Monthly Archives: December 2015

Where did our Catholic stories go?

26 December 2015

For my grandfather who gave me the gift of Faith.

(Originally published Christmas Eve 2011. )


I was speaking with an old friend the other day doing our usual lamenting over the Faith we knew as kids and we both agreed that the thing that is missing today are the stories.

Stories, you say? Yup. You know, the kind of stories that bring laughter to our bellies and tears to our eyes. The kind of Catholic stories that are not slam-sessions on nuns and priests or a lackadaisical nod about something that happened at the parish that week.

Growing up Catholic you have a legacy of stories and experiences that keeps your Faith whole even in the darkest of days. To those who are nodding their heads right now, you know what I mean. To those who are reading this, still not understanding my ranting, let me tell you a Catholic story… A Christmas story about growing up Catholic in an Italian family on Christmas Eve…

The Vatican Tree

So, pull up a chair, grab something Christmasy to drink, and let me tell you about my Grandpop…

Antonio Constantino de Cesare came to this country via Ellis Island with a wife and a pack of kids including my Dad (who was 6 months old at the time). From the moment he stepped on the shores of this country he was truly American. He never returned to Italy he whole life…He insisted he was American and that he would not ever leave the shores of his new country. He was..a true Patriot.

Most of all, he was a good Catholic. He wasn’t a showy Catholic. He was the kind of Catholic everybody wants to be today. He lived the Faith, day in and day out. He was my inspiration for “Always Catholic”. Grandpop was Always Catholic, everyday. He had a phenomenal prayer life and did it quietly, without show. Wow!

I could talk to you all day about him, but let’s get to the Christmas Eve thing before Santa is tapping on my shoulder…LOL!

I was five years old and of course mesmerized by Christmas. What 5 year old in America with a big Italian family wouldn’t be? Christmas was so overwhelming, it even kept me quiet, sometimes…

This particular Christmas Eve, it had been snowing lightly all day and was like something out of a Christmas movie. My dad, A Display Designer in NY always decorated the house in and out like it was a set for a Christmas show. Never gaudy, truly magnificent. The splendor of growing up like that was a gift I will never forget.

Well, the house was decked, the Nativity in its’ place of prominence (sans Baby Jesus-He’s placed in the crib after Midnight Mass) and the smells of Christmas wafting through the house.

We, like many Italians in America celebrate Christmas Eve as if that’s the holiday. The Festa of the Seven Fishes is a feast that lasts from late afternoon until about 4 am. The meal is something to behold and our only break is to go to Mass at Midnight and then back again for the second party.

My story though centers around the time I spent after Mass with Grandpop. We all left for our parish about eleven o’clock pm. My grandfather was revered in the parish so our family always got a pew without having to worry about going too early.

The church was beautiful in the Italianate style, and the experience ethereal. After Mass concluded, the tradition was to visit the creche and to say a prayer to the Baby Jesus and take a piece of straw from the Nativity to place with the palm from Eastertime on the Crucifix at home.

The parish was predominately Italian of course and the church always filled with old ladies in black dresses (why always black??? LOL!) and their veils and their Rosaries. They loved walking around after Mass going up to statues rubbing  the hand of a particular Saint and praying at all of the side altars. This night however, was reserved for the Nativity and the Baby Jesus.

As the many people milled around after Mass, my Grandpop took me by the hand and led me up to the creche. He lifted me up so I could reach the straw. We then knelt together and prayed. I looked over at him and saw a tear roll down his cheek. I have never been more moved to this day by this simple display of faith. It shaped me for life as a Catholic. I may have been 5 at the time, but I will never forget that moment.

As we finished praying, as if almost on cue, a voice started to spontaneously sing from the back of the church. One by one,, the many people still there joined in…My Grandpop got up, picked me up and sang with the people in front of the Manger. I will never forget this Christmas hymn. It is probably the most favorite of Italians, far and wide. Maybe now, it’s becoming forgotten, but I play it always at Christmas and particularly on Christmas Eve. I want to share it today and hope you feel as I did that Christmas Eve when my Grandpop held me tight singing, his tears rolling down his face. The voices joining him sealed my heart with love for this Catholic Faith.

