The Art of Practical Wisdom
A Study of Anne Elliot in Persuasion
In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre convincingly argues that we live in an “emotivist culture,” one that is almost entirely focused on its own preferences, in place of virtue ethics. In turn, he appropriately praises the works of Jane Austen as a corrective to this culture: “It is her uniting of Christian and Aristotelian themes in a determinate social context that makes Jane Austen the last great effective imaginative voice of tradition of thought about, and practice of, the virtues which I have tried to identify.” In the final novel that Austen wrote, Persuasion, we find the introspective account of Anne Elliot, the daughter of Sir Walter Elliot, a man who has amassed a large amount of debt with little concern for paying it off in a timely manner. The contrast between Anne and her family, including her two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, could not be starker. What we find in Anne is a refined woman who possesses Aristotle’s virtue of practical wisdom, a woman who offers an excellent example of virtuous living.
The plight of Anne Elliot’s family is revealed from the very beginning: having over-spent, the family must now rent the house to a tenant, so that the creditors can eventually be paid. Sir Walter Elliot has very little sense of justice: rather than desiring to pay the creditors as soon as possible, he wants to continue to live comfortably, paying them back over a seven-year period. The following is an appropriate description of Anne’s father: “Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation.” Elizabeth, the eldest daughter, is much like her father, in that her concerns lie strictly at the level of appearances. Anne’s youngest sister, Mary, is perhaps not vicious like Sir Walter and Elizabeth, but she lacks the maturity of a well-formed adult. The death of the virtuous mother and the guidance of the unvirtuous father certainly had its influence on the family, leading them into a difficult financial situation.
In Austen’s novels, it is frequently the case that one or several of the characters are well formed in virtue, despite the situation of the family. In Anne Elliot, we indeed find the most virtuous of all these virtuous characters. Of all the virtues she exhibits, she perhaps best exemplifies the Aristotelian virtue of practical wisdom, or prudence, which, as Aristotle explains, “must be a true state involving reason, concerned with human goods, and practical.” Practical wisdom is the virtue that allows discernment concerning practical human affairs in particular situations; it is not only concerned with universals, but more specifically, with particulars. An individual who possesses practical wisdom is able to apply general principles to a specific situation; in a way, he or she is able to grasp the universal in order to see the need of a particular situation.
In contrast to her family, and in many cases, her friends, Anne clearly possesses this virtue. When everyone around her is in a state of chaos, she is able to calmly assess the situation and give practical advice. For example, in response to her father’s financial situation, Anne could see that the best option would be to pay the debt as quickly as possible, as this would fulfill the demands of justice. Moreover, after Louisa Musgrove fell and was lying unconscious when Anne and her party of friends were in Lyme, Anne was the only one with sufficient sense to assess the situation and send someone for the doctor. Captain Wentworth will later praise her for her “presence of mind” to send Captain Benwick for a surgeon; Benwick would eventually fall in love with and be engaged to Louisa because of the attachment developed in assisting her during her recovery. We see in Anne, then, the ability to perceive the appropriate action depending on the individual circumstance.
But, above all, we see Anne’s practical wisdom in the way that she handles her courtship with Captain Wentworth. It was perhaps her refusal of him eight years prior that allowed her to gain the maturity necessary to discern the right path when the romance rekindled: “She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older—the natural sequence of an unnatural beginning.” The eight years of separation allowed her to develop the virtue of practical wisdom, which she was then able to employ as she realized she was still in love with him, and he was still in love with her. First, we see her power of discernment when she realizes that Mr. Elliot, her cousin, would not be a fitting match for her. Even when all of her family and friends, including Lady Russell, believe that the two of them would be a good match, Anne’s perception of his character extends beyond the mere surface of his good manners: “She could never accept him…She distrusted the past, if not the present. The names which occasionally dropt of former associates, the allusions to former practices and pursuits, suggested suspicions not favorable of what he had been.” Anne’s ability to discern his true character, despite what others said, is confirmed when Mrs. Smith reveals the truth about his past. Her ability to see his character, and then have those suspicions confirmed, allows her to be open to the possibility that Captain Wentworth is still in love with her. She does not merely act on impulse, abandoning reason in servitude to her own feelings. Instead, she waits to know for sure that Captain Wentworth is still in love with her, despite the time that has passed between their original acquaintance.
In the concluding chapter, Austen as narrator remarks:
When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other’s ultimate comfort. This may be bad morality to conclude with, but I believe it to be truth; and if such parties succeed, how should a Captain Wentworth and an Anne Elliot, with the advantage of maturity of mind, consciousness of right, and one independent fortune between them, fail of bearing down every opposition? 
In other words, both Anne and Captain Wentworth possess the virtue of practical wisdom, in contrast with its absence in Anne’s family, and are able to discern appropriately that they should be married. They have learned and acquired this virtue through their time apart, and now, because of that virtue, are able to come together happily in marriage. This example of prudence is fitting for our own times, in which so many individuals are more like Sir Walter Elliot, Elizabeth, or Mr. Elliot. In our emotivist culture, what we need are individuals who possess practical wisdom and can make prudent decisions in real, practical situations. Many are too inclined to follow their own feelings rather than practice the habit of virtue. In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, we find models of the virtue of prudence, which is all too lacking in our recklessly imprudent culture.