I’m reading Jane Austen’s Emma again because of a sentence I read in Elder Porphyrios’ Wounded By Love. In a passage on the dangers of praising children too much, Elder Prophyrios makes the following statement: “You must tell the truth for a person to learn it. Otherwise, you sustain him in his ignorance.” When I read this, I immediately thought of the character Emma Woodhouse.
Emma is a very good-hearted, intelligent, pretty and a generally gifted twenty-one year old spoiled rich kid. Only one person in her life tells her the truth, no one else will. Mr. Knightly, a close family friend and relation by marriage, is ten years her senior, owns the neighboring estate, and is often in the Woodhouse home. He tells her the truth. No one else will, and Emma doesn’t have to listen to Mr. Knightly–even if circumstances and often her own heart tell her that he is usually right.
It’s not as though others do not tell Emma the truth because they want to deceive her. Everyone who surrounds Emma depends on her. They are in various ways much weaker than she. They are too vulnerable. Since her older sister married when Emma was fourteen, she has been the mistress of her dotty father’s estate. Her father’s mental weakness makes him dependent on her. Her governess–in what is perhaps the most serious (even if understandable) failure–becomes her best friend. I certainly do not think Miss Taylor intentionally shirked her responsibility, her responsibility as governess to govern Emma (“govern” comes from the Greek meaning “to steer”). Because Miss Taylor has no financial resources herself, long-term friendship with Emma and/or eventual marriage is her only hope to avoid penury.
Mr. Knightly tells Emma the truth, but what makes Mr. Knightly successful, what makes Emma pay attention to Mr. Knightly and eventually love him is the way he tells the truth.
Truth is a very dangerous commodity. It is like a very sharp knife. You will kill or wound someone with truth more easily than you will cut the cords of ignorance with it. Truth often hurts; sometimes the hurt is necessary. A friend of mine used to say, “The truth will set you free, but it will make you miserable first.” In order for wounds to be healing wounds, they must be both given and received in a context of love and trust. Emma may often disagree with Mr. Knightly, but she never doubts his concern for her and her father.
An example of selfish truth telling is Jane Fairfax’ letter to her aunt. Austen says of the letter that it “contained nothing but truth, though there might be some truths not told.” The irony is that all the truth that can be told leaves some truths not told. Truth does not fit easily into words. Therefore the good intention of the truth-teller is essential. By good intention, I do not mean intention for some abstract good. By good intention I mean love, love for the one to whom the truth is being told. And by love I mean concern for the good, blessing and happiness of the other–even at the cost of my good, blessing or happiness. And I do not mean love of the truth, for if the truth is not personal, then it is merely an abstraction. Impersonal love of truth is mere love of my system or opinion.
I attended a high school retreat last weekend and the main speaker made the following comment about romantic love. He said “I love you” usually means, “I love me and want you.” Until “I love you” means “I love you more than I love myself,” I love you has no meaning. Mr. Knightly can tell Emma the truth and Emma can hear it (eventually) because Mr. Knightly loves Emma more than he loves himself.