emmaHow much was the fiction of Jane Austen influenced by Enlightenment ideals?

Until recently, most scholars believed not much, if at all.  Indeed it has often been said that living in the countryside, Austen remained isolated from the great events of her time.  But this presumes that Austen did not read widely (which she did) and that she was not affected by what she read (which she was).

Given that the Enlightenment is quite possibly the most important intellectual, social, and cultural transformation of the Western world since the Middle Ages (and it was happening during Austen’s lifetime), it is reasonable to assume it influenced pretty much everyone including Jane Austen and that what influenced Austen would in some measure, influence her fiction.

Underlying Enlightenment ideals was Locke’s assertion that the mind is a blank slate receiving and ordering worldly sensations for the benefit of the individual.  With this, the focus shifts forward: the individual is valorised and self- interest legitimized- no longer is he encouraged to blindly follow established teachings (i.e. church, government, aristocracy).  Instead he’s to be the creator of his own meaning and truth.  This is to be accomplished through rational assessment and critical reason in order to decide for himself what course of action to take to achieve happiness.

This essay evaluates Austen’s portrayal of three of her heroines in regards to Locke and these Enlightenment ideals with a view toward demonstrating that her fiction was in large part, influenced by them.

In Persuasion, eight years of happiness is the price Anne Elliott pays for yielding to a noblewoman’s advice to break off her engagement with Capt. Wentworth.   But despite the pain caused, Anne determines that she made the right decision. “I was right in submitting to her (Lady Russell)… I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did even in giving it up because I should have suffered in my conscience.”

This clarifies how uncompromisingly Anne supports coolheaded rationality.  She believes that however right her feelings might have been, it was not justifiable to follow them when she was unable to rationally defeat Lady Russell’s objections. It is key that Anne’s choice was not made Lady Russell, but by herself and that it was not blindly made.  In keeping with Enlightenment principles, Anne rationally assessed her options and only allowed herself to be persuaded by Lady Russell’s advice when convinced it would bring her more happiness in long term.

Austen portrays Anne Elliott as superior because she questions the social conventions and beliefs that others simply take for granted.  While her family considers it a social necessity to keep their noble lifestyle despite mounting debt, Anne suggests they do without servants, horses, and various vanities to save money.  Anne’s standards are not those expected of her social class – indeed they are more focused on personal accountability and duty than on social status and pedigrees.   Undoubtedly she has forged these standards for herself for given her family, they were not likely to be hereditary.

Pride and Prejudice is written from Elizabeth Bennett’s point of view – an excellent literary device for expressing Enlightenment individuality.  Elizabeth is nothing if not individualistic.  She demonstrates (1) a demand for self-expression (strong opinions that she is not afraid to voice –Lady Catherine is seriously taken aback when Elizabeth defends her younger sisters for being already ‘out’ in society) and (2) the free exercise of personal will (she walks to Netherfield Park alone to visit her ill sister even though this is criticized by Mr. Darcy and Bingley’s sisters).

It is tempting to put her behaviour down selfishness or silliness.  But however self-focused, Elizabeth never disregards social rules with the same abandon, as does her younger sister Lydia.  This too, is a demonstration of an important Enlightenment ideal.

In his essay What is Enlightenment?, Immanuel Kant distinguishes between the use of reason (1) in public affairs (expressing one’s opinion as a scholar), which must always be free, and (2) in private affairs (conducted in the interests of the community), which understandably often “requires a certain mechanism…an artificial unanimity.”  That Elizabeth makes the same distinction and cares as much about community as she does about herself is made clear during her visit to Pemberly when she comments on Mr Darcy’s importance to his community: “as a brother, a landlord, a master, she considered how many people’s happiness were in his guardianship!” It appeals to her that he uses his power well.

While Anne exercises reason to ensure her happiness and Elizabeth balances her self-interest with community demands, Emma Woodhouse, heroine of Emma, does neither.

