Human Nature and Civil Society in Jane Austen

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Date: Winter 2021
From: Independent Review(Vol. 25, Issue 3)
Publisher: Independent Institute
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,177 words
Lexile Measure: 1230L

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Jane Austen, in her six novels published between 1811 and 1817, provides us with a picture of human nature that is grounded in classical liberalism. In particular, her interpretation illuminates Adam Smith's Theory of Moral intents (1759), which provides a theory about how free individuals in a free society would develop moral character. Austen's characters teach us about the virtues we should practice and the vices we should avoid in order to lead fulfilling lives. The moral development of her characters arises as a spontaneous order among free people in a free society. Furthermore, her story lines give us a glimpse into the types of economic arrangements that recognize the dignity of all and further promote human flourishing.

The virtues described by Smith and illustrated by Austen are prudence, (1) beneficence, and justice. We develop these virtues out of self-love and concern for others. "Concern for our own happiness recommends to us the virtue of prudence: concern for that of other people, the virtues of justice and beneficence; of which, the one restrains us from hurting, the other prompts us to promote that happiness" (Smith [1759] 1982, 262). The virtue of self-command is the root of these virtues.


Prudence is a self-directed virtue, and each of us is best suited to take care of himself or herself. As Fanny Price explains in Mansfield Park, "We all have a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be" (Austen [1814] 2005, 478). This sentiment is also found in Adam Smith, who maintains, "Every man is, no doubt, by nature, first and principally recommended to his own care; and as he is fitter to take care of himself than of any other person, it is fit and right that it should be so" ([1759] 1982, 219).

A prudent person tries to maximize long-term self-interest. To illustrate prudence or the lack thereof, Austen gives is the contrasting examples of Anne Elliott and her father, Sir Walter, in Persuasion. Sir Walter's vanity leads him to overextend his finances so much that he can no longer afford his estate. While his wife was alive, she "kept him within his income," but after her death "he had been constantly exceeding it" (Austen [1816] 1983b, 1149). He is convinced that "[i]t had not been possible for him to spend less" because he had merely spent what was expected of a baronet (1149). The novel opens with Anne and Sir Walter's dear friends, Lady Russell and Mr. Shepherd, trying to convince him of a plan for economizing so that he can pay off his debts.

Lady Russell devises a plan that, if followed, would clear his debts in seven years. Anne would have preferred an even more aggressive plan. "She considered it as an act of indispensable duty to clear away the claims of the creditors, with all the expedition which the most comprehensive retrenchments could secure, and saw no dignity in anything short of it" (1150). Lady Russell's plan...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A652364011