Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Jane Austen and fortitude

After yesterday's post, I think I am prepared to answer a question that has long puzzled me: Why did Jane Austen rate constancy so high? It was, for her, the supreme virtue. That is to say, of the virtues a human being could develop by themselves, constancy was the highest and the most important. It was the virtue that made all the other virtues work together.

That's worth lingering on for a moment to remind ourselves of a really basic point. Honesty and patience are both virtues but even a person possessed of these needs to have a higher virtue directing them to be virtuous in a general sense. It wouldn't do to be honest with Nazis nor does it make sense to be patient with them, except as a ruse to save your life right now and, ideally, set them up so you can defeat them in other ways later.

For Jane Austen then, constancy was the virtue that pulled the others into line. That is interesting in that it conflicts with the standard order which tends to place prudence and justice above constancy. For example,  the Catholic church, following Aquinas, prudence is the supreme virtue. Aquinas said that justice serves prudence because prudence was the greatest human virtue. Constancy was a product of fortitude and it, third on the list, served both justice and prudence. Now, there was no good reason for Austen to accept Catholic morality but she would not reject it out of hand either.

I think the way to answer the question is to approach it from another angle because it's a bit easier to figure out why she didn't simply take fortitude in preference to constancy. Fortitude or courage were too much associated with masculinity for Austen's purposes. Jane Austen was not a feminist, at least not in the modern sense, but she was very much concerned with women and that was a decidedly rebellious thing to do in her era. We might call her a more prudent rebel than, to pick the obvious example, Mary Wollstonecraft.

Austen was well aware that physical fortitude and moral fortitude (which is another way of saying constancy) were related and even knew that moral fortitude was impossible without physical fortitude. Fanny's success is very much a product of her physical fitness and Marianne Dashwood's near disaster is very much a product of her failing to take care of her body. But Austen saw physical fitness as something that was not wholly in a woman's ability to control herself. Fanny's fitness depends on Edmund Bertram standing up for her and making sure she gets opportunity to exercise.

Now we might condemn Austen for not being feminist enough on this point but her attitudes are probably the result of her recognizing the grim realities of her time. Women simply were dependent on men for protection to a degree that we find it hard to imagine.

The more difficult question is why Austen emphasized constancy while recognizing that physical fortitude was a necessary but not sufficient condition for it. Why not, as tradition had, embrace a more general virtue that included both physical and moral fortitude? The answer to that, I think, is that she did so precisely because a woman's physical health was not under her control, which is to say her body was not under her control. And, in the late 18th and early 19th century, it was not. That is hard for us to grasp because a woman's right to control her own body is the starting point for feminism.

And we can carry that logic on to see that prudence and justice were also matters that were largely outside a woman's control. In a rigidly controlled class structure such as existed at the time, what counted as justice would have been fixed items for most people. Likewise, being prudent is less important when most of your fate is contingent on matters you could not hope to control. The very richest would have been able to get away with things that others could not, and we see that reflected in a characters such as Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice but Austen grasped that for women of her class, that is to say, the lower gentry, "prudence" and "justice" meant no more than conforming to what was expected of you.

Constancy becomes the supreme virtue because it was the most important virtue that is mostly within a woman's control. It is there that a woman can succeed as a woman to the degree that success is possible. And we read Austen incorrectly if we fail to see how much of Elinor's, Elizabeth's and Fanny's fate is beyond their control; things could have gone very, very wrong for any of them even had they always behaved absolutely impeccably. In fact, we can see that Fanny had far less leeway than Elinor and Elinor had less than Elizabeth. Emma, on the other hand, is rich enough that she could be far stupider and still get away with it, as she did.

Austen's position on the virtues is, for the above reasons, very much like that of the Roman stoics. They were also writing in a rigid society where what counted as justice was largely given and where prudence was likely to be over-shadowed by reversals of fortune you could not hope to control. They, however, emphasized courage and believed that human beings should be indifferent to their emotions. Austen recognized that emotions could be channeled—that a moral life required us to bot nurture and control our feelings. That makes her one of the most important writers on morality of the modern era.

I think it also, and I'll come back to this, makes her worthy of being called not just romantic but the greatest of the romantics.

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