperous merchant families. 

Austen’s ethics, however, differ from Aristotle’s somewhat in that she also seems to be concerned with a more Christian ideal of virtue, whereby “poverty, loneliness, and ugliness do not preclude virtuous behavior, and sometimes they even make it easier to reach purity of soul” (Emsley 26).  For example, in Persuasion Anne Elliot’s friend Mrs. Smith sinks into poverty after the death of her husband and yet is still held up as a paragon of Christian hope and perseverance despite her material suffering.  Since Aristotle claims that “happiness seems to need . . . material prosperity,” like “friends and riches and political power,” in order to be genuine (1:8), Mrs. Smith may not possess true happiness in the Aristotelian sense because of her poverty; yet in Austen’s world she is still able to practice and achieve virtue and is indeed more virtuous than many of the wealthy characters in the novel.

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The third chief similarity between Austen’s and Aristotle’s ethics is that both view virtue as a mean or intermediate between two extremes and understand that, while there is a plurality of extremes, there is only one true, good center.  Aristotle explains the concept of the “mean” in the Ethics, when he writes that virtue “must have the quality of aiming at the intermediate” and that therefore “virtue is a kind of mean, since, as we have seen, it aims at what is intermediate,” and this mean lies between the many vices (2:6).  Courage is thus the mean between fear and rashness, temperance the mean between pleasures and pains, liberality the mean between prodigality and meanness, and so on (2:7).  Aristotle also uses the different feelings involved in the practice of the virtues in order to distinguish among them and holds to the idea that “the emotions are neither to be vented nor repressed in all situations.  Rather, they are to be felt and evinced according to ‘right reason’ or ‘rational principle’ (orthos logos), used by the person of practical wisdom to determine the mean” (Gallop 101). 

Austen echoes this idea in the way she conceives virtue in her novels.  Her heroines all either possess or must learn to possess a moderate, balanced kind of sensibility and are always contrasted with characters who act or feel in excess.  Ryle explains that the titles of some of Austen’s works are quite telling of her preoccupation with finding a balance between excess and defect in feelings or actions by exploring the tensions among competing virtues—that Sense and Sensibility is “about the relations between Sense and Sensibility, . . . between Head and Heart, Thought and Feeling, Judgment and Emotion, or Sensibleness and Sensitiveness”; that Pride and Prejudice explores baseless pride versus excessive pride, versus deficient pride, and so on; and that Persuasion has to do with “persuadability, unpersuadability and over-persuadability” (287).  Further, Ryle finds a preoccupation with the mean even in Austen’s novels with titles less telling, arguing that Emma primarily centers around “proper and improper solicitude and unsolicitude” regarding the affairs of others (290), while Mansfield Park examines “lovingness or unlovingness” within one’s own family (292).4  The very title of Emma, moreover, suggests balance, as the name is almost a palindrome.  Though it is only slightly asymmetrical, beginning with E and ending with A, perhaps this near but somewhat imperfect balance reflects Emma’s initially unbalanced character.5  Indeed, throughout Austen’s novels, the heroines struggle to find the true ethical center and even fail at times by acting in the extreme or submitting to various excessive temptations or vices.  Yet, like Emma, who learns to practice the proper amount of solicitude, and Elizabeth Bennet, who learns to moderate her pride, they all eventually come to find the virtuous mean in their thoughts and actions. 

In Persuasion the passage in which Anne Elliot reflects on the opinions and character of Captain Wentworth serves as a fine example of Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean.  After Anne’s companion Louisa Musgrove jumps from a wall and suffers injury caused by her stubbornness and refusal to follow the advice of others, Anne wonders 

whether it ever occurred to [Wentworth] now, to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to the universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character; and whether it might strike him, that, like all other qualities of the mind, it should have its proportions and limits.  She thought it could scarcely escape him to feel, that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness, as a very resolute character.  (126).

Anne’s thoughts are certainly Aristotelian in nature, with the concept of “proportions and limits” relating back to the principle of the mean.  As this quotation and the preceding scenario demonstrate, Austen believes that an excess of resolution can lead to recklessness, while too little can lead to what Ryle calls “over-persuadability” (287).  The virtuous mean thus lies somewhere in between these two extremes of excess and deficiency.

