The English philosopher Jane Austen saw and did what others were unable to see and to do: she wrote six excellent novels in a tone of high seriousness. Because of this, she can be classified with Plotinus. I call a serious tone that which is most just, which has its object clearly in view and approaches it in such a way as to apprehend it best. This road leads to immediate contact with the object of understanding, rather than mediate understanding which is more diffuse and therefore not quite as serious. Seriousness of tone, therefore, is a matter of epistemology.
Mansfield Park is a novel about the discernment and apprehension of goodness of character—the epistemology thereof, if you will. It is a novel about the invisibility of character and about how, as a consequence, it must be perceived. One can say it is a novel about education, in the spoiled education of Maria Bertram, the inexact, but ultimately better education of Julia Bertram, and the providential education of Fanny Price, whose limitless humility without seeking to show displays in all of the adversities and disadvantages she undergoes a sweetness of temper, a purity of mind, and an excellence of principles beyond that of all the other women. But the point is to apprehend the outcome of each education, and in doing so to discern the causes.
We are led through the pages of this, Jane Austen’s longest novel, in order to discern what is truly valuable in the character of any human being in absolute terms. That is one reason I call Jane Austen a philosopher—in the more ancient sense of the term. Along the way we also learn what it is that blinds human beings to the apprehension of these valuable things. We learn as well how these rare, valuable qualities are not of the sort which consciously promote themselves. Hence one of the difficulties in discerning them: they are like jewels that need to be mined in acquaintance, friendship, and discerning thought. This novel’s vision is one of character and morality quite the opposite of our contemporary notions, and as such, very necessary. It is a vision opposed to all unexamined notions since it is one provided as a view through a window of examination. Nobody can deny that Jane Austen provides a sustained vision of civilization; and in our times, a rare glimpse it is.
Civilization does not reside externally, but it is best discerned in that which the novel does: in the inward part of the perceiving subject. The novel is a way of bringing us into the mind of a person, into the subjectivity, or better, immediacy of one perceiving the outward world in all the color of thought and feeling. Civilization obtains when persons share an ordered and harmonious music produced by thought and feeling about their surroundings which is in tune. When Fanny Price goes back to Portsmouth, the absence of civilized life and the impossibility of it in the city is keenly felt. This is a most philosophical observation on the part of Jane Austen.
No literate Anglophone should life without making and acquaintance with the mind of Jane Austen, that bright and observant person, a true genius. Her vision is sustaining, her intelligence refreshing, and her morality is unerring. What could be better? It is only the philistine who is cut off from the prolonged pleasure and deft instruction that this great English philosopher has left to us in her six incomparable works. It is hard to say, apart from Northanger Abbey, which is the greatest because they are all so good. Personally, I rate Mansfield Park as one of the best, as a bookend to Emma.