Emma, “handsome, clever, and rich,” is disposed to believing she has more capacity for personal authority and self-expression than she has.  Indeed in her view, she has enough to share as she undertakes to “improve” her new friend Harriet and “form her opinions and her manners” with disastrous consequences.  Such disregard for another’s rights pursue her own happiness is not in keeping with Enlightenment ideals.  Neither is Emma’s lack of capacity for self-reflection.   It is not until Mr. Knightley upbraids her behaviour that she considers she may have been rude to her unfortunate neighbour, Mrs Bates.  Even then, Emma “tried to laugh it off.”  That Emma’s assumed position in the community is threatened by her meddling and rudeness, becomes obvious when she realises she must ‘submit to stand second to Mrs Elton…” at the ball.

While Emma might be interpreted to support that Austin’s fiction was not much influenced by Enlightenment ideals, it could also be interpreted as a savvy foreshadowing of modern criticism of such ideals.  By demonstrating the damage done when Emma’s rampant individualism is not properly balanced with legitimate needs of community, Austin may have been pointing to that which we understand today – unchecked individualism leads to an empty, solitary self and painful lack of meaningful involvement with others.  Indeed such understanding has led many to call for a shift backwards to where community is valorised at the expense of self-interest and individuality.





Austen, Jane.  Emma.  London: CRW Publishing Limited, 2003.

Austen, Jane.  Persuasion.  London: CRW Publishing Limited, 2004.

Austen, Jane.  Pride and Prejudice.  London: CRW Publishing Limited, 2003.

Israel, Jonathan I. Democratic Enlightenment (Introduction).  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Kant, Immanuel.  “What is the Enlightenment?” (1-7). The Portable Enlightenment Reader. ed by Issac Karmnick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

Knox-Shaw, Peter.  Jane Austen and the Enlightenment.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Kramnick, Issac.  The Portable Enlightenment Reader (Introduction).  New York: Penguin Books, 1995.





“That won’t do.”  Lord James Barksdale, better known as Jack, stood beside her.  He shook his carefully cropped head of jet-black hair and looked her straight in the eye.  By the thin shaft of the crescent moon, his craggy face looked cold as steel.  “Talk like that will set tongues wagging.   Believe me, Miss Adams, you do not want that.”

“I said nothing untrue.”

“Truth and lies.  Such a fine line.  Might you know the diference, cousin?  I am most certain that I do not.”

“Lies are never justified, my lord.  Herr Kant, a highly respected gentleman from Königsberg,says we have a moral obligation to our fellow men to tell the truth.”

“Does he?”  Lord James grinned.  “Does Herr Kant also suggest the truth is always justified whatever the consequences?”


Something is either true or not – right?

At least that’s how we behave.  We even have machines to tell us when someone is telling a lie.  That’s assuming that telling a lie is other than not telling the truth.

Semantics you say?

I’m not so sure.  While researching for my new novel – Lords and Lies – (excerpt above), I discovered that contrary to popular belief, there’s no agreement on what is truth – indeed finding one is a central aim of  philosophy.

As you can imagine, there’s quite a bit on the subject.  Luckily, Lord James and his cousin, Miss Adams, live in the 18th century.   So they only have to worry about ‘truth’ as it was conceived of then.

Before Herr Kant of Königsberg, there were two routes to an 18th century truth (both inspired by Descartes):

(1)          Rationalism – finding truth by rational deduction – in other words truth is determined solely through reason (Leibniz).

(2)          Empiricism – finding truth by observation and experience – in other words what you see is what you get (Hume).

Kant believed both Leibniz and Hume were wrong.  Thus he  articulated a third approach – a sort of middle ground.

For Kant, truth came in two varieties (1) those which were a priori true (i.e.  all bachelors are unmarried) and (2) those which required  empirical testing  (i.e. all bachelors are unfulfilled).

Not so easy –  but Kant believed that once you had determined that which was true from that which was not  – then as my heroine points out – one has a categorical  impertative (i.e. moral obligation) to tell the truth.

Now comes the really tricky bit – as  Lord James points out.

For example, assume that a Nazi demands to know if you are hiding Jews in your cellar   If you tell the truth, everyone knows what will happen and it won’t be pretty.  But if you don’t tell the truth, then you’ll have failed to meet your moral obligation.

So what if you decide (poker-faced) to refuse to respond?

Truth or lie?

That’s what Lord James and Miss Adams will have to decide.

On a spirited morning in spring of 1939, a blonde, blue-eyed Nazi wearing a slate grey uniform complete with glossy gun stands at my front door.  “Where is the Jew, Abraham?” He flashes an official-looking piece of parchment in my face.  “Is he here?”

