Virtue and Romance: Allan Bloom on Jane Austen and Aristotelian Ethics

Bemerkenswerter Aufsatz über die Möglichkeit von Liebe & Freundschaft in den Romanen Jane Austens von Mary Beth Garbitelli, adjunct instructor of English at the University of Southern Maine.

Within Allan Bloom’s last book, Love and Friendship, stands a chapter on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.1 The chapter is short—just over seventeen pages in length—but that it exists at all in a volume that features Plato and Rousseau may be surprising to many. Nevertheless, Bloom offers an incisive if unorthodox interpretation of Austen’s novel, ultimately suggesting that Austen advances a position that features a unique combination of modern romantic love and ancient friendship. That the translator of Emile sees echoes of modern romanticism in Austen’s books is hardly to be wondered at, for her works display many themes that are reminiscent of Rousseau: marriage is the foundation of society and, for most, the source of meaning and purpose in life; social barriers such as class often present themselves as unjust obstacles to romantic desire; chastity is the prerequisite of strong romantic attachment; differences between males and females are augmented rather than minimized; the rural is superior to the urban; sentiment tends to be predominant. What is perhaps unexpected, though, is Bloom’s insistence on “Austen’s classical preferences,” on her appearance “as a partisan of Aristotelian rationalism against the dominant principles of modernity,” and on her desire “to celebrate classical friendship as the core of romantic love.”2

Without claiming that Austen actually read Aristotle, we may accept and even extend Bloom’s claim that there is a strong Aristotelian element in her work. Indeed, Bloom attributes to Austen a unique and daring synthesis between modern marriage and classical friendship, but does not think that her attempt to reconcile these elements wholly succeeds. Nevertheless, his refutation does not take into account that Austen has anticipated and answered his objections in her fiction. We may, therefore, accept Bloom’s interpretation of Austen while rejecting his evaluation.

Smallness and Happiness

Aristotle is of course famous for his comment in the first book of the Politics that man is a political animal. The polis, however, is a city of limited size—one in which there is a good chance that any given citizen will know any other given citizen, or at least have some reasonably reliable knowledge about any other citizen. In his discussion of the life of the polis, Aristotle seems only indirectly interested in how such a city relates to other cities or nations, especially if they are far away. It is not that he completely ignores foreign affairs, but what makes a polis an important and natural feature of human life is how it promotes human happiness by advancing the virtues of the citizens; this means that Aristotle is principally concerned with how the citizens themselves relate to each other.

This restricted horizon within which human beings work toward their happiness is further limited when one turns from Aristotle’s Politics to his Ethics. Certainly, Aristotle advocates the study of the city in the Ethics, but in Books VIII and IX of the work he explains that a circle of friends within a city is actually the very best situation that human beings can hope for. These friends, sharing a noble conception of the good, will practice virtue toward each other, thereby improving each other and leading each other into the true happiness that comes with genuine virtue. It seems that the justice provided by the polis is indeed the natural social horizon for human beings, but within the polis there is an even smaller social circle that provides the context for the best life for the best human beings. “When men are friends,” Aristotle says, “they have no need of justice, while when they are just they need friendship as well.”3

Jane Austen’s novels share the Aristotelian focus on small social arrangements. If Aristotle prefers a small circle of friends living within a city of restricted size, Austen prefers a small circle of families living within a village of modest size; both, however, emphasize situations in which a handful of people share together a life in which their happiness is intertwined. In a letter of 1814 to her niece and aspiring story-teller Anna Austen, Jane Austen says, “You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life;—3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.”4 Indeed, Aunt Jane’s Pride and Prejudice begins with the authoress collecting a small number of families in the vicinity of a country village and bringing them into contact with each other at small gatherings, including parties and dances; her Emma has two spatial foci, the two country estates of her hero and heroine, which are within walking distance of each other, as are the local village and all of the dwelling places of the other important characters in the novel. Like Aristotle, Austen seems to grasp the fact that the human horizon is limited by space and time in such a manner that it is possible to know well—as friends—only a small number of people. If significant human communication is to occur, it will have to occur within a limited circle of people who are involved with each other in seeking to live well. As Alasdair MacIntyre notes perceptively of Austen’s work, “The restricted households of Highbury and Mansfield Park have to serve as surrogates for the Greek city-state and the medieval kingdom.”5

