Doing Justice to the Characters of Others

I remembered this conversation between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice as I was re-reading Book 1 of Ourselves, the book we’re discussing in our monthly Charlotte Mason book club on Zoom:

“Your examination of Mr. Darcy is over, I presume,” said Miss Bingley; “and pray what is the result?”

“I am perfectly convinced by it that Mr. Darcy has no defect. He owns it himself without disguise.”

“No,” said Darcy, “I have made no such pretension. I have faults enough, but they are not, I hope, of understanding. My temper I dare not vouch for. It is, I believe, too little yielding—certainly too little for the convenience of the world. I cannot forget the follies and vices of others so soon as I ought, nor their offenses against myself. My feelings are not puffed about with every attempt to move them. My temper would perhaps be called resentful. My good opinion once lost, is lost forever.”

“That is a failing indeed!” cried Elizabeth. “Implacable resentment is a shade in a character…”

“There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil—a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome.”

“And your defect is to hate everybody.”

“And yours,” he replied with a smile, “is willfully to misunderstand them.”

Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice was originally titled First Impressions but the title was changed to avoid duplicating the title of another book published in 1800. It is such a good illustration of Charlotte Mason’s observations on ‘Justice to the Person of Others’ where she states that ‘We are not free to think hard things about others.’
First impressions are often prejudiced, biased or one-sided, and Darcy and Elizabeth’s first impressions upon meeting caused them to think hard things about each other. Darcy thought Elizabeth’s social class and family beneath him; Elizabeth judged him as proud and conceited.
Elizabeth listened to Wickham’s slander and further enforced her prejudice against Mr. Darcy.

It is by honouring all men that we find out how worthy they are of honour.

Prejudice is opposed to candour (i.e. impartiality or fairness) – a candid person is free from undue bias and is without partiality or prejudice.
Candour doesn’t hide another’s faults but it does allow us to see that one fault doesn’t make the whole person. There is unsuspected glory in human souls and we owe respect and honour to others even if we think they’re foolish. As C.S. Lewis said in The Weight of Glory:

‘It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations…’

This should give us pause in the way we treat or think of others!

‘There are no ordinary people.
You have never talked to a mere mortal.
Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.
But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.’

Why don’t we all honour one another?

Because we’re blinded by our regard for ourselves. We’re so absorbed in thinking about ourselves that we can’t see the beauty in the people around us, even though we might look up to total strangers.

Influencers, celebrities, sport heroes are easy to honour from a distance. They are not ‘ordinary’ like those around us that we know well. We reject the wise people we know to follow the advice of an unknown but high profile expert. Even Jesus said that a prophet is not without honor except in his hometown.

Mason points out that Candour doesn’t stand alone but is complemented by Respect, and Respect is supported by Discernment.
Discernment, if it is not hindered by Pride or Prejudice, gives an accurate report on the character of everyone we come across. It steps in to help us choose those relationships that will strengthen us and shipwreck our lives.

Jane Austen’s characters sort themselves out in the end:

She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.

‘How despicably have I acted!’ she cried; ‘I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable distrust. How humiliating is this discovery! yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.’

Sometimes we judge a person’s character based on first impressions, or on a single act. I’ve done this myself and over time I’ve seen that I was unjust.
I’ve learnt through my own mistakes that it is also honouring to others if we give them room to change. I’d hate to be judged by the opinions and attitudes I’ve had in the past! Experience, suffering, disappointment, can change us.

I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit.

We can be too idealistic and put ourselves above others but real life has a way of knocking us off our high horses. Doing justice to others means showing them grace.

All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations…

I think this is such an important idea to pass on to our children and the best way of doing this is by showing and not just telling. Showing honour and respect to those around us and not overlooking their opinions to follow those who attract us because of their celebrity or high profile; recognising that experience and time often change wrong opinions; using discernment, unobstructed by vanity or prejudice, to make wise decisions.

3 thoughts on “Doing Justice to the Characters of Others

  1. This is good timing to me as I am starting “Formation of Character” and so am pondering a few of the same ideas along with Charlotte. I am also seeing very unkind and nasty things on social media and agree that we can be respectful and think your description of unsuspected honour in a person’s soul as a beautiful way to look at everyone. I won’t always be as gracious as C.S.Lewis about his critics or those whose work he is critiquing, such as I see in “The Abolition of Man” and the infamous Green Book, but I can try. This bookclub sounds very interesting. I struggle with attending zoom with the groups I am involved in overseas due to the timezone issue. Another thought provoking post. My copies of CM are very asterixed and underlined too! Cheers, Cate.

    Liked by 1 person

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