Monday, September 28, 2009
What Jane Austen and Thomas Aquinas Have In Common
This past weekend I gave a presentation for a local chapter of JASNA (The Jane Austen Society of North America) on the theme of "The Faith of Jane Austen." I don't wish to recap all of my points here, but I came across a statement by (St.)Thomas Aquinas which summed up perfectly what Austen's attitude about faith was, as expressed (0r not expressed, I should say) in her books:
"To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible." Aquinas
The first half of this statement was particularly true for Jane when it came to writing her books. She mostly sidesteps the issue of religion, operating on the assumption that most of her audience were members of the Anglican church, just as she was. Being an Anglican in her day meant that you had familiarity with (and implicit agreement with) the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Faith, which school children had to study. Certainly, all of the genteel class, like the Austen family themselves, would have been thoroughly familiar with the articles, (which summarize the beliefs of the church). Children, in fact, were supposed to memorize it in whole or in part, including some of the psalms and collects from the Book of Common Prayer--the primary book of reading for adherents. Anglicanism was the "Church of England," the state religion, and so of course Jane
assumed that most of her readers were familiar with its teachings.
Jane's thrust in her books was to go beyond mere "religion," mere elemental outward tokens of an assumed faith, to sift the motives of her characters. Like Christ, she examines the heart.
Religion was necessary, and church is mentioned in passing often enough so that we know, for instance, that Mr. Darcy attended services, as indeed, all of her sympathetic characters do. Even the ones she is critical of are assumed to do the same. Additionally, these issues didn't present challenges for her personally--Austen doesn't bother with elemental faith issues because they were settled for her (she was devout), but also because she didn't feel an explanation was necessary. The important thing was to know how deeply people were, or were not, living the virtues of a life based on that faith, on their religion.
She was not afraid to poke fun at clergymen or others who were hypocrites, as she had no fears of such undermining the validity of her beliefs. Such people were moral failures in one way or another, and Jane was particularly able to spot them, for she grew up surrounded by models of what true churchman were. She knew better than most, what a proper clergyman was; she had a father and two brothers who served as models; she had cousins and uncles in the profession; she had neighbours and friends of the clergy. She was surrounded by models, both good and bad, and she knew how to show both types in her fiction.
No less than three of her six major works have clergymen as their heroes.The other three have men who are as morally developed as a clergyman should be, at least by the end of the novel (Darcy, Ferrers) if not at the beginning (Knightley). (Edward Ferrers is not yet fully developed in his social manners, but he has behaved with undeniably heroic virtue.)
Every sentence I've written here could be expounded upon at length, and I wish I had the time to do it! But right now I don't. However, let me add that for most of her life, Jane did not like or approve of evangelicals, another reason her works are singularly NOT evangelistic in nature; but she had no less a sincerity of faith than they; and by the end of her life, she reassessed her position, saying,
"I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be evangelicals, and am at least persuaded that they who are so from reason and feeling must be happiest and safest."
Note that "reason" and "feeling" are keywords in Austen. Reason and feeling=sense and sensibility, and only a balance of the two can make a person fully moral and actualized. One of Austen's themes is that decisions or behaviour based ONLY upon reason, or ONLY upon feelings, can be unfortunate at best, or disastrous at worst.
However, the person who acts upon a proper balance of both, (and with an implicit moral understanding based on their knowledge of God) will be acting wisely, and will get the best results in life.
During my presentation, I discussed how Austen always shows her sympathetic characters questioning their behavior (manners) based not on a modern idea of asking "Who am I?" but on the basis of who they are in society. This is an enormous distinction. In a sense it is, "to whom much is given, much is required." If you are truly noble, it is not your title that will determine it but your manners and actions. If you are truly Christian, it is not your outward vocation, but your motives and actions that will prove it.
I find myself thinking that Austen, in this light, has much to teach us today about the way we should live. Much to teach me. Who we are in society--our society, our personal circles of family, friends, and co-workers, should in large part determine how we behave. For example, are you a mother? Take care of your children. A wife? See to your husband. A manager? Treat those under you with compassion and mercy. The values in Austen's books will always be with us and always be relevant: they come from the Judeo-Christian ethic, the Bible.
This has been a jumble of thoughts about themes that I enjoy exploring in Jane Austen. There is much more to be said on any of them, of course. What about you? Care to comment? Have you found that the "manners and morals" of Austen have spoken to you in your life? I'd love to hear about it.