Another way to make this point is to note that Austen harbors an Aristotelian distrust of large political arrangements in which anonymity is prevalent. It is an almost universal rule in Austen’s novels that little good ever comes from the great metropolis of London. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, London is the place where Lydia and Wickham flee to absent themselves from their families and indeed from all of their political obligations. They conceal themselves in the great anonymity that is London’s political life. To be sure, Elizabeth Bennet’s decent aunt and uncle live in London, as do Emma Woodhouse’s decent sister and brother-in-law. Any ambi guity, however, about the status of London in Austen’s view that would remain after considering Pride and Prejudice and Emma would seem to be dispelled in Mansfield Park, in a brief but important rural conversation between the “villainess,” Miss Mary Crawford, who has lived in London, and the eventual hero of the book, Edmund Bertram. Edmund is intending a career as a clergyman; this, in Miss Crawford’s view, is a very bad idea—indeed she calls the clergyman’s status “nothing,” an assertion that gives rise to a spirited response from Edmund: “I cannot call that situation nothing, which has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally—which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence.” In the exchange that follows, Edmund argues that the reason Miss Crawford thinks the clergy insignifi- cant is her experience in living in an urban center so large that the private moral lives of both clergy and parishioners are hidden. In smaller political settings the true function of clergy can come to the fore:

We do not look in great cities for our best morality. It is not there, that respectable people of any denomination can do most good; and it certainly is not there, that the influence of the clergy can be most felt. A fine preacher is followed and admired; but it is not in fine preaching only that a good clergyman will be useful in his parish and his neighbourhood, where the parish and neighbourhood are of a size capable of knowing his private character, and observing his general conduct, which in London can rarely be the case. The clergy are lost there in the crowds of their parishioners. . . . 6

Austen’s “Aristotelian” preference for small political arrangements is also shown by the marked lack of interest in geopolitical affairs in her novels. Austen wrote just after the author of Reflections on the Revolution in France, just before the author of A Tale of Two Cities, and contemporaneously with Sir Walter Scott. Yet her books are vastly different from those, for nowhere in her novels do we read much about tremendous battles, revolutions, or politics on a grand scale. Although in Pride and Prejudice some soldiers are stationed near the home of the heroine and her sisters, they are only interesting as possible domestic partners; they are never called upon to do any fighting or dying, and indeed it is not all that clear just why they have congregated in the first place.7 In Emma, we do learn of a military hero of some years past, and we also learn of acquaintances who are traveling in Ireland, but none of the main characters seems to be much interested in the world beyond England. Indeed, only a few of them even have much knowledge of a world beyond their village, and those few who do are usually among the least attractive characters in the book, such as Mrs. Elton and Mr. Frank Churchill. Foreign lands do play a more prominent role in Mansfield Park, for Sir Thomas Bertram absents himself from his family and village because of urgent economic endeavors in distant Antigua. This turns out to be unwise, however, for Sir Thomas thereby fails to attend to the even more urgent duty of overseeing the behavior of the young people in his charge. And of course, there are the noble sailors of Persuasion, but even in this novel what is important about the wanderers is that they have come home to marry and found families in or near villages. The navy is important in the book primarily as a way for young men to prove their worthiness for winning fine English wives who live in small political settings. In the end, one could say that Austen implicitly criticizes the imperial, nationalistic politics of Napoleon, rather in the same manner that Aristotle implicitly criticizes the imperial, nationalistic politics of Alexander.

Friendship in Aristotle

While the overall goal of the Nicomachean Ethics is to explain happiness in terms of virtue, Aristotle explains in his two books on friendship how the practice of virtue that constitutes the highest happiness is generally to be found only within the communication that grounds a particular type of friendship. This capacity for friendship is one of the most important inherent characteristics of human beings. “Without friends,” he says, “no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods” (1155a5–6). In Aristotle’s analysis, friendship is based on a shared understanding of what is good, and the general opinions on the nature of the good can be organized into three main categories, with each category representing some fundamental option. Aristotle thus determines that since human beings commonly perceive the good to consist of pleasure, utility, or virtue, friendships may also be divided into those same categories.

