December 9, 2003

Kant Final

1. According to Kant, intuitions only gain objective status by being thought or conceptualized. How do empirical concepts perform this function?

In what follows, we will see how Kant believes empirical concepts give objective status to intuitions.

In order to see how this works, we first need to understand what Kant means when he uses the terms concept, intuition, and objective status. First, a concept is a number of common characteristics that a group of objects share. Therefore, when we apply a concept to a group of objects, we unite those objects, or show that those objects are alike because they all share certain characteristics. An example of a concept is redness. Redness is a characteristic that many objects share—e.g., blood, lobsters, and sunsets are all red. When we apply the concept redness to a group of objects, we unite those objects, as we show that those objects are alike insofar as they all possess redness—e.g., blood, lobsters, and sunsets are all alike insofar as they are red. A pure concept is a characteristic that a group of pure objects share; space and time are pure objects. An empirical concept is a characteristic that a group of empirical objects share; all those objects existing in space and time are empirical objects.

Second, intuition is the act whereby we experience a particular object. Since space and time are pure intuitions, any intuition of space and time is a pure intuition. Since all those objects existing in space and time are empirical objects, any intuition of an object existing in space and time is an empirical intuition.

Third, an event or object is objectively true if it really happened or if it really exists. An event or object is subjectively true if it did not really happen or if it does not really exist, but if it only seemed to have happened or seems to exist. For instance, if it is objectively true that it is snowing outside, then it is the case that it is actually snowing outside; if it is subjectively true that it is snowing outside, then it is only the case that it appears to be snowing outside. To say that something is given an objective status is to say that it can be considered real, or to say that it can be considered to have actually happened or that it can be considered to actually exist. To say that something is given a subjective status is to say that it can be considered apparent, or to say that it can only be considered to have seemingly happened or that it can only be considered to seemingly exist.

Kant believes that intuitions can only attain objective status if empirical concepts are applied to them because apart from concepts, we do not intuit events and objects as they actually happen and exist. In order to see why this is so, it will be helpful to consider a couple examples.

Let’s suppose that I have an intuition of a kid dropping a rock to the ground: at T1, I see the rock at S1 (in the kid’s hand); at T2, I see the rock at S2 (in between his hand and the ground); at T3, I see the rock at S3 (at rest on the ground). If I apply the empirical concept “unsupported body” to these intuitions, I can know that the object I intuited at T1/S1 is the same as the object I intuited at T2/S2 and T3/S3. Applying the concept “unsupported body” to this object allows me to recognize that these different intuitions were all of the same object because the concept “unsupported body” allows me to unite these different intuitions: since the concept “unsupported body” tells me that all bodies on earth fall downwards unless acted upon by an outside force, when I apply this concept to my intuitions of the rock (and thus declare the rock to be an unsupported body), I can realize that the object I intuited at T1/S1 must be the same object I intuited at T2/S2 and T3/S3 because it was not acted upon by an outside force and, therefore, after leaving the boy’s had at T1/S1, it must have arrived at T2 at S2 and at T3 at S3. If I did not apply the concept “unsupported body” to this object, I would not be able to know that these intuitions were of the same object: since the object at T1/S1 is different than the object at T2/S2 and the object at T3/S3 (these objects are different both temporally and spatially), if I did not have the concept of “unsupported body” and, thus, could not unite these different objects, I would have no way of knowing that they were the same.

It is really the case that the rock at T1/S1 is the same as the rock at T2/S2 and T3/S3. In other words, this is objectively true. We can only give these intuitions objective status (i.e., we can only consider these intuitions to have actually occurred) if we apply the empirical concept “unsupported body” to them. If we do not apply the empirical concept “unsupported body” to these intuitions, then we cannot know that the rock at T1/S1 is the same as the rock at T2/S2 and T3/S3 and, therefore, we cannot give these intuitions objective status (i.e., we cannot consider these intuitions to have actually occurred) as it would only apparently be the case that the rock at T1/S1 was different than the rocks at T2/S2 and T3/S3; it would not actually be the case.

Let’s look at another example. Suppose I have the experience of looking at a tree at T1, then close my eyes at T2, and then open my eyes and look at the tree at T3. If I apply the empirical concept “being a tree” to these intuitions, I can know that the tree I intuited at T1 is the same as the tree I intuited at T3. Applying the concept “being a tree” to these intuitions allows me to recognize that these different intuitions were all of the same object because the concept “being a tree” allows me to unite these different intuitions: since the concept “being a tree” tells me that a tree is an object that exists throughout time and does not cease to exist when I close my eyes, when I apply this concept to my intuitions, I can realize that the object I intuited at T1 must be the same object I intuited at T3 because the both objects were trees and trees exist throughout time and do not cease to exist when I close my eyes. If I did not apply the concept “being a tree” to this object, I would not be able to know that these intuitions were of the same object: since the object at T1 is different than the object at T3 (these objects are different temporally), if I did not have the concept of “being a tree” and, thus, could not unite these different objects, I would have no way of knowing that they were the same.

It is really the case that the tree at T1 is the same as the tree at T3. In other words, this is objectively true. We can only give these intuitions objective status (i.e., we can only consider these intuitions to be of the same object) if we apply the empirical concept “being a tree” to them. If we do not apply the empirical concept “being a tree” to these intuitions, then we cannot know that the tree at T1 is the same as the tree at T3 and, therefore, we cannot give these intuitions objective status (i.e., we cannot consider these intuitions to be of the same object) as it would only apparently be the case that the tree at T1 was different than the tree at T3; it would not actually be the case.


2. Explain the three-fold synthesis by which intuitions are rendered objective. Show how this synthetic process takes place on both the empirical and transcendental level.

Two conditions are necessary in order for an intuition to be rendered objective. First, that intuition must be part of a manifold. In other words, that intuition cannot be completely isolated, but must be part of a sequence with other intuitions. Second, that intuition must be synthesized. In other words, that intuition must be put under a concept.

Synthesis is a threefold process. That is, in order for an intuition to be synthesized, three syntheses must be performed on it. Each synthesis, it should be noted, is necessary in order for the other syntheses to occur. The three syntheses are the syntheses of apprehension, reproduction, and recognition.

The synthesis of apprehension is the act in which the mind links different intuitions together. In other words, the synthesis of apprehension is the act in which the mind takes a manifold of intuitions and shows that they are part of a sequence. If the mind did not link these intuitions together, then these intuitions would be experienced as isolated, unrelated intuitions that were not part of a sequence. In order for these intuitions to hold together, both empirical and pure syntheses of apprehension must take place. The empirical synthesis of apprehension links together different intuitions. To see how this works, let’s look at an example. Suppose I experience a ball being held in someone’s hand at T1, the ball being halfway in between that person’s hand and the ground at T2, and the ball being on the ground at T3. I could only know that the ball experienced at T1 is the same as the balls experienced at T2 and T3 if my mind my mind performs an empirical synthesis of apprehension—that is, if my mind links together the balls experienced at T1, T2, and T2. If my mind did not link together my intuitions of these balls, I would have no way of knowing that they were the same. The pure synthesis of apprehension links together different times. In the above example, I could only know that the ball experienced at T1 is the same as the balls experienced at T2 and T3 if my mind performs a pure synthesis of apprehension. In other words, I could only know that the ball experienced at T1 is the same as the balls experienced at T2 and T3 if my mind links together the times T1, T2, and T3. If my mind did not link together T1, T2, and T3, my mind could not link together the balls which are located in T1, T2, and T3. But by linking these times together, I can know that they are related to one another, that T1 comes before T2 and that T2 comes before T3.

