Pride and Prejudice does not attempt to penetrate beyond the boundaries of society and human nature to reflect the greater powers or realities of the cosmic order that we find in the greatest of Shakespeare’s works. There is no supernatural element here, no perplexing confrontation with the mysteries of darkness or evil, no overriding sense of fate moving the action to an inescapable conclusion. Although we have attempted to point out the deeper truths of life observable in the story, we do not imply that the author was in any way conscious or intending to present them. What she expresses is the keen observation and intuitive insight of a creative writer who is in tune with the realities of life at the level she depicts it.
To go beyond this and seek for spiritual themes or truths may appear to be stretching the limits of enquiry too far. This would be true if we tried to imply any awareness or intention on the author’s part, which we do not. But regardless of Jane Austen’s awareness or intention, she depicts life. To the extent that what she depicts is true to life, it must also be true to whatever principles or powers may exist above or beyond life, which serve as its foundation and creative source. Although our intention is not to either present or explain his philosophy in depth, we propose to use the story as a vehicle to illustrate some of Sri Aurobindo’s fundamental themes of spiritual evolution.
Levels of Determinants
The same act and outcome can be explained from multiple levels of causality or determination, just as a person’s external behavior can be an expression of manners, character, motives, thoughts, psychic or spiritual inspiration. The same act can serve simultaneously for accomplishing the goals of determinants at multiple levels.
Darcy’s marriage to Elizabeth reveals multiple levels of significance. At the level of political and economic structures, it is a movement of social evolution from aristocracy to a new order. At the social level, it is the first step that leads eventually to the erosion of the institution of marriage and the emergence of the individual from the collective. The empowerment of women and the middle and lower classes challenges and eventually overthrows established social institutions. At the psychological level, it represents the development of character from pride and prejudice to greater self-knowledge and humility. At the spiritual level, it is the evolution from ego to spiritual equality.
Similarly, Wickham’s marriage to Lydia accomplishes at several levels simultaneously. At the level of the social evolution, it helps preserve the institution of marriage from breakdown. At the psychological level, it represents the evolution from dissipation to self-discipline. At the spiritual level, it is a movement of consciousness evolving from ignorance to knowledge, falsehood to truth, pain of existence to delight of existence, divided ego to soul of oneness.
Delight of Existence
In The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo describes the process of involution by which the One, infinite, indivisible, formless omnipresent and omniscient reality, the Self-Conscious Being, creates out of itself a world of multiple, divided, ignorant, impotent forms and the process of evolution by which these forms struggle to survive, grow and rise in consciousness to manifest in form the infinite potentials of the formless reality. He describes life as a manifestation of that spiritual reality and the evolution of life as an expression of the evolution of consciousness that this spirit undertakes for the delight of self-discovery and manifestation in the world of forms.
Sri Aurobindo describes matter as the delight of existence offering itself as object of sensation to the consciousness involved in matter to tempt that hidden Godhead out of its secrecy. Delight (Ananda) tempts the hidden consciousness in matter (Chit) to awaken the secret godhead, being (Sat). Self-conscious being (Satchidananda), which has become the universe, presents itself to its own consciousness as the delight of existence to awaken the involved consciousness and tempt the Being to come to the surface. That is the evolution. The whole world is the involution of Satchidananda as form – matter, life and mind. The evolution is the recovery of consciousness through the temptation of the emerging delight until we rediscover the Godhead.
We speak of an evolution of the society and the individual characters in the story. That evolution is the emergence of the involved divine consciousness that is hidden and subconscious. The society awakens when it is activated by sensation to bring out its hidden soul or being, which is the human being, the individual soul, whose potential is infinite. The process of social development is the process of the society discovering and evolving conscious individuals.
We can see that process in this story. The process is the same at all levels. Darcy thinks that he is a rich, important aristocrat, which is only a surface truth of his existence. He has to discover that he is a good man, the hidden godhead. He is fully identified with money and his social position. He has to give up his arrogance and realize he is a generous man of good character. For him, that is a personal evolution toward the godhead. It is growth of character or psychological growth. Compared with the Darcy at the beginning of the story, the Darcy at the end of the story is god, he has self-knowledge. The consciousness evolves in him. And what is the process? He is tempted by delight, which comes to him in the form of Elizabeth. It tempts him to awaken in consciousness. He becomes aware that he is not the good man he thought he was. He is not superior to the people he is looking down on. Consciousness is self-knowledge. He was unconscious. He becomes aware that it was wrong to interfere in Bingley’s marriage. And what is the joy for him at the end? When Elizabeth accepts his proposal, he is filled with delight. He says, “Dear, darling Elizabeth.” Ananda, the delight of existence, awakening him to self-knowledge to discover the better man he really is.