All three types of friendship require physical proximity, for although distance does not necessarily end friendship, Aristotle points out that it does prevent the day-to-day activity of friendship and may cause the friendship to diminish or even cease over time. For Aristotle, “there is nothing so characteristic of friends as living together,” for the opportunity of frequent interaction is an essential condition of friendship (1157b19–20). Friendships based on pleasure or utility, or some combination involving pleasure and utility, are merely incidental, susceptible to change, and easily destroyed. Such relationships are founded upon the needs and wants of each individual, and so change as frequently as do personal needs and wants. Aristotle writes that “those who love for the sake of utility love for the sake of what is good for themselves, and those who love for the sake of pleasure do so for the sake of what is pleasant to themselves” (1156a14–16; emphasis added).

The highest form of friendship, and ultimately the only true form of friendship, is friendship based on the truest good, namely virtuous activity, which of course is true happiness. Thus, Aristotle writes, “Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue” (1156b7–8). This type of friendship is most rare, since truly good people are rare, and their having the opportunity to live together and interact as friends is likewise often rare. Nevertheless, friendships based on virtuous activity are the most permanent, for unlike friendships based on pleasure and utility, this type of friendship is based on something more permanent and unchanging. Such friends are truly “friends without qualification”; they want what is best for one another and try to benefit each other (1157b3). This results in a mutual education in virtue, a sort of pedagogical friendship: “The friendship of good men is good, being augmented by their companionship; and they are thought to become better too by their activities and by improving each other; for from each other they take the mould of the characteristics they approve” (1172a13–15). Indeed, friendship based on virtue represents not only a shared understanding of the good, but the most promising way to achieve that good. Practically speaking, then, in Aristotle’s view, the highest form of human association and attachment turns out to be a small circle of friends who enable each other to perfect themselves through their communication as friends.

Friendship in Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice is probably the most popular of all of Austen’s novels; it is also the novel in which we can most easily see a similarly between her thinking about matrimony and Aristotle’s thinking about friendship. The match between Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas, for instance, is clearly based on utility. Collins is useful to Charlotte, for he provides her with a stable source of support; Charlotte is useful to Collins because his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, approves of her and of the general idea that a clergyman like Collins be married. The utility of the marriage is further emphasized when it becomes clear that the two are not seriously interested in each other. Indeed, Charlotte carefully arranges the house so that they can avoid each other as much as possible. Even though Elizabeth is initially shocked at the mutual self-interest that defines their relationship, it does not necessarily follow that Austen herself unequivocally condemns it. To be sure, Charlotte’s situation is unromantic and emotionally empty, but it nevertheless promises certain positive results for herself and her family. Of Charlotte’s decision to accept Collins, the narrator says, “Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honorable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want” (I.22). Austen presents the advantages and disadvantages of the marriage as they are, without excluding the possibilities that may ensue from the establishment of a family—perhaps one that will eventually include children— in a quiet, peaceful village.

While the marriage of Collins and Charlotte is focused on utility, the match between Lydia and Mr. Wickham arises principally from a mutual desire for sensual pleasure. Once again, Elizabeth is dismayed at this union, but to a much greater degree. Through her indulgence in a romantic love rooted in sexual desire, Lydia endangers her family’s reputation and status, whereas Charlotte had at least helped her family grow in fortune. Thoughtless Lydia does not even seem to grasp how greatly she has risked her family’s economic stability as well as its prestige and standing; moreover, her flippant remarks reveal a profound misunderstanding of the effect of her actions on the prospects of her sisters’ marrying at all, let alone well. Whereas Austen does not indicate the ultimate fate of the attachment between Collins and Charlotte, at the end of the novel we learn that Lydia and Wickham are often in want of both happiness and financial stability. The desire for pleasure is never satiated if it is not moderated, and Lydia is constantly in need of funds. The omniscient narrator reports Elizabeth’s reflections on the match in this way: “How Wickham and Lydia were to be supported in tolerable independence, she could not imagine. But how little of permanent happiness could belong to a couple who were only brought together because their passions were stronger than their virtue, she could easily conjecture” (III.8).

