Gaining Self-Mastery - Encounter Books

Gaining Self-Mastery

An Excerpt from 'Reclaiming Common Sense'
By Robert Curry | September 27, 2019

“A few years will settle her opinions on the reasonable basis of common sense and observation.”

—Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

 

What difference does a few years make? Let’s return for a moment to P. J. O’Rourke’s comment about giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys, and then imagine this scenario: A well-groomed middle-aged man exits a liquor store and walks toward his car. He holds a shopping bag containing a bottle of whiskey in one hand, and his car keys in the other. This does not cause you any concern. Why not?

If you are not alarmed it is because you assume that the middle-aged man is a grown-up. But what does that actually mean? A grown-up is someone who has achieved a certain basic level of common sense. This means that the process of growing up is a process of acquiring common sense. The teenager is further along in that process than the small child who is not yet advanced enough to be trusted to handle sharp knives, and the teenager is not yet as far along as the mature adult who can be trusted with whiskey and car keys.

Since acquiring common sense is a process, it follows that common sense is something that can be developed. We often learn best from stories, so we’ll turn to Jane Austen for an illustration of how this might happen.

This means that the process of growing up is a process of acquiring common sense.

Austen’s brilliant novel Sense and Sensibility (and Ang Lee’s captivating 1995 film starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet) can teach us quite a lot about common sense. It is the story of two sisters: Elinor loves a man who is committed to another woman, while Marianne is in love with a scoundrel. The title announces the novel’s double theme, and each theme is exemplified by one of the central characters.

The title conveyed a clear and precise meaning to readers in Austen’s time, which is easily missed today. “Sense” is the easier of the two for us to understand: it meant “common sense.” Translating the title so that it reads “Common Sense and Sensibility” gets us going in the right direction about the first of the two words. It does not take us all the way, however, for the simple reason that Austen and her readers had a much more robust conception of common sense than we do today.

Our challenge in understanding what Austen meant by sensibility is greater. As a result of many changes in our attitudes and our speech, many of us will miss Austen’s meaning. To understand it, let’s consider the root word, “sensible.” We still use it, but usually in a very different way than it is used in the novel and was in Austen’s day generally. If we commend someone for making a sensible decision, we might also say that the decision showed common sense. But when Marianne, defending her own conduct, tells Elinor, “I am not sensible of having done anything wrong in walking over Mrs. Smith’s grounds,” she means that she has no feeling of having done anything wrong. In Austen’s day, sensibility meant a capacity for emotional responses to one’s experiences. Persons of strong sensibility could be counted on to display and express the feelings aroused in them by poetry, music, and picturesque scenery. They would also be inclined to display and express the emotions aroused in them by life’s ups and downs, as Marianne’s story illustrates.

Since acquiring common sense is a process, it follows that common sense is something that can be developed.

At the time, both common sense and sensibility were considered to be fundamental human faculties, possessed by all of us. Each could be cultivated and developed, or neglected and therefore stunted. To a large extent, this was the explanation of the readily observable fact that people have more or less common sense, and differ widely in how emotionally expressive they are.

So, to understand the novel on a level deeper than the narrative of events, we need to see that Elinor and Marianne personify these two fundamentals of human nature. Elinor represents common sense. Marianne embodies sensibility and the romantic impulse to put emotion first in one’s life. Near the beginning of the novel, Austen establishes the contrast when Elinor says that her sister’s “opinions are all romantic,” but then goes on to predict, “A few years will settle her opinions on the reasonable basis of common sense and observation.”

Austen first shows us the romantic sensibility at work, as Marianne rashly gives her love to an unprincipled rogue. When he jilts her, she embraces the martyrdom of love with equal rashness:

Marianne would have thought herself very inexcusable had she been able to sleep at all the first night after parting with Willoughby. She would have been ashamed to look her family in the face the next morning, had she not risen from her bed in more need of repose than when she lay down in it . . . She was awake the whole night, and she wept the greatest part of it. She got up with a headache, was unable to talk, and unwilling to take any nourishment; giving pain every moment to her mother and sisters, and forbidding all attempt at consolation from either. Her sensibility was potent enough! . . .

The evening passed off in the equal indulgence of feeling. . . . and this nourishment of grief was every day applied.

At the time, both common sense and sensibility were considered to be fundamental human faculties, possessed by all of us.

Austen draws the contrast with Elinor very clearly. When she in her turn is disappointed in love, instead of yielding to her feelings, Elinor shows “her determination to subdue” them. Austen writes repeatedly of Elinor’s “self-command.” Marianne, however, is not impressed by it:

Such behavior as this, so exactly the reverse of her own, appeared no more meritorious to Marianne, than her own had seemed faulty to her. The business of self-command she settled very easily;—with strong affections it was impossible, with calm ones it could have no merit.

From Marianne’s standpoint, Elinor’s conduct can only mean that she does not love deeply, but we know better. It is not by chance that the scene near the end of the story in which Elinor and her beloved are finally united is one of the most deeply emotional moments in all of Austen’s novels and is the most moving scene in the film.

Marianne’s self-indulgence eventually results in a life-threatening illness. Elinor puts aside her own grief to nurse her sister, and eventually helps bring her around to a change of perspective.

Marianne says of her own conduct, “I compare it with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours.”

