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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Language of Morals in “Mansfield Park”

In my previous post I referred to something I called an “aesthetic theory of morality”, which is often ascribed to moralists such as Shaftesbury. Broadly speaking, an aesthetic theory of morality attempts to equate or, otherwise link conceptually, the Good with the Beautiful.

There is more than one way that this may be done. For example, such a theory may claim that a good action is at the same time a beautiful action, or that our experience in beholding (or performing) a good act is relevantly similar in some way to our experience in beholding (or making) beautiful objects. Or a slightly different claim may be made, that only the sort of finely-tuned mind capable of properly apprehending beauty in objects is at the same time capable of properly apprehending moral good. Such a mind is motivated to act from a sense of appreciation of the beauty or “fittingness” (or in Latin, the decorum) of an action, and can appreciate the value of virtue in itself, independently of rewards and punishments. This view links moral judgment or moral character with aesthetic taste.

In the West in 2017, such a view might seem a bit strange. As judged by our high art, we are, after all, a culture peculiarly unmoved by artistic beauty. But in the 18th century, aesthetic theories of morality found wide acceptance, and not only in the rarefied circles of philosophy. One finds many of the novels of the 18th and early 19th centuries steeped in the ideas of the British moralists, and of these, it is the “aesthetic” moralists who seem to get most play.

I have this year been working through the novels of Jane Austen, a new and highly pleasurable experience for me. Of these novels, Mansfield Park (1814) has been the most interesting for my purposes. It is the one I believe to be most suffused with the language of the British moralists.

 Although Austen was obviously well-read, she didn’t wear her learning on her sleeve. She was not a name-dropper. To discern influences, one be  able to hear their cadences in her works. When it comes to the British moralists, Mansfield Park makes for particularly happy hunting grounds for me in this respect.

The first thing I will say is that the British moralist with the most obvious influence on Austen by far, at least as gauged in terms of language, is Shaftesbury. This is not an original observation. The philosopher Gilbert Ryle noted it back in 1966 when he stated that

“Her stock of general terms in which she describes their minds and characters, their faults and excellences is, en bloc, Shaftesbury’s…. Her people have or lack moral sense, sense of duty, good sense, taste, good-breeding, self-command, spirits and good humour; they do or do not regulate their imaginations and discipline their tempers. Her people have or lack knowledge of their own hearts or their own dispositions; they are or are not properly acquainted with themselves; they do or do not practise self-examination and soliloquy. None of these general terms or idioms is, by itself, so far as I know, peculiar to Shaftesbury and herself. It is the amplitude of the stock of them, and the constant interplays of them which smack strongly of Shaftesbury.” (Ryle 299-300)

Ryle is mostly correct, though his actually understanding of Shaftesbury’s thought was superficial, to put it charitably (he referred to him as an Aristotelian, which is far from the case. Platonist or Stoic would be more apt). In any case, he summed up his paper thus: “I am primarily arguing for the general, if vague, conclusion that Jane Austen was, whether she knew it or not, a Shaftesburean. It is a dispensable sub-hypothesis that she had studied the rather tedious and high-flown writings of Shaftesbury himself…. But I shall put an edge on the issue by surmising, incidentally, that she did know” (Ryle 301).

Like Ryle, I am unable to demonstrate conclusively that Austen read Shaftesbury. And like Ryle, I am nevertheless convinced that she did. To the rather limited evidence that Ryle adduced, I should like to add some more of my own. Much of this evidence is linguistic, and drawn from the pages of Mansfield Park.

(N. B. Since different editions of Mansfield Park seem to vary not only in pagination, but also in chapter numbering, I have opted not to include citations with my quotations from that work. Instead, in the bibliography at the end of the post, the reader is directed to a searchable online text. Happy hunting.)

“Character” and “Manners”

The work by which Shaftesbury was mainly known was his collection of treatises published under the title of Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711, 3 volumes). After so many readings I have become accustomed to the regular appearance of certain words in his writings. Indeed, two of them appear in the very title of his work: “manners” and “character” (and variants such as “characteristicks” and “characterize”). Being known as a philosopher of politeness (see Klein 1994), it is not surprising that “manners” occurs frequently in Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks, appearing 108 times, by my count. “Character” and variants appears there a staggering 298 times, almost always in a moral sense. Accounting for length of text, Austen’s use of “manners” in Mansfield Park is actually somewhat more frequent than Shaftesbury’s, with 52 occurrences. “Character”, in the moral sense only — not including, for example, theatrical or literary character — appears there 51 times. These are two Shaftesburean terms par excellence that are also extraordinarily prominent in Austen’s novel.