If the Collins and Wickham matches can be viewed as corresponding to the Aristotelian friendship models of utility and pleasure, respectively, then that of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth corresponds to the category of friendship based on virtue. This match, however, does not begin auspiciously. At first, Darcy at least pretends not even to notice Elizabeth at a Merryton assembly; it is hardly love at first sight. Elizabeth does not find Darcy pleasant; Darcy certainly sees nothing useful in Elizabeth’s connections. Even after Darcy’s recognition of Elizabeth’s agreeableness and her understanding of his utility, marriage does not immediately appear to be a prudent choice. Since neither party is aware of the other’s virtue, Darcy’s premature proposal is spurned, and even in making it, Darcy admits that it goes against his better judgment. Both parties want more from marriage than utility or pleasure. As virtuous people—or as people who are on the way to becoming virtuous—both Darcy and Elizabeth know, or at least sense, that they will be most happy with a virtuous spouse. Thus, each believes entering marriage without such a manifestation of virtue would be foolish. This does not mean that the other reasons for marriage are necessarily excluded, but such ends are to be subordinated to a higher one.

By the time Elizabeth and Darcy happen to meet at Pemberly, in Volume III of the novel, each has begun to recognize the virtue of the other. Through Darcy’s letter to her, Elizabeth has become painfully aware that she had earlier misjudged him; more importantly, she now learns through the testimony of Darcy’s servant at Pemberly that he is virtuous—even magnanimous in every respect. Precisely when the two have come to understand themselves and each other much better, and seem about to become engaged, Lydia and Wickham suddenly threaten everything by creating a family scandal that makes the possibility of a marriage between Elizabeth and a man of considerable social stature like Darcy very nearly impossible. Confronted with the reality that her incipient relationship with Darcy must end, Elizabeth now finds herself mourning the missed opportunity. At this point, Austen withdraws from her heroine’s perspective and, in a notable shift, addresses the reader directly, asking for a judgment on Elizabeth:

If gratitude and esteem are good foundations of affection, Elizabeth’s change of sentiment will be neither improbable nor faulty. But if otherwise, if the regard springing from such sources is unreasonable or unnatural, in comparison of what is so often described as arising on a first interview with its object, and even before two words have been exchanged, nothing can be said in her defence, except that she had given somewhat of a trial to the latter method, in her partiality for Wickham, and that its ill-success might perhaps authorise her to seek the other less interesting mode of attachment. (III.4)

The focus of Austen’s reflection here is the fundamental question that the novel seeks to answer: what is the most admirable form of friendship between a man and a woman? In referring to the reasonable or natural approach as the “less interesting mode of attachment,” the authoress is clearly being ironic, and indeed the choice of judgments that the narrator offers to the reader is meant to be rhetorical only. Having developed esteem for Darcy’s character and gratitude for his esteem for hers, Elizabeth’s sentiments have improved and are now, in Austen’s view, far more reasonable and natural than any sort of romantic infatuation arising prior to rational discourse. Elizabeth’s marriage to Darcy, based on qualities of mind and virtues of character, would have been an opportunity for the deepest kind of friendship, namely one that is founded upon nascent virtue and fosters its improvement. As Elizabeth herself notes a few chapters later, such a marriage would have taught “the admiring multitude what connubial felicity really was” (III.8).

Pedagogy and Friendship in Emma

Of all of Austen’s novels, it is easiest to see in Pride and Prejudice a parallel to Aristotle’s treatment of friendship. If space permitted, it would be profitable to show how the basic teaching of that novel is developed in the less typical attachments that Austen explores in Mansfield Park and Persuasion. At present, however, we must confine ourselves to a brief analysis of Emma, for, as noted above, a crucial element in Aristotle’s treatment of friendship is the manner in which friends are pedagogues in virtue to each other.

