Jane Austen's Aristotelian Proposal:Sometimes Falling in Love Is Better Than a Beating
Aristotle suggests that we improve by beating those immune to argument, thus connecting doing wrong with feeling pain, and, as Plato suggests in his Gorgias, justly correcting the injustice in their souls. Since, however, the beaten offender lacks choice in the punishment, and is not thereby shown better options, beating cannot make him virtuous. Only virtuous friendship could do that, but vice prevents both recognizing and attracting virtuous friends. Falling in love, though, as suggested by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice, provides our perception a flexibility that facilitates character improvement, and the rarity of an appropriate spouse can motivate its accomplishment.
Aristotle wrote his Nicomachean Ethics as a rational guide to virtuous activity for those people who have been well brought up and are interested in improving themselves.1 For the rest of us, Aristotle suggests that beating is the only solution (NE X.9.1179b23–31). In this essay, I shall first use Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, supplemented by Plato's Gorgias, to provide a defense (more thorough than what Aristotle provides) of beating as a way to intrude concerns of character conversion upon the attention of people impervious to argument. Closer analysis, though, shows that beating is not enough. The person beaten makes no choices in the beating and is presented with no alternative options for future actions. We need concrete interaction with virtuous friends to actually improve character. But vicious people have trouble both recognizing and attracting virtuous friends. This is the unfortunate situation [End Page 195] in which Aristotle's explicit evaluation leaves us. Jane Austen, however, in her Pride and Prejudice, demonstrates, by an uncannily Aristotelian analysis,2 that falling in love can more effectively intrude concerns for character conversion upon those otherwise inattentive. Falling in love accomplishes this by guiding their attention and heightening their motives to effect the necessary virtuous friendship.
I would like to begin by seriously evaluating beating as a pedagogical tool. In Book X, Aristotle explains that some people are so ruled by emotion (X.9.1179b11–16) that, just as uncultivated land cannot foster seed (X.9.1179b23–26), they cannot understand, or even listen to, arguments (X.9.1179b26–29). Beating is all that remains.
So, what are the problems with vicious people that beating might correct? Because they are ruled by their emotions, they pursue the pleasures they are able to perceive and avoid the opposing pains. These determine most decisions about what to do in a given situation, for "it is pleasure that makes us do base actions and pain that prevents us from doing noble actions" (NE II.3.1104b9–11).
Aristotle identifies two related problems in this respect. First, vicious people aim at the wrong target. A vicious person, like everyone else, aims at happiness. The problem is that his motivating conception of happiness turns out not to be the happiness Aristotle claims will satisfy his deepest desire. The person aiming at the wrong image takes pleasure in what lines up with this (wrong) target and feels pain at missing it. For example, if he aims at honor, he feels pleasure at being praised and pain when he is not.
But even his effective actions will consistently result in his dissatisfaction, since none of those goals can fully satisfy his most basic desire for happiness. And since, again following Aristotle, the only thing that can sufficiently satisfy this desire is "excellent activity (in all areas of one's life) governed by reason over a complete life with sufficient external goods" (NE I.7–8), pursuing anything else will leave the seeker vicious and, ultimately, dissatisfied. He will devote his time to garnering public approval, and find himself, at last, without either honor or happiness.
The second, and related, problem for vicious people is that they feel pleasure and pain at the wrong things, to the wrong degree, at the wrong time, etc. Instead of feeling a little nervous about a thunderstorm and the risk of lightning, the person feels terrified. Instead of ice cream being a pleasant accompaniment to a dinner conversation with a friend, wanting more ice cream consumes more of his attention than does his companion's concern about the philosopher king returning to the cave. [End Page 196]
These may seem trivial, but we too rarely hear that one can, and usually does, fall into sin without noticing.3 We trivialize to our peril. If we really thought what we were doing was wicked (I have to agree with Socrates here), we would, at the very least, be much less likely to do it.
If we consider the implications of these apparently trivial examples, it is soon evident what dangerous habits they in fact are. If my desire for ice cream distracts me from my friend's concern about the injustice of the philosopher king being sent back down into the cave, I will not benefit from her counsel, but nor will I notice her tendency to misrepresent the text. My evaluation of her character will thus be compromised. And, if I cannot attend to the gripping problem of injustice necessitated by the ideal city Socrates proposes, how will I notice injustices not so clearly presented?
Desire for pleasure and fear of pain effectively ensnare the attention of the vicious person. The target at which he aims orients him incorrectly, such that he feels pleasure and pain misleadingly. The compelling force of the resultant pleasure and pain perpetuate his vice while protecting him from noticing it.
