Plato’s Republic famously addresses the question: What constitutes the just man and the just society? After extended dialogue with several interlocutors, the character Socrates comes to describe the ideal man. Plato’s speaker (hereafter referred to as Plato for simplicity) posits that all men have three parts—desiring, calculating, and spirited—but it is “the [person] within whom each of the parts minds its own business [who] will be just . . . ” (Plato 441e). Plato elaborates, explaining that justice is “not . . . a man’s minding his external business, but . . . what is within . . . [He] sets his own house in good order and rules himself; he arranges himself, becomes his own friend . . . ” (443c-d). A man who can thus become his own friend is fitted to be a guardian of society, protecting it from external enemies and the danger of factionalism within. However, according to the famous Parable of the Cave, enlightenment must first come through the painful process of being dragged out of darkness “into the light of the sun” (516a). Such a process may be seen in the writings of an author seldom associated with Plato: Jane Austen. A striking, yet characteristic passage describes the eponymous heroine of Emma regretting her unfortunate advice to her friend Harriet and “think[ing] that she should never be in charity with herself again” (137). Such feelings of shame and repentance reoccur and are central in Austen’s oeuvre. However, Austen’s novels conclude with the rising action of comedy. Her characters find friendship with themselves and with others as they take on the roles of guardians in their communities and in the microcosmic society of the family.
It is highly unlikely Austen would have read Plato. Classical texts in a Georgian-era home would have been in the original languages and thus inaccessible to most girls. However, it is the ubiquity of Platonic thought in the western intellectual tradition that justifies a comparative analysis. Surprisingly, therefore, explorations of Austen’s philosophical roots seem to be confined largely to comparisons with Aristotle. For example, in Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues, scholar Sarah Emsley explores Austen’s perspective on justice, but situates her in an Aristotelian tradition rather than a Platonic one. Clearly, Austen’s link to Plato is not direct. However, viewing Austen as part of an intellectual tradition concerned with justice and the regulation of society and behavior may illuminate some commonalities. The idea that Austen is just as concerned with moral and philosophical themes as with marriage and romance is not new. C.S. Lewis notes the “great abstract nouns of the classical English moralists” (such as good sense, courage, reason, and fortitude) that she frequently employs throughout her novels (28). Austen may be read as working out her conceptions of a just life and society through the microcosmic world of the courtship-centred novel. Several of Plato’s notable allegories and analogies—especially the Allegory of the Cave and the tripartite man—find philosophic counterparts in her works. Austen’s interest in the moral education of her characters is similar to Plato’s delineation of the education of the guardian class in his ideal polis; just as Plato must first examine unjust regimes in his search for the ideal, so Austen’s novels provide numerous examples of guardians who fail to practice justice and guard society. Ultimately, however, both Austen and Plato come to a similar conclusion on the good life as private and domestic.
C.S. Lewis notes the moments of “undeception” or “awakening” that occur for four of Austen’s heroines: Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, Marianne Dashwood, and Catherine Moreland (27). To find, as Elizabeth does, that “till this moment [she] never knew [her]self” (P&P 236), or as in Emma’s case, that “never had she felt so agitated, so mortified, so grieved” (E 325), is an experience similar to that of the man who is “dragged . . . by force along the rough, steep, upward way” out of Plato’s cave (Plato 515e). The centrality of the “great abstract nouns,” noted by Lewis, is itself an example of the Platonism within the Anglican moral tradition to which Austen belonged. Such concepts as self-examination and repentance arise from the constant attempt to move closer to the highest, transcendent form of the good; this quest is the telos (goal) of Plato’s conception of the just life (540a-b). Having described the man’s emergence from the cave, Plato asserts: “[T]he turning of a soul around from a day that is like night to the true day . . . is [that] which we shall truly affirm to be philosophy” (521c). The assent to self-knowledge is not merely a personal journey. The enlightened philosopher must return to the cave to govern and replace those “men who fight over shadows with one another and form factions for the sake of ruling” (520c). Ultimately, the centrality of such turning points in Austen’s narratives reveals her to be concerned with the question of how individual philosophic contemplation contributes to the function of society.