Like Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, Mr. Knightly and Emma are shown to achieve what will certainly be a happy attachment based on their mutual concern for one another’s virtue. In Emma, however, this concern with virtue arises within the relationship between master and student, for Knightly assumes the role of teacher, educating Emma in the virtues she lacks, while Emma displays her charm and vitality as she learns thoughtful concern for the wellbeing of others. As Anne Crippen Ruderman points out in speaking of the novel, “Mr. Knightly’s project of education—his concern with Emma’s virtue, and her concern with his—is the truest foundation for their friendship and love.”8 Lionel Trilling, who approaches Austen quite differently than Ruderman or Bloom, agrees that Austen understands moral education to be grounded in friendship and love:

[Austen] was committed to the ideal of “intelligent love,” according to which the deepest and truest relationship that can exist between human beings is pedagogic. This relationship consists in the giving and receiving of knowledge about right conduct, in the formation of one person’s character by another, the acceptance of another’s guidance in one’s growth. The idea of a love based in pedagogy may seem quaint to some modern readers and repellent to others, but unquestionably it plays a decisive part in the power and charm of Jane Austen’s art. And if we attempt to explain the power and charm that the genre of the novel exercised in the nineteenth century, we must take full account of its pedagogic intention and of such love as a reader might feel was being directed towards him in the solicitude of the novel for his moral well-being, in its concern for the right course of his development.9

Despite their shared attraction to the virtuous life, Knightly and Emma do not bring the same benefits to the relationship. They are not both teachers—at least not in the same way—and Austen emphasizes that they play very different roles within the friendship. They both care about each other’s virtue and happiness, but the strengths that they bring to the attachment are complementary rather than identical. Although Elizabeth and Darcy are not equals with respect to property, one becomes aware in reading Pride and Prejudice that they are more or less equal in character; indeed, it is Darcy’s failure to recognize this equality that causes Elizabeth to scorn his first proposal. The relationship between Knightly and Emma, however, is far less equal. They are on a more equal economic footing, but Knightly is thirty-seven or thirtyeight years old and Emma twenty (nearly twenty-one); more importantly, Knightly clearly possesses a certain authority over Emma as her informal moral pedagogue.

Closely connected to her family because of location and because of the marriage between his younger brother and Emma’s older sister, Mr. Knightly is a frequent visitor to Hartfield and a good friend of Emma despite their difference in age. Austen shows that Mr. Knightly makes every effort to promote Emma’s virtue, an endeavor that her other friends and family have neglected. Emma’s great flaw is the result of inadequate companionship both at Hartfield and in the neighboring village of Highbury, for a lack of discipline and an excess of flattery have made Emma somewhat spoiled and conceited: “The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments” (I.1). In her childhood Emma was never disciplined; her mother died when she was very young and her governess, Miss Taylor, although an upstanding example to Emma, was more a comrade than a governess. She “had such an affection for [Emma] as could never find fault” (I.1). Emma’s father, a benevolent hypochondriac, “could not meet her in conversation, rational or playful,” and spoiled and praised her to no end (I.1). Truly, Emma has no equals at Hartfield; as Knightly points out, “Emma is spoiled by being the cleverest of her family” (I.5).

Only Mr. Knightly censures Emma in any way, and thus he is the main and practically only contributor to her education in virtue. It seems that he has recognized Emma’s lack of discipline in her home and continually attempts to remedy this by repeatedly bringing her errors to her attention. The nature of their relationship is addressed in the very first chapter, where Emma tries to pass off Knightly’s criticism of her as a joke so as to avoid offending her flattering father:

“Mr. Knightly loves to find fault with me, you know—in a joke—it is all a joke. We always say what we like to one another.”

Mr. Knightly, in fact, was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them: and though this was not particularly agreeable to Emma herself, she knew it would be so much less so to her father, that she would not have him really suspect such a circumstance as her not being thought perfect by everybody.

“Emma knows I never flatter her,” said Mr. Knightly. (I.1)

The friendship between Knightly and Emma thus originates in a common concern for Emma’s own well-being and a commitment to the improvement of her character. In fact, Mr. Knightly considers friendships inferior if they do not augment the virtue of the individuals involved. He tells Mrs. Weston that he considers the friendship between Harriet, who is pretty but poorly educated, and Emma to be a bad thing because he thinks that “they will neither of them do the other any good” (I.5).