So, given this, how might beating help? The short answer is that, by beating an offender, we connect the experience of acting viciously with pain instead of pleasure. He cannot notice the harm vice causes his soul because his confidence in his delusory object obscures his real desires for good. If we can communicate to his reason-impervious mind that wickedness is genuinely harmful by connecting it with straightforward physical pain, perhaps we can educate him to turn from vice to virtue by teaching him "to feel pleasure and pain at the proper things" (NE II.3.1104b11–13).4
Aristotle insists that the governing emotion of vicious people, this slavish pursuit of the wrong pleasures and avoidance of the wrong pains, "does not yield to argument but only to force" (NE X.9.1179b29). He presents some positions given by Plato (in his Protagoras and Laws), one of which proposes that such a person must be "corrected by pain like a beast of burden. For the same reason, they say that the pains inflicted must be those that are most directly opposed to the pleasures he loves" (X.9.1180a11–14). Why? Because "punishment is a kind of medical treatment and it is the nature of medical treatments to take effect through the introduction of the opposite of the disease" (II.3.1104b17–18).
Aristotle first addresses this in the context of raising children. To repair vice, they must develop self-control (sōphrosunē) with respect to pleasure, and tenacity (karteria) with respect to pain. But children find [End Page 197] these unpleasant (NE X.9.1179b32–34). They would prefer more cookies and less spinach. Parents must, therefore, cause them pain when children either indulge in cookies or refuse their nourishing spinach. Over time, children become familiar with these governing regulations and no longer find them painful (X.9.1179b35–1180a1).
But this painful punishment through child-rearing does not ensure good habits in adulthood, nor can we presume all children will be raised well (X.9.1180a1–5). Painful punishment of adults must remain socially operative as both a corrective and a deterrent.
Following Aristotle's turn to Plato's positions, I now turn to Plato's Gorgias for a more detailed assessment of why painful punishment might be effective in character conversion.5
Socrates argues, in his dispute with Polus, that, just as when someone cuts, something is cut, so, too, this reproduction of an action in the recipient means that the soul of the person justly punished will be cleansed of vice.6 In this argument, Socrates establishes that doing wrong is uglier than suffering it (Grg. 471–75). And since things are uglier either by exceeding in pain or in evil, but doing wrong does not exceed in terms of pain, it must exceed in terms of evil. When a wrongdoer is punished justly, the just act is, to follow Socrates's argument, beautiful. This means that the corresponding suffering, as beautiful, is either pleasant or beneficial. Since suffering painful punishment is clearly not pleasant, it must be beneficial.
An ugly act is thus repaired by a beautiful act. The wrongdoer who does not feel the pain he should when doing evil is brought to feel the proper pain by just punishment. Those who childishly flee this painful punishment Socrates compares to cowardly children who flee the painful cauterization and knife by which they could be healed (Grg. 479). They "try to escape justice . . . [because they] perceive its painful element, but are blind to its utility and ignorant of how much more wretched it is to associate with an unhealthy soul than with an unsound body" (479). But the proper punishment serves to make the person's crimes manifest and prevents the wrongdoer from satisfying her inappropriate desires (480, 505).7
Beating thus seems able to provide an unavoidable correlation between doing wrong and feeling pain, coupled with a forceful restriction of the satisfaction of those desires that vitiate the person's character. So long as the forceful punishment is consistently administered, it can protect its beneficiary from further corruption and perhaps, in the best-case scenario, permanently interrupt the deadly lure of wicked pleasure. [End Page 198]
I promptly see two reasons, though, to suspect this claim that painful punishment can effect justice in the soul of its recipient. The first arises directly from analysis of Socrates's argument. If it were the case that the justly punished person has the injustice in her soul corrected by just punishment, analogical consistency would require that a person punished unjustly would correspondingly have vice introduced into her soul. There might be some reasons to think unjust punishment could lead to vice. But if Socrates conceded this, his whole argument about suffering unjustly being less evil than either suffering justly or acting unjustly would fall apart, since the argument hinges on preserving justice in the soul of the person unjustly punished, in contradistinction to destroying it in the soul of the unjust agent.
My other source of reluctance is a conversation I had with a woman who educates local prisoners.8 She explained to me that most prisoners do not understand their punishments as just. They see relentless evidence of corruption in our legal and penal systems (and perhaps have some inkling of Foucault's insight that justice is not even the primary project of our penal system). This obscures any sense that their specific punishments might actually be justly fitted to their crimes. They presume the injustice they observe to be the rule, and do not easily notice exceptions. Only when prisoners' minds are engaged in reasoning, she said, do they start to understand that what they have done is somehow harmful in a way that goes beyond their having gotten caught and punished.
