- Jane Austen and the Aristotelian Ethic
Every man is born an Aristotelian or a Platonist. I don’t think it possible that anyone born an Aristotelian can become a Platonist; and I am sure no born Platonist can ever change into an Aristotelian. They are the two classes of men, beside which it is next to impossible to conceive a third.S. T. Coleridge
Coleridge’s often-quoted remark is recorded in his Table Talk for July 2, 1830, almost thirteen years after Jane Austen died. 1 He is reported to have admired her. 2 Yet as an artist, she could be said to have blown his dichotomy clean out of the water. For she had much in common with Plato and Aristotle. Like the former, she created a gallery of sharply individuated portraits with astounding dramatic realism. Her figures, like many of Plato’s, illustrate abstract concepts that are the prime focus of attention, as reflected in three of their titles. All her major novels display, like several of Plato’s dialogues, personal growth in their central figures. As in certain Platonic characters, a crucial part is played by self-knowledge or lack of it, and progress towards it inspires a benevolent, eventually mutual, love. 3 Also, like Plato the dramatist, Jane Austen is an ironist rather than a didactic writer. Her readers are less often told what to think than left to draw their own conclusions. And her irony, like Plato’s, can be merciless.
On the other hand, her fiction embodies an Aristotelian, rather than a Platonic, aesthetic. For Aristotle, poetic fiction was not, as it had once [End Page 96] been for Plato, the archenemy of philosophy, but was to be seen, rather, as its ally. 4 So too Jane Austen, in Northanger Abbey (pp. 37–38; 108–9) and elsewhere, 5 staunchly defends a fictional genre, the novel, while playfully satirizing certain kinds of historical writing. All six of her novels achieve, with incomparable beauty and subtlety, exactly the purpose that Aristotle assigned to fiction, when he too contrasted it with history (Poetics, chaps. 9, 23). Through the causally structured nexus of events that we call a plot, fiction illustrates generalizations about human character and conduct. “Fiction,” wrote Aristotle, “is more philosophical and more serious than history”: more philosophical because it points towards general truths of the sort pursued in philosophy and the sciences; and more serious, because—to speak vaguely for the moment—it appeals to our feelings as well as our intellects. It speaks to us not only as thinking beings, but as practical and moral agents. In that sense, a sparkling romantic comedy with a happy ending can be no less “serious” than the grimmest of classical tragedies. Nor does it matter if the former is written in prose, for Aristotle treats poetic meter and diction as merely cosmetic, peripheral to fiction’s central purpose (Poetics 1447b9–20; 1449b25,28; 1450b16; 1451a38–b4).
It is true that novels generally mix narrative with direct speech. They may therefore seem to breach Aristotle’s precept that the composer of fiction, as a mimetic artist, “should say as little as possible in his own right” (1460a7–8). That puzzling text is often taken to suggest an unduly narrow view of mimesis, by restricting it to passages in oratio recta. 6 And although Jane Austen is unsurpassed as a creator of dialogue, her narrative voice admittedly tells us far more about her characters, and her attitudes to them, than their words alone would convey. She achieves some of her most delicious effects by placing words or thoughts in reported speech, thus filtering them through the narrator’s ironic perspective. But Aristotle’s dominant concept of mimesis is broad enough to cover novels, for it includes narrative as well as oratio recta (1448a20–21; 1449b9–12; 1459a17). Both drama and narrated epic give pleasure because we can draw inferences from them (1448b16–17; Rh.1371b9–10), and thereby recognize them as faithful to our experience of human life and conduct. As an early reviewer of Jane Austen justly observed, “We know not whether Miss Austen ever had access to the precepts of Aristotle, but there...