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The fourth major parallel between Austen’s and Aristotle’s ethics is that both adopt a teleological perspective, where the practice of virtue aims at the achievement of some kind of telos or higher good.  In the Ethics Aristotle claims, “there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake. . . . [C]learly this must be the good and the chief good” (1:2).  He then goes on to argue that this chief good must be something “final” that is “always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else” and concludes that eudaimonia, otherwise defined as human flourishing,6 is such a thing (1:7).  For Aristotle, living in accordance with virtue and practicing the virtues is one way to achieve eudaimonia.  Yet the virtue he primarily focuses on in his discussion of eudaimonia is that of reason.  Indeed, James Lesher notes that for Aristotle, eudaimonia can be precisely described as “an activity of the soul in accordance with reason” (105).  Lesher notes that, since for Aristotle “the excellence of a thing is thought to reside in its έργον,” that is, its work, job, or characteristic activity, one can conclude that “the supreme human good resides in the exercise of reason in accordance with excellence, or if there are several excellences of reason, then with the highest and most complete of these” (105). 

Austen’s ethical perspective is similar to Aristotle’s in that she sees and writes about the telos of human life as it is expressed in its everyday form.  Austen is thus unique among her literary and philosophical contemporaries, for she “turns away from the competing catalogues of the virtues of the eighteenth century and restores a teleological perspective” (MacIntyre 240).  Her heroines pursue and practice virtue not for its utility or because it is its own reward but rather for the sake of attaining a kind of higher good, happiness, or fullness in life.  Yet Austen, unlike Aristotle, does not equate this final, higher good or happiness with the excellent exercise of reason.  Considering that the lives of Austen’s characters are much more limited than the lives of the men in Aristotle’s audience, and taking into account that Austen and Aristotle wrote in completely different geographical, social, and political contexts, it makes sense to think that Austen and Aristotle may have varying ideas as to what constitutes “happiness” and “the good life.”  For Austen the exercise of reason plays an important role in the cultivation of a virtuous character.  In Northanger Abbey Catherine Morland must learn to use her reason and judgment and not merely rely on the words and opinions of others, in order to successfully navigate society.  As Ruderman states, in Northanger Abbey Austen “suggests that the fullest practice of virtue is only available to those who have an ability and a willingness to think for themselves” (40).  Catherine comes to realize that she cannot necessarily trust her companions John and Isabella Thorpe, the former having lied to her and forced her to break an engagement with Eleanor Tilney at Bath and the latter having betrayed her brother.  She also learns not to project the overly romantic and horrific sentiments of the novels she reads onto real-life situations after Henry Tilney chastises her for imagining his father is a murderer.  Instead, Catherine “begins to use her own wits” (Ruderman 40) and her own reason and in doing so becomes a more mature and virtuous heroine. 

While the active exercise of reason thus seems important for Austen in fully achieving and maintaining a virtuous character, it does not appear to be the chief good or end of this teleological process.  There is no indication in Austen’s novels that the “supreme human good” for her heroines—the very thing that constitutes their happiness—is the exercise of reason.  Elinor Dashwood practices reason throughout Sense and Sensibility, but not until she becomes engaged to Edward Ferrars and sees her sister settled with Colonel Brandon does she appear truly happy.  Likewise, while Catherine Morland does become a more virtuous person for learning to use reason, she only achieves “perfect happiness” (261) when this education is combined with her marriage to Henry Tilney, his reconciliation with the General, and their return to Woodston.

There is a significant amount of debate over what exactly this end or “final good” of Austen’s novels is.  MacIntyre uses the centrality of marriage in Austen’s works to argue that the telos for Austen’s heroines is “a life within both a particular kind of marriage and a particular kind of household of which that marriage will be the focal point” (239) and that Austen’s virtuous heroines “seek the good through seeking their own good in marriage” (240).  His argument does have some credibility, since at the end of every Austen novel the heroine is either married or engaged to be married to a man who will presumably make her happy and help create a happy household.  The notion of marriage as the telos for Austen’s characters also reinforces the more feminine, domestic nature of Austen’s ethics compared to Aristotle’s, in which marriage seems to play no significant part in happiness.  Yet, while in most of Austen’s novels a good marriage or engagement could be viewed as a kind of reward the heroine receives for her education in and practice of the virtues, to Austen, marriage is not in itself the highest good, nor is it all that is necessary for “the good life.”  Indeed, Ely notes that “the good life” for Austen also involves having sufficient material means and independence, engaging in intellectual activity and the appreciation of natural beauty, practicing active kindness and amiability, and possessing a close network of friends (105). 

Austen’s heroines, especially those who, like Fanny Price, Anne Elliot, and Elizabeth Bennet, are already virtuous when their novels begin, do not depend solely on their prospective husbands for moral goodness and happiness; they find fulfillment in their own independent happiness as well as in their eventual marital happiness.  Perhaps, then, the telos for Austen’s virtuous characters is not the acquisition of a spouse or attaining a certain state in marriage but instead a “way of existing in a kind of harmony with life as a whole” (Emsley 25).  The “final good” for Austen’s heroines is living life in such a way that one’s marriage, friends, financial affairs, and intellectual activity are unified into a happy whole. 