The synthesis of reproduction is the act in which the mind remembers previous intuitions. If the mind did not remember previous intuitions, then it could not perform the synthesis of apprehension. In other words, if the mind was only aware of the present intuition at hand and did not remember previous intuitions, it could not link together a manifold of intuitions, for it would only be aware of one intuition at any given time. In order for the mind to remember intuitions, both empirical and pure syntheses of reproduction must take place. The empirical synthesis of reproduction remembers previous intuitions. To see how this works, let’s again look at the example of the ball being dropped. When I experience the ball at T3, the empirical synthesis of reproduction enables me to remember the balls I experienced at T1 and T2. If it were not for this synthesis, I would not remember the balls at either T1 or T2 and, therefore, could not link them together with the ball I’m currently experiencing at T3. The pure synthesis of reproduction remembers previous intuitions of time. When I’m experiencing the ball at T3, the pure synthesis of reproduction enables me to remember T1 and T2. If it were not for this synthesis, I would not remember either T1 or T2 and, therefore, could not perform a pure synthesis of apprehension. In other words, if I could not remember T1 and T2, I could not link them together with T3.

The synthesis of recognition is the act in which the mind recognizes that it is not presently intuiting an intuition when it is remembering it. If the mind could not recognize the difference between a present intuition and the memory of a past intuition, then it could never put its intuitions in the correct sequence. In order for the mind to recognize the difference between past and present intuitions, both empirical and pure syntheses of recognition must take place. The empirical synthesis of recognition recognizes the difference between past and present intuitions. To see how this works, let’s again look at the example of the ball being dropped. If I remembered the ball at T1 and was intuiting the ball at T2, but could not tell which intuition was past and which was present, I would not know that the ball at T1 came before the ball at T2. The empirical synthesis of recognition allows me to recognize that I am presently experiencing the ball at T2 and that I am only remembering the ball at T1; therefore, it enables me to know that the ball at T1 came before the ball at T2. The pure synthesis of recognition recognizes the difference between present and past times. If was remembering T1 and was presently in T2, but could not recognize that I was only remembering T1 and not presently in it, I would not know that T1 came before T2. The pure synthesis of recognition allows me to recognize that I am presently experiencing T2 and only remembering T1; therefore, it enables me to know that T1 came before T2.


3. Explain the difference between mere maxims and practical law. Why must the former be expressed through hypothetical imperatives and the latter through the categorical imperative?

A maxim is a rule of action that someone is following. For this reason, we can discover what maxim someone is following if we merely discover what action that person is performing. For instance, if someone is currently eating, then we would say that that person’s maxim, at least for the time being, is eating. A mere maxim is a rule of action that is determined by one’s inclinations or desires. A practical law is a rule of action that is determined by practical reason. Practical reason is the faculty that discovers the moral law. In other words, practical reason discovers what it is that people ought to do. To put it yet another way, practical reason determines when an action should be performed regardless of its consequences and regardless of one’s inclinations. (All rational beings possess practical reason.) By contrast, theoretical reason is the faculty that discovers natural laws. In other words, theoretical reason discovers how the world actually is. (All animals, not just humans, possess theoretical reason.) To summarize, then, while a mere maxim is a rule of action that is determined by one’s inclinations, a practical law is a rule of action that is determined by practical reason.

Since a mere maxim is a rule determined by inclination, it might seem that it does not need an imperative or command. For why, it may be asked, does one need to be commanded to do that which he or she is naturally inclined to do? But it is only the end of a mere maxim that does not need an imperative; the means of a mere maxim does need an imperative. In other words, people do not need commanded to desire their desires or inclinations, but they might need to be commanded to perform the actions that are required in order to bring about the fulfillment of those desires. Proof that people might need to be commanded to perform the actions that are required in order to bring about the fulfillment of their desires is that one can desire a certain end yet not be willing to perform the means necessary to achieving that end. For example, one can desire to drink a lot of alcohol, but he or she might not be willing to take the necessary actions required to drinking a lot of alcohol—for instance, he or she might not be willing to a hold a job and, thus, earn enough money to obtain a sufficient amount of alcohol. Therefore, there must be an imperative that commands people to take the necessary actions to bring about their desired ends.

A mere maxim must be expressed through a hypothetical imperative. This follows because (1) a mere maxim is a rule of action determined by one’s desires and (2) a hypothetical imperative commands what steps must be performed in order to bring about any given desire. In other words, mere maxims must be expressed through hypothetical imperatives because hypothetical imperatives prescribe the actions one must perform to actualize mere maxims. A hypothetical imperative commands conditionally. That is, a hypothetical imperative states what conditions must be met in order to bring about a given end. For this reason, a hypothetical imperative comes in one of the following forms: “If you want Y, you must do X,” or “Do X if you want to attain Y.” For example, given that one desires to, say, spend Thanksgiving Day watching football, a hypothetical imperative might say, “If you want to spend Thanksgiving Day watching football, you must (1) tell your family you won’t be able to go to dinner because you are sick, (2) lock your bedroom door so no one can disturb you, (3) turn the television set on, etc.”

Since a practical law is not determined by one’s inclinations, it seems obvious that such a law needs an imperative. In other words, since (1) one’s reason can conflict with one’s inclination (and experience proves that this often happens) and (2) practical law is determined by reason, not inclination, it follows that (3) one, at least sometimes, needs to be commanded to follow practical law, or follow reason instead of inclination.

A practical law must be expressed through a categorical imperative. This follows because (1) a practical law is a rule of action determined by one’s practical reason and (2) a categorical imperative commands that one ought to follow his or her practical reason, regardless of one’s inclinations and regardless of the consequences of a given action. Unlike a hypothetical imperative, a categorical imperative does not command conditionally. That is, it does not state what conditions must be met in order to bring about a given end. For this reason, a categorical imperative simply comes in the form “Do X.” Unlike a hypothetical imperative, it does not command that one do X in order to achieve any desired end; rather, it merely commands that one do X regardless of one’s desires and regardless of the ends that will result in doing X. For example, if one’s practical reason determines that it is always wrong to lie, a categorical imperative would state that one should not lie—even if lying should bring about a set of consequences that he or she desires.


4. Why must the moral law be purely formal? How does the formal character of the law imply that moral beings have a free will?

Kant believes that the moral law must be purely formal. He believes this because he believes (1) that any theory that begins with any type of object is naturalistic and (2) that when you begin with object, the law has content (is not formal).

Before seeing why he believes the moral law must be purely formal, we should define a few terms. First, a moral theory is naturalistic if it confuses an is with an ought, or, in other words, if it confuses a natural good with a moral good. Second, the object of a moral law is the Good, or the standard by which the moral quality of actions is judged.

Kant believes that any moral theory that begins with an object is naturalistic. In other words, he believes that a theory is naturalistic if it determines its object before it determines the law. To see why he believes this, let’s look at the examples of two consequentialist theories: utilitarianism and Platonism. Utilitarianism is a naturalistic theory because it equates natural goods with moral goods. Specifically, utilitarianism believes that people desire to be happy and concludes from this that people ought to maximize happiness. Utilitarianism does not start with the rule “People ought to maximize happiness.” Rather, it starts by determining that its object or Good is happiness. After determining that happiness is the Good, utilitarianism then forms it law—“People ought to maximize happiness.” Platonism is a naturalistic theory because it believes that people ultimately desire to have well-ordered souls and concludes from this that having a well-ordered soul is morally good. Platonism does not start with the rule “People ought to have well-ordered souls.” Rather, it starts by determining that its object or Good is a well-ordered soul. After determining that having a well-ordered soul is the Good, Platonism then forms its law—“People ought to have well-ordered souls.”

