Faculty Publication | Dr. Angela Franks - Saint John's Seminary
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Faculty Publication | Dr. Angela Franks

December 15, 2020

The Plane Where Nietzsche and Jane Austen Meet

by Angela Franks December 15, 2020

Originally published by: Church Life Journal

Our age is marked by a pervasive culture of narcissism, as Christopher Lasch saw so well. One way in which this expresses itself is the housewife malaise that Betty Friedan notoriously critiqued in The Feminine Mystique in the mid-twentieth century. Even before Lasch, Friedan put to words the central problem of cultural narcissism, namely, the loss of a sense of self in an age of consumerism. We live in an age of empty selves.

This situation can be understood better by making a distinction hinted at in Plato, between the inner reality and the appearance of the self. I will call the latter the doxic self (from doxa, dokēin, “to seem”). Plato in The Republic, book V, distinguishes between knowledge (episteme) and opinion (doxa) by contrasting the attitude of true philosophers (philosophoi) with the lovers of opinion (philodoxoi). The philosophers love what is (478a), which is the basis of knowledge: the beautiful, for example, in itself, which does not change. The lovers of opinion love what both is and is not (478e), “an apparitional many” (476a), that is, beautiful things.[1] Opinion (doxa), in other words, is concerned with the appearance of the one, good, and beautiful rather than the knowledge and reality of unity, goodness, and beauty in themselves.

Being and appearance need not be at war; in fact, I would argue that primordially they form an organic whole.[2] But the history of thought shows the gradual theoretical rupture of the original unity, such that appearance (Plato’s doxa) has become a replacement for being. Along with the theoretical shift has come an increasing emphasis on appearance and a neglect of reality. Put in terms of the self and narcissism: If the interior self withers (a mark of narcissism), there remains only the exterior appearance, which takes on an inordinate degree of importance. As researchers of the malady have put it, “For narcissists, life is a lot about show.”[3]

Jane Austen on Deception

SPOILER WARNING: Jane Austen novel spoilers ahead!

While widespread cultural narcissism is fairly new, attempts to replace reality with appearance are not, as the Republic shows. But the problem has taken on a particular flavor and importance in modernity. The phenomenon of deception can shed light on this. Of course, lying is hardly limited to modernity. But in the modern context, the phenomenon expands from a primarily ethical to a broadly anthropological one. As I will pursue it here, the question is now not only: “Ought I deceive others?” It is also: “Is it possible for me to be other than a deceiver?”

As this shift occurred, so did the development of a literary genre well-suited to capture it. Louis Dupré and Charles Taylor have both observed that it is no accident that the novel is a modern genre. Its narratival form can roam the unspoken thoughts of the characters, thereby exposing any breaks between reality and appearance.[4]

The moral program of Jane Austen can be seen in this context. Her novels repeatedly present the possibility for happiness (especially for women) as dependent upon the ability to tease out truth from plausible insincerity in others (especially men). The mistrust of superficial charm, an achievement often hard-won by her heroines, separates the mature from the immature. For example, Anne Elliot’s close friend Lady Russell in Persuasion, upon meeting Anne’s cousin Mr. Elliot, “could not seriously picture to herself a more agreeable or estimable man. Every thing [sic] united in him; good understanding, correct opinions, knowledge of the world, and a warm heart.”[5] And yet, Anne does not trust him. It is a matter not of feeling but of “judgement.”

Mr. Elliot was rational, discreet, polished, but he was not open. … [Anne] felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped . . . Mr. Elliot was too generally agreeable. Various as were the tempers in her father's house, he pleased them all.[6]

And Anne is proven right. In these scenarios, the mechanisms of male power exploit disempowered women—for status (Elliot), money (Wickham in Pride and Prejudice), entertainment (the complicated utilitarianism of Frank Churchill in Emma), emotional thrills (Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility), sex (Wickham again), or all of the above (the astonishing brother-and-sister pair of seducers, Henry and Mary Crawford, in Mansfield Park)—by creating tempting appearances that are designed to flatter and deceive. For Austen, women in particular need to cultivate wisdom in order to see through seduction to the truth of the person.

