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Martha Nussbaum and the Moral Life of Middlemarch
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Martha Nussbaum and the Moral Life of Middlemarch

We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves.

George Eliot, Middlemarch


As is well known to readers of this journal, Martha Nussbaum emphasizes in her essays on fiction as moral philosophy that the philosophical significance of novels is found, not in whatever theories or principles they might overtly discuss or dramatize, but in their literary form and their prose style. In particular, she finds in the late novels of Henry James an alternative to the reductive, pseudoscientific prose of contemporary analytic philosophy, which she argues inhibits the range of possible answers to the basic ethical question "How should one live?"1 James's prose shows "attention to particulars, a respect for the emotions, and a tentative and non-dogmatic attitude to the bewildering multiplicities of life" (LK, p. 27), and thus it exemplifies the Aristotelian ethical conception she advocates.

In this essay I want to disentangle Nussbaum's theory of the ethical significance of fictional form—which I endorse—from her preoccupation [End Page 190] with James—which I do not. Far from being, as she believes, egalitarian, humane, and morally responsible, the Jamesian consciousness Nussbaum would have us emulate is elitist, exclusionary, and morally inert; further, in its commitment to indeterminacy, mystery, and obscurity, the Jamesian model is in fact profoundly anti-philosophical.2 I propose instead George Eliot's Middlemarch as exemplary of fiction's potential contribution to "the job of moral philosophy" (LK, p. 138). Nussbaum may admire the subtlety and density of The Golden Bowl, but I will argue that in its narrative strategies and its integration of novelistic perception and philosophic reflection, Middlemarch proves a better ethical guide and a better example of literature that is also philosophy.

In making this argument, I will rely on the terms set by Nussbaum herself for the ethical evaluation of fiction. Unlike other philosophers who invoke literature only as a "rich source of examples awaiting illumination by philosophy," Nussbaum insists that analysis of a text's literary properties is the essential methodology of ethical criticism.3 Every aspect of form and style "expresses a sense of life and of value, a sense of what matters and what does not" (LK, p.5). We discover this "sense of life" through close reading; "our engaged experience line by line," as Wayne Booth says, reveals the character of the implied author, the would-be friend urging on us a particular "pattern of desires."4

On Nussbaum's reading, James's prose is ethically exemplary because it is "the prose of Aristotelian perception":

It depicts in its cadences the moral effort of straining to see correctly and to come up with the appropriate picture or description; its tensions, obliquities, and circumnavigations express the sheer difficulty of finding the right description or picture for what is there before one. If, as James says, to "put" is to "do," showing this is showing moral activity of a valuable kind.

(LK, p. 88)

But Nussbaum ends up at James because her alternative moral theory begins there, not because moral philosophy that is literary inevitably sounds like James or supports Aristotle.5 As Nussbaum's gestures towards a more general theory of the role of "the novel" in philosophy indicate, novels may share generic features which complement or correct conventional philosophical discourse, but investigating other novels in this way may also lead us to other, non-Aristotelian, non-Jamesian ethical conceptions. My commentary on Middlemarch presents one such alternative. First, however, I will consider our "engaged experience" of The [End Page 191] Golden Bowl, a key example for Nussbaum, to show more particularly why we ought to be cautious about accepting James's late style as exemplary for moral philosophy, despite Nussbaum's passionate advocacy. What kind of friend do we meet there, in that world full of indeterminacy, obliquity, and circumnavigation? What kind of guidance in practical reasoning do we get from this implied author—what "ought" emerges from the Jamesian "is"?

Perhaps because, as Nussbaum admits, her work on fiction as moral philosophy emerged "out of a longstanding love" for The...