Thursday, February 12, 2015

Finding Virtue in Austen

     In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen examines very carefully the virtues, or lack of them, of her characters. Some seem fixed due to their lack of self-reflection or interest in goodness (e.g. Lydia and Wickham), but others, such as Darcy and Elizabeth, through moments of painful self-revelation, grow in their virtue by deliberately attempting to over-come either their natural or habitual character to improve who they are. This change is not merely external but their actions flow from a genuine change in what they value and esteem. Their loves change and, as a result, so do their characters.
     Pride and Prejudice is one of books we read in my 11th Grade Humane Letters class. In keeping with Veritas’s mission to cultivate wisdom, virtue, and godliness, our discussions of the novel frequently center around virtues. As we understand it, virtues are one’s loves and affections, shaped by wisdom (reason and understanding), that lead to actions consistent with godliness.  Virtue and character are not fixed by DNA, or determined by chance or environment, but can be altered by those who make the effort.
     Justice, temperance, courage, prudence; joy, peace, patience, kindness, forgiveness—and all the other virtues—can and ought to be encouraged and grown within us. Of course, the Holy Spirit is the ultimate means, as God works in us, but we are responsible to do some hard work in shaping virtue within ourselves. Peter encourages this in 2Peter 1:5 and the verses following. After describing the divine power at work in believers, he writes “…make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue [excellence], and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control…”. There is deliberate work for the believer to do, in reliance on the work of God in us. 
     C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man writes that “the head rules the belly through the chest”. This is another way of saying that what we esteem and value, shaped by our understanding of what is right and appropriate, will rule how we act. Education has always (at least up to the modern period) been about shaping the loves of students toward virtue and godliness. This shaping leads to patterns of understanding and activities that are in line with virtue. 
     Austen gives students wonderful examples of all of this. Mr. Darcy, humbled by Elizabeth, begins a chapters-long self-evaluation and realizes that his character, though built on good principles, is seriously flawed. He is proud of his superior traits (of which he indeed has many) and does not treat others kindly. About midway through the novel he begins to make an effort to amend his character. He understands what he needs to love, and this desire leads to changes in behavior. Elizabeth, in like manner, has her eyes opened to her own significant character flaws. This knowledge, which gives her great pain, is the impetus behind her own attempts to change her desires and thus her actions. Conversely, characters such as Lydia and Wickham (whose “passions were stronger than their virtue”) demonstrate the spiraling descent of hearts bent on irrational, ungodly desires and the damaging effects this can have on the individual and the those connected with them.
     Reading and reflecting on works of fiction such as Pride and Prejudice can offer students excellent opportunities to reflect on their own character, and what changes they could—and should—desire to make in their own lives.

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