Some might believe they can establish a moral theory that begins with an object but that is not naturalistic if they begin their theory with what it is humans ought to do. In other words, it might be claimed, if we start a moral theory with a moral good, and not a natural good, then we might be able to establish a non-naturalistic moral theory that begins with an object. For instance, it might be argued that we should start a moral theory, not by observing what people pursue, but by stating what it is that people ought to pursue. But Kant believes that this theory, like the consequentialist theories we looked at, does not work. We cannot begin a moral theory by stating what it is that people ought to pursue because we are only able to observe what people actually pursue, not what they ought to pursue.

So we have seen why Kant believes the moral law must be purely formal. Since the law is purely formal (i.e., without content), it seems that nothing can be known about it. However, Kant believes that at least one thing can be known about the moral law—it is a law and it, therefore, has a universal form. All laws, Kant notes, are universal—both natural laws and the moral law. In other words, both natural laws and the moral law are universally binding. Just as all natural beings do in fact obey natural laws, so, too, all natural beings ought to obey the moral law.

Because the moral law is purely formal and, therefore, is composed of universalized maxims, it follows that the moral law implies that moral beings have a free will. This follows because: (1) A will that follows an object that is part of the noumenal world is free; (2) The moral law is part of the noumenal world; (3) Therefore, a will that follows the moral law is free. Let’s look at each of these points in turn. First, a will that follows an object that is part of the nomenal world is free. Kant believes that a will must follow one of two types of objects: either an object that is part of the phenomenal world or an object that is part of the noumenal world. A will that follows an object that is part of the phenomenal world is merely obeying the laws of efficient causality and is not free. For example, when I eat because I am hungry, I am not free; I am not free because I am merely obeying natural laws, laws that give me a desire to eat when I am hungry. On the other hand, a will that follows an object that is part of the noumenal world is not obeying the laws of efficient causality and is, therefore, free. For example, when I obey the moral law simply because I am choosing to do my duty, I am free; I am free because I am not obeying natural laws, but the moral law. Second, the moral law is part of the nomenal world. As we have seen, the moral law is composed of universalized maxims and since universalized maxims are part of the noumenal world, it follows that the moral law is part of the noumenal world. That universalized maxims are part of the noumenal world is obvious. For an object is either part of the phenomenal world or part of the noumenal world. It is clear that universalized maxims are not part of the phenomenal world, as it is impossible to empirically observe such a maxim; therefore, such maxims must be part of the noumenal world. Therefore, a will that follows the moral law is free. This conclusion logically follows from the first two premises.


5. What is Kant’s answer to Hume’s critique of causality? How is this answer grounded in the unity of apperception?

According to David Hume, we cannot know that any one event in the universe is the cause of any other event. Sure, it is common to claim that certain events cause other events; for instance, it is common to say that a ball dropped to the ground because someone released it from his hand. But it is debatable whether any one event really is the cause of any other event. One cannot establish the principle of causality through Relations of Ideas. Relations of Ideas are truths that are based on the law of non-contradiction, as their negations are self-contradictory. A statement about causality cannot be based on the law of non-contradiction, as its negation is not self-contradictory. For instance, I am not violating the law of non-contradiction when I say, “I released the ball from my hand and it remained suspended in mid-air,” as this statement is not self-contradictory. Weird as this statement may sound, it is not self-contradictory: since the concept of “falling downwards when dropped from one’s hand” is not in the concept of “ball,” the aforementioned statement does not fall into the “A is non-A” form. Not only can one not establish the principle of causality through Relations of Ideas, but neither can he or she establish the principle of causality through Matters of Fact. A Matter of Fact is a truth discovered through one’s senses. Although our senses may have experienced that certain events always occur before other events (at least insofar as we know), our senses have never experienced one event causing any other event. Since our senses have only observed that certain events are always conjoined together with certain other events but have never experienced causality existing between any two events, it follows that we have merely inferred the existence of causality but have never established it through experience.

While Hume claims that we impose causality onto our experiences, Kant believes that one cannot have any experience without imposing causality and eleven other categories onto it. His argument can be stated as follows: (1) A unified consciousness is a necessary condition for any experience; (2) An objective manifold is a necessary condition for a unified consciousness; (3) Therefore, an objective manifold is a necessary condition for any experience. The conclusion naturally follows from the two premises. In order to see how this answers Hume’s critique of causality, we need to understand two points about the second premise: (1) an objective manifold is a synthesized sequence of intuitions, or, in other words, a sequence of intuitions that is put under a concept, and (2) one of the concepts that a synthesized manifold is put under is causality. Let’s now look at Kant’s arguments for the two premises.

First, a unified consciousness is a necessary condition for any experience. In order to see why this is so, we need to define what Kant means by experience and unified consciousness. An experience is a perception of an event or series of events that lasts more than one instant. A unified consciousness is an awareness of oneself and of other things that exists over a period of time. Given these definitions, it follows that I could not have any type of experience if I did have a unified consciousness. In other words, if I did not exist for more than one instant (or was not conscious of existing for more than one instant), then I could not have an experience of any event—as an experience necessarily lasts more than one instant.

Second, an objective manifold is a necessary condition for a unified consciousness. An objective manifold is a sequence of intuitions that a subject has synthesized or put under a concept. If my mind did not put the intuitions I experience under various concepts and, thus, render them an objective, all my intuitions would be completely isolated or, in other words, completely unrelated to one another. And if no one intuition of mine was related to any other intuition of mine, then my consciousness could not be unified. In other words, if my intuitions were not put under certain concepts (one of them being causality), there would not be anything to hold together my consciousness—and, thus, my consciousness would not unified. If my intuition at T1 was completely unrelated to my intuition at T2 and my intuition at T2 was completely unrelated to my intuition at T3 and so on ad infinitum, then my mind (since it is experiencing these intuitions) would have nothing to hold it together, as there would be nothing that it could latch onto and use it as a marker for its continual duration throughout time. Since my mind would not have such a stable marker, as far as I know, I would be a completely different person each moment.

A manifold is rendered objective through the three-fold process of synthesis. The first synthesis, the synthesis of apprehension, is the act in which the mind links different intuitions together; the second synthesis, the synthesis of reproduction, is the act in which the mind remembers previous intuitions; and the third synthesis, the synthesis of recognition, is the act in which the mind recognizes that I am not presently intuiting an intuition when I am remembering it. In order to perform the three-fold synthesis, I must have apperception. While perception is the awareness of a representation, apperception is the awareness that the representation I am aware of belongs to my consciousness. For example, I can be said to perceive a representation of a tree and I can be said to apperceive that a representation of a tree is my representation and not someone else’s. I must have apperception in order to perform the three-fold synthesis because I cannot perform the three-fold synthesis unless I notice myself as the one performing the synthesis. First, in order to link together different intuitions, and thus perform the synthesis of apprehension, I must recognize that all of the intuitions I am linking together are my intuitions; if I were not sure that all of these intuitions were my intuitions, then there would be no point in linking them together. Second, in order to remember previous intuitions and thus perform the synthesis of reproduction, I must recognize that the intuition I am remembering is my intuition; if this intuition were not my intuition, then I could not remember it.

