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CONSTANCY AND FORGIVENESS:
THE NOVEL AS A SCHOOL FOR VIRTUE
"Character is not cut in marble; it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing, and may become diseased as our bodies do," said Mr. Farbrother.
"Then it may be rescued and healed," said Dorothea.
—George Eliot, Middlemarch
MacIntyre on Constancy
Alasdair MacIntyre makes Jane Austen the heroine of his After Virtue because she is "the last great effective imaginative voice of the tradition of thought about, and practice of, the virtues." According to MacIntyre, Austen's greatness was her uniting of Christian and Aristotelian themes in a determinative social context—the genteel household—that required as well as nourished recognition of the central importance of the virtue of constancy. For constancy, like Aristotle's phronesis, is a prerequisite for the possession of all of the other virtues.
I am sure that MacIntyre is right to call our attention to the importance of constancy, and in particular to Austen's development of it, yet I hope to show that his basic insight can be developed further by attending to Anthony Trollope's sense of constancy, at least as it is reflected through Trollope's understanding of the ethics of a gentleman. Trollope saw a necessary relation between forgiveness and constancy, a relation that suggests why constancy is as conceptually elusive as it is important for a well-lived life. Through such an analysis, moreover, I intend to show why novels, or at least novels like Austen's and Trollope's, are an irreplaceable resource for training in moral virtue. However, before I can turn to Trollope I must give an account of MacIntyre's understanding of constancy and why the virtue is so difficult to characterize.
In spite of his argument for the centrality of constancy, MacIntyre is singularly unable to provide us with concrete images and/or depictions of it. That such is the case, however, denotes its special character. For unlike all of the other virtues, which can be spelled out in reference to concrete practices, integrity or constancy cannot be specified "at all except with reference to the wholeness of a human life." So unless there is "a telos which transcends limited goods or practices by constituting the good of a whole human life, the good of a human life conceived as a unity, it will both be the case that a certain subversive arbitrariness will invade the moral life and that we shall be unable to specify the context of certain virtues adequately." In particular, we will not be able to distinguish counterfeit virtue from true virtue.
Through her novels, Jane Austen explored the demanding and difficult task, both for the observer and for the agent, of distinguishing true from false virtue. She knew well that the distinction is as much a problem for the agent as for the observer, since there seems to be no end to our capacity for self-deception. Living at a time when the outward appearance of morality might always disguise "uneducated passions," she knew only a relentless honesty could assure true virtue. It may thus seem surprising that Austen places such emphasis on amiability, which Aristotle called agreeableness, since no virtue seems more open to pretense. Indeed, for Aristotle pretense is required for amiability, since as a virtue amiability is formed by our quest for honor and expediency. For Austen, however, the possessor of amiability must have a genuine loving regard for other people and not only the impression or regard too often disguised by perfect manners. For amiability to be a virtue, therefore, a rigorous form of self-knowledge sustained by constancy is required.
MacIntyre observes that the identification of constancy as a virtue is relatively recent. Kierkegaard simply assumed constancy as a crucial characteristic of the moral life when in Enten-Eller he contrasted the ethical and aesthetic ways of life. The ethical life was portrayed as one of commitments and obligations that unite past with future so that life is given a unity. In Austen's world, however, "that unity can no longer be treated as a mere presupposition or context for a virtuous life. It has itself to be continually reaffirmed and its reaffirmation in deed rather than in word." It is this reaffirmation that is called constancy.
Beyond this account, MacIntyre (and Austen) primarily tells us what constancy is by suggesting in what ways it is similar to but unlike other virtues:
Constancy is reinforced by and reinforces the Christian virtue of patience, but it is not the same as patience, just as patience which is reinforced by and reinforces the Aristotelian virtue of courage, is not the same as courage. For just as patience necessarily involves a recognition of the character of the world, of a kind which courage does not necessarily require, so constancy requires a recognition of a particular kind of threat to the integrity of the personality in the peculiarly modern social world, a recognition which patience does not necessarily require.
MacIntyre suggests it is particularly telling that the Austen heroines who most exhibit constancy, that is, Fanny Price of Mansfield Park and Anne Elliot of Persuasion, are also the less charming than Austen's other heroines. For charm is the quality used by those who simulate the virtues to get by:
Fanny is charmless; she has only the virtues, the genuine virtues to protect her, and when she disobeys her guardian, Sir Thomas Bertram, and refuses marriage to Henry Crawford it can only be because of what constancy requires. In so refusing she places the danger of losing her soul before the reward of gaining what for her would be a whole world. She pursues virtue for the sake of a certain kind of happiness and not for its utility.