As Haley Stewart argued, Alasdair MacIntyre highlights the way in which Austen, especially in Mansfield Park, contrasts the constancy of virtue with the ephemeral and untrustworthy nature of charm. In my terms, charm functions as a doxic reality, one that concerns appearances. Virtue, in contrast, refers to the core of the person, who and what she truly is, which is reliably expressed in what she does. The protagonist “Fanny is charmless; she has only the virtues, the genuine virtues, to protect her.”[7]

Mansfield Park was the novel with which Austen followed her smashing success in Pride and Prejudice. The later book’s completely different heroine might be attributed to the author’s desire not to be typecast, but Austen has more significant fish to fry than authorial reputation. Richard Jenkyns astutely observes that Fanny is the anti-Lizzie, while her most formidable obstacle, Mary Crawford, is what Elizabeth Benet would be without virtue. Mary is described just as is Lizzie: dark, small, active, and, most importantly, with a sparkling wit. Edmund, desired by both Fanny and Mary, emphasizes Mary’s “playfulness,” a description frequently used for Lizzie.[8] In Mansfield Park, Austen sketches a picture of wit without candor, of intelligence without a moral compass, in both Henry and Mary Crawford. She shows us that, even more than brilliance, virtue is the greatest human good.[9]

Jenkyns points out that the plot of Manfield Park, by about half way through the book, appears to be a variation of that of Pride and Prejudice. We know how this story will end, we might think: Fanny’s virtue will improve Henry, and his liveliness will make her more fun, while Edmund’s gravitas will ground and transform Mary through their respective marriages. Salvation for likeable characters will be gained through good marriages, and the book will end on a comic note.

Of course, none of these things will happen. Henry and Mary, and even more so Fanny’s cousin Maria and the odious psychopath Mrs. Norris, are as permanently dispatched to a place beyond redemption as a Georgian novelist writing in a realistic style could manage. Modulated into an apocalyptic key, the text banishes them to hell.

Contrast Pride and Prejudice: Elizabeth, Darcy, Jane, and Bingley, not to mention middle-sisters Mary and Kitty, are all saved, and things turn out as well as they could have for Lyidia and Wickham. (“And they must marry! Yet he is such a man!” “Yes, yes, they must marry. There is nothing else to be done.”).[10] Mr. and Mrs. Benet have failed in many ways as parents, and yet they are rewarded beyond what was their desert: “Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters.”[11] In Mansfield Park, by contrast, Austen underlines that happy endings do not always and comprehensively bestow happiness to all, especially to the vicious.

Mansfield Park and Doxic Charm

Let us return to the Crawfords to see why. In Mansfield Park, Austen emphasizes more than she did in Pride and Prejudice how corrosive doxic charm can be to the charmers themselves when their lives are so insistently focused on externals. Her delicate portraits of the siblings show that they are incapable of constancy, even when they truly wish to be. And both Henry and Mary wish, by the climax of the book, to be faithful to Fanny and to Edmund respectively.

“Yes, Mary,” was Henry's concluding assurance, “I am fairly caught. You know with what idle designs I began—but this is the end of them. I have (I flatter myself) made no inconsiderable progress in her affections; but my own are entirely fixed.”[12]

The omniscient narrator qualifies this at the end: “Would he have persevered, and uprightly, Fanny must have been his reward—and a reward very voluntarily bestowed—within a reasonable period from Edmund's marrying Mary.”[13] Jenkyns observes that Henry’s attachment to Fanny is believable even on the basis of his character: “He is exactly the type of man who marries his secretary” (135). Austen wants the reader to understand that Henry is actually sincere about his love for Fanny, but he cannot turn on a dime and become virtuous simply on the basis of his passion.

In part, the Crawfords cannot act truly because they do not see truly. MacIntyre emphasizes the importance of self-knowledge for Austen, and the Crawfords never move past the point of thinking of themselves as fundamentally in the right (at least, until it is too late). They are unable to distinguish between appearance and reality, in ways that baffle Fanny and (eventually) Edmund, whose reactions mystify the Crawfords in turn. As MacIntyre notes, Henry “takes being a clergyman to consist in giving the appearance of being a clergyman” (241). Likewise, Mary presents the defects of Henry and Maria’s final alliance as a problem of appearance: “It was the detection, not the offence which she reprobated.” The siblings are speaking a completely different moral language from the Christian one of Fanny and Edmund.

