Trollope the Casuist

When the noble art of casuistry was driven from the field by an army of moral pygmies led by Descartes, Locke, and Kant, a gaping hole opened up.  In an ethical system devoted exclusively to abstract rights or abstract duties, how could the real problems of life be discussed?  The answer (and I owe this insight to the work of Edmund Leites) came in the form of fiction, in the counterpoint between the self-righteous Bliffel and the good-hearted sinner Tom Jones, in the beautiful moral essays that lie just beneath the surface of Jane Austen, and, above all, in the novels of Anthony Trollope.

I have written a little on Trollope in the past, particularly of his early novel The Warden,  and I shall  try to find the essay and republish it.  This time, however, I am going to look at one of his last and shortest novels, Dr. Wortle’s School, published  in the year of his death (1882).  There is an etext at, and a decent cheap reprint from Norilana Press available from Amazon.

I shall postpone the brief discussion I intend to have until people have had a chance to read the first few chapters. In brief, Trollope portrays a successful school created by a hardworking an intelligent Anglican parson, Dr. Wortle.  Wortle is a kind man, a bit vain and self-willed, but he has a good heart.  He is faced with a dilemma.  He has hired the perfect assistant, an Oxford man who has been in America as VP of a college.  Mr. Peacock has returned with a beautiful and charming wife who is not too proud to supervise the laundry.  It is his dream come true, until Peacock tells him that although he married his wife, a widow,  in good faith,  it now turns out that her bounder of a husband is still alive.  What to do?

If you have read much Trollope, you already know that it will not be enough to apply the general rule simplistically.  The rule in this case says the wife is a bigamist and must return to her first husband, and even if, as is hoped, he has by now killed himself with drink, dishonesty, and deviltry, she and her husband can neither stay at the school nor return to it once they have again married.

Perhaps when this is through, we can take up some political book and then on to the Aeneid, which we should start in late April.  I shall be quoting, where possible, from Dryden’s beautiful translation except where the words actually count in which case I’ll explicate the Latin.  For secondary reading, I recommend either a basic Roman text like Scullard’s From the Gracchi to Nero or my old teacher Anthony Camps’ introduction to the Aeneid, which came out about the time I was taking his Aeneid class.  I invite more suggestions.  I fear my Anglo-Saxon discussions are a dud, because I am in the process of learning, though it would fairly easy to discuss AS history.

An Addendum on Trollope as casuist drawn from The Morality of Everyday Life:

While ancient and medieval writers on ethics and politics often emphasized the influence of both character and the passions upon moral and political life, modern philosophers have frequently treated morality as if it could be reduced to decisions arrived at by an entirely rational process of applying abstract rules to particular situations.  This has meant, among many other things, that the older doctrine of the virtues had to be eliminated, if only because courage and charity could not be boiled down to mathematical formulas.

To replace the untidy lists of virtues that used to be a major part of ethical treatises, philosophers devised neat and elegant principles like Kant’s categorical imperative, a sort of dry reformulation of the Golden Rule that requires us, in making decisions, to act as if we were legislating for the human race (including ourselves).  Another popular device was the notion that one should make decisions as if one were not an interested party but an impartial observer or as if one were operating behind a veil of ignorance.  In these schemes, our moral decisions are to be made in the same spirit as a secretary of defense whose investments have been put into a blind trust: We should act as if we did not consider our own interest (or that of our friends and relatives).  This impartiality prompted Robert Frost’s caustic observation that a liberal was someone who would not take his own side in an argument.

Despite the many varieties of liberal thought, there is a consistency of tone, a certain universal high-mindedness that is impatient with distinctions and disdainful of irrational attachments.  Sentiments of loyalty, because they are not entirely rational, do not yield their secrets to analysis or measurement.  The more intensely they are felt, the less precisely can they be quantified.  Mother-love can be an all-consuming passion in which there is little hope for reward, and without reciprocity between parent and child, it makes little sense to speak of the “rights” of parents or the rights of children.  Because love is commitment and does no business with rights and claims, it must be amoral or, at best, pre-moral.