It is the same process for Elizabeth, except that the first touch of the delight of existence comes to her as pain. She overhears Darcy’s rude comment about her at the ball. She laughs. But seeing where he is and where she is hurts her. The delight of existence comes to her in the form of a handsome Wickham. She is so unconscious that she believes anything the man says. Actually, what is coming to her is the delight of existence--it is Darcy. But until she actually lands at Pemberley, she never understands what is coming to her. Because she was so unconscious, so prejudiced in her attitudes, delight comes to her as pain. She was so unwilling to accept what she was. The very thought of Darcy reminds her of that low consciousness which she does not want to accept in herself or her family. The process is the same as for Darcy. Every contact of life comes to her to awaken the consciousness in her. When it is awakened, she feels she never knew herself until then. But the self she sees and feels ashamed of is only her lower self. Her higher self that is emerging is the mistress of Pemberley. Consciousness is the process by which she comes to realize her higher self, which is two hundred times higher as crudely measured in monetary terms.
The process we see here is the same process that occurs at the social, psychological and spiritual levels. The whole world is only the godhead involved in matter, in ignorance, in prejudice, selfishness, falsehood etc. It is only the divine, nothing else. The contact that comes to us from life has only one purpose, to awaken the consciousness so we can discover the hidden godhead and it can more fully manifest on the surface. We may not discover the full Divine Godhead, but we can discover more of the latent potential of our own inner being, which is a portion and expression of that Godhead. We can give up falsehood, jealousy, meanness, and the like. We can discover our greater capacities and higher nature and rise. This is not just a story of the psychological process of two people meeting and falling in love. It is the story of the Divine Spirit evolving and becoming more conscious on earth.
We can understand the evolution fully only when we understand the essential role and process of the involution. The involution provides the necessary foundation and circumstances for the evolution. All that we perceive as unconsciousness, opposition, obstacle, resistance, hostility and perversity—in others, the life around us and even in ourselves—are products of the involution that play essential roles in the emergence of positive characteristics and accomplished capacities in the evolution. Involution is the essential basis for the evolution. Mind has involved in body because the ignorance and limitation of matter is essential for the evolution of life and mind in matter. We can see it in life. Each intractable problem that arises for us because of an involved consciousness becomes a goad and stimulus for our progress, without which we could not evolve.
In the story, the involved consciousness makes possible the social evolution. The involved condition of five daughters to be married without money to marry them well releases the evolutionary aspirations and energies of the family to fight for their social survival and accomplishment. The Bennet marriage, the entail, Collins living under Lady Catherine, Lady Catherine’s agreement with Darcy’s mother, Wickham’s prior relationship with Darcy and Georgiana, Mrs. Gardiner’s prior sojourn in Derbyshire, a vacant Netherfield available for Bingley to lease are involved conditions in which the evolution takes place. Darcy’s pride is the goad that offends and brings out Eliza’s strength of character. Eliza’s prejudice becomes the occasion that attracts Darcy and makes him pursue her until he gets her. Had she admired him from the start, he would have taken that admiration as that of a lower class person for a higher and never discovered her true character. Even Lydia’s fall and elopement are necessary conditions for Darcy to demonstrate his goodness and affection for Eliza, which finally wins her.
Mr. Bennet’s family is a chosen instrument for social progress. The Bennets are the protypical family of the social evolution, since they already represent a joining of aristocratic and bourgeois classes working out their tensions and integration in and through the human relationships of the family. All the energy and initiative in the family comes from Mrs. Bennet. Eliza, who takes after her father, never takes initiative. Lydia, who embodies her mother’s energy, constantly takes initiative. Mr. Bennet’s sarcasm reflects his knowledge of his folly in marrying Mrs. Bennet.
Role of Falsehood in Evolution
Falsehood according to Sri Aurobindo is involved Truth. It is a power of truth distorted and perverted by ignorance and ego. The evolution of consciousness is an evolution of consciousness out of unconsciousness, truth out of falsehood. As a power of truth, it is itself an instrument of the evolution. It is a prior state of involution, which is an essential condition and means for the evolution.
