Lovers need Smith's Impartial Spectator too.

jane austen love impartial spectator

June 6, 2024


Adam Smith's impartial spectator plays Cupid in one of Jane Austen's greatest novels. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett reform themselves because they were able to let go of their too biased self-love and sought the perspective of an impartial judge for themselves and each other.
Adam Smith writes that the ability for a person to sacrifice his own interests for the greater interests of others comes from, “the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct,” (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part III, Ch. III), which he calls the “impartial spectator.” While the impartial spectator is strong enough to govern our conscience even when we have strong feelings, it can be overwhelmed by strong emotions in the moments before a person takes an action:

When we are about to act, the eagerness of passion will seldom allow us to consider what we are doing, with the candour of an indifferent person. The violent emotions which at that time agitate us, discolour our views of things; even when we are endeavouring to place ourselves in the situation of another, and to regard the objects that interest us in the light in which they will naturally appear to him, the fury of our own passions constantly calls us back to our own place, where everything appears magnified and misrepresented by self-love.
(TMS, Part III, Ch. IV).

Need a fictional example to help you see it? Look no further than Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (affiliate link) when  Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy is about to propose to Miss. Elizabeth Bennett.

Elizabeth’s Self-love
When Darcy first arrives in Elizabeth’s home town, he insults her by not dancing with her. Her vanity was injured strongly enough to create a grudge, supported by her social circle’s general dislike of Darcy. This grudge makes her eager to hear about Darcy’s “villainy” in Mr. George Wickham’s sob story. Her grudge becomes what Smith calls “resentment” after she learns that Darcy purposefully kept Mr. Charles Bingley from continuing a relationship with her beloved sister Jane. 
Mankind, at the same time, have a very strong sense of the injuries that are done to another… the greater his patience, his mildness, his humanity, provided it does not appear that he wants spirit, or that fear was the motive of his forbearance, the higher their resentment against the person who injured him,
(TMS, Part I, Sect. II, Ch. III). 
Jane’s endless patience and mildness intensifies Elizabeth’s resentment.

Darcy defends himself in a letter to Elizabeth, explaining his reasons for keeping Bingley and Jane apart. He concedes that he misinterpreted Jane’s behavior and admits Elizabeth’s “resentment has not been unreasonable,” (Pride and Prejudice, Vol. II Ch. xii). He does apologize for keeping Jane's presence in London a secret and admits it was wrong. Darcy corrects his mistake later by bringing Bingley back to Netherfield at the end of the novel.

It’s not easy for Elizabeth when she hears Darcy’s side of Wickham’s story. Elizabeth’s immediate reaction is “Astonishment, apprehension, and even horror,” (Pride and Prejudice, Vol. II Ch. xiii). She takes the time to reevaluate her opinion of Wickham. “She tried to recollect some instance of goodness, some distinguished trait of integrity or benevolence, that might rescue him from the attacks of Mr. Darcy; or at least, by the predominance of virtue, atone for those casual errors… but no such recollection befriended her,” (ibid.) Elizabeth was finally able to listen to her impartial spectator and reconsider Wickham’s behavior, separate from his manners and charisma.

Before resentment, therefore, can become graceful and agreeable, it must be more humbled and brought down below that pitch to which it would naturally rise, than almost any other passion,
(TMS, Part I, Sect. II, Ch. III).

While reading and re-reading the letter, her reaction is: “She was humbled, she was grieved; she repented, though she hardly knew of what,” (Pride and Prejudice, Vol. III Ch. viii). When she learns that Darcy is responsible for making Wickham marry Lydia, her reaction is: “For herself she was humbled; but she was proud of him. Proud that in a cause of compassion and honour, he had been able to get the better of himself,” (Pride and Prejudice, Vol. III, Ch. x) (Emphasis mine.)

Elizabeth learns that her self-love, first insulted at the dance, had misrepresented reality and caused her to judge the situation between Darcy and Wickham incorrectly. Her ability to speak frankly in rejecting Darcy, his letter response, and the subsequent months of reflection allow her to make a journey from self-love to sincerely loving Darcy. We learn that Darcy had a comparable internal journey. Darcy says to Elizabeth, “By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You shewed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased,” (Pride and Prejudice, Vol. III, Ch. xvi).

Elizabeth needed distance to let her passions settle so that she could get a true understanding of Darcy's character.  "When the action is over… we can enter more coolly into the sentiments of the indifferent spectator,"(TMS, Part III, Ch. IV).

Darcy’s self-love
When Darcy and Elizabeth become engaged, Darcy says to her, 

Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget: ‘had you behaved in a more gentleman like manner.’ Those were your words. You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me; though it was some time, I confess, before I was reasonable enough to allow their justice.
(Pride and Prejudice, Vol. III, Ch. xvi)

Darcy quotes back at Elizabeth the reproof about “gentleman like manner”, because he was shocked that his behavior could not be considered gentlemanlike. His position as a gentleman is very important to him. Going forward, he acts like a gentleman, even when he has no expectation of winning Elizabeth’s love. As quoted above, Elizabeth recognizes that he got the better of himself-- or in Smith’s words, he allowed the impartial spectator to govern his actions, not self-love.

“Magnanimity, or a regard to maintain our own rank and dignity in society, is the only motive which can ennoble the expressions of this disagreeable passion [resentment]," (TMS, Part I, Sect. II, Ch. IV). Darcy values his position as a gentleman more than he values his self-love at being insulted by Elizabeth. He considered her accusation, evaluated his own behavior, decided that she was right, and began to improve himself.

Reform
Darcy and Elizabeth each reform themselves because they were able to let go of self-love and sought the perspective of a Smithian impartial spectator to judge their own actions and the actions of each other.

"If we saw ourselves in the light in which others see us, or in which they would see us if they knew all, a reformation would generally be unavoidable," (TMS, Part III, Ch. IV). 

Letting go of self-love allows them to develop a genuine love for each other.


Want to read more?
Shannon Chamberlain, Jane Austen’s Theory of Moral Sentiments: The Failed Speculator in Persuasion
Cynthia Argentine and Julianna Argentine's Adam Smith Knew Why We’d Love Jane Austen
Kevin Stucker's Sympathy and Spectatorship in Adam Smith: A Collection

More from Carly Jackson
Smithian Imagination and Austen's Catharine or the Bower
Pirate Enlightenment: Some Treasures, Some Toils, a Book Review of Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia by David Graeber
Book Club Podcast - new season coming soon!
Comments
Add a comment
Never shown anywhere
Or
Sign in