So, Grandpop, I pray you are in Heaven this Christmas Eve, singing Tu Scende dalle Stelle with all those old ladies to the Baby Jesus. Then, tell everybody the story how you gave me my Faith, my Christmas present that never ends…

I pray that all of you will make your own Catholic stories. It’s important, our Catholic Faith depends on it.

Here are the lyrics to Tu scendi dalle stelle from Italy, in Italian and with an English translation…

Tu scendi dalle stelle


Tu scendi dalle stelle
O Re del Cielo
E vieni in una grotta
Al freddo al gelo.
E vieni in una grotta
Al freddo al gelo.

O Bambino mio Divino
Io ti vedo qui a tremar,
O Dio Beato
Ah, quanto ti costò
L’avermi amato.
Ah, quanto ti costò
L’avermi amato.

A te che sei del mondo,
Il creatore
Mancano panni e fuoco,
O mio Signore.
Mancano panni e fuoco,
O mio Signore.

Caro eletto, Pargoletto,
Quanto questa povertà,
Piu m’innamora
Giacche ti fece amor
Povero ancora.
Giacche ti fece amor
Povero ancora.

Here’s a rough English translation of Tu scendi dalle stelle …

You Come Down from the Stars

You come down from the stars
Oh King of Heavens,
And you come in a cave
In the cold, in the frost.
And you come in a cave
In the cold, in the frost.

Oh my Divine Baby
I see you trembling here,
Oh Blessed God,
Ah, how much it cost you,
Your loving me.
Ah, how much it cost you,
Your loving me.

For You, who are of all the world
The Creator,
No robes and fire,
Oh my Lord.
No robes and fire,
Oh my Lord.

Dear chosen one, little Infant
This dire poverty,
Makes me love You more
Since Love made You
Poor now.
Since Love made You
Poor now.

Buon Natale,


The Best Christmas Speech on Network TV

22 December 2015

This piece was originally posted previously onCMR


From the Brothers Archbold, who hit the nail on the head, again:

From CreativeMinorityReport

“Every year I see this I’m half surprised that the networks haven’t edited this part out.

I’ve gotta’ admit I find it moving every time.”

Thanks to Common Cents for reminding me of this one.”

Thanks, Matthew, for reminding us also.

Heaven’s Last Best Gift: Marriage as the Final End in Persuasion #JaneAusten

22 December 2015

By: Br. Aquinas Beale, O.P.
April 11, 2014 (Original Date of Publication)
Posted at Dominicana Blog


The fifth in a series considering considering Jane Austen in light of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas
“Above all other blessings Oh! God, for ourselves, and our fellow-creatures, we implore Thee to quicken our sense of thy Mercy in the redemption of the World, of the Value of that Holy Religion in which we have been brought up, that we may not by our own neglect, throw away the salvation thou hast given us, nor be Christians only in name.” —from Jane Austen’s Prayers

One of the characteristic aspects of all of Austen’s novels is that they end in happy marriages for the heroines. Several modern literary critics have wondered at the motivation behind this feature of her novels, given that Austen herself never married. Is it the case that she was vicariously living through her characters? Was she simply giving the readers what she knew they wanted? Or is there perhaps something more profound motivating her use of the marriage construct? Some critics have speculated as much. For example, one can find traces of a critique of the French Revolution in Pride and Prejudice, complete with an ‘English’ solution: a marriage between the middle and upper classes.

Here, I would like to offer quite a different allegorical interpretation of the marriage plot as used by Austen. It is easy to consider the marriages simply as the reward for the virtuous efforts of her heroines, especially considering that each one is brought about through a Deus ex machina. They all have struggled through the challenges of life and have come out on the other side as women possessing and growing in virtue. From this perspective, then, marriage is the end towards which the virtuous lives of her heroines are directed. Turning Henry Crawford’s allusion to Milton on its head, for Austen’s heroines, marriage is heaven’s last best gift.

