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Jane Austen, Wendell Berry, Aristotle, and Community

I am rereading Peter Leithart’s book on Jane Austen, Miniatures and Morals. In the introduction he says this,

“The moral philosopher Alsadair MacIntyre discerns an Aristotelian trait in Austen’s recognition that virtues are formed, tested, and manifested within community. As Aristotle pointed out, this makes ethics a subdivision of politics–that is, it makes the question ‘What should I do?’ a sub-question under ‘What kind of community do I wish to live in, and what is my place in it?’

For both Austen and Aristotle, the ethical life is status-specific. That is, to answer ‘What should I do in this case? we must ask. “Who am I?’ And this latter question is not a question about some inner ghostly ‘I,’ but about the role and status I have in a particular society.”

And this is evidenced throughout Austen’s novels. There is always a community aspect to every decision characters make. Darcy must consider Elizabeth as a wife in the context of his social status and community obligations. Lydia does not consider the effect her decisions have on her family and larger community and the result is–almost–disastrous.

I couldn’t help but think of Jayber Crow as I read the above. This is one of the great lessons of Wendell Berry–there is no “Me” apart from the community. Jayber finds himself only after fully entering the community. It makes me wonder about the modern obsession with finding ourselves and asking “Who am I?” The more that our community fragments, the more isolated we become, ironically the more we are by ourselves, the more we lose ourselves.

And just yesterday I read a Facebook post from a therapist which talked about the connection between anxiety disorders and isolation. She concluded by saying that anxiety is diagnosed in isolation but healed in community.

I think all of these people are getting at the same idea. The loss of community is a loss of the self, which creates incredible anxiety for us. We don’t know what the right thing to do is because we don’t know who we are.

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