This idea is exemplified at the end of Mansfield Park, where Fanny Price finally appears to reach a state of happiness or human flourishing not just through her marriage to Edmund Bertram and those things that depend upon the marriage—her acquisition of the Mansfield parsonage as a home, her eventual financial independence, and her familial reconciliation—but also through her own actions.  Fanny finds pleasure and fulfillment in mentoring her sister Susan while at Portsmouth.  In advising Susan to restrain her temper and to have patience and tolerance, Fanny feels “the blessing of affection” and “the hope of being useful to a mind so much in need of help” (460).  Susan becomes a dear sister, friend, and confidante to Fanny.  Fanny then has “the happiness of observing [the] good effects” of her instruction (460) and ultimately the joy of seeing Susan established at Mansfield as a comfort to Lady Bertram.  Fanny also makes a place for herself at Mansfield and finds true happiness in being of service to her family there.  While she is at Portsmouth, she not only misses “all the pleasures of spring” at Mansfield and the “animation both of body and mind” that watching her aunt’s garden gave her, but she also longs “to be useful to those who were wanting her!” (500).  “Mansfield was home,” she thinks to herself (499).  Fanny comes to understand that she finds happiness in being useful to her aunts and uncle, in “supporting the spirits of her Aunt Bertram,” and saving them “some trouble of head or hand” (500). 

Austen’s heroine achieves eudaimonia not just through her marriage but through her establishing and recognizing her presence at Mansfield as a “general good” (501).  Fanny, like Catherine Morland, finds perfect happiness through “true merit and true love, and no want of fortune or friends” (547), some of which is the result of her marriage and some of which is the product of her own conduct and process of self-discovery.  Austen’s telos thus appears to be more feminine and domestic in nature than Aristotle’s in so far as it does not include public life or political concerns in this harmony of existence.  Her perspective centers on a similar kind of human flourishing and happiness as Aristotle’s, merely on a more limited scale.

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Even if Jane Austen never read Aristotle’s work, his ideas pervade the books she both read and wrote.  Understanding the key ways in which Jane Austen’s ethical ideas are similar to those put forward by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics affects both the way one reads Austen’s work and the way one understands Aristotle’s literary legacy.  Austen’s notions of virtue and morality—similar to Aristotle’s in so far as they presume a plurality of virtues akin to those stated in the Ethics, view the acquisition of virtue as a learning process involving constant practice, define virtue as a mean between two extremes, and adopt a teleological perspective whereby practicing virtue aims at a higher good—are decidedly classical in nature.  Though her virtues are more traditionally feminine, Christian, and domestically oriented than Aristotle’s, it would be incorrect to label Austen either a subversive feminist author or a straightforwardly conservative Christian author, as some readers have done.  Austen’s virtues are conservative in that they follow a precedent set by classical philosophy and incorporate elements of Christian theology, and they are also quite versatile, as is exemplified in Austen’s ability to rework them into a more limited female space in her novels.  By infusing classical Aristotelian virtues with a Christian and feminine sensibility, Austen gives her ethics a flexibility and adaptability that defies strict categorization.


1Gilbert Ryle and Sarah Emsley both argue that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers greatly influenced Austen’s ethics.  Ryle argues, “Jane Austen’s specific moral ideas derived, directly or indirectly, knowingly or unknowingly, from Shaftesbury” (298).  Emsley notes that while “it is possible that Austen read Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Chaucer, or Spenser on the virtues, she inherits the tradition of the classical and theological virtues primarily through her reading of and active engagement with the works of Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, and Henry Fielding” (12).  She also cites Mary DeForest’s argument that Austen “may in fact have had something of a classical education” and that she “probably did learn Greek and Latin from her father” and as a result “might have read Aristotle’s Ethics” (18).  David Gallop, quoting Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s assertion, “Every man is born an Aristotelian or a Platonist,” claims that Austen’s fiction “embodies an Aristotelian, rather than a Platonic, aesthetic” (96).  He concludes that if Austen were not consciously an Aristotelian, then “she must have been born one” (106). 