Such a notion of a final end that rewards all the trials of a virtuous life is by no means foreign to virtue ethics. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle identifies the end of the virtuous life as contemplation; it is this state of rest to which every act of virtue is directed and in which true happiness consists. Like true friendship, contemplation is sought for its own sake; it is the most self-sustaining form of life and the most pleasant of activities. Building upon Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas identifies the final end of contemplation with the beatific vision. For St. Thomas, the virtuous life is framed as a way of perfection which finds its consummation in the last end: beatitude. It is the greatest good to which all other goods are ordered, and, holding that human actions are ordered to the good, St. Thomas concludes that the beatific vision, final happiness, is the fulfillment of all of human action. Ultimately, it is a rest that is given by God, that perfects all our potential, and that satiates all desire: heaven’s last best gift.

One of the virtues closely associated with man’s final end is hope. According to St. Thomas, it is hope of the final end that gives way to charity, which is the perfect love of God. So in a way, hope is one of the final virtues that must be acquired before the end can be attained. In Persuasion, it is precisely this virtue that Anne Elliot acquires throughout the course of the novel. She, who had been “forced into prudence in her youth [and] learned romance as she grew older,” must now learn to hope in order that she may know happiness once more.

As the novel begins, Anne is surrounded by harbingers of fading life: the time of year is autumn, her father’s line is in danger of extinction, and her family must let Kellynch Hall in order to make financial ends meet. On top of all this, she is oppressed by the prospect of her former lover once again being near her, and when he does arrive, she is made miserable in his presence. Mistakenly, she prepares herself to meet him with as much indifference as possible and to “teach herself to be insensible on such points” as meeting him and hearing others speak of him. In short, she harbors no hope for happiness and looks only to avoid as much pain as she can manage.

In the closing chapters of the first volume, there are such exquisite descriptions of the fading year that one cannot help but imagine that their narration is tinged by Anne’s despondency as she struggles to endure the affliction of a renewed, yet torturously more distant acquaintance with Captain Wentworth. Anne struggles to derive pleasure from “the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges,” mining the reserves of the contemporary poets for an “apt analogy of the declining year with declining happiness, and the images of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together.” She is withering in spirit, as she has done already in beauty, and she does not become fully aware of her closeness to despondency and despair until her discussions with the unfortunate Captain Benwick, in which she counsels him in “moral and religious endurance” in the face of the temptation to mourn ruefully over lost love.

And yet, in these last chapters, the reader finds the faintest glimmer of hope for new life and happiness in Anne’s reflections and experiences. After her conversation with Captain Benwick, she realizes just how close she had come to despairing of happiness, having sought to console another in his own loss and instill hope for the future. The morning after this conversation, Anne’s outlook begins to change for the better. She looks on nature with a more positive outlook than her November walk, praising the morning, glorying in the sea, and delighting in the fresh-feeling breeze. This internal change is mirrored by her external appearance, as she, along with Mr. Eliot and Captain Wentworth, finds herself coming into a second bloom of softened beauty.

Once she arrives in Bath, Anne begins to hope more consciously for greater happiness in life, freed from remorseful recollections of her actions in the past. Aided by the exemplary behavior of an old, poor school-fellow and the news of Louisa’s engagement to someone other than Captain Wentworth, Anne fully embraces this newfound virtue and lives in hopeful expectation of a life of happiness that is yet to come.

Of course, she is rewarded with marriage to the man she loves, but in comparison to the rest of Austen’s heroines, Anne stands out as living the most independent life of virtue; even the paragon of all things good, Fanny Price, does not quite learn to expect happiness apart from marriage with Edmund before providence intervenes. Anne’s is a more mature hope for happiness, which is not too surprising considering her superiority in age (Anne is, by far, the oldest of Austen’s heroines). Such a development is in line with Aristotle’s conviction that complete virtue took time to perfect and mature and, consequently, was rarely found in the young. The difference can also be seen in Anne’s ability to instruct others in virtue and Fanny’s conviction that she would be ill-suited for such a task.

As a result of her more solid foundation in virtue, Anne begins to develop a more independent sense of virtue. Impressed by the upbeat disposition of her poor and ailing friend, Mrs. Smith, Anne begins to contemplate a more stable and permanent source of happiness than that which the goods of this passing world can provide. Even before she begins to seriously hope for a life of happiness in a marriage to Captain Wentworth, Anne has proved herself capable of sharing in the happiness of others with little concern for any of her own selfish desires, as the many episodes at Uppercross and Lyme illustrate. More importantly, in the midst of her concern for the happiness of others, she does not compromise her own standard of happiness (“her feelings were still adverse to any man save one”). While it does not entirely depend upon the fulfillment of any single desire, Anne’s happiness does rest on a hope that finds its eventual fulfillment, its final rest, in love. Likewise, in this life, the gift of hope points us to our final rest: the vision and love of God.