Growth by Self-knowledge
Planes of Consciousness & Human Choice
Individuals act from a formed character. But given the character, each individual is capable of more than one type of response to any situation. In other words, results of action are a product not only of human character but also of human choice. Human consciousness consists of multiple layers or levels ranging from the pure physical to the pure mental and to spiritual levels beyond mind. Each individual possesses all these levels, developed in varying degrees. Each individual is capable of acting from any of these levels, but normally has a characteristic plane of action; a maximum plane reached at the most creative moments and a minimum level that is reached at times of extreme crisis. In any specific action, an individual may choose to express qualities of one or several of these levels. Each level of consciousness has a dual aspect, one in the ascent from action to understanding and another in the descent from understanding to action. In some events, the complete range of planes in encompassed from physical action to mental comprehension or from mental comprehension to physical action.
Social, mental and spiritual choice:
In an evolving social context, the old social values (class, property) are obstacles to tapping new opportunities. Individuals who choose allegiance to the old values stagnate or fail (Lady Catherine, Collins). Individuals who choose allegiance to the emerging social values advance along with the society. They have access to the opportunities that social evolution has opened up. Darcy reinvigorates his declining family and establishment. Eliza rises ten times higher than her birth and situation merit.
In any situation, human choice conforms to authority. The primary authority depicted in the story is the social authority. The choice for each character is between values of the old and new social order. Individual choices are determined by the direction of the evolving society. Lady Catherine chooses the old. Darcy chooses the new.
What society compels or sanctions, the individual chooses for himself. Mr. Bennet sends Lydia to Brighton because society was moving away from concerns for proprietary and toward the fuller unleashing of individual initiative. Choice based on the prevailing authority accomplishes within the scope of opportunities that have been embraced by the evolving society. Therefore, the best that can come out of Lydia’s initiative is marriage. The society does not sanction anything higher for a woman at that time.
Higher than the social authority is individual authority, the authority generated by mind’s discrimination based on its ideas and values. Darcy makes choices at the point where social character is evolving into individual character. He plays the role of a pioneer who accomplishes something new for the first time or, at least, something that has not yet become common and accepted at his level of society.
Beyond choices based on social and individual authority, there is a level of choice based on spiritual authority, the authority of the spirit as it expresses in the mind. This authority is capable of accomplishing what lies beyond the society’s current level. Spiritual authority comes by understanding our present mental attitudes from a spiritual perspective within the framework sanctioned by the evolving society. Pride & Prejudice is a story within the bounds of social authority.
Movement between planes of consciousness
Human consciousness can be described as an ascending series of levels or planes from the lowest physical consciousness of the body to the highest mental consciousness of mind. Beyond that is the realm of spiritual consciousness. Sri Aurobindo described the human range of consciousness in terms of three planes:
These three planes can be further subdivided into nine, in which each of the three contains a physical, vital and mental element. The function of each of these centers is summarized below.
The evolution of human consciousness is a progression from the subconscious physical to the more fully conscious mental planes and then to the spiritual planes above and beyond mind. Social evolution can be described as a movement from physical experience to mental knowledge and the application of the knowledge derived from experience to enlighten and elevate physical activities. Involution is a reverse movement in which the consciousness moves down to act from a lower level rather than up to a higher level.
Human beings are free at every moment to respond to circumstances by elevating their consciousness to a higher level or by descending to a lower level or by remaining where they are. The human will is the determinant. Human choice is the instrument for evolution and involution. We can discover both these movements in the story. The numbers in parenthesis refer to the corresponding center as described above:
Descent: Collins’ proposal
When Collins proposes to Eliza, it is not out of passion (level 5) or the sensation of physical attraction (level 8) or mental admiration for her character (level 2). It arises from his perception of his own desirable social position and the difficult social position that Eliza is in, which he says may never attract another marriage proposal. He acts from vital understanding of the life situation (level 4). Had he been a mental character who understood Eliza’s character, he would have understood that money and Lady Catherine’s beneficent attentions would not be sufficient to win her. When Eliza soundly rejects Collins’ proposal, he feels deeply offended, reacts and feels compelled to physically leave the premises. His urge is not merely one of hurt sentiments. He is physically embarrassed, offended and repelled. He has descended in consciousness from the mental vital of confident leadership (level 4) to the vital physical (level 8) sensation of repulsion.
Mrs. Bennet follows exactly the same course. She encourages Collins’ proposal based on a very stupid understanding of her daughter (level 4). She reacts very sharply to Eliza’s refusal. Her reaction is not just nervous-vital (level 6) but goes all the way down to the vital physical (level 8). Both Collins and Mrs. Bennet choose to give unthinking (non-mental) responses to the event and as a result, their consciousness descends. The choose acts of involution.
Ascent: Darcy’s proposal to Eliza
Contrast Collins and Mrs. Bennet’s reactions to the responses of Eliza and Darcy. When Darcy proposes to Eliza, he is compelled by the power of his emotions (level 4) to disregard his understanding of Eliza’s very undesirable social position. His understanding is the vital mind’s perception of social life (level 4), not the conceptual mind’s abstract thinking about ideas (level 1).
