Emma and the Philosophers

Fragments on reading Austen’s Emma through the lens of various philosophers.

Emma and Kierkegaard

Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Kierkegaard stresses that the second half of the command is just as important as the first: love of neighbor is grounded in and equal to (to exceed would be idolatry) our love of ourselves.  Emma, not knowing herself, does not love herself as she is, but as an idol, of what she seems to be.  Thus, she cannot fully love her neighbors until she comes to know herself.

Emma and Pascal

Emma’s worry about intellectual (note, not social) solitude points us towards Pascal. She is afraid to sit in a room alone with herself. 

More, she does not know herself. She tells Harriet, “If I know myself, Harriet, mine is an active, busy mind, with a great many independent resources.” But she doesn’t, hence her mistaken evaluation of Harriet and others (particularly in reference to how they see her, for instance Elton, Kingsley, Churchill). 

Harriet is a diversion.  Thus, Emma sees her as a means, as useful, not as valuable in her own right. Indeed, she repeatedly refuses to know Harriet as she actually is (see her conversation with Knightley after she’s convinced Harriet to refuse Martin’s proposal).  Worse, she takes her use of Harriet to be charitable.  It is mere condescension.

Emma and Plato

Another philosophical resonance in Emma, this time with Plato, is the distinction between appearances and reality.  Since Emma, at least at the outset, tends to regard things superficially. Since she is unwilling/unable to contemplate herself, she often confuses appearances for the thing itself.  She personally shows the outward marks of charity, but lacks it in its fullness.  Merely sending meat and visiting the poor is not enough when divorced from charity in thought.  Again, it is mere condescension. Similarly, she is deceived by Harriet’s appearance, insisting that she must be the daughter of a gentleman, must be more intelligent and worthy than she truly is.  Martin, too, she sees only an uncouth, awkward farmer lacking refinement, missing the mind that lies behind the appearances.  Even when confronted with his letter, which reveals that mind, she initially denies that it could have been written by him and refuses to adapt her picture to the reality. The idol takes precedence over the real.  Examples multiply, Miss Bates is another, Mr. Weston’s superficial friendship, etc. 

This phenomenon is revealed more starkly in the case of Mrs. Elton, her utter preoccupation with appearances and her exercise of ostensible charity (ostensible is a good word here, “represented to others, apparent”). She presents, and is only concerned to present, a likeness of virtue to others, a shadow, nothing real.  Mrs. Elton apes the good manners/character that Emma actually possesses, and, in doing so, reveals that she lacks these qualities. 

Finally, compare Kingsley’s evaluation of Frank Churchill with Emma’s.  The former recognizes that Churchill is aimable, but that he is not amiable, “your amiable young man can be amiable only in French, not in English.”  Emma, lacking such penetrative insight, fails to see this by looking only at the idol of Churchill constructed by his father, his appearance, and Churchill’s own, very fancy, letters. 

The other major Platonic theme is, of course, “know thyself”, a key theme in all of Austen’s writing and fundamental to her ideal of moral development.   Striking that this self-knowledge is always accompanied by suffering, not physical, but mental as she (by extension we) are forced to confront herself and her failings, but it’s through this suffering that moral improvement is made.  There’s obviously a strong redemptive, Christian overtone here.

One response to “Emma and the Philosophers”

  1. […] every time you turn to the Iliad or Dante or Emma you find something new, and it is the exhilaration of that discovery, the sense of it unfolding […]

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