Impartiality and Disinterestedness

There is a cluster of semantically-related terms that appears with striking frequency in Mansfield Park: “impartial”, “disinterested”, “unbiased”, and variants. These occur at points where emotional distance is desirable in order to be able to make accurate moral and aesthetic judgments of people and things. The following are examples from Austen’s book (with key words and phrases in bold):

 “In the calmness of her [Lady Bertram’s] own dressing-room, in the impartial flow of her own meditations, unbiassed by his bewildering statements, she could not acknowledge any necessity for Fanny’s ever going near a father and mother who had done without her so long, while she was so useful to herself.”

“Her [Mary Crawford’s] acceptance must be as certain as his [Edmund’s] offer; and yet there were bad feelings still remaining which made the prospect of it most sorrowful to her, independently, she believed, independently of self.”

“For the purity of her intentions she could answer; and she was willing to hope, secondly, that her uncle’s displeasure was abating, and would abate farther as he considered the matter with more impartiality, and felt, as a good man must feel, how wretched, and how unpardonable, how hopeless, and how wicked it was to marry without affection.”

“Miss Crawford’s countenance, as Julia spoke, might have amused a disinterested observer.”

“Impartial” and its variants appears four times in Mansfield Park, and “disinterested” appears ten times. The last of the above quotes is of particular interest, since, rather than invoke Shaftesbury, the phrase “disinterested observer” might instead bring to mind Adam Smith, who in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) made famous the figure of the “impartial spectator”:

“We endeavour to examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it. If, upon placing ourselves in his situation, we thoroughly enter into all the passions and motives which influenced it, we approve of it, by sympathy with the approbation of this supposed equitable judge. If otherwise, we enter into his disapprobation.” (Smith 110)

For Smith, the impartial spectator is a sort of ideal observer, who can accurately assess the moral terrain of a situation because his mind is unclouded by self-interested passions and affections. However, it is important to note that the impartial spectator is not an impassive figure; he feels things, and is capable of sentimental absorption in the Good and the Beautiful. Indeed, the reader of a novel is a sort of impartial spectator, insofar as she reacts emotionally to characters and situations despite having no personal interest in the outcome of the story. The key to the concept of the impartial spectator is not lack of emotion but lack of self-interest. Smith was drawing from his teacher Francis Hutcheson, who himself drew from Shaftesbury, in the realization that one’s emotional reactions may also be disinterested. In Austen’s words, quoted above, the impartial spectator “feels as a good man must feel”. Indeed, this was one of Henry Crawford’s central failings in Fanny Price’s eyes: “‘Will he not feel this?’ thought Fanny. ‘No, he can feel nothing as he ought.’”

Now, as I said, one might be tempted to see in Austen’s language of the impartial spectator the influence of Adam Smith. However, I believe it equally likely the influence is Shaftesbury’s, for the figure of the impartial spectator, if not the precise wording, is already present in his works, as in the following passage:

“The Mind, which is Spectator or Auditor of other Minds, cannot be without its Eye or Ear; so as to discern Proportion, distinguish Sound, and scan each Sentiment or Thought which comes before it. It can let nothing escape its Censure. It feels the Soft and Harsh, the Agreeable and Disagreeable, in the Affections; and finds a Foul and Fair, a Harmonious and a Dissonant, as really and truly here, as in any musical Numbers, or in the outward Forms or Representations of sensible Things.” (II.29)

Similarly, “impartial” and “disinterested” are terms Shaftesbury deployed fairly heavily, perhaps more so than did Smith. “Impartial” appears nine times in Characteristicks, including in such phrases as “impartial regard to merit” (I.226), “impartial censure of themselves” (I.277), and “impartial use of his reason” (I.36). “Disinterested” appears 17 times, in phrases such as “disinterested friendship” (I.101), “disinterested love of God” (II.271), “disinterested judges” (III.72), “a disinterested view” (III.221), and “disinterested authors” (III.242).

Soliloquy and Self-Examination

One of the individual treatises that comprise Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks is entitled “Soliloquy, or Advice to an Author”. In it, Shaftesbury recommends the practice of soliloquy, literally talking to oneself out loud, as a method of becoming a better writer, and indeed, a better person. The practice of such open and honest self-dialogue is a route to moral improvement. One gains self-understanding through allowing one’s inner voice to speak. Those who write or speak only for an audience, without stopping to listen to what they are saying, make for poor writers and shallow people. “Soliloquy” — the concept and the word — is prominent in Shaftesbury.