But after Eliza rejects him, Darcy exercises human choice in a direction opposite to the one Collins chose. Instead of feeling offended, reacting and finding fault with her, he reflects on the objective truth of her accusations against him and realizes his own character and conduct have been at fault. He rises in consciousness from the liking and disliking of the vital to the impersonal understanding of the mental. He sees himself with the detach objectivity with which the world sees him. This is the capacity of mind, especially the emotional understanding of level 2. When Darcy and Eliza meet after Lydia’s elopement and marriage to Wickham, Darcy explains with objective, conceptual clarity (level 1) the deficiencies he has discovered in himself. “I have been selfish, in practice if not in principle.
Descent of the higher: Darcy’s redemption
Both Darcy and Eliza gain an invaluable knowledge from their explosive confrontation at Hunsford. Both choose to learn from the experience and improve themselves by what they have understood. But the cycle does not stop with understanding. Knowledge is fully acquired at a higher level of consciousness only when it is fully expressed in action at the lower (physical) levels.
After understanding the truth of her accusations (level 1), Darcy fully accepts the truth of that understanding in his emotional mind (level 2). He then makes a decision to change and reverse his conduct (level 3). Lydia’s elopement with Wickham presents the external opportunity to express this reversal. Imagine the vital and physical repulsion Darcy must have felt at even the thought of chasing after this scoundrel and his wild, wanton run-away! He converts his decision into a commitment to act (level 4) and an emotional determination (level 5). His vital energy is fully released and he moves into physical action. He does not merely order someone to go to London. He physical goes to London himself to hunt them down. He does not merely negotiate with Wickham. He vigorously rejects Mr. Gardiner’s offer of money and insists on paying his own money (his own physicality) to settle Wickham’s debts and buy him a commission. Not satisfied with that, he overcomes his extreme distaste and physical sensitivity to be present at their wedding. Darcy has taken his knew mental understanding and expressed it fully at all nine levels down to the pure physical.
Graded Levels of Delight
The delight of existence is involved and expresses at all levels from the physical matter to satchitananda. The higher the level (from matter up to spirit), the greater the evolutionary progress in the ascent. The lower the level, the greater the intensity in the descent. Sex is the delight of being experienced by the physical. Money is one expression of the delight of being experienced by the vital. Happiness and emotional fulfillment are the delight of being experienced by the heart. Ideas are the delight of being experienced by the mind. Real ideas are the delight of being experienced by the supramental. Ananda is the delight of being experienced by the Self-conscious Being.
Pride & Prejudice is the delight of being presented as sensation to our mental emotional understanding. Lydia seeks the biological delight of physically possessing a man and discovers the social delight of marriage that she did not seek. Jane discovers the social delight of a handsome rich respectable man. Eliza discovers the vital delight of being passionately loved by a man she can admire and rising to Mistress of Pemberley. Darcy discovers the emotional delight of affection and the mental delight of self-giving and humility.
The universe is a manifestation of the One through the instrumentation of its eight principle powers, eight cosmic determinates, and their significant relations, powers, forms of being, consciousness, force and delight, energies, conditions, lines of truth, processes of consciousness, imperatives, possibilities, and actualities of manifestation.
These eight determinates expressing in varying degrees and proportions make up all the forms and forces of the manifestation. The power of each determinant expresses along a continuum from full manifestation (positive) to complete involution (negative). At the negative pole of the continuum each determinate manifests as the very opposite power to what it appears in the divine consciousness. Both the positive and negative expressions of each determinate are manifestations and instruments for the Divine Consciousness to express its intention in the universe. The involution from spirit to create matter and the evolution from matter to manifest spirit require the action of each determinate along this continuum. The determinates and their opposites can be described as:
During the process of manifestation, each of these sets of determinates splits into three poises -- subject, object and act or experience. For example, Self-conscious Being becomes Being as subject, being as object to its own perception and the act of perceiving or experiencing itself. Being as Creator becomes the creator, the creation and the act of creating. Knowledge becomes the knower, the object of knowledge and the experience of knowing. Love becomes the lover, the object of adoration and the act of loving. In manifestation, all eight determinates and their opposites in each of the three poises are present in varying degrees in every form, force and action.
The process of involution is a movement from the positive to the negative term of each determinate. The process of evolution is a movement from negative to positive term of each determinate in manifestation. The evolution progresses by a meeting, interaction and reconciliation of these determinants, raising the level of harmony between the involved elements to successively higher levels as they evolve.