Of course he’s here.  Where else would he be?  With my own eyes, I saw him sipping mint tea in my parlor just two minutes ago.  But if I tell that to this regimental monster, then Abraham, my best friend and clever business partner, is toast.  Clutching a dog-earred copy of Kant’s “The Moral Law” to my breast, I close my eyes and recite a silent prayer.  “No”, squeak I. “He isn’t here.”

Have I lied?

Kant would say, yes.[1]

I posit the better answer is no.[2]

According to Kant, when one lies, one does harm to humanity in that he vitiates the source of all rights founded on contract (Schwartz, 63).[3] This harm, achieved solely as the consequence of the liar’s inner state of mind, results because “lying” undermines the credence men necessarily must place in such declarations if the wheels of commerce are to remain well greased.[4] In other words, if everyone were to lie, then lying would become the accepted practice.  Then trust (which Kant apparently assumes to be at the base of all social and economic transactions) would be eroded to the extent that people would refuse to deal with each other. [5]

While I agree that such a situation would be undesirable (although I remain unconvinced that it would necessarily be the case), I suggest that Kant’s self-focused analysis of lying is so full of holes as to not hold water. Contracts of all types by their nature are based on reciprocity.  Kant himself emphasizes the role that reciprocity plays in his view of morality. [6] In other words, it takes two to tango.  Without at least one other person to hear them, my declarations (truthful or not) can have no external effect.

To be valid, legal contracts require reciprocity (mutuality) – a meeting of the minds of two persons as the result of a valid offer and acceptance.[7] If mutuality is not achieved, there is no contract and no harm related to such contract can accrue.   I accept that in Kant’s brief essay “On a Supposed Right to Lie out of Love for Man”, where he compares the duties of men in regards to lying to those in contract law, Kant does not intend to give us a lawyer’s brief.   He does however make clear he is arguing on legal grounds (Schwarz, 63-65).[8] Therefore a legal analysis of the rights, duties and harms created under the moral law is regards to lying, not out of place.

Under Kant’s definition of a ‘lie’, an offer is indeed presumed made, because it necessarily involves a person making a declaration, which she ‘invites’ another to believe (Mahon, 102-103).  Certainly in telling the Nazi that Abraham is not in my home, I am inviting him to believe it.  Why else, under the circumstances, would I make such a statement?  But under contract law (as well as in the course of daily human interactions) is it not the duty of the Nazi to determine whether to believe it and thus accept my invitation?  And if he does not choose to believe it, and acts accordingly (perhaps bashing down my door and scouring my sitting rooms for himself), then despite my offer of an untruthful statement there is no mutuality and thus no lie (nor can there be any harm that might otherwise have accrued from a lie).[9] Assuming for sake of argument that this is the case, what are the implications for Kant?

As Scruton (85) points out, Kant clearly wishes to establish a code of morality which can be applied in the vacuum of pure rationality – separate and aside from the competing interests, desires, and ambitions of the men and women who would implement it.  He wishes to set forth a maxim by which these individuals might test their proposed conduct without regard to those to whom such conduct will be directed (i.e. without regard to effect).  Yet how can a self-focused moral code (at least as regards to lies – which requires two to tango) be rational if its premise rests on the reciprocity of another?

It cannot, unless it imposes so many restrictions on its operation as to render it, in effect, redundant.  In my view this is precisely what Kant did when by over-refining his definition of a lie, he gave his blessing to a variety of other untruthful expressions that would accomplish the same purposes as lying (as defined by Kant).    For example, according to Kant if by not uttering a word to the Nazi, I were to slam the door in his face, then I have not lied.  Same result if jokingly I told him that “of course Abraham isn’t here….ha….ha…no one as clever as you, Sir Nazi, could possibly believe that one as clever as old Abraham would hide in so obvious a place.”  Likewise with Kant’s blessing, I could dither on about the weather until shaking his head, the Nazi walked away assuming I was a raving lunatic.