These are two reasons to doubt the efficacy of beating disconnected from reason. I would now like to provide two different explanations for this ineffectiveness that arise from careful consideration of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.
First, there is an inherent lack of choice in punishment. But Aristotle establishes in Books II and III of his Nicomachean Ethics that choice is necessary for ethical activity. Excellence of character requires that its potentate deliberate about the full particulars of the situation until she can clearly see how the correct action lines up with her desired goal, and, on the basis of that, act. Only this way can her actions become habitually directed effectively toward accomplishing her desired object. If someone carries me kicking and screaming away from my writing desk, it may check my career as a prolific scholar, but it will not help me recognize when my tedious prose has robbed even my generous audience of interest.
The most that the recipient's choice could be involved in punishment would be some sort of voluntary assent to the punishment—perhaps [End Page 199] even what Socrates advocates in the Gorgias: racing to get punished when you have committed a crime (Grg. 480). This choice of punishment itself might suffice to allow the punishment's particulars to pierce the person's habits and reach her intellect.
The second account I would offer for the ineffectiveness of beating in character conversion is that, even if the beating somehow connects the vicious act and its painful consequence, the most it has shown is what not to do. It does not show what to do in a similar situation. Since character conversion requires the person to choose a different act in a similar situation, merely eliminating possible choices is not enough. Even if she is convinced that repeating the previous action is wrong, failing to imagine a different, better action might very well lead her, even if reluctant, back to the familiar inadequate solution. Ruling out an option does not change the person's more pervasive habitual desires, nor does it provide effective ways of navigating those desires. A coach who merely yells at his players not to pass the ball badly does not end up with a team of effective ball passers.
So, beating, while it can, at best, evince a correlation between the pain of the punishment and the wrong of the original misdeed, its effectiveness is optimal in people who are already rationally engaged in their character conversion, and it can only eliminate wrong options rather than providing right ones.
The two earlier problems remain. Vicious people still aim at the wrong target, and they still feel pleasure and pain incorrectly, even if just punishment can, as discussed above, intrude upon their attention and form some tentative links between what is wicked and what is painful.
A central impediment to character conversion, given these two problems, is that your current ethical character tends to feel compellingly right to you. Just as you cannot effectively pursue wisdom until you know that you do not know, you will not effectively seek happiness until you realize you are not yet good. The vices that Aristotle so carefully identifies in the various given realms of our lives are not visible to us as such. Life does not present itself to us with reliable labels of "recklessness," "cowardice," or "courage." We have to rely on our community's conversations to discover how the various activities we witness fit into these designations. And, given the prevalence of vice, this is very, very difficult.
To those of us who are cowards, for example, making philosophical claims in front of other scholars seems genuinely scary. The fear does not present itself as inappropriate. I might agree theoretically. I might even want to change. But when I am facing dragons again (in the form [End Page 200] of scholars I respect), I am not thereby going to stand and fight. I am probably going to flee. Or, in the relevant case, keep my mouth shut. I do not yet have the stability of character to uphold my tenuous convictions in the face of genuine fear.9
To become more virtuous, Aristotle says, you must aim for the opposite extreme in the relevant realm as a way of countering inappropriate feelings while moving closer to virtue (NE II.9.1109a30–b27). I must make public claims that feel wildly reckless if I am to act my way into courageous academic conversation. But I need something more precise than aiming at the opposite extreme to effectively guide me to virtue, just as I realized in assessing the limitations of just punishment that negative insights do not yield positive possibilities.
Aristotle acknowledges and solves this problem simultaneously. The thing that constitutes "just and self-controlled [acts is] when they are the kind of acts which a just or self-controlled man would perform" (NE II.4.1105b5–7). We need to know both what the just person would do and how, as a just person, she would do it. If I have a concrete model, I do not have to merely aim in or away from a direction; I have instead someone specific to whom I can look, and with whom I can consult, in deciding what to do.
But this only seems to solve the problem until you set out to find a virtuous person and realize you feel drawn to people startlingly like yourself. But becoming friends with people who are like you in vice does as much damage as virtuous friendship does good. It cements the bad habits you have by depleting your concrete imagination and by locking up your time, filled with now-shared vicious activities. You feel your social needs increasingly met, which is a powerful external good, and you consolidate your misleading natural conviction that you are both "basically decent."
You may admire Aragorn in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings when he leads the remaining armies of men against the evil forces of Mordor, but faced with him on the train, you would be more likely to move a few seats away and send a text message to tell your friend than to strike up a friendly conversation.