Eliza is evolving along a continuum on all eight dimensions. In Eliza, beauty is mixed with falsehood, goodwill with animosity, love with intense dislike, a sense of mastery with a sense of helplessness, a detached objectivity about those around her with an involved subjectivity regarding her own thoughts and actions. She is attracted to Wickham’s Beauty but unable to recognize his Falsehood. She is the beneficiary of Charlotte’s Goodness but capable of ill will toward Darcy. She has to progress from the prejudices of egoistic resentment against Darcy for being slighted and insulted to the detached calm of accepting what she and her family are, and the fate that life imposes on them. She has to progress from acceptance of the falsehoods of Wickham’s pleasing beautiful form and his flattering attentions to the truth about Wickham and her own family inheritance. The movement from falsehood to truth requires her to elevate her consciousness from vital-physical surface attraction to mental objectivity and knowledge. She has to move from hate against Darcy for his sense of superiority to love and gratitude for his accepting her in spite of what she is. She has to pass through the pain of Lydia’s elopement in order to find the joy of recognizing her true feelings for Darcy and releasing the will to win him.
Eliza’s inner evolution is made possible by the action of the eight determinants and their opposites in the world around her. Goodness comes to her from Charlotte to help her emerge from the narrowness of her egoistic family position to discover the truth of her destiny as Darcy’s wife. Eliza is endowed with Beauty and, therefore, she responds without question to beauty in Wickham. Beauty and Falsehood come to her together in Wickham so that she can discover Truth of herself and move from seeking beauty of physical-vital form to mental beauty of character. Delight is a native endowment of her personality. Pain comes in the form of the elopement to awaken a deeper awareness in her and release her energy for action. Knowledge presents itself to her through Darcy to awaken her to Self-knowledge. Love comes to her from Darcy to help her shed the egoistic smallness of her social position and prejudice. Will comes to her in Lydia as initiative for evolution, which releases Eliza’s will to finally take initiative toward Darcy by expressing her gratitude. Ignorance comes to her as obsequious Collins and overbearing Lady Catherine, who mistake social position to be the measure of value, rather than human character.
The process is illustrated by the dynamics of interaction between Eliza and Darcy. During the scene at Rosings Park, Eliza is playing the piano and talking with Fitzwilliam when Darcy approaches them. Darcy’s close observation of her playing raises anxiety in her that he intends to intimidate her. Her anxiety is raised by her subconscious feeling of inferiority, which expresses on the surface as irritation. The irritation releases the boldness of her personality and energizes her to aggressively confront him. It releases her will. From Darcy’s side, Lady Catherine’s vulgar, offensive behavior has made him acutely conscious of the cultural inferiority of his own relations. That knowledge meets his knowledge of the inferiority of Eliza’s family and reconciles with it, by making her connections seem much more approachable (less condemnable). These conflicting forces continue to interact when Darcy proposes to her a few days later and subsequently while they are separated. By the time they meet again at Pemberley, Darcy has consciously overcome his mental reservations but does not know whether Eliza will accept him. Eliza has subconsciously overcome her reservations, but cannot imagine he still wants her. They meet and establish a pleasant surface harmony that is attractive to both. But beneath the surface, Darcy’s new mental attitude has not yet translated into vital will. Eliza’s surface acceptance has not overcome her sense of social distance.
Lydia’s elopement comes as an external determinant to establish a harmony at the vital level. It provides Eliza with on opportunity to express a confidence in Darcy comparable to that offered by him when he disclosed to her Georgiana’s near elopement with Wickham. It provides Darcy with an opportunity to prove his affection and acceptance of her family in the most tangible terms. It abolishes all remaining prejudice that Eliza harbors regarding Darcy’s sense of social superiority. Lydia’s disclosure of Darcy’s role provides Eliza with the essential knowledge she needs to recognize the change in him. Eliza’s initiative to offer gratitude provides Darcy with the knowledge he needs that she has overcome her objections to him.
The brief comments in this article are intended to illustrate how the truths of spirituality can be perceived in the story and in our own lives. The overall intention of this paper has not been to project any particular interpretation of Jane Austen’s marvelous work of fiction. It has been rather to illustrate an approach to literary criticism based on the premise that art reflects life and that literature is a wonderful mirror of our real human condition. The ultimate purpose of both literature and its criticism should be to help us discover a greater knowledge and delight in our own living, growing and spiritual evolution, which Sri Aurobindo termed the adventure of consciousness and joy.
P&P refers to the Oxford World's Classics edition of Pride and Prejudice, first published in 1980
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This core article is based on research conducted by MSSR