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James L. Kastely PERSUASION: JANE AUSTEN'S PHILOSOPHICAL RHETORIC Persuasionopens with Anne Elliot, who should be valued by anyone with genuine discernment, displaced from the Elliot family circle by the sycophantic and ambitious Mrs. Clay, who has become the intimate companion of Elizabeth. As Elizabeth confides to Mrs. Clay, "Anne is nothing to me."1 And Anne will remain nobody as long as she is confined to the vapid and vain society ofthe Elliots. For what Kellynch cannot give Anne is the conversation that will nourish her intelligence and imagination and will allow the expression and reciprocation of her passion. Without such conversation, she will continue to wither, as she has done for the seven years following her broken engagement to Wentworth. To have a chance at the life that she merits, Anne must create a new community, and she must create this community in a situation in which any direct communication of her passion has been foreclosed. Unlike the deconstructive rhetorics that see the problems of discourse to follow from deluded attempts to achieve a final closure, Austen confronts the devastation that attends to a discoursive creature who can find no community to respond to. For Austen this is the form that nihilism takes as a philosophic problem, and her solution will be to recover rhetoric as the art of community. Anne's search for community is a search for her Other. The problem is not simply that such Others are rarely available, but that because we are creatures of passion, we often attach ourselves accidentally to the wrong partners. Austen emphasizes the role of accidental attachment by ending Persuasion with the assertion that the reality of passionate relationships runs counter to any ethical theory arguing for a rational basis for marriage: "When any two young people take it into their heads Philosophy and Literature, © 1991, 15: 74-88 James L. Kastely75 to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other's ultimate comfort. This may be bad morality to conclude with, but I believe it to be truth" (p. 233). If selves are inherently social, then one's identity is inescapably tied to those Others with whom one is most intimately associated. When those Others are trivial, one's own self is inevitably diminished. An inadvertent inauthenticity becomes the fate ofthose non-reflective characters who live in communities in which the other characters are not their equals. In a novel that acknowledges that most marriages are products ofaccident, the marriage ofMary Elliot and Charles Musgrove shows why an intelligent character might choose to remain single rather than condemn himself or herself to an existence based on an escape from an adult world. Their marriage embodies the ethical loss that follows upon an accidental attachment, and it inverts the novel's ideal ofmarriage as a continuing conversation between equals. For Mary and Charles are not equals, and in the absence of an equality capable of promoting a sharing and consequent growth, Mary has retreated to hypochondria, and Charles into triviality, his only serious pursuits being recreational. In a world in which accidental attachment plays such a determinative role, it would seem reasonable to value prudence, but Austen is more concerned with the dangers of over-valuing prudence than with those occasioned by its absence.2 Anne's prudence has led to a severely diminished life that has left her intellectually and passionately malnourished . For if prudence minimizes the possibility of a misstep, it does so by offering only a defensive strategy for living. The alternative offered by a purely prudential universe is one of human detachment, a truth that experience has taught Anne: "She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older—the natural sequence of an unnatural beginning" (p. 33). Austen's concern with the over-valuing of prudence is reminiscent of Plato's Phaedrus, which, as Martha Nussbaum has argued, inquires into eros as a viable philosophical motive.3 In Phaedrus Lysias, in the guise of the non-lover, supposedly not moved by passion, argues that a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 74-88
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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