Sympathy and Justice in Jane Austen and Adam Smith

April/May 2024

with Darwyyn Deyo

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Read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Catherine, or The Bower, and Sandition with bright eyes alongside Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments to explore themes of sympathy, duty, propriety, and the rules of justice. How do Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy judge their behavior through the view of Smith’s impartial spectator? How might Smith assess the social passions of Austen’s pantheon of characters? We explore the development of Austen’s analysis of these questions through a selection of work that sheds fresh light on her most famous work, Pride and Prejudice. From questions on the acquisition – and  destruction – of social capital, the importance of rank, and what constitutes virtue in a just society, reading Austen and Smith alongside each other prompts us to think more deeply about the role and use of moral sympathies in our own society.

Session I: Wednesday, April 17, 2024, 1:00-2:00 pm EDT, Employing the Impartial Spectator for Propriety and Virtue

Smith states “Society and conversation, therefore, are the most powerful remedies for restoring the mind to its tranquility, if, at any time, it has unfortunately lost it; as well as the best preservatives of that equal and happy temper, which is so necessary to self-satisfaction and enjoyment” (23). How do the characters in the Austen stories exemplify or resist this model in the many social events that make up this first part of the book? Do they serve or undermine the development of mutual sympathy?

Sudden changes of situation in Austen’s stories propel the stories forward. Smith identifies sudden changes of fortune as a major impediment to happiness. How do these “sudden” changes inform the development – or lack thereof – of characters’ propriety in the Austen readings?


Pride and Prejudice, Chapters 1 – 18
[If your edition had volumes, Volume I, 1-18 (The Ball at Netherfield)]

The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part I, Section I, Chapters 1-5 (pp 16-26)

Catherine, or the Bower

Session IIWednesday, April 24, 2024, 1:00-2:00 pm EDT, Identifying Unsocial and Social Passions

Austen describes the effects of unsocial and selfish passions, from Darcy to Mr. Collins to Mr. Bennet, and traces out the different types of negative consequences for closely linked characters. How does Smith’s analysis inform our understanding of the costs imposed on other characters from these unsocial and selfish passions?

Austen introduces characters who suffer the costs of others’ social passions as much as from unsocial passions. Does it follow, for Smith, that social passions should be moderated as much as unsocial passions, in order to encourage sympathy?


Pride and Prejudice, Chapters 19 – 34
[If your edition had volumes, Volume I, 19 (1st Proposal) - Volume II, 11 (2nd Proposal)]

The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part I, Section II, Chapters 3-5 (pp 34-43)

Session III:  Wednesday, May 1, 2024, 1:00-2:00 pm EDT, Applying the Rules of Conduct and Justice

In this section, Smith lays out the rules of morality and conduct, which various characters fail to live up to in the Austen readings. How does Austen interrogate the purpose and usefulness of these systems of rules for enforcing duty in her stories?

In her work, Austen often deploys the private stage of letters to reveal characters’ public shortcomings of Smith’s rule systems. What might Smith argue about the failure of self-judgement and self-deceit for shaping behavior in private versus public settings in these stories?


Pride and Prejudice, Chapters 35 – 49
[If your edition had volumes, Volume II, 12 (Darcy's Letter) - Volume III, 7 (Announcement of the Engagement)]

The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part III, Chapter 4 (pages 156-161) and Part III, Chapter 6 (pages 174 paragraph 8-178)

Session IV:  Wednesday, May 8, 2024, 1:00-2:00 pm EDT, Supporting Public Sympathy Through Private Duty

Many characters in Austen’s stories impose themselves on others, and for the most part, propriety prevents the imposed-upon characters from challenging this imposition. By which rules of moral duty would Smith evaluate the validity of the duties owed to the imposers, or the validity of the imposition?

Austen uses fiction to critique the duties of individuals to each other which fits into Smith’s framework of sympathy and justice. Do public or private consequences better encourage these values according to Smith or Austen, and how so?


Pride and Prejudice, Chapters 50 – 61
[If your edition had volumes,  Volume III, 8 (Reaction to the Engagement) - Volume III, 19 (Conclusion)]

The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part VII, Section II, Chapter 1, pages 267-270 (paragraphs 1-11) and Part VII, Section IV, pages 335 – 339 (paragraphs 19-32)

Sanditon, Chapters 1 – 12