Interestingly, it is also appears at least three times in Mansfield Park. In two of these occurrences, the person doing the soliloquizing is Fanny Price, seemingly the only character consistently undeluded and capable of sound moral judgment:

“‘I must be a brute, indeed, if I can be really ungrateful!’ said she, in soliloquy. ‘Heaven defend me from being ungrateful!’”

“Such sensations, however, were too near akin to resentment to be long guiding Fanny’s soliloquies.”

Fanny’s moral core benefits from regular introspection; although others rarely listen to her, she certainly listens to herself. Henry Crawford, on the other hand, is the other soliloquizer, but he lacks the capacity for introspection and honesty. His soliloquy is a performance for public consumption, and as such, is not really soliloquy at all:

“Was not that well done of me? He brightened up directly. Now for my soliloquy.”

Crawford’s “soliloquy” comes in the context of preparing for an amateur theatrical, but I do believe Austen was trying to create a contrast between his character and Fanny’s. Acting in a play is probably Crawford’s only occasion for soliloquy, and he is only play-acting at it.

Another conspicuous feature of Jane Austen’s language in Mansfield Park is its heavy use of “self” words. These are words that have “self-” as a prefix and are almost invariably used to express some reflexive act of examination, regulation, evaluation, or other moral attitude towards the self. As with “soliloquy”, the use of these terms implies introspection, and a capacity for moral self-regulation. Below is a list of these words and their frequency in Austen’s novel:

          Self-command (3)
          Self-denial (3)
          Self-reproach (2)
          Self-deceit (2)
          Self-denying (2)
          Self-willed (2)
          Self-consequence (2)

I believe that this (over)use of “self” words is, again, an indicator of Shaftesbury’s influence on Austen, for it is also a very prominent usage in Characteristicks, occurring there 128 times (not counting examples such as “self-same”, which merely express identity). Indeed, two such words appearing in Shaftesbury’s writings — “self-disparagement” and “self-governed” — pre-date the OED’s earliest citation (Hall 252). This reflexive moral language is to be expected in an author who recommends soliloquy as a method of moral self-governance. She who talks to herself, better governs herself, as Austen’s Fanny Price demonstrates.

Rhapsody and Rhapsodizing

Another of the individual treatises included in Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks is one called “The Moralists, a Philosophical Rhapsody”. It is an extended philosophical dialogue related in a letter from Philocles to his friend Palemon. The main characters of the dialogue are Philocles and Theocles. Without getting into too much detail, Philocles is a sceptic who is gradually brought round to a more positive philosophical viewpoint by the wiser Theocles.

Much of Theocles’ moral and philosophical doctrine is conveyed in the form of rhapsody, long ecstatic raptures on the beauty of nature and the order and harmony of the universe. He gets carried away with enthusiasm and finds a willing audience in Philocles. The following is a truncated example of one of Theocles’ rhapsodies:

“Just as I had said this, he [Theocles] turn’d away his Eyes from me, musing a-while by himself: and soon afterwards, stretching out his Hand, as pointing to the Objects round him, he began.
     ‘Ye Fields and Woods, my Refuge from the toilsome World of Meditation. Business, receive me in your quiet Sanctuarys, and favour my Retreat and thoughtful Solitude. — Ye verdant Plains, how gladly I salute ye! — Hail all ye blissful Mansions! Known Seats! Delightful Prospects! Majestick Beautys of this Earth, and all ye Rural Powers and Graces! — Bless’d be ye chaste Abodes of happiest Mortals, who here in peaceful Innocence enjoy a Life un-envy’d, tho Divine; whilst with its bless’d Tranquillity it affords a happy Leisure and Retreat for Man; who, made for Contemplation, and to search his own and other Natures, may here best meditate the Cause of Things; and plac’d amidst the various Scenes of Nature, may nearer view her Works.
     ‘O glorious Nature! supremely Fair, and sovereignly Good! All loving and All-lovely, All-divine! Whose Looks are so becoming, and of such infinite Grace; whose Study brings such Wisdom, and whose Contemplation such Delight; whose every single Work affords an ampler Scene, and is a nobler Spectacle than all which ever Art presented! — O mighty Nature! Wise Substitute of Providence! Impower’d Creatress! Or Thou impowering DEITY, supreme Creator! Thee I invoke, and Thee alone adore. To thee this Solitude, this Place, these Rural Meditations are sacred; whilst thus inspir’d with Harmony of Thought, tho unconfin’d by Words, and in loose Numbers, I sing of Nature’s Order in created Beings, and celebrate the Beautys which resolve in Thee, the Source and Principle of all Beauty and Perfection.’” (II.344-345)

