An Afternoon Enlightenment
Jane Austen on Love
When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other's ultimate comfort. This may be bad morality to conclude with, but I believe it to be truth;
- Persuasion, chapter 24, Jane Austen
I am far from being an expert on love, but today I got a lesson in the philosophy of love from one of the masters of that field, Jane Austen, via a lecture by Elisabeth Lenckos who, inter alia, is program chair of the Jane Austen Society of North America, Greater Chicago Region and an instructor in the Basic Program and Humanities, Arts, and Sciences, the University of Chicago. Titles aside, Ms. Lenckos is a scintillating lecturer who was able to maintain the entertaining side of Jane Austen all the while she was expanding the horizons of the attendees, or at least my horizon regarding Austen's philosophy of love and some of its philosophical sources. It was an afternoon in which we were entertained with the history of an idea - the idea of love.
While I cannot begin to relate all the myriad details shared in Ms. Lenckos' talk I can share some of the highlights and ideas that I found particularly interesting. The talk began with a division of Austen's novels into two groups: the "lighter" novels - Pride & Prejudice, Emma, and Northanger Abbey; and the more "serious" novels - Sense & Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion. She distinguished between three types of Love in three of Austen's novels suggesting that the protagonists of each demonstrated 1) Moral, platonic love in Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, 2) a More empirical ethical love in Emma, and 3) a union of the two types in Anne Elliot of Persuasion. Ms. Lenckos went on to discuss philosophical approaches to love from Aristotle and Plato to the Idealist approach concluding that Austen understood all of these and as an "artist" of love was able to develop and " appreciation of an ideal of love". Austen did not preach about love, but observed it and shared her observations through the invention of the modern love story.
What is the source of Austen's genius on the subject of love? It seems that she was able to develop a comprehensive view of the philosophies of her own time, including the rise of sensibility (Earl of Shaftesbury, Hume and Smith) and develop stories about real people who lived and loved, learned and grew through their experiences. Perhaps the best and greatest example was Anne Elliot in Persuasion who through eight years of effort, studying literature rhetoric and poetry was able to mature and through her reason win the love of Captain Wentworth. Through this talk I learned about female philosophers with whom I was unfamiliar including Mary Astel (1666-1731) who influenced Austen. The result of this talk was the expansion of my understanding of Jane Austen's genius and an enlightening afternoon. A fine way to spend Valentine's Day.