Image: John Atkinson Grimshaw, In Peril (The Harbor Flare)

About the Author

Br. Aquinas Beale is originally from West Virginia, and studied Political Science at the University of Virginia, receiving a Master’s degree in 2010. He entered the Order of Preachers in 2011.

Love and Friendship: Virtue and the Varieties of Relationship in Pride and Prejudice

16 December 2015

By: Br. Aquinas Beale, O.P.
April 10, 2014 (Original Date of Publication)
Posted at Dominicana Blog

P & P

The fourth in a series considering Jane Austen in light of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.

“For all whom we love and value, for every friend and connection, we equally pray; however divided and far asunder, we know that we are alike before Thee and under Thine eye. May we be equally united in Thy faith and fear, in fervent devotion towards Thee, and in Thy merciful protection this night.”
—from Jane Austen’s Prayers

“Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.”

Such are the thoughts of Charlotte Lucas concerning the nature of the relationship enjoyed by husband and wife. In her mind, the happiness that accompanies true friendship is not a necessity for a good marriage but is, rather, a blessing that is a bonus in cases of good fortune. Given her outlook, there is no surprise that Charlotte agrees to marry a man for whom she has little or no esteem. In so doing, she provides a sharp contrast with her friend, Elizabeth, who—though not a complete romantic in her own notions of matrimony—has a higher estimation of the relationship that ought to be shared by spouses.

Throughout each of Austen’s novels, friendship plays a prominent role. Catherine Morland learns the distinction between true and false friends by comparing the fickleness of Isabella Thorpe to the constancy of Elinor Tilney. Isabella seeks Catherine’s friendship only for the sake of furthering her own prospects, whereas Elinor continually shows an earnest interest in Catherine and seeks to comfort her in her trials. In Emma, Mr. Knightley expresses great concern over the heroine’s lack of a proper friend from whom she can derive true benefit. Even among Austen’s men, in Persuasion, Captain Wentworth receives support from his friend, Captain Harville, in weathering the storm of his passions and his reason after Anne breaks off their first engagement.

While he does not delve much into spousal relationships, Aristotle does consider friendship to be one of the chief fruits and aids to the virtuous life. Aristotle identifies three kinds of friendship which, though distinct, are not necessarily exclusive. First, there is the friendship of utility, which is based upon the usefulness each party derives from the other. A second kind of friendship is that which is based upon pleasure, which lasts only as long as one derives enjoyment from the other. Finally, there is true and perfect friendship, which is sought for the sake of the other. This last friendship proves to be the most lasting because it is based upon goodness of character, which has an enduring quality, whereas the other two kinds pass away once utility and pleasure can no longer be derived from the match.

Reflecting on the nature of virtuous friendship, Aristotle notes that true friendship does not readily exist where there is great inequality. Primarily, this observation applies to the varying levels of virtue in people. Where there is a perceived lack of virtue and understanding, there will be a lack of respect, thus precluding any possibility of a mutual appreciation of the other for her sake. This mutual relationship, built on an appreciation for the other, implies that the true friend will rejoice over the other’s happiness and mourn over her misfortunes. When he does briefly consider the relationship between a husband and wife, Aristotle notes that it can be founded upon any of the three kinds of friendship but that the best marriage will be the one rooted in true friendship.

In Pride and Prejudice, all three types of friendship are on display. Of the two imperfect kinds of friendship, the marriages of Lydia and Charlotte provide good illustrations. The marriage between Lydia and Mr. Wickham proves to have no other foundation than that of the pleasure one can gain from the other, and, as it turns out, there is no intention on the man’s side to fully pursue the marriage until he receives financial incentives to do so. In the case of Charlotte, she is well aware of her position in society and that her future economic security depends greatly upon her marriage, but she is also aware of the silliness and shallowness of Mr. Collins and the little hope she has of ever esteeming him. Nevertheless, she not only welcomes his overtures, but even seeks them. In these marriages, there is no proper foundation of mutual care and respect for the other. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet provide a prime illustration of the risk that such couples run if they do not base their marriage upon a solid relationship. Mr. Bennet has found that he cannot esteem his wife, while Mrs. Bennet does not care for that esteem and respect. As a result, their household crumbles beneath them, to which Lydia’s unrestrained, unprincipled behavior testifies.