The Ethical Teachings of the Jesus of the Gospels

Introduction

In the following paper, I examine the ethical teachings of Jesus as found in the Gospels and then compare his teachings with those of Immanuel Kant and Aristotle.

I will not attempt to discover which sayings were spoken by the historical Jesus and which were inventions of the early church. The limited amount of space I have prevents me from conducting my own search for the historical Jesus. And I would not be justified in assuming that any one scholar’s historical Jesus is the right one, as current scholarship (both Christian and non-Christian) is so deeply divided on this issue. So, instead of discovering the historical Jesus and then discussing his ethical teachings, I will merely discuss the ethical teachings of the Jesus of the Gospels. Even if it could be shown that the historical Jesus did not utter most of the claims recorded by the Gospel writers, my study would still be worthwhile. For, as countless people have declared for millennia now, great truth and wisdom is found in the teachings of the Jesus of the Gospels. This figure has commanded respect from even those who have not believed him to be the Son of God—e.g., Thomas Jefferson and Leo Tolstoy. Just as we can pick up a piece of literature known to be fictitious (e.g., Aeschylus’ Agamemnon) and learn moral lessons from it, so too can we learn from the Gospels, whether they are pure fiction or something more.


Jesus and the Old Testament Law

One cannot understand Jesus’ ethical teachings without understanding the Mosaic Law. Jesus did not see himself as abolishing the Old Testament Law and introducing an entirely new ethical system; rather, he believed he was merely fulfilling the Law.[i] Many New Testament scholars reject this view and claim that Jesus taught his followers to break the Mosaic Law. But, as Craig Blomberg writes, “There is no evidence that Jesus ever actually broke one of the written laws of the Pentateuch or taught others to do so.”[ii] On the contrary, there is plenty of evidence that Jesus upheld the Law. For instance, he often commanded his followers to obey the Pentateuch.[iii] Moreover, he seemed to believe that “Isaiah and the other prophets were truly prophets of God, since he quoted them with approval.”[iv]

Instead of opposing the Old Testament Law, Jesus reinterpreted and intensified it. First, Jesus often reinterpreted parts of the Law. For example, certain Jewish leaders of his time interpreted the Law to forbid one person from healing another person on the Sabbath. When accused of breaking the Law after healing a crippled woman, Jesus, instead of claiming that he had broken or changed the Law, claimed that his action was actually lawful. No one, he pointed out, believes it is unlawful to care for an animal on the Sabbath (by giving it water); therefore, it follows that it must also be lawful to care for a person on the Sabbath (by healing him or her).[v] Second, Jesus intensified the Law. An example of this can be found in the so-called antitheses of Matthew 5.21-48. Throughout this passage, Jesus repeatedly replaces an Old Testament command or a common Jewish teaching with his own teaching—e.g., in 5.38-39, he states, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist and evil person.”[vi] In such passages, E.P. Sanders notes that Jesus was not opposing the law; rather, he was demanding “a stricter code of practice,” which, if followed, would in no way break the law.[vii] For instance, the aforementioned antithesis would only be breaking the law if the law commanded that evil people should not be resisted; but it does not. “[H]eightening the law,” Sanders writes, “is not opposing it.”[viii]


The Two Greatest Commandments

So Jesus advocated the ethical teachings of the Old Testament. He only differed with many of his contemporary Jewish teachers in his reinterpretation and intensification of these teachings. We will better see how Jesus intensified the Old Testament commandments by examining his teachings on what he believed were the two most important Old Testament commandments: to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[ix]

Jesus taught that the ultimate duty of every person was to love God. To love God is, first of all, to approach him with a humble attitude. A good example of this is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. In the parable, both men go to the temple to pray. The Pharisee commends himself before God, thanking him that he is “not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” The tax collector, on the other hand, “would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast, and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” It is the tax collector, and not the Pharisee, Jesus tells us, who will be justified, for “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”[x] Humility before God, Norman Melchert writes, is so important for Jesus because “humility is the opposite of pride, and pride is the very root of sin. It is pride—wanting to be like God—that leads to the sin of Adam.”[xi]

To love God, one must also give him “a kind of undivided and absolute devotion.”[xii] Only God is to be worshipped, and not Caesar.[xiii] Moreover, our love for God is to be greater than the love we have for our families and even the love we have for our own lives. As Jesus hyperbolically states, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.”[xiv]

The commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves is an extension of the commandment to love God. As Melchert puts it, our love for God “will express itself in our observance of God’s law concerning our fellow men. And that requires loving our ‘neighbor’ as ourselves.”[xv] Jesus teaches that loving one’s neighbor involves both external and internal dimensions. First, loving one’s neighbor requires actions. For example, he condemns people who fail to give their parents financial support[xvi] and exhorts people to give to the poor.[xvii]

But loving one’s neighbor also requires the right type of attitude. Not only should one not murder, but one must not even be angry with his brother;[xviii] not only must a man not commit adultery, but he must not even look at another woman lustfully.[xix] People are condemned, not just for committing evil actions, but for failing to forgive others.[xx] Perhaps the inner attitude most emphasized by Jesus is humility. Not only does pride lead humans to rebel against God, but it “sets human beings against each other; the proud man, glorying in his superiority, cannot consider his neighbor equal in importance to himself and so cannot love as Jesus requires.”[xxi] Therefore, Jesus declares that it is the poor in spirit and the meek who are blessed.[xxii] He praises children for their humility and claims that those who humble themselves like children will be “greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”[xxiii] And he tells his disciples, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”[xxiv]

Not only did Jesus intensify the commandment to love one’s neighbor by emphasizing the importance of possessing the right attitude, but he also intensified this commandment by broadening the definition of “neighbor.” His love truly had no boundaries. He commanded others to love those of different ethnic and national backgrounds, as is evidenced in the parable of the Good Samaritan.[xxv] He commanded his followers to love their enemies.[xxvi] He associated with “sinners” and emphasized his concern for those condemned by the Jewish religious leaders.[xxvii] He was a defender of the poor, declaring that those “who gave large sums of money to the temple…still lacked the virtue of the poor widow who gave only a fraction of a penny.”[xxviii] Moreover, he went out of his way to minister to the sick[xxix] and showed compassion on both women[xxx] and children.[xxxi]


Comparison with Kant and Aristotle

As we have seen, Jesus’ ethical teachings are both action- and virtue-based. In other words, he emphasizes the importance of both good deeds and good motives. We will conclude our study by comparing Jesus’ ethical teachings to those of Immanuel Kant (a proponent of action-based ethics) and Aristotle (a proponent of virtue-based ethics).

Christian ethics are often compared to Kant’s system, as both are said to be deontological. Both Christians and Kant, it is said, believe that an action is not right or wrong because of its consequences, but simply because it is intrinsically right or wrong. The Christian says that the morality of an action is determined by God’s will, while the Kantian says that the morality of an action is determined by the Moral Law. When we look at Jesus’ teachings, however, we find no proof that he is a deontologist. If anything, he seems to be a consequentialist, as his moral injunctions are often followed by a reminder of the consequences that will follow if that action is performed. For example, he encourages his followers to love their enemies so that they will become sons of God,[xxxii] to do their good deeds in secret so they will be rewarded by God,[xxxiii] and to forgive the sins of others so that their sins, too, may be forgiven.[xxxiv] Conversely, he warns his followers not to judge others so that they will not be judged[xxxv] and not to cause a child to sin so that they will not be thrown into hell,[xxxvi] and he warns some Jewish leaders that their wickedness and unbelief will result in condemnation.[xxxvii]

These and other teachings of his make Jesus sound like what Kant would call a Mystic of Practical Reason. That is, it seems that, like Plato, Jesus believes an action is good if it will reap good rewards in the next life and bad if it will reap punishment in the next life. Although Jesus’ teachings seem to indicate this, it seems unfair to label him a consequentialist. For it could be possible that Jesus believes that the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by God’s will and that he only speaks of consequences to encourage people to act rightly. Jesus is a prophet, not an ethical philosopher; his focus is not on discussing meta-ethical issues but on proclaiming the kingdom of heaven. Since we do not have enough data to label Jesus either a consequentialist or deontologist, we should suspend our judgment on the matter and move on to issues that we do have enough evidence to discuss.