This divergence is seen early. It is clear to the reader, because it is clear to Fanny, while Edmund remains almost willfully blind for most of the novel. Indeed, the evidence Mary presents to him could not be more explicit, literally. What must be the only example of a particular kind of humor in Austen’s oeuvre is uttered by Mary Crawford in reference to her naval upbringing: “Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears, and Vices, I saw enough. Now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.” In reaction, “Edmund again felt grave, and only replied ‘It is a noble profession.’”[14] Surely a (truly funny) buggery joke—that Edmund gets!—should be enough for a genteel future clergyman to figure out the character of the woman in front of him. Yet it will take him the rest of the novel to decipher what was written for him by Mary in plain letters from the very beginning.[15]

The obfuscating power of doxic charm when it is not an expression of a corresponding virtue drives much of the plot of the novel. It is remarkable how many people will eventually confess to Fanny that they did not see what they should have seen, that they confused appearance with reality. Edmund admits, “It had been the creature of my own imagination, not Miss Crawford, that I had been too apt to dwell on for many months past.”[16] Even more painfully, Fanny’s uncle Sir Thomas Bertram, in reflecting upon his bringing up Maria and her sister, realizes that he has prized the doxic over the substantial:

Something must have been wanting within, or time would have worn away much of its ill effect. He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting . . . To be distinguished for elegance and accomplishments—the authorised object of their youth—could have had no useful influence that way, no moral effect on the mind. He had meant them to be good, but his cares had been directed to the understanding and manners, not the disposition.[17]

Austen carved out this point in relief by making Fanny so charmless that there is no possibility of anyone confusing manners with disposition in her. Fanny’s no-frills virtue is the archetypal and opposing pole to the one at which the Crawfords stand, namely, that of empty wit. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen gave Lizzie both charm and (at least incipient) virtue. In Mansfield Park, she separated them out in order to better distinguish them and to push us, the readers, to acknowledge that, while charm and virtue together might be ideal, virtue is the more precious accomplishment, because it is more real.

Austen on the Modern Identity Crisis

What needs to be emphasized is why this is such a specifically modern problem. MacIntyre notes that Austen is “preoccupied in a quite new way with counterfeits of the virtues” (241). In a sense, Austen responds proleptically to Nietzsche’s abolishment of the moral subject: “There is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed.”[18] Translated into Austen’s terms, this is tantamount to saying that the interior reality of virtue is displaced by the exterior appearance. Nietzsche, in other words, does not merely value the exterior over the interior; rather he replaces the interior with the exterior. All that is left is the doxic. In Scholastic terms, it is a world of accidents without substances.

Lest we be disoriented by the comparison between Nietzsche and Austen, we should remember that she stands at the beginning of the century that he ends. She lived in the midst of—and then with the after-effects of—the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Austen’s lifetime overlaps with that of Kant and Hegel. Churchill famously said of the people of Austen’s day, in contrast with those of his own: “What calm lives they had, those people! No worries about the French Revolution, or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic Wars.”[19]

Indeed, one would not know from her fiction that Austen was writing after the action by the French Constituent Assembly in 1789 to abolish feudal privileges. Yet, the militia that temporarily employed Wickham was mustered in the event of a possible invasion by Napoleon. Of course, the situation of the English gentry differed considerably from that of the French, given England’s prior centuries of a more equitable distribution of power. Nevertheless, Austen’s world in fact straddled the old ways of class-based distribution of societal rank and the new ways of a more radical egalitarianism.

The shifting political sands were just one element of the larger transition into a more all-encompassing modernity at the time. While the seeming fixities of class-based identity became shaken, religion as a formative influence would recede like Matthew Arnold’s tide. By the end of the 1800s (but anticipated for centuries), Nietzsche would declare the ambivalent fact of the death of God. These changes brought along with them an identity crisis for those used to defining themselves by their class-status and their religion.

In Austen’s fiction, while up-and-coming merchants such as the Bingley family highlight the new-found fluidity in class status, the Crawfords represent the ambivalent drift away from religion. While not militant atheists (unlike, it seems, their corrupt guardian, the Admiral), they are nevertheless fundamentally unaffected by religion—a state that would have been wellnigh impossible a millennium or even two centuries before. They present as Anglicans, but they have no understanding of a theistic world-view and how it might alter their moral choices. This detachment is what makes Mary so uncomprehending about Edmund’s persistence in becoming a cleric. The Crawfords lack a moral center, which means, for Austen, that they are fundamentally hollow.

If their spiritual core is impoverished, the Crawfords demonstrate the value of the currency they have in spades, namely, sparkling conversational ability. Within the boundaries of elite society, in which much of the entertainment as well as the duties centered around social gatherings rather than solitary pursuits, such coin was prized indeed. This is why Austen zeroes in on charm as the dear yet dangerous quality that will be the center of her moral narratives.