Following the Parable of the Cave, Plato goes on to consider the education that will “be an art of this turning around” (518d). Education must be most carefully regulated for the guardian class who are to ensure the harmony and order of the city. Austen’s novels present a similar conception of certain characters as guardians. The guardian position is most often assumed due to class, wealth, and gender. Two characters in Pride and Prejudice present an interesting contrast in how the role is espoused or rejected. Lady Catherine de Bourgh, although excluded by her gender from an official position of guardianship, is “a most active magistrate in her own parish” (191). Her anxiety that the “shades of Pemberley” be not “polluted” is an attempt to protect class boundaries (400). She claims to protect Elizabeth’s “own good” by forbidding her to “quit the sphere in which [she has] been brought up” (398). However, for Elizabeth, a gentleman’s daughter, to marry Mr. Darcy would not be a violation of class boundaries. Through Elizabeth’s assertion that she is not “quitting that sphere,” Austen‘s narrator arraigns mercenary motives and self-deception rather than class distinctions (399). Lady Catherine unconsciously reveals an attitude to class corresponding to Plato’s “noble lie,” designed to ensure harmony and order among the classes. In the ideal polis, the people are to be told that the god “in fashioning those of you who are competent to rule, mixed gold in at their birth; in auxiliaries [soldiers], silver; and iron and bronze in the farmers and craftsmen” (415a). While Elizabeth’s and the narrator’s reaction to Lady Catherine’s officiousness is not egalitarian in a modern sense, it does emphasize Lady Catherine’s mistake of meddling in something “wholly unconnected” with her (400). She has not learned that regulation of one’s own self is the first step toward guardianship.
In contrast to Lady Catherine, Mr. Bennet enjoys the political privileges of a male in a patriarchal society, but refuses to take on the responsibilities the role of father and husband requires. “Peace at Longbourn”—or rather in his sanctum of a library—is more important to Mr. Bennet than his family’s “respectability in the world,” which Elizabeth views as under immanent threat from Lydia’s unrestrained behavior (260). Additionally, his failure to protect his daughters from the machinations of unprincipled, mercenary men like Wickham proves that new guardians must be educated to prevent further disgrace to a family already marked by its factionalism. Who are the new guardians to be? Marilyn Butler, author of the seminal work Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, declares: “The ‘true’ marriage which follows close and sceptical analysis of the self is also the marriage which commits a couple to a responsible leading role in society. Jane Austen’s heroines have a tendency to end up married to clergy or land-owners, the spiritual or material leaders of a local community” (215). Contemplating Darcy’s picture, Elizabeth reflects: “As a brother, a landlord, a master… how many people’s happiness were in his guardianship!” (280). His role as guardian of his sister Georgiana extends and repeats when he searches for Lydia and financially provides for her marriage to Wickham. “Imput[ing] the whole to his mistaken pride,” he essentially accepts responsibility to guard all who may be injured by Wickham’s deception (359). Following her painful encounter with the truths of Darcy’s letter, Elizabeth also has come to know and be in friendship with herself. It is this experience of contemplation and self-knowledge that makes her a worthy mate for an established guardian like Darcy. The ending of the novel situates her in an enlarged sphere of authority from which she can provide her sister Kitty “proper attention and management,” thereby beginning to remedy the disordered factionalism of the Bennet family (431).
The landed gentry, such as Darcy, are notable for their positions as guardians. However, as Butler notes, clergy are also spiritual leaders in Jane Austen’s society. In Mansfield Park, Austen again addresses the idea of guardianship in relation to the clergy. When Mary Crawford denigrates the clergy, Edmund Bertram responds: “I cannot call that situation nothing, which has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally—which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence” (74). However, foolish clergymen abound in Austen’s oeuvre, including Dr. Grant—the very proto-type of Plato’s appetitive man. He is a “selfish bon vivant, who must have his palate consulted in every thing [sic]” (90). Edmund, who is to take Dr. Grant’s place as clergyman of Mansfield, may be regarded as his successor in the guardian role. Edmund has already practised educating the young by “recommend[ing] the books” which influence Fanny and “correct[ing] her judgment.” However, his inconsistent choice to join the play because of his attraction to Mary Crawford proves that he has not fully learned to govern the appetitive part, which Plato associates with sexual desire, and the spirited part, which Plato associates with the desire for fame and approval (439e-442d).