2While a number of scholars have written about Aristotle’s influence on Austen’s work, many have focused on specific similarities and correlations between Austen and Aristotle’s ethical theories rather than a more general comparison.  Emsley offers perhaps the most extensive comparison and analyzes the importance of both Aristotle’s philosophy and St. Thomas Aquinas’s theology in Austen’s theory of the virtues.  Gallop also presents a comprehensive comparison; he not only examines Austen’s ethics in comparison to Aristotle’s but also the way in which her fiction as a whole embodies an Aristotelian aesthetic.  Both Ryle and MacIntyre focus on Austen as a moralist who drew on classical philosophy, including Aristotle, for her ethical theories.  Various other writers, such as Anne Ruderman, John Ely, and Allan Bloom, also mention connections between Austen and Aristotle’s theories of morality, though not as extensively.

3Aristotle’s discussion of megalopsuchia (μεγαλοψυχία)—“greatness of soul,” “high mindedness” in Book Four of the Ethics—seems to be relevant only to men.  Megalopsuchia is considered the crowning ornament of virtue for the “proud man” (4.3), who is only concerned with great things and who enjoys a “superior position” (4.3) because of his wealth, power, and high birth.  Aristotle’s discussion, moreover, of certain material conditions necessary for the proper practice of virtue and a fully successful human life, mentioned later in this essay, seems to exclude anyone except wealthy, handsome, well-connected, and proud Greek males from the possibility of living the good life. 

4Ryle also notes that Northanger Abbey is “the one novel of six which does not have an abstract ethical theme for its backbone” (293).  While the novel is certainly more a parody of gothic romance than a serious ethical inquiry, Northanger Abbey does in fact raise questions about the process of attaining and practicing virtue.  Catherine Morland must go through an Aristotelian educational process about “how the actual world runs” (Ryle 293), and she must learn, much like Emma Woodhouse, how to interact in society with propriety, modesty, and good sense.  In fact, one of the most predominant themes in the novel is that of seeing people and situations clearly, not through a haze of preconception, naiveté, or runaway fancy. 

5I credit this insight regarding the palindromic nature of Emma’s name and personality to the initial reviewer of my essay for Persuasions On-Line

6The Online Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon defines eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία) as “prosperity, good fortune, opulence” or “true, full happiness.” As James Lesher states, many scholars, including J. L. Austin, have pointed out that eudaimonia means more than simply “happiness,” as it is often translated, since this translation wrongly implies that “achieving eudaimonia is a matter of acquiring a certain set of beliefs or feelings”; rather, the meaning of the word is “much closer to ‘success,’ ‘prospering,’ ‘flourishing,’ or ‘living well’” (108).  Lesher also notes that the adjective eudaimon (εύδαίμων), from which the noun is derived, literally means “‘under the protection of a benevolent deity’ and applies to persons who have lived a rich and rewarding life” (108).

Works Cited
  • Aristotle.  Nicomachean Ethics.  Trans. W. D. Ross.  The Internet Classics Archive: Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle.  2009.  31 Mar. 2015.
  • Austen, Jane.  The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen.  Gen. ed. Janet Todd.  Cambridge: CUP, 2005-08.
  • Bloom, Allan.  Love and Friendship.  New York: Simon, 1993.  191-208.
  • Bree, Linda.  “The literary context.”  The Cambridge Companion to Pride and Prejudice.  Ed. Janet Todd.  Cambridge: CUP, 2013.  55-66.
  • Ely, John.  “Jane Austen: A Female Aristotelian.”   Thesis Eleven 40.93 (1995): 93-118.
  • Emsley, Sarah.  Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues.  New York: Palgrave, 2005.
  • Gallop, David.  “Jane Austen and the Aristotelian Ethic.”  Philosophy and Literature 23.1 (1999): 96-109.
  • Lesher, James H.  The Greek Philosophers: Selected Greek Texts from the Presocratics, Plato, and Aristotle.  London: Bristol Classical P, 1998.
  • Liddell, H., and R. Scott.  LSJ: The Online Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon.  Thesaurus Linguae Graecae,  2009.  Web.  10 Apr. 2015. http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/lsj/#eid=1&context=lsj.
  • MacIntyre, Alasdair.  “From The Virtues to Virtue and after Virtue.”  After Virtue.  3rd ed.  Notre Dame: UNDP, 2007.  226-43.
  • Ruderman, Anne Crippen.  The Pleasures of Virtue: Political Thought in the Novels of Jane Austen.  Lanham: Rowman, 1995.
  • Ryle, Gilbert.  “Jane Austen and the Moralists.”  1966.  Collected Papers: Critical Essays.  New York: Routledge, 2009.  286-301.
  • White, Laura Mooneyham.  Jane Austen’s Anglicanism.  Burlington: Ashgate, 2011.
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