While Jesus is similar to Kant in his emphasis on actions, he is similar to Aristotle in his emphasis on character or disposition. Like Jesus, Aristotle believes that moral virtues must be accompanied by good motives. For example, if one acts courageously to impress his or her friends or to avoid being shamed, Aristotle would say that that person is not really courageous. In order to be courageous, one must both perform courageous actions and perform those actions with the right motives.[xxxviii]

Also similar to Jesus is Aristotle’s “correlation of virtue and telos (cosmic purpose), where proper conduct is conducive to human flourishing.” Just as Jesus believes that the righteous will ultimately be rewarded (e.g., the meek shall inherit the earth), Aristotle defines a virtue as a quality that enable people to live well. “But Jesus’ view is dissimilar as well, since Aristotle’s philosophy allotted the Prime Mover no ethical role in establishing, announcing, or rewarding moral character. For Jesus, God is central to the nature and experience of virtue.”[xxxix]

Despite these similarities, there are numerous differences between the ethics of Jesus and Aristotle. First, Jesus’ ethical teachings are entirely unconcerned with the political life. As W.T. Jones notes, the only political statement he makes (“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”) is at best “only a negative injunction, and, taken by itself, it cannot serve as the basis for a political or social system.”[xl] The only state Jesus is concerned about is the kingdom of God and he believes humans can attain that regardless of the political state they live in. By contrast, Aristotle spends a great deal of time discussing politics, as he believes that humans can only achieve their highest good if he lives in the right type of state.

Another difference between Jesus and Aristotle is their virtues. Although they both emphasize the importance of virtues, their lists look almost completely different. For instance, there is “nothing in Jesus’ list of virtues that corresponds to Aristotle’s ‘intellectual virtues’—science, art, philosophic wisdom, and so on.” And Jesus’ virtues are even drastically different than Aristotle’s moral virtues. For instance, Jesus never teaches the importance of courage, which is extremely important to Aristotle. And whereas Jesus values humility, Aristotle considers pride to be “the crown of the virtues.”[xli] In sum, Jesus’ ethics is one of good and evil, whereas Aristotle’s is one of good and bad. Stephen Darwall explains the difference:
To put the point in Nietzschean terms, Aristotle’s is an ethics of good and bad rather than of good and evil. Its contraries are those of noble and base rather than of right and wrong. What is ignoble and base gives cause for shame, not guilt. Shame is the feeling we have when we see ourselves as worthy of disdain, scorn, or ridicule, whereas guilt is what we feel when we see what we have done as culpable or blameworthy.[xlii]

Related to this difference, Jesus’ ethics are focused on God and others, while Aristotle’s ethics are essentially self-centered. That is, the primary good for Jesus is outward-focused—loving God and others; on the other hand, primary good for Aristotle is inward-focused—achieving one’s telos.[xliii]

Another difference between the two men is their view of what Martha Nussbaum refers to as “luck and ethics.” According to Aristotle, contingencies play a fundamental role in ethics, as he believes that one must possess certain external goods that are beyond one’s control (e.g., intelligence, wealth, and beauty) in order to attain the good life. Jesus, on the other hand, seems to believe that one can attain the good life regardless of circumstances, as anyone, regardless of their intelligence, wealth, and beauty can love God and love others and, thus, achieve the kingdom of heaven.


* * * * *


Works Cited

Blomberg, Craig L. Jesus and the Gospels. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997.

Darwall, Stephen. Philosophical Ethics. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998.

Groothuis, Douglas. On Jesus. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003. Jones, W.T. The Medieval Mind. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1962.

Melchert, Norman. The Great Conversation. Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield Publishing, 1999.

Sanders, E.P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1993.

Thomson, Garrett, and Marshall Missner. On Aristotle. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000.


* * * * *


End Notes

[i] Matthew 5.17.
[ii] Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), 393-94.
[iii] Mark 1.40-45 and Matthew 5.23.
[iv] E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1993), 224. Sanders here refers to Matthew 11.2-6.
[v] Luke 13.10-16.
[vi] All Bible quotations in this paper are from the NIV.
[vii] Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, 210.
[viii] Ibid., 212.
[ix] Jesus stated that these were the two most important commandments in Mark 12.29-31. He claimed that the commandment to love God (found in Deuteronomy 6.4-5) took precedence over the commandment to love one’s neighbor (found in Leviticus 19.18).
[x] Luke 18.9-14.
[xi] Norman Melchert, The Great Conversation (Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield Publishing, 1999), 226.
[xii] Ibid., 226.
[xiii] Matthew 22.21.
[xiv] Luke 14.26.
[xv] Ibid., 226.
[xvi] Matthew 15.3-9.
[xvii] Ibid., 19.21.
[xviii] Ibid., 5.21-22.
[xix] Ibid., 5.27-28.
[xx] Ibid., 6.14-15.
[xxi] Melchert, The Great Conversation, 226.
[xxii] Matthew 5.3, 5.
[xxiii] Ibid., 18.4.
[xxiv] Mark 9.35.
[xxv] Luke 10.25-37.
[xxvi] Matthew 5.43-48.
[xxvii] Ibid., 11.19; Luke 15.1-10.
[xxviii] Douglas Groothuis , On Jesus (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003), 69. Groothuis here refers to Mark 12.41-44.
[xxix] Matthew 8.1-4.
[xxx] John 4.1-42.
[xxxi] Mark 10.14.
[xxxii] Matthew 5.43-45.
[xxxiii] Ibid., 6.1-4.
[xxxiv] Ibid., 6.9-15.
[xxxv] Ibid., 7.1-2.
[xxxvi] Mark 9.42-50.
[xxxvii] Matthew 12.38-45.
[xxxviii] Garrett Thomson and Marshall Missner, On Aristotle, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000), 78-79.
[xxxix] Groothuis, On Jesus, 66.
[xl] W.T. Jones, The Medieval Mind (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1962), 30.
[xli] Ibid., 31.
[xlii] Stephen Darwall, Philosophical Ethics, (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), 206.
[xliii] Jones, The Medieval Mind, 31-32.

December 8, 2003

In Defense of the Middlemarch Narrator

Introduction
Ever since its publication in 1871-72, many critics have viewed the omniscient and intrusive narrator of Middlemarch as a major weakness. Most of these criticisms have hinged upon the belief that mimesis, or “showing,” is superior to diegesis, or “telling.” (Gerard Genette observed in Narrative Discourse that the distinction between “showing” and “telling” was first articulated in the third book of Plato’s Republic, when Plato defined diegesis as the act in which the poet speaks as himself and mimesis as the act in which the poet speaks through someone else.)[i] The author, it has been claimed, must not intrude into the text and tell readers what they ought to think or how they ought to interpret the story; rather, the author must merely tell the story and allow readers to interpret it themselves.