In fact, it is Fanny—subtly transformed from the incessantly-crying waif of the earlier chapters—who emerges as most suited to be moral guardian of Mansfield. Although Fanny frequently appears passive, she may in fact be the closest of Austen’s heroines to Plato’s ideal of the philosopher king (or queen) who by “keeping company with the divine and the orderly . . . becomes orderly and divine, to the extent that is possible for a human being” (500d). Emsley reads Fanny as Austen’s most contemplative heroine. She quotes Michael Griffin’s view of Fanny’s white attic as “a trope for Greek thinking or the life of the mind,” but argues that such a designation is better applied to “the East room” where Fanny analyzes the actions of the (literal and figurative) actors on Mansfield stage (113). Emsley further notes that the plants and books Fanny keeps in the East room “represent growth and development” (113). Despite the philosophic predominance in Fanny’s nature, her sphere of influence is small. R.F. Brissenden notes that while “Fanny finds her rightful place in her true family . . . she has married the younger son and not the heir, and . . . will never be mistress of the estate” (169).
Fanny and Elizabeth both move from some obscurity into positions that entail guardianship. In contrast, Emma Woodhouse’s importance is affirmed from the beginning of the novel. She tells her protégé Harriet: “Consequence I do not want—I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house as I am of Hartfield” (92). Indeed, Emma’s misguided attempts to orchestrate the lives of others create much of the narrative tension in the novel. She essentially tells Harriet a “noble lie,” (temporarily) convincing her that she is too good for Robert Martin. The fact that Emma’s meddling with Harriet is roundly condemned by the plot of the novel might indicate Austen is more egalitarian than Plato. However, the narrator is quick to reassure readers of the last chapter that “the intimacy between [Harriet] and Emma must sink” and that this “ought to be, and must be” (411). Harriet, after all, has been given “a very indifferent education” (74) and can never be imagined as one of the guardians of Highbury; she does not belong to the “gold” class.
Emma Woodhouse, of course, has a foil in Augusta Elton. Mrs. Elton espouses the role of one who “may be safely authorized” to be “Lady Patroness” of everything from strawberry picking parties to the fate of Jane Fairfax (E 307). It is ironic that Emma finds Mrs. Elton insufferable, since both attempt to orchestrate the lives of those around them. However, as Emsley points out, charity “increases the positive social image and self-image of the benefactor” (135). In contrast, the ideal Platonic guardian is one who does not desire power, but approaches “ruling as a necessary thing” (520e). Mrs. Elton may be identified with the spirited part characterized by Plato as overly concerned with honour and appearances (Plato 435d-end). Although Emma herself at first appears to have similar motivations, she emerges from the “blindness of her own head and heart”—a cave in which she has been seeing mere shadows of the real relations between those around her (E 354). She has learned that justice is not “a [wo]man’s minding [her] external business” or that of her neighbors; rather, it is “with respect to what is within,” including how she allows her inward thoughts about others, such as Miss Bates, to reveal themselves in words (Plato 443d).
Emma Woodhouse is set up as the heroine most likely to be a guardian in society, yet even this novel seems to end in withdrawal from public roles, for it is among a “small band of true friends” that “perfect happiness” is realized (412). If Austen partakes of philosophical concerns about justice and guardianship in society, why do her novels end in the private sphere of domesticity? It is enlightening to compare the ending of The Republic itself with Austen’s novels. In Book X Plato makes a shift from the Socratic-dialogue method to narrate a new allegory, no less powerful than the more famous Allegory of the Cave. After a journey that “lasts a thousand years” the souls come to the celestial place where the Fates spin out lives. Each is given the opportunity to choose the next life he will lead, and in this choice is “the whole risk for a human being” (618b). Many who have lived responsibly or suffered on earth choose wealth and tyranny. Odysseus is the last to choose and goes “around for a long time looking for the life of a private man who minds his own business” and is “delighted to choose it” (620d). After Plato’s extended debates and dialogues on various regimes, this great philosophical work finishes with a story about choosing a simple life. The individual who has learned self-government—and consequently, self-friendship—is the best surety for the stability of society.
Plato’s Socrates is a gadfly whose pronouncements can been read in various ways. Similarly, Austen’s irony sometimes causes polarization between those who view her as conservative or those who view her as subversive. Guardians—fathers, the clergy, and the rich—can be read as failures who must be replaced by youth who have learned to mind their own business. However, in focusing on private lives and domestic endings, Austen also emphasizes the centrality of the well-ordered microcosm of society: the family. Ultimately, whether subversive or conservative, both Plato and Austen stimulate thought about what it means to practice virtue and “become [one’s] own friend” through a life of contemplation and upward movement out of the cave of self-deception (Plato 443d).