Determined not to follow in the footsteps of her parents, Elizabeth approaches the question of marriage with a steady reasonableness, avoiding the potential advances of Mr. Wickham even before she fully knew his character due to the imprudent nature of a match with little money on either side and hints of inconstancy on his side already beginning to show. The reader is also assured of her own resolve not to marry for mercenary motives either, as she scorns her sister Jane’s attempts to defend Charlotte’s marriage. On this occasion, Elizabeth emphatically asserts that “[y]ou shall not for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity, nor endeavour to persuade yourself or me, that selfishness is prudence, and insensibility of danger security for happiness.” And while she eventually learns to think of Charlotte’s decision in a less critical light, she still recognizes that the level of mutual trust and friendship could never be the same between Charlotte and herself, due to such a fundamental difference in principles.

Of course, Elizabeth does find the man she can love and respect in Mr. Darcy. Though one might suspect she harbors a trace of the mercenary motive given that her affection began once she had been to Pemberly, the narrator provides enough insight into her thoughts to assure the reader that Elizabeth’s affection is founded upon her growing respect for Mr. Darcy’s taste and true, generous character. Likewise, while Darcy’s love may have initially begun as a sort of infatuation with her unorthodox beauty and playful character, he grows to truly appreciate and esteem her character.

Ultimately, Austen proposes a model for relationships that may appear rather unsatisfactory to a modern reader’s notion of romance. Elizabeth’s attraction to Mr. Darcy may very well be described as rational, founded first of all upon an appreciation for his taste and judgment rather than an attraction to his appearance or behavior. Nevertheless, with such a foundation, Austen assures the reader that Elizabeth and Darcy will have an enduring marriage. Confident in her expectations of happiness, Elizabeth compares her felicity to Jane, who “only smiles,” whereas she laughs.

Image: Sir Thomas Lawrence, A Double Portrait of the Fullerton Sisters

About the Author

Br. Aquinas Beale is originally from West Virginia, and studied Political Science at the University of Virginia, receiving a Master’s degree in 2010. He entered the Order of Preachers in 2011.

Foundations Once Destroyed: The Importance of Principle in Mansfield Park

14 December 2015

By: Br. Aquinas Beale, O.P.|April 7, 2014 (Original Date of Publication)
Posted at Dominicana Blog


The second in a series considering Jane Austen in light of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.

“Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own Hearts, and bring to our knowledge every fault of Temper and every evil Habit in which we have indulged to the discomfort of our fellow-creatures, and the danger of our own Souls.”
—from Jane Austen’s Prayers

“Henry Crawford had too much sense not to feel the worth of good principles in a wife, though he was too little accustomed to serious reflection to know them by their proper name.” In so few words, the narrator of Mansfield Park identifies the foundation for the remarkable attachment of the charming and playful Henry Crawford for the demure and boring Fanny Price. Henry’s doomed attraction to Fanny and his unsuccessful endeavor to win her regard comprise, perhaps, one of the greatest tragedies in all of Austen’s work. While many may lay the blame for Henry’s downfall at the feet of Fanny, at the end of the day, the readers of Austen must come to grips with the fact that, while his motives may have been admirable, his past behavior had done the greater harm by fixing in his character the bad habits that would eventually push him over the precipice. While Henry Crawford possessed the good sense to recognize the value of good principles in Fanny, he fails to acquire those values for himself.

Fundamentally, Henry Crawford, along with his sister, possesses principles that are opposed to those of Fanny. While Fanny follows a Christian morality founded upon goodness and truth, Henry ascribes to what Austen describes in him as a “school of luxury and epicurism.” Though they had very different teachers, Henry and his sister, Mary, have been brought up to seek primarily to fulfill their own desires, caring for others only insofar as it furthers their own interests. Under the influence of his philandering uncle, Henry undervalues the feelings of women, and, following the example of her jilted aunt, Mary acts with a “prudence” of a remarkably jaded nature, assuming that everyone must and does act for their material self-interest. Fanny, of course, perceives all of this and wisely resists a marriage to Henry on the grounds that they hold such divergent principles, and that she is not suited to effecting the reform of Henry’s character that would be necessary to overcome these differences.

