Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Rational Emotion

The concept of a rational emotion, of anger or fear or love or shame, felt and displayed rationally, is not, as is perhaps still widely supposed, some sort of oxymoron. It lies at the heart of the difference between a sound character and a flawed one, between controlling sense and uncontrolled sensibility.

Aristotle was its first exponent, and Jane Austen's novels are saturated with it. Her characters are repeatedly contrasted in their capacities for emotional response, and the different ways in which their responses can be appropriate or otherwise. Of the three unsatisfactory sisters in the older generation of Mansfield Park, Lady Bertram and Mrs. Price are emotionally languid, and feel little or nothing. Their condition somewhat resembles the state of "insensibility" (anaisthesia), which Aristotle mentions as a deficiency in the sphere of bodily pleasures (1119a5-11). Mrs. Norris, by contrast, is charged with emotional energy, but she is also a malevolent and odious mischief-maker. All three, we learn, have adjusted differently to the circumstances of their lives. Lady Bertram, married to affluence, becomes an indolent lady of leisure, while Mrs. Price, married to a naval oaf, has nine children, and becomes an incompetent, sluttish parent. The energies of Mrs. Norris, who is childless and widowed early, might have been more happily channeled if she had had nine children to raise on a small income (p. 390).

David Gallop, "Jane Austen and the Aristotelian Ethic", Philosophy and Literature 23.1 (1999) 96-109 .

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