Elinor responds, “Our situations have borne little resemblance.” Then Marianne explains what she has learned:

“My illness has made me think. . . . I considered the past: I saw in my own behavior . . . nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others. I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings, and that my want of fortitude under them had almost led me to the grave. My illness, I well knew, had been entirely brought on by myself, by such negligence of my own health as I felt even at the time to be wrong. Had I died, it would have been self-destruction. . . .”

This is the fulfillment of Elinor’s prophecy that Marianne will in time gain a reasonable, common-sense perspective on her situation. We are left in no doubt where Austen comes down on the issue of common sense and sensibility. Bringing the two into a proper balance is the way to self-mastery.

We are left in no doubt where Austen comes down on the issue of common sense and sensibility. Bringing the two into a proper balance is the way to self-mastery.

Our examination of common sense and sensibility in Jane Austen’s world gives us another lens through which to view Stiva’s dream in Anna Karenina. Earlier we focused on how Tolstoy portrayed the absence of common-sense principles in the dream world; now let’s read the passage again with an eye to sensibility (italics added):

Stiva . . . opened his eyes. “Yes, yes, how did it go?” he thought, recalling his dream. “Yes! Alabin was giving a dinner in Darmstatdt—no, not in Darmstadt but something American. Yes, but this Darmstadt was in America. Yes, Alabin was giving a dinner on glass tables, yes—and the tables were singing Il mio Tesoro, only it wasn’t Il mio Tesoro but something better, and there were some little carafes, which were also women,” he recalled. His eyes glittered merrily, and he fell to thinking with a smile. “Yes, it was nice, very nice. There were many other excellent things there, but one can’t say it in words, or even put it into waking thoughts.”

The dream world, Tolstoy shows us, is a world of heightened sensibility. From delight-filled dreams like Stiva’s to terrifying nightmares, emotional intensity is the hallmark of the dream. The content of Stiva’s dream may be somewhat confusing and difficult for him to convey, but Stiva’s delight in his dream, his emotional response to his dream, comes through with perfect clarity. In our dreams, the absence of common sense brings sensibility to the fore.

We know this from our own experience. Our emotional responses to our dreams are paramount, and we commonly categorize our dreams on that basis. In the turbulent world of dreams there are nightmares, anxiety dreams, sweet dreams, dreams filled with violent emotions, nostalgic dreams, dreams filled with a feeling of dread, and so on through the whole gamut of feelings.

In our waking life, a lack of common sense brings sensibility to the fore. Austen shows us that Marianne’s choice to elevate sensibility over common sense gave her life a turbulent and dreamlike quality. As we are likely to say in telling her story, her sweet dreams of perfect romance gave way to nightmares of rejection and humiliation, of longing and nostalgia, of despair.

In our waking life, a lack of common sense brings sensibility to the fore.

Let’s take another look at Marianne’s reflection on the danger she had put herself in. We may miss something about it that readers in Austen’s day were likely to recognize. Marianne here runs down the list of the cardinal, or principal, virtues in terms of their opposites: prudence (“imprudence”), fortitude (“want of fortitude”), justice (“want of kindness to others”), and temperance (the dangerous intemperance of her behavior overall).The cardinal virtues were also called the natural virtues, and each was understood to be like one of the four cardinal directions on a compass.

They might also be called the common-sense virtues. Prudence and temperance are so closely allied with common sense that there is little need to argue the point, and it is also easy to link fortitude and justice to common sense. Urging Marianne to be strong or to consider the feelings of others might have been the appropriate common-sense advice at various points in her ordeal.

The point, which would not have been lost on readers in Austen’s day, is that common sense gives us more than the ability to make prudent and practical choices that are likely to have good outcomes. Common sense, it was held, gives us the ability to make choices that are right in moral terms as well. For Austen and her readers at the time, prudence was more than the practical ability to size up a situation and make a choice that works for us; it was a virtue, and a necessary one.

Common sense, it was held, gives us the ability to make choices that are right in moral terms as well.

In the heightened sensibility of the dream state, the rules of morality and decorum are lost along with the principles of common sense. We do things in our dreams that we would never do in our waking lives. The bad passions and troublesome impulses within each of us are only too ready to come out and have in our dreams that holiday we try to deny them in our waking lives. If we all behaved today as we dreamed we behaved last night, what an astonishing day it would be!

The idea that common sense encompasses the virtues or that prudence itself is a virtue is very far from the way we tend to think about common sense today. Yet Austen has shown us that common sense and prudence enable a person to make decisions and judgments that are sound both practically and morally. It is interesting to note that Thomas Reid, the father of the philosophy of common-sense realism, included the human capacity to make judgments about what is morally right in his account of common sense. In the dedication of his Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, he presented himself as being motivated by a moral concern to defend “piety, patriotism, friendship, parental affection and private virtue.”

C.S. Lewis, in commenting on Sense and Sensibility, wrote of “the grammar of conduct.” His point was that grammar is something that anyone can learn, and that everyone must learn in order to master the use of language and enjoy its benefits. In the same way, mastering the grammar of conduct enables us to maximize the benefits to be gained by applying the principles of common sense in the conduct of our lives. It is a key to self-mastery.

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Robert Curry is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea (Encounter Books). He serves on the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute. His articles and reviews have appeared in American Greatness, the American Thinker, the Claremont Review of Books, the Federalist, and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.


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