These principles to which Fanny refers when she rejects Henry Crawford are none other than the virtues. Henry discovers as much when Fanny conspicuously sighs over his express aversion to the value of constancy, a virtue characteristic more of Austen’s era than Aristotle’s or Thomas’, but a virtue nonetheless. Moreover, Fanny’s objection to Henry’s behavior is not merely concerning his inconstancy. She is more generally concerned with his blatant disregard for the feelings of others. Fanny’s behavior and preferences accord with the fundamental precepts of St. Thomas’ natural law theory, specifically to do good and avoid evil and to avoid offending those among whom one has to live. Fanny, in accord with the classical tradition, understands that a person’s good is not simply a subjective pursuit. She must take into account the ramifications of her actions on the lives of those around her.

Another important principle that is on display in this novel is that of personal freedom. According to Aristotle and Aquinas, in order for an action to take on a virtuous or vicious character, it must be knowingly willed by the individual. Any interference with this voluntariness, whether due to an external force or legitimate ignorance, limits the actor’s moral responsibility, whether for praise or blame. Austen affirms the importance of this principle, as each of her heroines eventually claims the responsibility for her actions. Not only do these women claim their actions, they also claim the responsibility for the judgments leading up to the actions. Such a position would have been quite revolutionary, as women were expected to defer to the judgment of their male protectors. Fanny’s situation illustrates this tension, as she endures pressure to yield to the judgments of others. Nevertheless, she perseveres in the face of this struggle and asserts her right and ability to judge for herself.

This freedom of the individual to choose his course of action also implies that individuals are able to improve in character. Nevertheless, such a reform is extremely difficult, as poor choices quite often lead to more bad actions and make it difficult to ever choose the virtuous option as the habit becomes stronger. Interestingly, Austen suggests that there was a possibility that Henry Crawford could reform his character. During his visit to Portsmouth, Henry does show some initial signs of reform. While Fanny notices this improvement, she is well aware that a complete reform would require yet more time and effort. In an intriguing series of paragraphs in the final chapter of the novel, the narrator offers the readers a glimpse into what could have been if Henry had persevered. He could have been happy with Fanny had he chosen to act on what he knew was right in just one moment, but he gave into temptation and sealed his own fate.

Henry’s failure provides a good illustration of the effect that vice has on one’s moral judgment. The motives out of which he acts are good, namely humbling Maria so that she would learn to properly value the virtue of Fanny. However, Henry chooses an unsuitable means to achieve this end, as he had previously been habituated to believe that the proper way to put a young woman in her place was through breaking her heart. The real tragedy of Henry’s situation is not that he loses Fanny, but that he actually does perceive the good and falls away from it due to the disorder arising from his false principles.

Not giving up on the possibility of moral reform, Austen shows elsewhere that such a transformation is possible, as the heroine of Emma shows us. Emma Woodhouse resembles Mary Crawford in many aspects of her character, though Emma eventually is shown to possess the resolution and inclination to correct her poor behavior. The impropriety and even callousness of her own behavior weighs down upon Emma Woodhouse after she is duly scolded by Mr. Knightley. “In the warmth of true contrition,” Emma seeks to make amends for her actions and to acquire better habits that avoid offending those others in whose society she lives, unlike the willful defiance espoused by Mary Crawford when she is reprimanded by the man she loves. Ultimately, without the proper moral principles, an education in moral virtue is not possible.

Image: Engraving of Broadlands House

About the Author

Br. Aquinas Beale is originally from West Virginia, and studied Political Science at the University of Virginia, receiving a Master’s degree in 2010. He entered the Order of Preachers in 2011.

In Pursuit of Happiness: An Aristotelian Appreciation of Jane Austen

13 December 2015

By: Br. Aquinas Beale, O.P.| 7 April 2014 (original date of publication)
Posted at Dominicana Blog


The first in a series considering Jane Austen in light of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.