But analysis of Aristotle's text shows that for your imitation of the virtuous person to be effective, you need to develop some kind of friendship with him. This works because a virtuous friend becomes a sort of second self (NE IX.4.1166a31–32), a person for whom you want the good, and through whom you can see what is good and your own good more clearly. Reading about Viggo Mortensen (who played the [End Page 201] role) in the tabloids will not make you more like Tolkien's Aragorn. Literature can help by giving us some access to character models, but it does not eliminate the real need for recognizing virtuous people and getting close to them, engaging them in the concrete deliberations, struggles, and joys of your daily life.10
But does Aristotle think that this is even possible? Can we recognize who is virtuous and become close to these people? Certainly not on our own merits. As Aristotle assures us, "Good men alone can be friends on the basis of what they are" (NE VIII.4.1157a18–19). Those who are not good cannot themselves be stable objects of affection. Instead, they are only desired for what pleasure or benefit they might occasion. Someone not already virtuous simply does not deserve the friendship and affection of someone who is virtuous.
Aristotle does, however, admit that all kinds of friendship allow for a certain inequality (NE VIII.13), which is balanced in the virtuous friendship by the better person receiving more honor and affection.11 Unequal friendships structured by virtue are either based on some respect for the less virtuous person because of a previous virtuous friendship (IX.3), or on some clear promise she has displayed of becoming virtuous, which a more virtuous person hopes to realize in her. But if we can hope for friendship with virtuous people only on the grounds of either desert or clear evidence that improvement is possible, most of us have pretty minimal possibilities of becoming better.
Aristotle does not give us much more than this as hope for character improvement, and we are left with beating and its inherent problems. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, however, seamlessly supplements Aristotle's account on this crucial point. She shows how falling in love can convert to virtuous friendships characters otherwise likely to remain blinded in vice.
In Austen's novel, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet are the most virtuous characters presented. There remains, however, a serious disparity, not only between them and complete virtue, but also between the two of them. The scene in which Austen presents Darcy's proposal of marriage to Elizabeth clearly articulates how unlikely is a virtuous friendship between them, and starts the mutual character conversion that leads to their ultimate friendship.
First, neither meets Aristotle's criteria of complete virtue. Elizabeth articulates to Mr. Darcy her concerns about his character as follows: [End Page 202]
From the very beginning, from the first moment, I may almost say, of my acquaintance with you, your manners impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain for the feelings of others, were such as to form that groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.12
She accuses him, in Aristotelian terms, of vanity (khaunotês), claiming more worth and attendant honor than he deserves, and of being quarrelsome (duseris), utterly lacking concern about causing pain to others (NE IV.3 and IV.6). His awkwardly offensive marriage proposal likely renders him guilty of also lacking wittiness (eutrapelos), that is, socially appropriate discourse (IV.8). A careful analysis of his actions and reputation show that he is only vain insofar as he fails, though only around strangers, to be friendly or witty.
Darcy claims, in one of the most unexpected marriage proposals in all literature, to love Elizabeth "against [his] will, against [his] reason, and even against [his] character" (p. 162). Careful evaluation of Elizabeth shows that she demonstrates much of her father's apathy and preference for laughing at others, rather than attempting to correct them. She is herself fairly quarrelsome (as demonstrated in her response to him and in her regular insistence on speaking her mind without thought for others' feelings), and we come to realize that her judgments of others are blinded by vanity.
Let us focus on her vanity, since this emphasizes the central impediment to Aristotelian character conversion identified earlier: her blindness to her actual character flaws, which blindness protects her from repairing them.13 Three examples from Austen's text show how blinded Elizabeth is in the character judgments on which she prides herself.
The first example of Elizabeth's vanity blinding her judgment is her assessment of the characters of Mr. Wickham and Mr. Darcy. Having been initially flattered by Wickham's early attentions to her (p. 66), she grows to consider him "her model of the amiable and pleasing" (p. 130). Her dislike of Darcy, on the other hand, originates in his injuring her pride with his belittling of her beauty (pp. 12, 19). She thus is governed by errors in her feeling of pleasure and pain to trust entirely Wickham's account of Darcy's injustice to him.
Only after Darcy's letter does she come to notice the clear inappropriateness and inconsistency of Wickham's account and behavior.14 She [End Page 203] did not notice how much her flattered vanity and its attendant pleasure governed her perception. To her, as a quarrelsome person, Wickham's obsequiousness seemed friendly (see NE II.8 and IV.6).