This consistent critique of charm can seem excessive to us, but our distance from her is due mostly to the intervening shift in social mores. In the online world, in which snark passes for wit, the pleasure of the delicate interplay of clever conversation is not easily experienced and therefore relatively unvalued. But we do have other realities that function structurally as charm did for Austen, realities that are equally doxic.

To take just one example: a hundred years after Austen, as utilitarianism and materialism more deeply permeated the social imaginary and after the Industrial Revolution realigned economic, social, and familial structures in a more impersonal direction, the rise of eugenics occurred. Modern genetic and population theory switched out man’s spiritual interiority with a purely biological one—the genetic code, expressed externally in quantifiable measures such as IQ and physical health. In this scenario, man is what his genes say he is. This flattening and demystification of humanity meant that the external qualities measured by doctors and demographers became the primary things that mattered for human worth. Or, take the shift of the basis of class-status from that of aristocratic privilege to meritocratic accomplishment. The new elite is marked by admission to the right colleges and by the proper trappings of success. One can imagine how Austen would object to these over-evaluations of superficial, doxic qualities.

Austen had already grasped that the core of the problem was precisely the absence of a core of the self. As MacIntyre says, in reference to Henry Crawford, “Self is almost, if not quite, dissolved into the presentation of self” (241). Charm is a good, and Austen herself had it in spades, but it becomes problematic when it orbits around an empty self. Thus, the problematic of charm reveals that what really marks personal reality must pertain to being more than to doing, given that doing is the genus containing the species of charm.

Austen on Being and Doing

Doing, when it is uprooted from being, asymptotically veers toward pure doxa, pure appearance. This is the metaphysics of the problematic of charm, or of any other case of deception: doing must be capable of misrepresenting being, of occluding rather than expressing what is real, in order for charm to be dangerously unreliable concerning the truth of a man. This means that doing must be relatively detachable from being, but also secondary to it, because the point of putting on appearances is precisely to change others’ perceptions of reality (of being). That is, Mr. Elliot wishes to compel people to think that he is a prudent, insightful, and trustworthy man.

Then what does get to the truth of being if charm is so fallible? What qualities could accurately capture the hidden internal reality of a person if appearances can be so misleading? Austen’s answer was: virtue, or its converse, vice. The adjectives needed to describe the internal core of a person are found in the vocabulary of the reality or absence of the virtues. This is why, even though she explored the wide variety of ways in which appearance can be divorced from reality, she did not subscribe to a cynicism that would have all appearances be merely doxic. Such skepticism about the ability of appearances to reveal an inner core had been theorized by her time, in the Kantian division between the phenomenal and the noumenal.

In contrast, Austen believed that the person does eventually reveal herself by her actions, even if that revelation requires careful interpretation in order to be read correctly. Doing and being are not cut off from each other, because goodness entails a good person doing good actions. But there is a priority between them. The mark of integrity—seen consistently in Darcy, who, even when he is immature and selfish, at least refuses to dissemble, and seen always in Knightley—is for a man’s appearance to match his reality. Yet, as Elizabeth puts it to Jane, in speaking about Darcy and Wickham, “There certainly was some great mismanagement in the education of those two young men. One has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it.”[20] Elizabeth exaggerates somewhat, because Darcy’s deficient goodness was reflected in his deficient manners. Darcy ultimately needed to acquire both more goodness as well as its appearance. Nevertheless, his growth entailed not so much better manners as the acquisition of respect for his fellow-man; when that happened, his manners followed suit.[21] Doing follows upon being.[22] Appearance is no replacement for goodness.

In the great shift in modernity from being to doing, the human person was pulled along in its wake. If there is no doer behind the deed, then there is, practically speaking, nothing but the doxic. In a sense, all of my actions would be deceptive, because they would not—could not—ever express my character.[23] If my identity is the residue of my performative actions, rather than the other way around, then I am never expressing myself, only creating it.[24] Being would follow upon doing. It might sound liberating, but Austen would recognize it as a world tailor-made for Elliot, Wickham, the Crawfords, and all the rest who prefer to trade in appearance rather than reality.[25]

Austen would recognize this world, because she saw it in a less overt form in her time. She knew that the more attenuated a person’s inner life is, the more comfortable he is in living in appearances. This is why, ultimately, her charming villains are so pitiable, because they are so hollow. Because they have not prioritized their being over their appearance, they become insubstantial. The forces that, in her world, rewarded the doxic over the substantial have accelerated rapidly in our day. Today we live in a world in which, as Roberto Calasso puts it, “What prevails is a ubiquitous lack of substance, a deadly insubstantiality. It is the age of the insubstantial.”[26] It is the age of the triumph of the doxic over the real. One can only imagine the novels Austen would write today.

