Friday, June 20, 2008

MacIntyre on Austen and Self-Knowledge

The counterpart to Jane Austen's preoccupation with the counterfeit is the central place she assigns to self-knowledge, a Christian rather than a Socratic self-knowledge which can only be achieved through a kind of repentance. In four of her six great novels there is a recognition scene in which the person whoom the hero or heroine recognizes is him or herself. 'Till this moment I never knew myself,' says Elizabeth Bennett. 'How to understand the deceptions she had been thus practising on herself, and living under!' meditates Emma. Self-knowledge is for Jane Austen both an intellectual and a moral virtue....

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd edition, p. 241. He goes on to argue that this self-knowledge is closely connected to another major virtue in the Austen universe: constancy. In defense of reading Austen as a sort of moral philosopher, MacIntyre says:

Jane Austen is in a crucial way -- along with Cobbett and the Jacobins -- the last great representative of the classical tradition of the virtues. It has proved easy for later generations not to understand her importance as a moralist because she is after all a novelist. And to them she has often appeared as not merely 'only' a writer of fiction, but a writer of fiction concerned with a very restricted social world. What they have not observed and what the juxtaposition of her insights with those of Cobbett and the Jacobins ought to teach us to observe is that both in her own time and afterwards the life of the virtues is necessarily afforded a very restricted cultural and social space. In most of the public and most of the private world the classical and medieval virtues are replaced by the meagre substitutes which modern morality affords.

(p. 243)

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