The most important moment in Knightly’s educational project comes in the climactic scene at Box Hill in which Emma quite improperly insults the very decent if rather pitiful Miss Bates. Taking Emma aside, Knightly severely castigates Emma for her actions:

Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do: a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?— Emma, I had not thought it possible. (III.7)

Upon receiving Knightly’s reprimand, Emma is immediately ashamed of herself, but she attempts to defend her behavior nonetheless. This only invites Knightly to increase his censure, and he appeals to their friendship as giving him license to do so: “This is not pleasant to you, Emma— and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will—I will tell you truths while I can, satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel, and trusting that you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do now” (III.7). Emma no longer attempts to respond verbally to Knightly, who does not recognize that she is ashamed. Without a word she steps into her carriage and departs, reproaching herself not only for her conduct toward Miss Bates but also for her failure to acknowledge what Knightly has done for her in correcting her for her misdeed. Indeed, she seems to be at least as concerned with the ill opinion that her teacher now has of her as she does with her inconsiderate remark to Miss Bates: “How could she have exposed herself to such ill opinion in any one she valued! And how suffer him to leave her without saying one word of gratitude, of concurrence, of common kindness!” (III.7). Her attachment to her teacher causes her to be desirous of his good opinion and to despair when she feels that she has lost it. Indeed, it would seem that only now that she has lost her teacher’s good opinion is Emma cognizant that Knightly is her teacher and important to her for that very reason.

The friendship between Knightly and Emma, then, can be seen as similar to a pedagogical relationship in its primary inequality. Knightly censures Emma because Emma is spoiled and needs to be corrected, but Knightly himself is never shown to be in need of correction by Emma. On the contrary, Mr. Knightly is always shown to act as a gentleman, one who follows the sound principles of his mind with appropriate action. He embodies the correct standard of behavior, and his virtue and rationality fail only in the exceptional case of his brief jealousy of Frank Churchill. Therefore, Emma cannot possibly assist Knightly’s virtue in the same way as he can hers. Yet Mr. Knightly still admits in the end that his pedagogical concerns improved himself. After he and Emma have revealed their true feelings to each other and their attachment is formed, he says, “The good was all to myself, by making you an object of the tenderest affection to me. I could not think about you so much without doating on you, faults and all; and by dint of fancying so many errors, have been in love with you ever since you were thirteen at least” (III.17).

The Marriage of Virtue and Romance?

As noted in the introduction, Bloom’s overall interpretation of Austen is not that she is simply a representative of the Aristotelian viewpoint, but rather that she in some sense combined modern romanticism and classicism, Rousseau and Aristotle, Emile and the Nicomachean Ethics, into a unique position of her own. Assuming that there is something to be said for accepting our claim that Austen reaches certain conclusions that are similar to Aristotle’s, it is now possible to consider Bloom’s complete or full interpretation of Austen as arguing for a synthesis of classical friendship and romantic matrimony.

In Bloom’s analysis, it is through Austen’s integration of eros into her illustrations of friendship that the transition to proper matrimony occurs. In his view, unlike Aristotle, Austen incorporates both romantic passion and friendship based on the good in her conception of marriage, uniting these two traditionally warring portions of humanity, reason and passion, under the marriage contract:

Austen brings passionate love to marriage where the classical moralists never encouraged it. It was not that they simply rejected or despised love in marriage, but that it got in the way of being reasonable . . . . The adjustment of the sexual passion to the love of virtue is for Jane Austen the central question, as it is for Rousseau, and the wholly unclassical expectation of these novels is that one’s beloved will be one’s best friend or that marriage itself is the essential friendship.10

For Bloom’s Austen, romantic eroticism need not necessarily be a distraction from the quest to live virtuously, let alone an excessive and detrimental passion that excludes reason. Her position is that, properly cultivated and pruned, sexual desire might be made to assist in the search for virtue. By painting marriage as the highest form of friendship, Austen is translating the philosopher’s quest for virtue and truth into the loving relationship between husband and wife. This necessarily recasts the sexual tensions as somehow natural to the pursuit of virtue. Elizabeth and Darcy, and Emma and Knightly, are indeed desired by each other, but this natural desire supports and improves their quest to live the best life possible—a quest not completely unlike that of Aristotle’s philosophical friends.