Examples of authors who do not allow their narrators to intrude into the text and tell readers what to think are Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, and James Joyce. David Lodge makes the following observations about each of these authors:
[I]n [Flaubert’s] Madame Bovary the narrator is omnipresent, but it is impossible to discover what he thinks about the story he is telling. In James, the narrator is either a created character of doubtful reliability (e.g. the governess in The Turn of the Screw) or an authorial narrator who deliberately restricts himself to the limited perspective of a character (such as Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors) entangled in circumstances he does not fully understand. In Joyce, the author is progressively ‘refined out of
existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.’[ii]

The narrator in Middlemarch, on the other hand, frequently intrudes into the text, making “judgements on characters, remarks on how the story is being told, direct addresses to the reader, and generalisations and miscellaneous observations on a variety of subjects.”[iii] Kerry McSweeney divides these intrusions into three groups. First, the narrator makes “direct comments on the characters.”[iv] An example of this can be found in chapter 75 when, after telling us that Rosamond is sad because Lydgate has not visited her recently, he comments, “Poor Rosamond lost her appetite and felt as forlorn as Ariadne—as a charming stage Ariadne left behind with all her boxes, full of costumes and no hope of a coach.” Second, the narrator makes various “discursive generalisations and aphorisms.”[v] For example, in chapter 21, he writes, “Mortals are easily tempted to pinch the life out of their neighbour’s buzzing glory, and think that such killing is no murder” and in chapter 53, he writes, “the egoism which enters into our theories does not affect their sincerity; rather, the more our egoism is satisfied, the more robust is our belief.” And third, the narrator of Middlemarch often directly addresses the reader.[vi] An example of this is found in chapter 23, when, in the middle of describing Caleb Garth, he interjects, “pardon these details for once, you would have learned to love them if you had known Caleb Garth.”

In the following paper, I will examine two arguments that have been made against the narratorial intrusions in Middlemarch, both of which presuppose that mimesis is superior to diegesis. We will refer to the first argument as the postmodern argument and the second as the artistic argument.


The Postmodern Argument Against the Narrator of Middlemarch
The first argument against the narrator of Middlemarch is distinctive of our postmodern times. The argument basically states that it is wrong for any author to tell his or her readers what they ought to think; rather, an author should construct his or her text in such a way that allows for different interpretations. Such an argument is made by Colin MacCabe in James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word. MacCabe argues that Joyce’s writings are superior to Eliot’s because they do not favor the “discourse of the narrator” (i.e., diegesis) over the “discourse of the characters” (i.e., mimesis). For example, “[n]one of the discourses which circulate in Finnegans Wake or Ulysses can master or make sense of the others and there is, therefore, no possibility of the critic articulating his or her reading as an elaboration of a dominant position within the text.”[vii] To the contrary, Middlemarch gives the narrator the final, authoritative, controlling voice. “Whereas other discourses within the text are considered as materials which are open to reinterpretation, the narrative discourse functions simply as a window on reality.”[viii] To put this argument into distinctively postmodern terms, Middlemarch is inferior because (through its diegetic passages) it purports a metanarrative, while Joyce’s works are superior because (by minimizing diegesis) they refuse to purport a metanarrative.

Before evaluating this criticism, we should make sure we do not exaggerate the amount of diegesis in Middlemarch. As David Lodge points out, Middlemarch “often indistinguishably and inextricably” mixes mimesis and diegesis together by employing free indirect speech—in which “the narrator, without absenting himself entirely from the text, communicates the narrative to us coloured by the thoughts and feelings of a character.” By speaking in the past tense and referring to characters in the third person, free indirect speech implicitly recognizes “the existence of the author as the source of the narrative.” However, “by deleting the tags which affirm that existence, such as he said, she wondered, she thought to herself, etc., and thus by using the kind of diction appropriate to character rather than to the authorial narrator” the narrator allows “the sensibility of the character to dominate the discourse” and, therefore, subdues his “own voice, his own opinions and evaluations.”[ix] Lodge provides the following passage as an example of the narrator’s discourse becoming “permeated with Dorothea’s discourse, but without wholly succumbing to it.”[x]
She felt sure that she would have accepted the judicious Hooker, if she had been born in time to save him from that wretched mistake he made in matrimony: or John Milton when his blindness had come on; or any of the other great men whose odd habits it would have been glorious piety to endure; but an amiable handsome baronet, who said ‘Exactly’ to her remarks even when she expressed uncertainty—how could he affect her as a lover? The really delightful marriage must be that where your husband was a sort of father, and could teach you even Hebrew, if you wished.[xi]

Lodge notes that such “colloquial phrases” as “that wretched mistake” and “when his blindness had come on” seem to be Dorothea’s own words. However, it does not seem that she would have uttered the phrase “odd habits,” as it would have been odd for her to use such an irreverent phrase after she had just been so reverently speaking of these “great men.”[xii]

But, even if we make sure not to exaggerate the amount of diegesis in Middlemarch, the fact remains that a great deal of diegesis exists. How are we to respond to this fact? Some respond by claiming that the Middlemarch narrator is just another fallible character and, therefore, no more authoritative than any other character. If this claim is true, it follows that Middlemarch does not favor its diegetic passages over its mimetic ones. Such an argument has been made by K.M. Newton. Newton claims that, given her “rejection of metaphysical ideas,” George Eliot would not have chosen an omniscient narrator “with its implication that the narrator has godlike powers to penetrate the minds of the characters as well as being able to range with supernatural knowledge over past, present, and future.” All of Eliot’s novels, Newton notes, “present the narrator as someone who is writing a novel about events and characters that the narrator regards as real, with the narrator being generally referred to as a historian and the novel as history.” Because the narrator is an actual historical person and, therefore, limited in knowledge, it follows that he does not have godlike powers. His knowledge of the characters’ “inner minds,” then, results, not from “a metaphysical penetration of the consciousnesses,” but from “the historical novelist’s reconstruction and interpretation of their intentions, desires, motivations.” Because the narrator is merely a “constructor and interpreter,” it follows that “the narrative makes it clear to the reader that other viewpoints and interpretations are possible.”[xiii] Elizabeth Ermarth holds a view similar to Newton’s and claims that, although the narrator is more sophisticated than the novel’s other characters, he is just “one voice among many.”[xiv]

Two things can be said in response to this argument. First, it is undoubtedly correct in claiming that the narrator is not godlike. As J. Hillis Miller notes, such can be said of virtually all Victorian narrators. As he writes, Victorian narrators are not “standing outside the time and space of the action, looking down on the characters with the detachment of a sovereign spectator who sees all, knows all, judges all, from a distance.” Rather, they “move within the community. They identify themselves with a human awareness which is everywhere at all times within the world of the novel.”[xv] The Middlemarch narrator undoubtedly views himself as a historical person personally acquainted with the book’s characters. As we saw earlier, he refers to Caleb Garth as though he personally knows him: “pardon these details for once—you would have learned to love them if you had known Caleb Garth.”[xvi] It is also clear that the narrator is not a detached spectator. Rather, he has certain prejudices, as can be seen in the fact that he favors certain characters. For example, he clearly favors Dorothea, as the following passages makes evident:
One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea—but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? I protest against all our interest, all our effort at understanding being given to young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble.[xvii]
As McSweeney writes, this intrusion suggests, not only the narrator’s “commitment to a comprehensive and impartial depiction of the inner life of both characters,” but also his awareness of “the special bond between himself and Dorothea.”[xviii]