“Give us grace to endeavor after a truly Christian spirit to seek to attain that temper of forbearance and patience of which our blessed savior has set us the highest example; and which, while it prepares us for the spiritual happiness of the life to come, will secure to us the best enjoyment of what this world can give.”
—from Jane Austen’s Prayers

Describing them as “the last great representative of the classical tradition of virtues,” Alasdair MacIntyre identifies in the works of Jane Austen a marriage of Christian and classical themes. Many elements of a systematic virtue ethic shine through the entire body of Austen’s work, as the search for happiness undergirds the actions of each character that appears in the novels. Whether it entails discussing Shakespeare’s sonnets with a charming young man or accepting the proposals of a very silly clergyman, each action is directed to what the character perceives to be the good, ultimately for the sake of attaining “the best enjoyment of what this world can give,” or happiness of the pre-heaven variety. That being said, Jane Austen does not merely relate amusing vignettes describing various ways in which people go about seeking their own happiness. In the resolution of each of her novels, it is clear that only some characters achieve stable and respectable forms of happiness, while others still seek it or fail to achieve it. So, clearly some characters act in a more efficacious fashion than their counterparts, and at the heart of every instance of greater success, one finds virtue.

In his theory of the virtues, Aristotle regards happiness as the goal of all human action, including the most mundane tasks, such as eating and sleeping. Following in the tradition of Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas asserts that even evil actions which reject the good and, therefore, true happiness are actually done for the sake of what the person (mistakenly) perceives to be a source of happiness. Ultimately, both Aristotle and St. Thomas contend that only those who seek the true good achieve happiness, whereas those who reject it in favor of an inferior good remain ever discontent. In order to regularly distinguish and subsequently choose good actions from less good ones, individuals need certain habits. Otherwise, the attainment of happiness would be nothing but a matter of chance, as Charlotte Lucas argues is the case in marital felicity. Habits that dispose us to choose the good are called the virtues.

It is exactly in this way that the protagonists of Austen’s novels distinguish themselves from the rest of her characters. Her heroines do not simply ask themselves the question, how do I want to live my life, for presumably even Lydia Bennet has asked herself this question and replied, to eat, drink, and be merry! Rather, the heroines and heroes of Austen’s novels ask themselves, how do I lead a good and happy life? The reader finds evidence of this dynamic throughout the novels, as the omniscient narrator often gives glimpses into their introspective thoughts, as the characters examine their actions and question whether their deeds were truly conducive to their happiness.

Even more to the point of illustrating examinations of conscience are the episodes in which the heroines experience moments of conversion, seeking to measure the true worth of their previous deeds. Such is the case of Elizabeth Bennet when, upon careful consideration of Darcy’s letter concerning his relation to Wickham, she painfully acknowledges the rashness of her actions regarding these two men exclaiming, “till this moment, I never knew myself.” Similar experiences can be found in the accounts of Marianne Dashwood, Emma Woodhouse, and Catherine Morland in which the heroines find their actions sorely wanting in goodness and subsequently seek to reform their lives by choosing better actions, or acting more virtuously.

Another critical aspect of Aristotelian virtue ethics is the importance given to the individual, moral person in her totality. It is not a question of mind over body, but rather of an integral whole, mind and body, making decisions in the face of challenges that come up in life. This dynamic is the primary focus of Sense and Sensibility, as the title declares forthrightly. A rather poor reading of this novel would suggest that Austen favors a rational approach to romance to one based upon feeling or that Elinor, as well as Marianne, must learn something from her counterpart. However, when the narrator introduces Elinor to the reader, she is described as having “an excellent heart” and that “her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them.” Mind is not given a monopoly in virtuous action, and Elinor is by no means a stranger to emotion. It is through the union of the intellectual and the sensible that Elinor is able to weather her troubled course throughout the novel much more composedly than her overly affectionate sister, Marianne.

Austen also stresses the importance of the individual in making her own decisions concerning her happiness and how best to achieve it. Voluntariness is a necessary component of moral action, and the presence of an overriding external influence limits the act’s identifiability with the morally good or bad. This individual accountability is well displayed in Mansfield Park when Fanny perseveres in resisting the unjust persuasions of her uncle, Sir Thomas, to accept the morally suspect Mr. Crawford. Sir Thomas believes it her duty to set aside her own sense of moral uprightness in favor of his own. However, Fanny properly maintains her conviction that she is the best judge of the situation, as it concerns her own happiness and as she has had more opportunities for observing and judging the behavior of Mr. Crawford. In line with the thought of Aristotle and Aquinas, Austen empowers her heroines to assert their individual prerogative in their own decisions.

