Friday, July 24, 2009

Superbia and Vanagloria in Austen's Pride and Prejudice

Character Map
Jane Austen's
Pride and Prejudice
Click Map to Enlarge
(Image from Wikipedia)

A more developed character map than the one above would need to be dynamic to illustrate the changing relationships as, for example, Elizabeth Bennet's dislike and resentment toward Darcy turn to gratitude and love. Such a map would also need a summary of the various characters' personal traits, such as Darcy's excessive pride (and slight shading of vanity?) -- but also reveal the humbling of that pride by Elizabeth.

With respect to these character traits, I've used the Latin terms superbia and vanagloria for "pride" and "vanity" in today's blog heading because I want to recall that these two categories of vice have a long intellectual history in Christian thought. These were originally two of the eight evil thoughts distinguished by the fourth century monk Evagrius Ponticus in his treatise De octo spiritibus malitiae (The Eight Spirits of Wickedness, original Greek: Περὶ τῶν οκτῶ πνευμάτων τῆς πονηρίας). These eight evil thoughts eventually developed into the seven deadly sins, partly due to Pope Gregory I (aka Gregory the Great), who joined superbia and vanagloria into the single sin of pride in the late sixth century. The thirteenth-century Thomas Aquinas follows Gregory I in considering pride the root of all vices, but he separates vanity from pride, listing vanity as one of the seven deadly sins and arguing that pride lies at the root of each of the seven. Most lists of the seven that I've seen in English, however, contain pride rather than vanity (vanity being considered an aspect of pride).

I'm not sure that Jane Austen would have been aware of these specific developments in the history of Christian thought, given her lack of a formal education, but she did read widely and was concerned to distinguish pride from vanity even while recognizing their similarity. In chapter 5 of Pride and Prejudice, the somewhat priggish Mary Bennet makes a useful distinction:
"Pride," observed Mary, who piqued herself upon the solidity of her reflections, "is a very common failing, I believe. By all that I have ever read, I am convinced that it is very common indeed; that human nature is particularly prone to it, and that there are very few of us who do not cherish a feeling of self-complacency on the score of some quality or other, real or imaginary. Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us."
Mary's observations are ignored, but Jane Austen uses them cleverly to raise some issue and make some distinctions. These two themes of "pride" and "vanity" are returned to again later in the story, in chaper 11, when Elizabeth tells Darcy that she finds follies, nonsense, whims, and inconsistencies diverting and enjoys laughing at them whenever possible, adding, "But these, I suppose, are precisely what you are without."
"Perhaps that is not possible for anyone. But it has been the study of my life to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong understanding to ridicule."

"Such as vanity and pride."

"Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride -- where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation."

Elizabeth turned away to hide a smile.
Presumably, she smiles because she finds either folly, nonsense, whim, or inconsistency in Darcy's statement, probably the fourth item in this series, for Darcy's assurance that he has his pride "under good regulation" surely strikes her as manifestly inconsistent with his regular display of pride, as well as being a rather proud thing to say in any case.

Moreover, Darcy's pride is not well regulated by his superior mind. It only comes under better regulation through his love for Elizabeth, for rather than falling into a profound, bitter resentment that would merely serve to increase his injured pride upon being rejected by her, he writes her a letter that closes with an "adieu [that] is charity itself" and is taught by his love to feel the opposite of resentment, a sense of gratitude toward her for a moral lesson well learned, as he informs her himself in chapter 58:
What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.
And, interestingly, he admits in that same address and shortly thereafter to having had both of the faults "pride" and "vanity." He then goes on to say that upon their later chance encounter at his estate, he had striven by every civility in his power to show her that he "was not so mean as to resent the past," by which he meant her past refusal of his first marriage proposal.

Austen thus seems keen to encourage the cultivation of virtues, so I am puzzled by her nephew's remark in his biography of her that her novels "certainly were not written to . . . inculcate any particular moral . . . except indeed the great moral . . . namely, the superiority of high over low principles, and of greatness over littleness of mind" (Austen-Leigh, Memoir, page 153). I don't dispute that she was doing the latter, but I think that she was doing the former as well, i.e., inculcating particular moral virtues.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home