The Novel and Moral Philosophy 3: What Does Lennox Do with Moral Philosophy Words?

The previous two posts explored how an eighteenth century novel uses words from an associated topic to fulfill, and perhaps shape, the expectations of an audience looking to immerse themselves in a life as it is lived. In this post I want to think a little more about the idea that the red words identified by Serendip’s topic model do something exclusively “novel-like” and that the blue words are exclusively “philosophical.” Both sets of words seem, rather, to aim at a common target, since each contributes something distinctive to the common project of rendering a moral perspective on lived experience. I want to caution against thinking of these topics as “signatures” of different genres; they may instead index narrative strategies that criss-cross different types of writing.

Take, for example, the passage from Lennox’s Euphemia that appears toward the bottom of the screen shot below:


After relating several details about her relationship with her aunt and uncle, Maria concludes: “BEING in this unfavourable disposition towards me, he [Sir John] was easily persuaded to press me to a marriage, in which my in|clinations were much less consulted than my interests.” This sentence illustrates some of the dynamics that Park described in her earlier post. On the one hand, Maria’s letter immerses the reader in a scene from life, rendering vivid the circumstances that led her uncle to make a fateful decision about Maria’s marriage prospects. Yet at the same time, the narrator dips frequently into the vocabulary of a more removed and somewhat static moral judgment – one that appraises “circumstance” in relation to “actions” and “interest.” The red words, novelistic in our analysis, are the words that show us how something happened: Maria’s uncle Sir John decided to force her into “marriage,” ignoring his niece’s wishes or inclinations because he was in an “unfavourable” disposition that made him more easily “persuaded” to this course of action. (We are getting contextual details – backstory – that make his decision intelligible.) These red, novelistic topic words – marriage, persuaded, unfavorable – are thus necessary for rendering the sequence of events that prompted her change of fortunes. A man was persuaded, his favor had changed, and a marriage ensued.

But the narrative sequence opens up onto a more general possibility for analysis. An abstract noun – “interest” – is offered as the nominal criterion for her uncle’s decision, but in the context of the sentence it seems to gloss the uncle’s reasoning as he might represent it to Maria (“this marriage is in your interest”), not the narrator’s feelings about that reasoning (“it was in my interest”). What we are getting, then, is the narrator’s view of how her uncle made his decision, what circumstances contributed to his thinking, even the abstract concept that he could have invoked in the absence of any residual “natural” sympathy for his niece’s inclinations. One sees, perhaps, a tension between the kinds of abstract nouns that appear in works of moral philosophy – in the screen shot above, “natural” “actions” “circumstance” “interest” – and the concrete terms of relation that render action for us in a more vivid, immediate way.

What is interesting about this passage is that it shows us how flexible the abstract vocabulary of moral philosophy can be when it is introduced into the narrative stream of a novel. In the passage above, Maria tells us that her aunt, Lady Harley, was stung by jealousy when she witnessed Sir John’s pleasure at hearing his niece read. Out of spite, the aunt insinuates that there is a contradiction between the “oppression and faintness” that Maria purportedly has complained of and her manifestly good spirits, which Sir John would otherwise take on face value. Maria then uses the abstract noun “circumstance” to characterize the fact of her good spirits, a fact which Sir John is now (culpably) discounting.

The shift in register becomes necessary because Sir John has abandoned his natural sympathy for Maria and is instead bringing a quasi-judicial process of weighing her actions (thinking “circumstantially”). It’s the intermixture of these fragments of moral reasoning with images of life as it unfolds – a didactic mix of abstract nouns and personal actions – that are allowing Lennox to stage distinct layers of sympathy and indifference, serving them all up for the reader’s observation. The shift to moral evaluation is even more decisive in the following passage from letter V, in which Maria tells Euphemia how Sir James came to doubt her aunt’s deprecations and once again view his niece in a favorable light:

SnipImage12Maria is moving into the realm of generalization (“I have often observed…”), and this shift requires the writer to “investigate” the ways in which Sir James was led to “compare” Maria’s behavior with a secondhand “picture” that has been drawn of her “disposition” by her aunt. These blue words might be seen as pivots in a process of moral judgment – the same process that the novel’s reader had to employ in evaluating Sir James’ earlier souring on his niece. Because this process itself is now the subject of narration, it is not surprising that the vocabulary needs to be more structured and abstract.

In using Serendip to explore how Euphemia behaves linguistically qua novel, then, we must start with the idea that novels mix the vocabularies of these two topics in order to layer points of view and to involve the reader, experientially, in a world where actions have moral significance. Moral philosophy words (blue) are important because they mark occasions where that state of experiential immersion has been temporarily deflected onto some explicitly moralizing, explicitly generalizing consciousness, a consciousness which may or may not be that of the narrator. Regardless of its origin, the capacity of that consciousness to withdraw temporarily from the particulars of the narrative and to render judgment on a kind of act seems a crucial aspect of the novel’s program, which Julie Park described in her previous post in terms of the novel’s epistolarity and emphasis on sensibility.

We can say, moreover, that this procedure of mixing words from these two topics also occurs in formal works of moral philosophy. Consider the passage from Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments below:


In this passage, Smith is describing the way in which a man – any man whatever – will alter his treatment of his friends if suddenly elevated in social status. Such a man becomes insolent and petulant, which is why Smith believes that one should slow one’s social rise whenever possible. “He is happiest,” Smith writes, “who advances more gradually to greatness, whom the public destines to every step of his preferment long before he arrives at it…” Smith is encouraging his audience to pass judgment on a drama whose characters are never rendered concrete, characters whose actions illustrate a concept. The closest Smith gets to a novelistic treatment of the life world occurs just after he has presented his maxim above. Instead of calculating and re-calculating one’s standing among friends, Smith writes, one should find “satisfaction in all the little occurrences of common life, in the company with which we spent the evening last night.” Smith modulates into the red here, drawing words from the life world as if he himself is reporting on events in his own life just the night before, events which ground and so justify the moral pleasure he takes in them precisely because they are not bloodless and calculating. Smith has, for a sentence or two, become an epistolary novelist, and it is this sudden (and relatively rare) excursion into the every day – the world of “last night” – that allows him to show the difference between happiness and its opposite.

As an excursion, this passage has to be brief. There is “a lot of blue” in moral philosophy because, as philosophy, it needs to be systematic – indifferent, in other words, to the most particular details of the life world. But the subject of this philosophy is certainly the stuff of novels: dramas of sympathy, judgments of circumstances and the precise analysis of the qualities and intentions suffusing different acts (including the quality of failing to be concrete in one’s observations). If the burden of system building were relaxed, Smith too might write volubly about the “satisfactions” one finds “in the little occurrences of common life.”

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