A 'Sensible Knave'? Hume, Jane Austen and Mr Elliot

Intellectual History Review 22 (3):465-480 (2012)
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Abstract
This paper deals with what I take to be one woman’s literary response to a philosophical problem. The woman is Jane Austen, the problem is the rationality of Hume’s ‘sensible knave’, and Austen’s response is to deepen the problem. Despite his enthusiasm for virtue, Hume reluctantly concedes in the EPM that injustice can be a rational strategy for ‘sensible knaves’, intelligent but selfish agents who feel no aversion towards thoughts of villainy or baseness. Austen agrees, but adds that ABSENT CONSIDERATIONS OF A FUTURE STATE, other vices besides injustice can be rationally indulged with tolerable prospects of worldly happiness. Austen’s creation Mr Elliot in Persuasion is just such an agent – sensible and knavish but not technically ‘unjust’. Despite and partly because of his vices – ingratitude, avarice and duplicity – he manages to be both successful and reasonably happy. There are plenty of other reasonably happy knaves in Jane Austen, some of whom are not particularly sensible. This is not to say that either Austen or Hume is in favor of knavery It is just that they both think that only those with the right sensibility can be argued out of it.
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