However, even though the Middlemarch narrator is not godlike, it does not follow that he is just “one voice among many.” Rather, the narrator is the most authoritative voice in the novel. Just as MacCabe complains, his discourse carries far more weight than the discourses of other characters. First of all, the narrator regards himself as having such authority. He confidently and authoritatively speaks of “unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven”[xix] and rarely prefaces his comments with such phrases as “In my opinion” or “It seems to me.” As Isobel Armstrong puts it, his sayings are “sage-like,” emerging “from the narrative with a delicate, oracular dogmatism.”[xx] Second, the text undoubtedly makes the narrator out to be more authoritative than the book’s other characters. In other words, the text’s mimesis bears out its diegesis. For example, the narrator is proven right in his sympathies towards Dorothea, as, like him, we come to like Dorothea because of her thoughts, words, and actions. Also, the narrator is proven right in his criticisms of Bulstrode and Rosamond, as, like him, we become critical of them because of their thoughts, words, and actions. The vast majority of scholars over the years have viewed the Middlemarch narrator as an authoritative voice, and the claims made by such critics as Newton and Ermarth seem to be motivated, not by a desire to do justice to the text, but simply by a desire to impose a postmodern structure onto it—even though, as the data suggests, Middlemarch is clearly not a postmodern text.

Jeanie Thomas attributes the narrator’s authority and wisdom to his being experienced, “having passed that way” himself. The narrator, she writes, speaks with “the authenticity that is earned through long engagement with the world.”[xxi] Whatever the reason for his authority, it is undeniable that the narrator is an authoritative voice and that we must deal with this fact. But must we accept MacCabe’s view and conclude that this authoritative voice makes Middlemarch inferior to such works as Finnegans Wake and Ulysses? I think not. If the latter are superior, it is not because they lack an intrusive and dogmatic narrator. For, while MacCabe assumes that a piece of literature that purports a metanarrative is inferior to one that does not, this assumption is itself based on a faulty assumption—the assumption that it is possible for a piece of literature to avoid purporting a metanarrative. Every work of literature, whether it realizes it or not, cannot help but articulate a metanarrative. Even a piece of literature that does not have an intrusive, omniscient narrator to tell us “the way things are” and instead leaves itself “completely open to interpretation” is itself purporting a metanarrative—namely, the metanarrative that there are no metanarratives. For to say that there are no metanarratives is to purport a metanarrative; in other words, one is making a grand claim about reality when he or she says that reality is such that one cannot make a grand claim about it. This claim, of course, is self-refuting: for one refutes his or her own argument if he or she, first, says that metanarratives do not exist and then goes on to make one.

In conclusion, then, MacCabe’s argument fails. For there seem to be no good reasons for favoring a piece of literature that denies the existence of metanarratives to one that admits their existence. If anything, there seem to be good reasons for favoring the latter over the former. First, unlike the former, the latter do not refute themselves by denying the existence of metanarratives and then proceeding to purport them. Second, the latter are far more honest than the former. Works like Middlemarch tip their hands to us, admitting to us what they are doing, what metanarratives they are advancing; on the other hand, works that try to limit or even eliminate diegesis are lying to us, pretending that we are not being preached to when nothing could be further from the truth.


The Artistic Argument Against the Narrator of Middlemarch
Beginning with Henry James, it has been popular for critics to claim that a work of literature is artistically flawed if it “tells” things that it ought to “show.” Applying this criterion to Middlemarch, many critics have found the book deficient. As George Steiner writes, “By interfering constantly in the narration George Eliot attempts to persuade us of what should be artistically evident…It should be noted that omniscience is an author’s most lazy approach and that personal interference in the action must be compared to what occurs in a Chinese theatre when the manager comes on during the play to change props.”[xxii]

This criticism seems to assume that George Eliot used so much diegesis because she was either incapable of effectively using mimesis or just plain lazy. Now it is clear that Eliot was not incapable of effectively using mimesis. For example, many of her comments state truths that are made obvious through dialogue. For instance, we hardly need the narrator to tell us that Mr. Brooke speaks with a kind of “scrappy slovenliness” to know that such is the case, as the following comments by Mr. Brooke make this plain:
“Young ladies don’t’ understand political economy, you know,” said Mr Brooke, smiling towards Mr Casaubon. “I remember when we were all reading Adam Smith. There is a book, now. I took in all the new ideas at one time—human perfectibility, now. But some say, history moves in circles; and that may be very well argued; I have argued it myself. The fact is, human reason may carry you a little too far—over the hedge, in fact. It carried me a good way at one time; but I saw it would not do. I pulled up; I pulled up in time. But not too hard. I have always been in favour of a little theory: we must have Thought; else we shall be landed back in the dark ages. But talking of books, there is Southey’s ‘Peninsular War.’ I am reading that of a morning. You know Southey?”[xxiii]

It also seems clear that Eliot was not lazy. A lazy writer does not spend his or her life producing one massive eight-hundred-page book after another.

So why, then, does Eliot so often resort to diegesis? Why, when she was so gifted at mimesis, did she use so much diegesis? In order to answer this question, we need to set aside our Jamesian presuppositions and question whether it is really inartistic to mix a fair amount of degesis with mimesis. We need to ask ourselves if a non-Jamesian narrator can be just as valid as a Jamesian one. There are many different ways to tell a story and that many of these ways are equally valid. Just as apples and oranges are different yet both tasty, so, too, many different narrative techniques are different yet equally artistic. If all stories were written the same way, the world of literature would be a dull place. Luckily, there are different types of narratives, and we should, therefore, appreciate each type of narrative for what it has to offer and not waste our time arranging them in a hierarchy. When we change our focus in this manner, we can begin to appreciate the peculiarities and strengths of different narrative types. When we turn to Middlemarch, we see that there are a number of benefits to the intrusive narrator. In order to better appreciate these benefits, let us briefly consider three of them.

First, these intrusions help draw readers into the story. As Isobel Armstrong puts it, “the authorial comment creates bridges…between the world of the novel and our world.”[xxiv] Among other means, the narrator does this by often asking questions, obtaining “an assent, a corroboration from the reader” before proceeding.[xxv] For example, in chapter 37, the narrator writes, “Poor Mr. Casaubon felt (and must not we, being impartial, feel with him a little?) that no man had just cause for disgust and suspicion than he.” Also, in chapter 47, the narrator writes, “Do we not shun the street version of a fine melody?—or shrink from the news that the rarity…is really not an uncommon thing, and may be obtained as an everyday possession?” Armstrong claims that most of the narrator’s questions are not rhetorical; rather, he truly expects readers to answer. By encouraging readers to answer these questions about the text, the narrator is encouraging them to engage the text, to think about it, to enter into it.