This is just an excerpt; it goes on (and on). I find this style rather tedious, and it was not universally admired in Shaftesbury’s own day. Indeed, Pope satirized the above-quoted passage in The Dunciad. Nevertheless, it had its fans, and I suspect that Jane Austen was one of them. Compare the cadences of Theocles’ rhapsody with Fanny Price’s:

“Fanny spoke her feelings. ‘Here’s harmony!’ said she; ‘here’s repose! Here’s what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe! Here’s what may tranquillise every care, and lift the heart to rapture! When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene.’
     ‘I like to hear your enthusiasm, Fanny. It is a lovely night, and they are much to be pitied who have not been taught to feel, in some degree, as you do; who have not, at least, been given a taste for Nature in early life. They lose a great deal.’
     ‘You taught me to think and feel on the subject, cousin.’”

The capacity for appreciating the beauty and order of nature is a virtue in itself in both Shaftesbury and in Mansfield Park, and it is the source — or at least the token — of all the other virtues. Characters who cannot, Theocles-like, be moved to rhapsody by nature tend also to be lacking in other moral qualities. Rhapsody forms a basis of contrast between Fanny Price and Mary Crawford in the following passage:

“‘I am so glad to see the evergreens thrive!’ said Fanny, in reply. ‘My uncle’s gardener always says the soil here is better than his own, and so it appears from the growth of the laurels and evergreens in general. The evergreen! How beautiful, how welcome, how wonderful the evergreen! When one thinks of it, how astonishing a variety of nature! In some countries we know the tree that sheds its leaf is the variety, but that does not make it less amazing that the same soil and the same sun should nurture plants differing in the first rule and law of their existence. You will think me rhapsodising; but when I am out of doors, especially when I am sitting out of doors, I am very apt to get into this sort of wondering strain. One cannot fix one’s eyes on the commonest natural production without finding food for a rambling fancy.’
     ‘To say the truth,’ replied Miss Crawford, ‘I am something like the famous Doge at the court of Lewis XIV.; and may declare that I see no wonder in this shrubbery equal to seeing myself in it. If anybody had told me a year ago that this place would be my home, that I should be spending month after month here, as I have done, I certainly should not have believed them. I have now been here nearly five months; and, moreover, the quietest five months I ever passed.’”

Mary Crawford is unable to lose herself in nature because she is already lost to herself. She, like her brother, is the type of person who requires the noise and distraction of the city. Quietude only brings her disquiet.

The subject of rhapsody points to an interesting tension throughout the novel: On the one hand, the ideal moral agent is expected to feel, and to participate in nature and in the feelings of others. On the other hand, the ideal moral agent is also expected to be “impartial”, “unbiased”, “disinterested” and, like Fanny Price, something of a spectator. Austen “pits the absorption that marks the picturesque views against the detachment, distance, and impartiality her third-person narrative suggests constitute the proper standard of reflection” (Valihora 278). There is often a struggle in Fanny over the extent to which she can permit herself to participate in the drama of those around her. Like Adam Smith’s impartial spectator, she feels for those around her, but not to the same extent they feel for themselves.

The moral theory espoused by Austen in Mansfield Park is an aesthetic one. Virtue requires a capacity to appreciate and participate in beauty. The Good and the Beautiful are inextricably linked through concepts such as harmony, elegance, and proportion:

“The elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony, and perhaps, above all, the peace and tranquillity of Mansfield, were brought to her remembrance every hour of the day, by the prevalence of everything opposite to them here.”

And a person of good character is also a person of taste and finer sentiments:

“It was a picture which Henry Crawford had moral taste enough to value. Fanny’s attractions increased — increased twofold; for the sensibility which beautified her complexion and illumined her countenance was an attraction in itself. He was no longer in doubt of the capabilities of her heart. She had feeling, genuine feeling.”

I hope to have shown more thoroughly than Ryle did that the language of morals in Mansfield Park is largely the language of Shaftesbury.


AUSTEN, Jane. Mansfield Park.

HALL, Roland. “Shaftesbury: Some Antedatings and New Words,” Notes and Queries 206 (1961), 251-253.

KLEIN, Lawrence E. Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness: Moral Discourse and Cultural Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

RYLE, Gilbert. “Jane Austen and the Moralists,” in Collected Papers (Vol. I). London: Routledge, 2009.

SHAFTESBURY, Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of. Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (3 vols.). London, 1711 (facsimile, Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1978).

SMITH, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie (eds.). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.

VALIHORA, Karen. Austen’s Oughts: Moral Judgment after Locke and Shaftesbury. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2010.