Like all of Austen's heroines, these two must seek the good "through seeking their own good in marriage. The restricted households of Highbury and Mansfield Park have to serve as surrogates for the Greek city-state and the medieval kingdom."
Without question MacIntyre has rightly directed our attention to constancy as a significant virtue not only for Jane Austen but for ourselves. In a fragmented world that can only encourage our bent toward mendacity and self-deception, surely constancy is required. Yet it remains unclear what constancy is and how it may be best characterized. The sense of unity that constancy entails involves a sense of self-possession and self-mastery, but it is equally clear that constancy cannot be explained solely in those terms.
Moreover, constancy seems to suggest a sense of being set, of being a person who can be trusted not to change. Yet Austen (and, we will see, Trollope) depicts the person of constancy not only as one who is able but who is required to change. If, as MacIntyre (with Austen) suggests, constancy names the quality that allows us to reaffirm the unity of our projects, it seems plausible to suggest that we may have to change, since there are aspects of our selves, past commitments we have made, that ought not to be honored. How, if at all, can constancy be adequately characterized to account both for our need for unity, on which our claims to be responsible seem to lie, and for the equally strong demand that we be ready to change?
I think there is no "solution" to the problem of characterizing constancy in a formal mode. MacIntyre wisely does not attempt such an analysis in After Virtue because he rightly senses that constancy is of a different order than courage, temperance, kindness, and similar virtues. Moreover, that it is so helps explain why novelists such as Austen and Trollope are crucial for our better understanding of the nature of constancy. Because of its teleological and temporal character, constancy cannot be formally defined; it can be displayed only through the unfolding of a character's life. The telos of a human life, which MacIntyre rightly argues makes possible as well as requires constancy, is not an end that can be known in and of itself, but rather it can be enacted only through the telling of a story. Thus, in a decisive sense we cannot know what constancy involves apart from tales like Austen's of Fanny Price or Trollope's of Plantagenet Palliser.
Individuality, Constancy, and the Bearing of a Gentleman
The problem of characterizing constancy is similar to the difficulty of describing what it means, or meant, to be a gentleman. Indeed, as Shirley Letwin makes clear in The Gentleman in Trollope: Individuality and Moral Conduct, almost all attempts to characterize formally what it meant to be a gentleman proved to be insufficient, and worse, contradictory. Though a gentleman might be a person of ancestry, wealth, power, or fashion, none of these conditions in themselves were sufficient or even necessary for someone to be a gentleman. The gentleman often is described as having a talent for being agreeable in a variety of circumstances and with different people, but how he is to do that, and at the same time maintain the integrity or honesty that seems to exist at the heart of being a gentleman, is not easily explained. Again, a gentleman is expected to preserve a certain mildness, no doubt deriving from inner calm and self-possession based on a sense of his worth, but how such a demeanor is to be maintained while defending the helpless, fighting for the right, or maintaining lasting indignation is left unclear.
Letwin further suggests that there is great confusion about the relation between having manners and being a gentleman. Manners count, everyone agrees, but the idea that a gentleman can be made through "conformity to a 'code' of behaviour, to the 'convenances' of society, of etiquette, or the rules of fashion is steadily denounced as a sign of vulgarity. The stickler for the proprieties of the dinner table or the correctness of his pronunciation is definitely held not to be a gentleman but a gentel parvenu." Letwin thus concludes an examination of books and articles from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries on what it meant to be a gentleman with the observation that it is "impossible to doubt that a gentleman is a character whose native habitat is England. But a coherent explanation of what identifies him is not to be found among either the Englishmen or the foreigners who have written so much in praise of the gentleman."
That such is the case, however, is not accidental. For what it means to be a gentleman offers
no ideal to realize, no goal to achieve, no pattern to fulfill, no absolute targets, indisputable commands, inevitabilities, or final solutions. Nor is anything given in the form of drives or structures from within, or forces from without, pushing men to do this or that. In this picture, the only thing given to a human being is the power to choose what to see, feel, think, and do, which constitutes his rationality and humanity. In other words, rationality has a totally different character. It is not a link to something outside the human world, neither to Nature or Spirit; nor is it a power of discovering any other non-human source of eternal truth such as natural "processes" or "structures." Though called reason, it must not be confused with a cosmic principle of "Reason." It is a purely human property which enables men to make of themselves what they will.