Second, these intrusions often enable readers to better understand the characters. An example of this can be found in the following aphorism: “Solomon’s Proverbs, I think, have omitted to say, that as the sore palate findeth grit, so an uneasy consciousness heareth innuendoes.”[xxvi] This aphorism—which is given after Lydgate is, first, scolded by Mrs. Blustrode for leading on Rosamond and, then, irritated by Mr. Farebrother’s jokes—shows both the “comedy and awkwardness of Lydgate’s situation.” Moreover, by “generalizing his feelings,” it enlarges his predicament,” coming to “indicate not only Lydgate, but a common human situation—it might include us all.” Specifically, by appealing to their own experiences, the narrator helps readers to relate to Lydgate. As Armstrong puts it, “Once one has assented to this proverbial saying one cannot but go on to recognize the uneasiness of Lydgate’s position. By moving out of the world of the novel, this saying actually consolidates an imaginative involvement with the characters.”[xxvii]

Sometimes, the narrator helps readers to better understand the book’s characters by anticipating readers’ thoughts and then going on to correct them. An example of this can be found after Casaubon learns of his imminent death and makes it difficult for Dorothea to lock arms with himself.
You may ask why, in the name of manliness, Mr. Casaubon should have behaved in that way. Consider that his was a mind which shrank from pity…Besides, he knew little of Dorothea’s sensations, and had not reflected that on such an occasion as the present they were comparable in strength to his own sensibilities about Carp’s criticism.[xxviii]

The narrator anticipates that readers will be alarmed by Casaubon’s behavior and most likely judge it harshly. Realizing this, the narrator quickly comes to Casaubon’s defense and explains his action. Mary De Jong notes that his “self-absorption is not excused, but the reader is expected to understand it.”[xxix]

Third, these intrusions encourage moral growth among readers. As De Jong points out, the intrusions inform readers that much is expected of them—“not just engagement with the dramatized experience, not just a sympathetic yet judicious evaluation of the characters’ ideals and behavior, but also the willingness to take correction, to learn and change.”[xxx] His intrusions achieve this end in a number of ways. For instance, he sometimes seeks “sympathy and assent by characterizing an experienced, intelligent, humane reader so that the flesh-and-blood reader—bringing actual or imagined experience to the text—may assume the indicated role.” For instance, in chapter 42, he says the following about Casaubon:
To a mind largely instructed in the human destiny hardly anything could be more interesting than the inward conflict implied in his formal measured address, delivered with the usual sing-song and motion of the head. Nay, are there many situations more sublimely tragic than the struggle of the soul with the demand to renounce a work which has been all the significance of its life—a significance which is to vanish as the waters which come and go where no man has need of them?

In this passage, the narrator is able to make the reader feel sympathy for Casaubon by, more or less, flattering him. De Jong notes that few readers would resist such flattery; who, after all, would resist being called “a mind largely instructed in the human destiny”? She continues: readers “are persuaded by their own self-regard to sympathize with the struggling characters. If we are what we do, playing the sympathetic observer develops our awareness of the perspectives of people unlike ourselves—and possibly changes our behavior as well as our outlook.”[xxxi]

The narrator often encourages readers to be more sympathetic by peppering his sayings with such personal pronouns as “we” and “our.” An example of this is found in the following discussion of Casaubon in chapter 29:
For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self—never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness raptuously transformed by the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.
In this passage, the narrator encourages readers to have understanding and sympathy for Casaubon by, first, assuming that they have “a privileged experience”—i.e., they possess the glory of enjoying life. After being reminded of their privileged experience, readers are then able to better “grasp a negative and impoverished state of mind.” As Armstrong puts it, “What one may not know—or may not feel sympathy with—is approached through what one knows.”[xxxii]


Summary
As we have seen, the intrusive, omniscient narrator of Middlemarch stands up to the fiercest of criticisms. First, he stands up to the criticism that his dogmatic authority renders Middlemarch inferior to works that supposedly do not tell readers how they ought to think but instead simply encourage them to make their own interpretations. For, as we saw, no piece of literature can avoid speaking with such dogmatic authority. Second, the Middlemarch narrator stands up to the criticism that his presence renders Middlemarch less artistic than works that contain less diegesis and more mimesis. For an intrusive narrator is not inherently inferior to a Jamesian narrator, but simply different; as such, we should not spend our time criticizing an intrusive narrator, but instead appreciating his many distinctive benefits.


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Works Cited

Armstrong, Isobel. “‘Middlemarch’: A Note on George Eliot’s ‘Wisdom’.” Critical Essays on George Eliot. Ed. Barbara Hardy. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1970. 116-132.

De John, Mary G. “Taking the Reader’s Part: On Arguing with George Eliot. CEA Critic, no. 51 (Fall 1988): 88-101.

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 1871-72. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Ermarth, Elizabeth. “Method and Moral in George Eliot’s Narrative.” Victorian Newsletter, no. 47 (Spring 1975): 5-7.

Harvey, W.J. The Art of George Eliot. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Lodge, David. “The Classic Realist Text.” Middlemarch. Ed. John Peck. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. 45-64.

MacCabe, Colin. James Joyce and the Revolution of the World. London: Macmillan Press, 1979.

McSweeney, Kerry. Middlemarch. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1984.

Newton, K.M. “Narration.” Oxford Reader’s Companion to George Eliot. Ed. John Rignall. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 280-82.

Thomas, Jeanie. Reading Middlemarch: Reclaiming the Middle Distance. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988.


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Endnotes

[i] David Lodge, “The Classic Realist Text”; quoted in John Peck, Middlemarch (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 49.
[ii] Ibid., 51.
[iii] Kerry McSweeney, Middlemarch (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1984), 66.
[iv] Ibid., 67.
[v] Ibid., 69.
[vi] Ibid., 67.
[vii] Colin MacCabe, James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word (London: Macmillan Press, 1979), 14.
[viii] Ibid., 15.
[ix] Lodge, “The Classic Realist Text,” 52.
[x] Ibid., 53.
[xi] George Eliot, Middlemarch (1871-72; reprint, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), chapter 1.
[xii] Lodge, “The Classic Realist Text,” 54.
[xiii] K.M. Newton, “Narration”; quoted in John Rignall, Oxford Reader’s Companion to George Eliot (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 281-82.
[xiv] Elizabeth Ermarth, “Method and Moral in George Eliot’s Narrative,” Victorian Newsletter, no. 47 (Spring 1975): 7.
[xv] J. Hillis Miller, The Form of Victorian Fiction (Notre Dame/London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1958); quoted in McSweeney, Middlemarch, 60.
[xvi] Eliot, Middlemarch, chapter 23.
[xvii] Ibid., 29.
[xviii] McSweeney, Middlemarch, 68.
[xix] Eliot, Middlemarch, chapter 15.
[xx] Isobel Armstrong, “‘Middlemarch’: A note on George Eliot’s ‘Wisdom’”; quoted in Barbara Hardy, Critical Essays on George Eliot (New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1970), 116.
[xxi] Jeanie Thomas, Reading Middlemarch: Reclaiming the Middle Distance (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988), 88-89.
[xxii] George Steiner, “A Preface To Middlemarch,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, no. 9 (1954): 262-79; quoted in W.J. Harvey, The Art of George Eliot (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), 65.
[xxiii] Eliot, Middlemarch, chapter 2.
[xxiv] Armstrong, “‘Middlemarch’: A note on George Eliot’s ‘Wisdom’,” 118.
[xxv] Ibid., 120-21.
[xxvi] Eliot, Middlemarch, chapter 31.
[xxvii] Armstrong, “‘Middlemarch’: A note on George Eliot’s ‘Wisdom’,” 124.
[xxviii] Eliot, Middlemarch, chapter 42.
[xxix] Mary G. De Jong, “Taking the Reader’s Part: On Arguing with George Eliot,” CEA Critic, no. 51 (Fall 1988): 88.
[xxx] Ibid., 96.
[xxxi] Ibid., 95.
[xxxii] Armstrong, “‘Middlemarch’: A note on George Eliot’s ‘Wisdom’,” 126.