The second example of Elizabeth's character blindness is her unnoticed inconsistency in judging Mr. Bingley. While a guest at his home, she praises his proposed willingness to be swayed by friends to yield without argument to their requests (pp. 42–44). When, however, he later is precisely so swayed by Darcy and his sisters to remain in London rather than return to Netherfield and her sister, "she could not think without anger, hardly without contempt, on that easiness of temper, that want of proper resolution which now made him the slave of his designing friends, and led him to sacrifice his own happiness to the caprice of their inclinations" (pp. 115–16). In the former situation, her pleasure in his agreeableness and expressed interest in her sister prompted her to consider good the very characteristic that her later disappointment at her sister's resultant pain prompted her to consider despicable.
The third example of this blindness is her flagrant inconsistency in judging oppositely two quite similar situations. She judges Charlotte harshly for scheming to marry Mr. Collins for the financial and social security it will bring her. By contrast, she considers Mr. Wickham's decision to transfer his attentions from herself to Miss King, in pursuit of the latter's recent inheritance of ten thousand pounds, reasonable and prudent.
She laughs off Wickham's defection, claiming "that handsome men must have something to live on, as well as the plain" (p. 129). But her response to Charlotte is scathing. While she, as Austen puts it, "had always felt that Charlotte's opinion of matrimony was not exactly like her own, . . . she could not have supposed it possible that when called into action, she would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage" (p. 109). Elizabeth considers this act of Charlotte's to destroy any real confidence between them in future (p. 109) and to radically undermine some of the most basic moral distinctions (p. 117)—this, despite the marriage procuring Charlotte a stable situation that would be otherwise unlikely.
Austen's explanation of this notable discrepancy seems to be articulated in the lines preceding Elizabeth's praise of Wickham's choice: "Her heart had been but slightly touched, and her vanity was satisfied with believing that she would have been his only choice, had fortune permitted it" (p. 129). This, coupled with the contextualization of her remarks about Charlotte's choice, gives us good insight into what is [End Page 204] actually governing Elizabeth's judgment. Wickham's behavior gratifies her vanity. Charlotte's, however, by directly opposing Elizabeth's own choice and convictions in the matter, pains her.
Rather than subjecting her own conviction to further evaluation through discussion with her friend, she dismisses Charlotte in favor of retaining her conviction unquestioned. When her aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, later proposes that she reconsider her evaluation of Wickham's choice, Elizabeth promptly dismisses her concern. Elizabeth's blindness is inveterate. She tends to think well of those who please her or flatter her vanity, and badly of those who pain her or challenge her confidence. But she remains convinced that she is an excellent judge of character, and continues confidently asserting her judgments to vanishingly rare opposition.
Because Austen wrote the story from Elizabeth's perspective rather than Darcy's, we have less available evidence of his blindness. We do have, however, in their second proposal scene, his self-report of his previous blindness. He recognizes then that his behavior to Elizabeth was marked by that quarrelsomeness of which she accused him. He admits to having, without realizing it, grown up selfish and overbearing, concerned only with those of his family circle (pp. 307–8). "Such I was," he acknowledges, "from eight to eight and twenty; and such I might still have been but for you" (p. 308).
While Elizabeth's high status within her circle and her careful self-protection from uncomfortable correction render her unlikely to change, Darcy holds an even higher status, both externally and within his own social circle. Those close to him admire him, flatter him, and are intimidated by him. In fact, the only person we see not too intimidated by Darcy to give him advice is his aunt, who, even more quarrelsome than he is, would only be able to make him less, rather than more, attentive to the feelings of others. So, by Aristotle's model, Darcy is well protected from that character improvement by which he might become fully virtuous.
Of the people who surround Elizabeth, the only ones who attempt to correct her biased judgments are her mother, Jane, Charlotte, and Mrs. Gardiner. Mrs. Gardiner and Charlotte seem the two most likely to be able to give helpful counsel to Elizabeth.15 (Charlotte, for example, has insisted that she is misjudging Darcy and enjoined her not to be foolishly rude to him, two pieces of advice that would have helped improve Elizabeth's character.) We have seen, though, in the analysis above, that when she dislikes their judgments, she dismisses them by [End Page 205] convincing herself they do not merit her respect. Elizabeth is also, thus, unlikely to improve.
So, neither of them is fully virtuous. Both are blind to their flaws. And both are effectively immune to the advice by which they might be corrected. A virtuous friendship between them seems, by Aristotle's criteria, quite unlikely.