This is not to say that romantic love is totally rehabilitated by Austen. Certainly she warns her readers about the dangers of romantic attraction and certainly her novels contain many illustrations of the destructiveness of romantic love. The escapade of Lydia and Wickham comes immediately to mind, as does the wayward romance of Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. One must be careful not to overstate this point, however. While Austen’s goal is surely not to advocate the sentimental approach of “love conquering all,” neither is it to advocate a rationalistic approach whereby love is simply enslaved by reason.

MacIntyre characterizes Austen’s views well and aligns himself more closely with Bloom’s interpretation, in suggesting that in Austen’s depiction of romantic friendship, virtue provides a practical basis for the passions. “Morality in Jane Austen is never the mere inhibition and regulation of the passions,” he states, but “is rather meant to educate the passions.”11 Therefore MacIntyre argues that, for Austen, the moral intellect actually teaches the passions what is proper and improper to want, thus redirecting rather than stifling the passions by providing them with a stable foundation. Ruderman goes further, claiming that in Austen’s presentation of passion, the integration of the highest form of friendship with the marriage contract actually deepens and increases the emotional passion of the relationship. She argues that without virtue “it is not possible to have the depth of feeling that leads to real attachment.”12 Thus, the virtuous lovers, in her view, are also the most passionate ones.

Austen, then, seeks not simply a sort of negotiated compromise between reason and romance within the bond of matrimony, but she wants reason and romance to mutually reinforce and increase each other. Stated differently, she seeks to avoid a human soul that is divided between logos and eros and pursues instead a higher unity of soul in which both aspects are augmented. Bloom views this holistic solution of Austen in this way:

This romantic friendship could be understood as a kind of idealism in which the whole self is engaged without the separating out of the ele ments that friendship used to require; or, it could be understood as a hardheadedness that, not trusting in the self-sufficiency of the spiritual, gives an anchor in the body and its passions.” 13

Presumably Austen’s blending of emotional and intellectual elements is intended to unite and improve the entire person, so as to result in a better integration of Aristotelian friendship with the varied facets of human existence.

Even though Allan Bloom was clearly fascinated by Austen’s attempt to unify a concept of friendship similar to Aristotle’s with an understanding of Rousseauesque romanticism, he remained unconvinced that such a blending was possible:

For Aristotle, the friendship of shared discourse is the highest thing to which everything else must be subordinated while receiving its due. In Romantic love, friend, lover, father or mother of one’s children, and fellow citizen are all the same, and no act of subordination is required. This is a charming and tempting solution, but does it work, and does it give each of the elements its proper due?14

Bloom ultimately rejects Austen’s solution on the grounds that there is no reason to think that romantic love and classical friendship have any intrinsic connection to each other. He seems to think that Austen is naïve in failing to notice that friendship and eroticism do not share a necessary relationship, and thus that any coincidence between the two will be, at most, only accidental.

One wonders, though, whether Austen is really so naïve as Bloom suggests. Does she really think that the marriages she wants are likely to occur? Does not Austen tacitly admit that the sort of marriages she advocates will be exceedingly rare, if for no other reason than that virtuous people who are able to make each other the objects of romantic love are themselves exceedingly rare? Most of the matches within Austen’s novels are not good ones; it is only the match between the hero and the heroine that belongs to the highest type. Austen understands that the good, the pleasant, and the useful almost never coincide in the way we might hope; stated differently, Austen understands at least as well as Aristotle that the philosophical life and the domestic life will remain distinct for most people, and that the latter needs to be subordinated to the former in the souls of most serious human beings.