Lofty principles of right and public good, when they enter into the relations of friends and family, are nearly always harmful.  Imagine the case of a reformer who wishes to correct some social abuse but cannot conduct his campaign without harming his dearest friends.  Anthony Trollope, in his novel The Warden, has written just such a story in which the liberal, Mr. Bold, is bent on reforming a small, church-run home for elderly men.  He cannot do so, however, without injuring the feelings–and the livelihood–of Mr. Harding, the warden of the hospital and the one man who has befriended him since youth.  It does not help matters that Bold is in love with Mr. Harding’s daughter.  Early on in Bold’s campaign, his sister attempts to dissuade him by pointing out the consequences of his rash interference in matters that do not appear to concern him.  Asked why he must take up this case, Bold explains it is his duty.  But, she asks, what of his friendship with the good old man, Mr. Harding?

“Surely, John, as a friend, as a young friend. . . . ”

“That’s a woman’s logic all over. . . . What has age to do with it . . . ? and as to friendship, if the thing itself be right, private motives should never be allowed to interfere.”

His sister finally begs him to give it up, if only for the sake of the girl he loves: “You are going to make yourself, and her, and her father miserable; you are going to make us all miserable.  And for what?  For a dream of justice.”

“A dream of justice”–the phrase is the perfect characterization of so much political philosophy that has been written since the 18th century.  An ordinary person attending a conference of liberal philosophers (as I have) soon discovers that he is in a strange world of unexamined assumptions in which it is taken for granted that the only moral actors are individuals, national, and (they hope some day) international governments.  Families and neighborhoods, towns and states, churches, clubs, and fraternal societies are hardly ever mentioned.  There are only individual dilemmas that require national and universal government actions carried out according to strictly rational rules.

Mechanical Moralities

At the foundation of liberal ethics is John Locke’s conviction that moral behavior is really a question of rational decision-making: “And the great principle and foundation of all virtue and worth is placed in this: that a man is able to deny himself of his own desires, cross his own inclinations, and purely follow what reason directs as best.” This self-restraint derives from a rational understanding of certain clear and abstract principles, which would . . . if duly considered and pursued, afford such foundations of our duty and rules of action as might place morality amongst the sciences capable of demonstration: wherein I doubt not but from self-evident propositions by necessary consequences, as incontestable as those in mathematics, the measures of right and wrong might be made out to anyone that will apply himself with the same indifferency and attention to the one as he does to the other of these sciences.

Morality, concedes Locke, may be a more complex matter than geometry, but this is partly owing to the imprecision of language, and this problem “may in good measure be alleviated by definitions.”  Some day, Locke hoped, the symbolic methods of algebra might be used to simplify ethical questions, and this hope was realized within a generation in the moral equations drawn up by Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson.  Hutcheson was, in many respects, a wise man who looked back to older ethical traditions, but his “let ‘G’ stand for goodness” approach (derived from Leibniz and Descartes) is no less comical than the symbolic formulas of more recent academic philosophers.

In Locke’s own lifetime, however, there were other moral philosophers who were still studying, case by case, the sorts of dilemmas that ordinary people might conceivably face, and this branch of philosophy, still known as casuistry, had become a highly technical art.  But in Locke’s view, a rational morality does not require the professional skills claimed by the practitioners of casuistry; even the simplest men and women can make sense of their obligations, if they will only attend carefully to the meaning of words.

Locke’s care-free assumption that mathematical methods could be applied to moral questions would have alarmed thinkers of an earlier age.  After all, Aristotle (Eth.Nic. I.3, 1094b) had drawn out the distinction between exact sciences, capable of demonstration, and the fuzzier disciplines that study human life (such as ethics and politics) where we must be content with partial truths and rough outlines, for “it is the mark of an educated man to seek precision only so far as the nature of the subject admits.  To demand logical proofs from rhetoric is the rough equivalent of expecting mathematics to use the language of persuasion.”  More recently, Howard Gardner, in summing up recent researches in cognitive psychology and anthropology, came to a similar conclusion: “Pure logic . . . which developed long after our survival mechanisms had fallen into place . . . may be useful under certain circumstances . . . But logic cannot serve as a valid model of how most individuals solve most problems most of the time.”

Part II

Mrs. Peacock was a young lady in Louisiana, when the War Between the States beggared her family.  Her parents thought it best to marry her, for her own protection, to a young man of their acquaintance, Ferdinand Lefroy.  Ferdie and his brother Robert, however, are morally ruined by the War and its aftermath, and they turn to drink, vice, and crime.  Ferdie is long gone by the time the Rev. Mr. Peacock  makes makes the acquaintance of this beautiful and charming lady.  When word comes that a Col. Lefroy is  dead, Peacock declares is love but feels compelled to find out which brother has perished.  A three months’ trip to Mexico and a meeting with Robert convinces him that Mrs. Lefroy is free to remarry.   Their life was bliss for six months.  ”Then one day, all of a sudden, Ferdinand Lefroy was standing within her little drawing-room at the College of St. Louis.”