Their initial assessment of each other is such as to render them solidly disinterested in whatever advice the other might proffer. They do not move (except somewhat incidentally) in the same social circles, so no friendship of pleasure or utility is likely to bring them into closer intimacy. In fact, the only thing that brings them into contact after Bingley has deserted Netherfield is Charlotte's connection to Darcy's aunt, secured through the very marriage Elizabeth despises.
Austen, however, manages to get Elizabeth and Darcy closer to each other than prudence would predict, and thereby, in this case,16 closer to virtue. And she does this by using the expedient of falling in love. I shall present here an Aristotelian account of why this falling in love can succeed where beating or other attempts fail.
I take there to be three main Aristotelian constituents that motivate such conversions: the rarity of virtuous friends, the even greater rarity of virtuous potential spouses, and our relentlessly social situatedness.
Aristotle explains how rare virtuous friends are. It does not, he says first of all, "easily happen that there are many people who are good" (NE VIII.6.1158a13–14). Then, one must also have spent a significant amount of time with such a virtuous person such that one "comes to be familiar with him" (VIII.6.1158a15). This requires them to "have eaten the specified [measure of] salt together," because they must both be "worthy of affection and know this to be so" (VIII.3.1156b25–31; brackets in original). Virtuous friends must also be able to live "in each other's company," that is, share each other's days and "joys and sorrows" (IX.10.1171a4–10), since "nothing characterizes friends as much as [this]" (VIII.5.1157b19). We can only have as many friends as we can share our lives with.
While Charlotte and Jane are likely to meet this requirement of significant shared experience with Elizabeth, and Bingley and Colonel Fitzwilliam are likely to meet it with Darcy, the fact that none of these friends is fully good means that they cannot meet the requirements of virtuous friendship. Instead, to the degree these people are not virtuous, these friendships are based either on family or on utility or pleasure. [End Page 206]
Virtuous spousal candidates, though, must be even more rare. Aristotle claims that it is impossible to be in love with more than one person (NE IX.10.1171a8–13) (presumably, to forestall a concern from Sense and Sensibility, meaning no more than one person at a time).17 There is a certain precise fittedness necessary to stir one's blood and mind with such intensity. In addition to providing community in virtue, good spouses must together secure each other "the needs of life" (VIII.12.1162a21–22). They must be able to work together in this very concretely demanding project, and in the perhaps even more demanding project of getting and raising children. This bond (of marriage), Aristotle insists, is more fundamental even than the basic inclination to "live as a social and political being" (VIII.12.1162a17–18).
This basic inclination to social and political life, though, is not separable from the bond of marriage, which draws two people together. Aristotle takes the household to be "earlier and more indispensable than the state" (NE VIII.12.1162a18–19), since the state cannot exist without the basic unity of households. The attraction a potential spouse holds for us is not merely as a virtuous friend, not merely as a person with whom we can share the most basic needs of living, but also as a way into full participation in, and propagation of, the larger community to which we ultimately belong.
So, these three Aristotelian components make the attraction to a potential virtuous spouse incredibly compelling. But how do they work? I would like to propose three mechanisms by which they effect this desired conversion.18
First, this attraction is sufficiently concrete to make evident to us (even through the obscuring force of our vicious habits) how crucial union with this person is to our happiness. It hits us at the most basic level we can be hit. We become invested in the other person's approbation in a way that allows his criticisms of, or even displeasure in, our character to arrest our attention. The rarity of such a potential union prompts us to hope beyond what our experience would suggest we could reasonably hope for, and to aspire very immediately and urgently to a higher level of virtue, hoping that our desire will be reciprocated. We thus notice in people in love an atypical willingness to recognize, to admit, and to correct errors of character.
Darcy, for example, who has managed to live twenty-eight years without realizing his grouchiness, feels acute shame about his behavior after Elizabeth's reprimand. "You showed me," he says, "how insufficient [End Page 207] were all my pretentions to please a woman worthy of being pleased," a lesson he found "hard indeed at first, but most advantageous" (p. 308).
Elizabeth, despite her strong allegiance to her vain convictions about Darcy, Wickham, and her family, is quickly worked on by Darcy's letter, and grows "absolutely ashamed of herself. Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd":
"How despicably have I acted!" she cried. "I, who have prided myself on my discernment!—I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameless distrust.—How humiliating is this discovery!—Yet, how just a humiliation!—Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either was concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself."(p. 176)
These same criteria that prompt us to a conversion we would likely otherwise never achieve prompt the person in whom we are interested, if he is also interested, to take a chance on us that prudence would forbid were it not for the incredible rarity of such a union. Darcy has already spent a certain amount of time getting to know Elizabeth. There seem to be some strong compatibilities of intelligence and sensibility. He judges that these and the chance of her becoming more virtuous merit proposing marriage to her, despite the serious and obvious flaws of her character and situation. Once the proposal has been made, the work of aspiring to the other person's level of virtue in the areas of their respective deficiencies proceeds (in this case) fairly effectively.