Thus, what defeats all attempts to characterize what it means to be a gentleman, and, I think, the virtue of constancy as well, is the inextricable individual stamp that constancy and being a gentleman entail. Such individuality has nothing to do with the doctrine of individualism with which the world of Austen and Trollope was just beginning to suffer and which has become our fate. Rather, constancy is a correlative of a character that allows our lives to be narrated in an ever-changing but still steady manner. "Seeing human beings as 'characters' means recognizing that they make their individuality for themselves by how they choose to understand and respond to what they encounter, and that this individuality is the essence of their humanity."
The world of the gentleman is therefore not one in which we are but manifestations of the more real or but parts of a whole. "Each is in himself a whole." We are what we learn to be, and we learn by submitting ourselves to the authority of a master. Our individuality emerges, therefore, from society with other selves and can be expressed only by the means provided by that society. Yet virtue does not consist in conformity with societal expectations, since by definition the morality of a gentleman must be personal. The gentleman does not seek to be free from all restraints in order to discover "his true self," because he knows his self is made from the materials provided by his communal life. "The richer the materials, the more subtle and various can be the product."
A gentleman does not seek, therefore, to find certainty amid a world that offers none. Rather, the fixity, or constancy, of the gentleman is of a different sort:
It is a conquest of mutability not by renouncing or trying to overcome or stifle it, but by developing a steady way of dealing with it. This manner of conducting himself constitutes the moral excellence that defines a gentleman and is called "integrity." The quality of integrity may or may not be present in a character because the connections constituting a character may be more or less jumbled. Just as a picture may be nothing more than the shapes and colours contained within a finite frame, or may be a self-contained unity without the frame, so may the connections that constitute a man's character be unified only by being attached to the same person or by such a profound coherence that everything about him seems to be a necessary part of a whole. Such coherence constitutes the integrity of a gentleman. It might be said to make a gentleman self-possessed, self-determined, self-contained, well-regulated, or collected. But each of these words carries distracting connotations. It is perhaps less misleading to see a gentleman as the opposite of someone whose steadiness depends on conformity to something outside himself, and where such a support is missing, contradicts himself and fragments his life. When a man contradicts himself, he becomes an adversary of himself, and when he divides his life into separate compartments, he hides himself from himself and is only partly alive, like someone who walks in his sleep. Because a gentleman is aware of himself as engaged in shaping a coherent self, he would not do either.
But the language of self-awareness, of shaping a coherent self, is far too strong. For as Letwin observes, self-awareness in a gentleman need not be self-conscious, especially if self-consciousness is understood in the sense of "being aware." Such awareness can indicate a sense of "effort" that is inconsistent with the ease that characterizes a gentleman as a gentleman. To be a gentleman requires skills that include those of self-examination, of course, but such skills do not involve our modern preoccupation with our psyches.
That being a gentleman requires or assumes certain skills is perhaps why being a gentleman has so often been associated with certain familial connections or with the owning of an estate. Aspirants at least hope that the habits and responsibilities which go with such inheritance "naturally" put one on the way to being a gentleman. It by no means follows that such possession will insure one's becoming a gentleman.
It is impossible to reduce what it means to be a gentleman to a set of rules or characteristics. To be a gentleman is to be a person of judgment. What is right or wrong is not determined by generally agreed-upon rules, though such rules may certainly be helpful. Instead, deeply held convictions give him a sense of what he must do to be true to himself. That is why a gentleman, though holding profound convictions about what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior, often tolerates the behavior of others. Other judgments and behavior count if they are the judgments and behavior of gentlemen. That is why it is so often crucial in Austen's and Trollope's novels for their characters to know if they are or are not dealing with a "gentleman."
Thus, to be a gentleman is impossible without integrity or constancy. As Letwin observes:
An antipathy to self-contradiction is at the heart of integrity, and a gentleman understands himself as one among others like himself, his respect for his own integrity entails respecting the integrity of others. He will think of others in the same way as he thinks of himself. He will recognize them as personalities, as characters, whose distinctiveness he is obliged to respect, and whom he must treat as he wishes himself to be treated. He is not thereby bound to regard all men as equally good, any more than he is obliged to deny his own failings; the ability to respect others, like the ability to respect oneself, requires taking accurate note of the different qualities of different characters.
Excerpted from Dispatches from the Front by Stanley Hauerwas. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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