Ferdie being Ferdie, he naturally accuses Peacock of having lied.  Robert, he declares, is dead and could not have been interviewed.  To her credit, Mrs. Peacock–if we can so style her–does not for a moment believe this story and knows that Peacock is too good a man to lie.   The couple decide to stay together–the initiative comes mainly from the husband who adores his wife but is also unwilling to leave her unprotected.  Trollope then presents the conventional wisdom of his time:

“There is no one who reads this but will say that they should have parted.  Every day passed together as man and wife must be a falsehood and a sin.  there would be absolute misery for both in parting;–but there is no law from God or man entitling a man to escape from misery at the expense of falsehood and sin.”

To avoid scandal, the Peacocks must leave St. Louis, and he takes the job at Dr. Wortle’s school, where he proves to be indispensable.  When the novel begins, Robert Lefroy has turned up at the Peacocks’ door and plainly intends to blackmail them.  When he is turned out, he immediately begins spreading his detraction in the village.  No news could have been sweeter to to the ears of Mr. Stantiloup who bears a serious grudge against Dr. Wortle, who had refused to be cheated by her in the matter of luxuries that simply had to be provided for her ailing son–champagne and carriage rides.

Peacock had already resolved on informing Wortle of the reason why he and his wife refused all offers of social hospitality.  (For moderns, let me note that they did not wish to put hosts into the position of some day feeling embarrassed for having entertained a scandalous couple.)  Wortle takes a little time, but after consulting the opinions of people he should trust, he resolves to stand by Peacock.  This is partly a business decision–where is he to find another assistant of such excellence?  And partly a matter of Wortle’s character–he is not accustomed to taking advice, much less dictation, from anyone including the bishops with whom he has tangled.  But most of all, it is Wortle’s warm heart and strong feeling that the Peacocks are more sinned against than sinning–a somewhat unusual opinion for a clergyman to hold.

How the dilemma is first presented, tangled, and then resolved is beautifully worked out through a kaleidoscope made up of the various characters:  Dr. Wortle and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Peacock, the bishop, Wortle’s socially prominent friends who turn out to be faithful up to a point but not at the expense of scandal, a severe clergyman Mr. Puddicombe, and, of course, the vengeful Mrs. Stantiloup (notice the ending of her name!).

I will not go into each character’s response but summarize the positions taken by a few of the more important persons.  Mrs. Wortle, for instance, is appalled.  She admires her husband and respects him more than anyone in the world, but as a clergyman’s daughter she has a strong sense of right and wrong and regards Mrs. Peacock as a sinner, and, besides, her sin is likely to destroy her husband’s quite lucrative and successful school.  In Trollope, one should note, as in life,  motives are hardly ever completely unmixed.  On top of her other reasons must be just the slightest resentment of her husband’s tender–perhaps too tender?–regard for the lovely Mrs. Peacock.  If she were just a little older, a little plainer, one feels (Trollope is too clever to say this outright) Mrs. Wortle might have had more sympathy.

Mrs. Peacock actually agrees with Mrs. Wortle.  She feels herself to be quite wrong and more than once proposes to leave her husband, but he will not think of such a thing–and, I must say, he is a stout fellow for sticking by her through thick and thin.    The bishop agrees that the scandal is too much for the school and the parish but sticks his nose in just far enough–when he refers to a scandalous newspaper article entitled “Amo in the Cool of the Evening,” implying that Wortle and Mrs. Peacock are carrying on–to get seriously knocked back by Dr. Wortle, who threatens to sue the paper, not because of the article, which he declares he would not ordinarily have noticed, but because it is sufficiently important for the bishop to have drawn his attention to it.  The bishop is perhaps not much as bishops go, but the reader begins to sympathize with anyone who holds any authority over such an one as Dr. Wortle.  In the end, the bishop has an exquisite revenge by apologizing to Wortle in such a way as to avoid any admission of wrong on his part, but permitting Wortle–who is a fair man–to further action.  ”It is a beastly letter,” declares Wortle, “and yet it left no room for rejoinder.”

More to come.

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