Second, we can also, in the response of the person we desire, see fairly immediately the effects of our changing. We become acutely conscious of that response, and desirous that it be approving.
Elizabeth, for example, begins taking responsibility for correcting flaws in her family (e.g., in persuading her father to take more preventative action in keeping Lydia from going to Brighton). She demonstrates to Darcy much more concern for his feelings (in her time with him at Pemberley, in his visits to her family home, and in his second proposal) and for those of his sister (for one). She does her best to correct her judgment of others and to communicate that to the degree that prudence [End Page 208] permits. All the while, she is growing increasingly solicitous of Darcy's good opinion of her (see, e.g., pp. 221, 278–80).
Darcy confesses to Elizabeth in their second proposal scene how, upon their meeting at Pemberley, his goal had been "to show you by every civility in my power that I was not so mean as to resent the past; and I hoped to obtain your forgiveness, to lessen your ill opinion, by letting you see that your reproofs had been attended to. How soon any other wishes introduced themselves I can hardly tell, but I believe in about half an hour after I had seen you" (p. 308). He is clearly committed to rapidly changing his character and intent upon showing her the improvements, and in having her think well of him. His eagerness to learn whether reading his letter soon improved her opinion of him (p. 307) shows a similar solicitousness. This openness, commitment, and attentiveness allow a rapidity of conversion not otherwise likely.
Third, our interest in this potential spouse and the joy we take in both perceiving and being noticed by him or her also helps us transcend another Aristotelian impediment to character conversion. To be genuinely virtuous, Aristotle says, a person must not only do the right thing, he must also enjoy doing it (NE II.3.1104b3–9). And the pleasure a person finds in an activity draws him more deeply into that activity (X.5.1175b1–17).
This pleasure in doing the right thing is lacking in the person who is not yet virtuous. And thus, engaging in the unfamiliar good activities feels, at best, uncomfortable, and at worst, prohibitively painful. The more pleasure that can be added to these activities, the more easily and thoroughly they will be embraced. Darcy's eagerness for Elizabeth's presence and his hope of her approval when they are walking together at Pemberley makes it more enjoyable, and thus easier for him to be uncharacteristically attentive to all their feelings. Elizabeth's joy in Darcy's renewed proposal makes her able to be newly attentive to the possible awkwardness he is feeling, and to act in a less quarrelsome way to alleviate it (p. 305).
These three mechanisms work together to allow falling in love to lead me into virtuous activity. The pleasure of being in love with another person can provide me a pleasure in these virtuous activities that I would not otherwise feel, but that encourages and stimulates me to engage in them. Romantic pleasure draws me into and holds me in these virtuous activities, while heightening my attention to them in a way that allows me to learn more quickly how to do them well. This works because I am both acutely conscious that rapid improvement increases my chances [End Page 209] of being chosen by the other and acutely attentive to the ways my life becomes richer by sharing in the other person's activities. The pleasure I feel through the activity of being in love thus allows me to take up a new life as my own.
Hans-Georg Gadamer, in an essay on Plato's Lysis, takes Socrates to conclude in that dialogue that "when someone loves another as a friend, his longing is directed to the other person in such a way that the former fulfills himself in his longing."19 He explains that "he who feels friendship for someone sees in the other something which he himself is not, but the thing which he sees, which he is not, is more like something which has not yet been achieved in himself, something more like a potential in himself, which leads him to look for a model in another" ("LE," p. 14).
What is true here of beginning friendship is even more true of falling in love. In the penultimate chapter of Austen's novel, Elizabeth asks Darcy what began his falling in love with her. While he says that he admired the liveliness of her mind (p. 317), our analysis suggests that it was actually her critically calling him to a higher level of virtuous activity, and thus more fully into himself, that incited his love for her. It is fairly clear that their first proposal conversation and Darcy's subsequent letter, by initiating the critical conversion she required, started her falling in love with him.
The rarity of this kind of friendship prompts a commitment of hope. We recognize the fulfillment of ourselves in this hope. This recognition provides us with the concrete image to guide our practice, and the response of the other immediately marks our success or failure to enact this. Falling in love thereby serves, in the person of another, to call us into and show us a virtue that belongs to us but that we could not see or access alone. Unlike beating, my love of my other genuinely opens the possibility of change and advances its enactment.