One piece of evidence suggesting that Austen does recognize this problem is provided especially in her narrator’s description of the life of Mr. Bennet, Elizabeth’s father. He had foolishly fallen for a woman beautiful in body but weak in mind, and soon “respect, esteem, and confidence” were gone from his marriage. He did not seek solace for his lack of “domestic happiness” in the vices to which most men in such situations turn, but had sought his consolation in a life that is described in philosophical terms:

He was fond of the country and of books; and from these tastes had arisen his principal enjoyments. To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement. This is not the sort of happiness which a man would in general wish to owe to his wife; but where other powers of entertainment are wanting, the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are given. (II.19)

Mr. Bennet, as the narrator explains, is painfully aware that his domestic life does not coincide with the higher life of his mind. We should be careful in taking the phrase “the true philosopher” at face value, but Mr. Bennet does spend most of his days in his library, and when he emerges it is to view the people around him with an amusement that comes from his knowing that he is superior to them. To be sure, Austen depicts Mr. Bennet as being, in the end, imprudent, for his neglect of the education of his daughters proves to be most detrimental to his family, although not really to himself. Nevertheless, her narrator’s portrayal of Mr. Bennet suggests that Austen understood very well that the contemplative life and the domestic life rarely line up, and that therefore often the best marriage must remain one that can be founded only in speech. Bloom’s contention that Austen misunderstood something crucial in offering her synthesis of the friendship of ancient philosophy with the matrimony of the modern age may itself turn out to be only a misunderstanding of Austen.


1. Allan Bloom, Love and Friendship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993). One notes that Austen’s first attempt at novel writing, undertaken at the age of fifteen, was titled “Love and Friendship.”

2. Bloom, 201, 191, and 208, respectively. Bloom even reminds his readers that Leo Strauss himself had compared Austen to Xenophon in On Tyranny (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1963), 198. In the passage, Strauss says that “we are in need of a second education in order to accustom our eyes to the noble reserve and the quiet grandeur of the classics,” including especially Xenophon, and he notes that “those modern readers who are so fortunate as to have a natural preference for Jane Austen rather than for Dostoievski, in particular, have an easier access to Xenophon than others might have; to understand Xenophon, they have only to combine the love of philosophy with their natural preference.” Irving Kristol recalls Strauss making a similar point in this way: “Strauss, in conversation, once remarked that it was entirely proper for a young man to think Dostoevski was the greatest novelist, but it would be a sign of maturity when he later concluded it was Jane Austen who had the most legitimate claim to that place.” See Irving Kristol, Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea (New York: Free Press, 1995), 9. Although Bloom’s understanding of Austen as in some sense an Aristotelian is uncommon, it is not unique. Anne Crippen Ruderman, Bloom’s former student, goes so far as to say of Austen that “it would be possible to use her novels to illustrate the view of human nature put forth in Aristotle’s Ethics, which is not at all to say that she meant them to do this”; see her The Pleasures of Virtue: Political Thought in the Novels of Jane Austen (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995), 8. David Gallop says of Austen’s moral thought that “Aristotle’s ethics can be read as an uncanny anticipation of hers”; see his “Jane Austen and the Aristotelian Ethic,” Philosophy and Literature 23.1 (1999): 98. Also Gilbert Ryle, “Jane Austen and the Moralists,” in Critical Essays on Jane Austen, ed. B. C. Southam (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968), 114–22; David Fott, “Prudence and Persuasion: Jane Austen on Virtue in Democratizing Eras,” Lamar Journal of the Humanities 24 (1999): 17–37.

3. Ethics 1155a25–27, trans. W. D. Ross, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Modern Library, 2001). All quotations of the Ethics in this essay will be taken from Ross’s translation; references will be to Bekker numbers and will be given in parentheses in the text.

4. #107 in Jane Austen’s Letters, 3rd ed., ed. Deirdre La Faye (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 275.

5. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 224.

6. Mansfield Park, I.9. All quotations of Austen’s works in this essay will be taken from the various volumes of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen; references will be to novel volume and chapter and will be given in parentheses in the text.

7. See Bloom, 192.

8. Ruderman, 49.

9. Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 82. With the phrase “intelligent love,” Trilling is relying, he says, on an anonymous critic who wrote of Austen in 1870 in the North British Review.

10. Bloom, 195–96.

11. MacIntyre, 224.

12. Ruderman, 63.

13. Bloom, 207.

14. Bloom, 207.