Throughout all of Austen’s novels, the reader does not only find illustrations of the presence and absence of virtue, but also depictions of its acquisition and accompaniments, such as friendship. As I proceed in this series of posts, my discussions will follow the general progression of this life of virtue, from its foundation in moral principles through its growth by the development of wisdom and finally to the attainment of the final end of happiness. Also, since friendship plays a central role in Austen’s novels and in the virtue theories of Aristotle and his followers, I will consider it, as well, as a critical component to the life of virtue. In the end, I hope to instill the conviction that there is something more than romance and drama in the novels of Jane Austen, namely a systematic approach to leading the good and happy life.

Image: James Andrews, Portrait of Jane Austen

About the Author

Br. Aquinas Beale is originally from West Virginia, and studied Political Science at the University of Virginia, receiving a Master’s degree in 2010. He entered the Order of Preachers in 2011.

From the Archives: Reading Jane Austen in light of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas

12 December 2015


Austen, Aristotle, and Aquinas

By: Br. Aquinas Beale, O.P.|April 7, 2014|Posted in: Austen the Aristotelian, Books, Culture, Virtue & Moral Life

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Jane Austen novels are full of silliness and romance. However little known the merits of these works upon a first perusal, this truth is so well fixed in the mind of the reader, that they are considered as the rightful property of young women fixated upon a bygone era of balls and dresses with hardly any serious merit to recommend them to the reader of more practical and serious taste.

While the truthiness of such a claim may, in fact, be unassailable, the truth of this statement can hardly be considered as such. When Lionel Trilling offered a seminar on the works of Jane Austen at Columbia in 1973, he had to sit through two-and-a-half days of interviews in order to whittle a field of 150 interested students down to a more manageable maximum of 40. You very well may ask how many of those prospective students were young men, but, as a professor of mine once responded to such a question, this was Columbia in the 1970s; they were, most probably, nearly all men! Trilling himself relates that the ranks of these prospective students included more than one graduate student who ardently made his case to be allowed in the class.

So, what’s the big deal about Jane Austen? Why would anyone with half a brain, let alone someone seriously dedicated to the study of divine truth, care two straws about such novels? Unlike Trilling who concluded that the moral values portrayed in Austen’s novels were invariably a product of her era, I am convinced that these values have a timeless character, just as the novels have a transcendent appeal.

As the title of this introduction and the Dominican authorship of these posts suggest, Aquinas and Aristotle play no small part in my appreciation of the works of Jane Austen. Throughout this series, I hope to illustrate how many of the values found in Austen’s works belong just as much to the medieval and classical periods as her own. By showing how the virtues espoused by Austen’s heroines conform to a much earlier tradition, I hope to lead the reader to suspect that these values are just as applicable today. These works are not simply food for romantic fantasies. They provide us with serious and thoughtful reflections on how virtue ought to be lived out, particularly in regard to our relationships with others.

Editor’s Note: For the record, the staff at Always Catholic are ardent Jane Austen fans. Those who truly understand Austen know that those who do not understand great literature do not realize that Austen is considered by many to be the “greatest author of the English language”. In addition, the romance angle is but a part of her novels, whereas she has also been called by many, “the greatest social scientist of all time” because her novels dealt with relationships… brilliantly… not just romantic ones, but relationships between husband and wives, parents and children, sisters and sisters, sisters and brothers, brothers and brothers, friends and friends etc. etc.

Now, with that being said, as far as we can see, (with the exception of some observations too ordinary to point out) this series is like a dream to those who love God, theology and all things Austen. With that in mind, please enjoy this gift from Brother Aquinas Beale, O.P. Thank you, Brother.

About the Author

Br. Aquinas Beale is originally from West Virginia, and studied Political Science at the University of Virginia, receiving a Master’s degree in 2010. He entered the Order of Preachers in 2011.

Source: Dominica Blog

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