Yet in each of these scenarios where I have not technically lied, have I not made an offer (of misinformation) to the Nazi hoping that he will accept it and go away?  In each of these scenarios, was not my inner state of mind the same as it was when in direct answer to the Nazi’s question, I squeaked ‘no’?  By choosing any of these alternatives to an outright lie, have I not still eroded the trust others would place in my future “statements” and thus caused harm to humanity?

If the answer to any of the above is yes, then I suggest that Kant has gained nothing with his prohibition against lying.  This is because (1) in the business of lying it takes two to tango (both in practice and in theory) and thus a lie cannot occur in a self-focused vacuum and (2) no benefit is achieved by a moral law that defines a moral wrong is such a way as to allow that same harm (its prohibition is meant to avoid) to be wrought by a variety of other actions that are accepted by said moral law.


[1] My actions fit squarely into his narrow definition of a lie which is prima facie, a contravention of the moral law; it is a declaration that I make (1) freely (i.e. not under compulsion), (2) believing  (to the best of my knowledge) such declaration to be untrue, (3) inviting another to believe it is true.  (Mahon, 102).

[2] My intent is not to reform the definition of a ‘lie’, but to explore the inherent weakness in a theory that relies heavily on narrow definitions (i.e. definition of a ‘lie’) to support its tenants.

[3] According to Kant, harm also occurs from a lie because the liar has failed to respect the person he has lied as an end in himself instead of as and end to the liar’s own means.  This harm is not one that I intend to address because I do not consider that “respect” is a right founded in contract.

[4] It is not my intention to argue that moral duty could or should be legislated.  Neither is it my intention to posit that the legal law should take precedence over the moral law (or vice versa). Instead I wish to investigate the parallels of legal and moral duties in order to better articulate and identify the reciprocity and mutuality of duties underlying our moral duties in Kant’s own scheme.

[5] Kant notes that in accordance with civil law, the unforeseen events stemming even from well-intentioned lies are punishable under a civil tribunal.  Although he does not comment on whether such a situation could itself bring the wheels of social and economic commerce to a halt, I suggest that it would because citizens, suspecting a no-win situation, would fear to take any action.

[6] As Timmermann (129) makes clear, for Kant morality rests on reciprocity and the equality of moral status of rational agents each acting freely. “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you” is a maxim often associated with Kant’s moral code.  Yet such a maxim cannot by its very nature operate in a vacuum – because in choosing how to act toward others, you must necessarily consider how you wish them to act toward you.

[7] In this regard, I refer to contract law under Common Law (the law of countries taking as their lead from English law) as opposed to Civil Law (the law of countries – such as Germany and Austria – taking their lead from /Roman-Napoleonic law).

[8] Although Kant made it clear that one’s duty to oneself cannot be treated juridically, he was clear that the law did and should touch one’s relations with other men.  It is for this reason that he suggests that when one hinders another’s freedom in contradiction to the universal law (and presumably one’s right place in the Kingdom of Ends), he does him an injustice (Finnis, 433).  Although it is not clear to me the extent of the parallels Kant believe to exist between legal and his ethical law, I believe it safe to assume he believed they drew from each other in fair measure as he regularly speaks of one in reference to the other.

[9] Even if the Nazi did choose to accept my offer and believe my untruthful statement, under common law it is not the case that any and all harm accruing to him from doing so would be ascribed as my fault.  He would at best have a right to be reimbursed for direct and foreseeable losses caused by reliance on the contract.



Finnis, JM. “Symposium on Kantian Legal Theory: Legal Enforcement of “Duties to Oneself”: Kant v Neo-Kantians”, Columbia Law Review, vol. 87,  (1987) pp. 433-456.

Kant, Immanuel. “On a Supposed Right to Lie Out of Love for Man,” Berlinische Blätter, vol. 1, September 6, 1797.

Mahon, James E.  “Kant on Lies, Candour and Reticence”, Kantian Review, vol. 7 (2003), pp.-102-133.

Schwarz, Wolfgang.  “Kant’s Refutation of Charitable Lies”, Ethics, Vol. 81, No. 1 (Oct. 1970), pp. 62-67.

Scruton, Roger.  Kant – A Very Short Introduction; Oxford University Press (2001).

Timmermann, Jens.  “When the Tail Wags the Dog: Animal Welfare and Indirect Duty in Kantian Ethics, Kantian Review, Vol. 10 (2005) pp. 128-149.