I presented an earlier version of this essay at the American Catholic Philosophical Association's October 2014 conference. It was inspired by a talk I gave at the Boston College Graduate Student Philosophy Conference in March 2009. I am grateful to my students for their thought-provoking questions that led to some of the insights herein. [End Page 210]
1. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Martin Ostwald (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1999); see, e.g., I.4.1095b4–8, X.9.1179b7–10, and X.9.1179b23–26; hereafter abbreviated NE. References are to book, chapter, and the standard Bekker pagination.
2. Several scholars have connected Jane Austen with Aristotelian ethical analysis. See, for example, Gilbert Ryle, "Jane Austen and the Moralists," The Oxford Review 1 (1966), reprinted in Critical Essays on Jane Austen, ed. B. C. Southam (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968), pp. 286–301; Alasdair MacIntyre, "The Nature of the Virtues," Hastings Center Report 11 (1981): 27–34; David Gallop, "Jane Austen and the Aristotelian Ethic," Philosophy and Literature 23, no. 1 (1999): 96–109; Anne Ruderman, The Pleasures of Virtue: Political Thought in the Novels of Jane Austen (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995), pp. 8 and 16n16; Sarah Emsley, Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 12, 18–20, and 172n3; and Karen Stohr, "Practical Wisdom and Moral Imagination in Sense and Sensibility," Philosophy and Literature 30, no. 2 (2006): 378–94. While no one has yet made a convincing case that Austen was influenced by Aristotle's work, there seems to be a consensus that her work fits well with his.
3. C. S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters gives a remarkable account of this.
4. See also Plato, Republic II.12.401e–402a and Laws II.653a–654d; references are to book, chapter (in the case of Republic), and the standard Stephanus pagination.
5. For an extensive treatment of Plato's position on punishment contextualized in a discussion of general theories of punishment and the historical development of punishment in ancient Greece, see Mary Mackenzie, Plato on Punishment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).
6. Plato, Gorgias, trans. W. C. Helmbold (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1997), 477; hereafter abbreviated Grg. References are to the standard Stephanus pagination.
7. Brickhouse and Smith propose that this Socratic punishment can "cure" wrongdoing by breaking the intoxicating hold of pleasure in such a way as to allow reason to reconsider the agent's good. See Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith, "The Problem of Punishment in Socratic Philosophy," Apeiron 30, no. 4 (1997): 95–107.
8. This appeal to the observations of a knowledgeable specialist is wholeheartedly Aristotelian, especially since our primary arena of physical punishment for adults is our prison system.
9. NE VIII.1–10 is devoted to a discussion of this disconnect between reason and character.
10. Gianluca Di Muzio makes a case that vicious people cannot be cured by external influences, but that "in certain cases exposure to virtue and to the noble concern of a friend may trigger a process of moral reform in a person of bad character" (Gianluca Di Muzio, "Aristotle on Improving One's Character," Phronesis 45, no. 3 : 205–19 [215–16]).
11. "When the affection is proportionate to the merit of each partner, there is in some sense equality between them" (NE VIII.7.1158b27–8).
12. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (New York: Signet Classic, 1989), p. 164; hereafter indicated by page number. All further Austen references are to this text. [End Page 211]
13. Austen carefully crafts the development of the story such that the reader sees through Elizabeth's eyes, and thus is blind to the same things to which she is blind, particularly her own vices. The proposal and its aftermath then reveal the very real defects in her character.
14. We later, of course, come to see how thoroughly wicked Wickham is and the real harm to which her inability to judge clearly contributed.
15. Her mother's inveterate silliness, consistently ridiculed by the father she trusts, makes Elizabeth distrust any of her concerns. Jane's advice, while consistently enjoining Elizabeth to not think ill of people, is undermined by how unqualifiedly she applies it.
16. Of course, not all such unions lead to an increase in virtue. Lydia and Charlotte seem likely to become more vicious through their respective marriages. Bingley seems to share Jane's vices, and is thus unlikely to prompt her to virtuous conversion.
17. One of the primary questions explored in Sense and Sensibility is whether one can appropriately fall in love more than once.
18. Emsley (Jane Austen's Philosophy, pp. 23 and 95–97), and Ruderman (The Pleasures of Virtue, pp. 106–8 and 189) both suggest other ways love might motivate character conversion.
19. Hans-Georg Gadamer, "Logos and Ergon in Plato's Lysis," in Dialogue and Dialectic: Eight Hermeneutical Studies on Plato, trans. P. Christopher Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), pp. 1–20 (19); hereafter abbreviated "LE." [End Page 212]