[1] Using the Allan Bloom translation, The Republic of Plato (New York: Basic, 2016).

[2] This essentially aesthetic truth cannot be pursued further here. I am relying in particular on Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Logic, vol. 1: The Truth of the World, trans. Adrian J. Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001); see also my “Deleuze, Balthasar, and John Paul II on the Aesthetics of the Body,” Theological Studies, forthcoming.

[3] Constantine Sedikides, Sylwia Cisek, and Claire M. Hart, “Narcissism and Brand Name Consumerism,” in The Handbook of Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Theoretical Approaches, Empirical Findings, and Treatments, ed. W. Keith Campbell and Joshua D. Miller (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley., 2011), 382-392.

[4] See Louis Dupré, Passage to Modernity (New Haven, CT.: Yale, 1993), 99-102. See also Charles Taylor in Sources of the Self (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard, 1989), 368-391, who emphasizes the importance of expression as a category for the modern self. The very category of expression, against the backdrop of a split between conscious being and exterior reality, emphasizes and deepens the possibility of expression that is not true to what it expresses. This drama is well-suited to narration within the genre of the novel.

[5] Jane Austen, Persuasion (1818), vol. II, ch. 16, available at http://www.austen.com/persuade/.

[6] Persuasion, vol. II, ch. 17.

[7] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN.: UNDP, 2007), 242. Future references will be parenthetical.

[8] In his last description of her, in Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814), vol. 3, ch. 16, available at http://www.austen.com/mans/.

[9] See Richard Jenkyns, A Fine Brush on Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004), the whole chapter on Manfield Park (“A Park with a View,” 93-149), but in particular 137. Future references will be parenthetical.

[10] Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813), vol. 3, ch. 7, available at http://www.austen.com/pride/.

[11] Pride and Prejudice, vol. 3, ch. 19.

[12] Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814), vol. 2, ch. 12.

[13] Mansfield Park, vol. 3, ch. 17.

[14] Mansfield Park, vol. I, ch. 6, emphasis in the original.

[15] See Jenkyns, A Fine Brush, 126. I am indebted to Jenkyns for opening my eyes to the joke.

[16] Mansfield Park, vol. 3, ch. 16.

[17] Mansfield Park, vol. 3, ch. 17.

[18] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter Kaufmann, essay 1, §13.

[19] Winston Churchill, Closing the Ring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951), 425.

[20] Pride and Prejudice, vol. 2, ch. 17.

[21] Interestingly, the pat definitions given in a conversation about Darcy by Mary Bennet of pride and vanity both emphasize the doxic: “Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us” (Pride and Prejudice, vol. 1, ch. 5). And, indeed, he cares much too much about others’ good opinions. His conversion will entail moving away from the primacy of the doxic and toward a more substantial goodness. This move is expressed, among other ways, in his willingness to pay off Wickham without Elizabeth’s ever finding out, and in the process to open himself and his sister up to possible gossip over her past.

[22] To be more precise, I should say that this priority of being over doing entails a virtuous (or vicious, as the case may be) circle between being and doing. Doing does in fact change one for the better or the worse, but that ability to change depends upon the ontologically prior reality of being. I address this question from the perspective of John Paul II’s understanding of praxis and action in “A Wojtyłian Reading of Performativity and the Self in Judith Butler,” Christian Bioethics (Sept. 2020), https://doi.org/10.1093/cb/cbaa011.

[23] I treat the anthropological and ethical aspect of expression in “Deleuze, Balthasar, and John Paul II on the Aesthetics of the Body.”

[24] I treat this aspect of recent thought in “A Wojtyłian Reading of Performativity and the Self in Judith Butler.”

[25] I haven’t even mentioned Lady Susan, given that the unfinished form of the novel makes drawing conclusions from it imprudent, but she might be the most cold-blooded of all of Austen’s doxic villains.

[26] Roberto Calasso, The Unnamable Present, trans. Richard Dixon (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), 4.

Featured Image: Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jean Hebuterne in Hat and Necklace, 1917; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-70.