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Carol S. Gould PLATO, GEORGE ELIOT, AND MORAL NARCISSISM George Eliot in Middlemarch charts the course of various shipwrecked lives. Like many philosophers, she explores the terrain of human happiness, looking for the constituents of the good life and the properties of a character disposed to live such a life. The moral lodestar of the novel is Dorothea Brooke, an idealistic young woman who enters a disastrous first marriage to Casaubon, an emotionally paralyzed, ineffectual scholar whom she has deified. Eliot chronicles, among other things, Dorothea's moral education, which enables her to flourish socially and affectively, and not incidentally, to make a far happier second marriage. Eliot deems egoism as the greatest obstacle to human happiness. Egoism, for Eliot, not only assumes different forms, but occurs in varying degrees of recalcitrancy in her characters. As Peter Jones shows in his rich philosophical study of Middlemarch, Eliot takes egoism to involve not only ascribingvalue to things in the world, but also describing them, so that her egoist both characterizes and evaluates the world from the vantage point of his own desires.1 In part because Eliot views the human being as a member of a social organism, she thinks that the failure to transcend one's idiosyncratic perspective dooms one to unhappiness . Thus, a necessarycondition for well-being, on Eliot's account, is to try to view the world from the perspective of another person.2 She shows this not only by depicting the lives of her characters who collide and drift apart with different levels ofself-awareness, but also by having her shrewd omniscient narrator disinterestedly occupy a multiplicity of standpoints. This narrative device displays the relation between a character 's point of view and his perceptions, while providing us with a model of perception untainted by egoism. The most poignant of tragedies in Middlemarch is that of Dr. Lydgate, 24 Carol S. Gould25 whose impulsive marriage to the vacuous, ornamental Rosamond destroys his hopes for a brilliant research career. During their courtship he boasts that he never reads literature, for he had read enough as a boy to last him his life.3 Lydgate here lacks self-knowledge. Eliot often indicates the necessity of self-knowledge for virtue and of sympathy with others for self-knowledge. Ironically, self-knowledge liberates us from our egoism. This process, on her reckoning, engages our imagination . The literary artist, in whom this faculty is highly refined, can help us cultivate ours, as well. Thus, for Eliot, literature can be an effective instrument for our moral improvement. Plato agrees with Eliot that egoism is one of the chief impediments to human happiness. In the Republic he argues that the various sorts of nonphilosophical souls (who correspond to some varieties of her egoist) are nothing ifnot wretched. Given Eliot's depiction of the power of literature to release us from our narcissistic misery, one is alarmed to see Plato denouncing literature as morally harmful, and indeed to find one of his most sustained and subtle attacks in Book 10, right on the heels of Book 9, in which he vividly draws the dictatorial soul—the most unrestrained of egoists. At the close of his indictment of poetry (607e) he acknowledges its seductive beauty, but counsels us to avoid it as we should a magnetic, tormenting lover. In Books 2 and 3 of the Republic he objects to most poetry of his tradition because, as a matter of fact, it expresses philosophical falsehoods .4 In Book 10, however, he aims at the very practice of literature, arguing that it is dangerous in principle, not just in fact. He raises a question in Book 10, which, to my knowledge, commentators have not considered. This question is whether the poet's necessary attention to perspective commits him and leads the audience to moral subjectivism.5 Both Plato and Eliot are moral realists. In spite of the differences in their versions of realism, they share a belief about the nature of human flourishing. They both take perspective as essential to literature. Yet their conclusions about the role of literature in our moral lives could not be more opposed. Although a thorough examination of their competing approaches goes beyond...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 24-39
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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