Philosophy, Morality & Ethics in Tom Jones

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      Comments of sharp contrast have been made regarding Fielding's morality in Tom Jones. While Richardson and Dr. Johnson condemned it as corrupt, Scott and Coleridge were convinced that the novel showed the essential healthiness of Fielding's vision. Later critics have all been aware of Fielding's moral view. One cannot call Tom Jones immoral. Tom Jones is a didactic novel of Fielding. Instruction is inextricably woven into the texture of this novel. Nor is this all, for Fielding was not content to leave the stories to teach their own lessons. He could not refrain from interpolating comments, to make quite sure that the lessons should not be overlooked. Yet in these books, the didactic element is not, on the whole, unduly paraded. Even the chorus-comments are not superfluous. They do not divert our attention from the picture; they only interpret what is exhibited, and help us to appreciate its deeper implications. Judicious instruction of this kind, which really illuminates and explicates the subject, is in no way detrimental to a work of art.

Fielding's Philosophy

      Broad View of Life. Underlying the humor of all his works, there lies his broad view of life which is seldom disclosed openly, but is of obvious importance to Fielding himself. Fielding has revealed his view of life through three leading characters of his three great novels—Parson Adams in Joseph Andrews, Squire Allworthy in Tom Jones and Dr. Harrison in Amelia. The utterances and actions of these characters coupled with the comments and explanations interspersed through the narrative prefixed to the main groups of chapters, form a treatise on the art of life followed by Fielding.

      Restraint of Emotions. Though Fielding has emphasized 'feeling' in his moral code, yet he does not believe in an unbridled emotionalism. His emotionalism is always restrained and supported by his intelligence. He believes that good impulses are nature's best gift, but they must be trained and controlled; else we shall be at the mercy of our own infirmities and the evil machinations of others. In chapter VII of Book III of Tom Jones, Fielding writes:

"Prudence and circumspection are necessary even to the best of men. They are indeed as it were a guard to virtue, without which she can never be safe."

      Stress on Generosity. The keynote to Fielding's code of morality is generosity. He gives more emphasis upon the generous than the prudential virtues. He speaks of that generosity of spirit which is the sure foundation of all that is great and noble in human nature.

      Goodness of Heart. According to Fielding, the best qualifications for making a success of life are goodness of heart, prudence, and a willingness to learn by experience, even at the cost of suffering for our mistakes.

      Actions in Relation with Motives. Fielding further suggests that actions have not an absolute value to be mathematically determined; every deed has to be judged not only by its consequences, but by its motives. It is by this criterion that Sophia judges Tom Jones.

Fielding: A Romantic Moralist

      Comparing Richardson and Fielding from the point of view of their moral conceptions, we may say that Richardson is a classic and Fielding a romantic moralist Richardson lays more stress on code, conformity to the social standards, and judges by the deed done. Fielding lays more stress on native impulse, goodness of heart, the individuals conformity to his better self, and uses a novelist's privilege in judging his creations by their motives. Against the pedantry of the formal moralist like Richardson, Fielding delights to hurl his satire. He knows how to clear away in a moment all the 'splendid rubbish' that covers up a character, and expose its inherent rottenness or meanness. He never tires of showing how a base-minded man may cover himself with formal righteousness, and how a scapegrace may be good at heart. The contemplation of the more intricate relations of good and evil, and the anomaly that generous impulses frequently exist in those whom society condemns, grew in Fielding with a great emotional intensity and found an expression in nearly all of his novels.

      With all their variety, his novels, throughout, exhibit, in the strongest light, the antithesis between the generous or heedless errors of warmhearted humanity, and the calculating prudence and rigid propriety of persons formally righteous, but without the least tincture of generous feeling. All Fielding's heroes, though given to common weaknesses, are at heart very generous people. They are more human than heroic. And all of his evil characters, it may be remarked, are accomplished hypocrites.

Fielding's Views about Morality and Ethics: Virtue is Goodness of Heart; Vice is Hypocrisy

      Without caring for abstract thought in itself, Fielding is a philosopher; he believes in principles; and his work is a clear and abundant illustration of his ethics. Fielding's ethical views are expressed in Tom Jones. Virtue, according to him, consists in generosity of heart, simple frankness and sincerity, while vice resides in deceitful efforts, pretension, hypocrisy and vanity. Fielding condemns the pretension and hypocrisy of Blifil more than the sexual weakness of Tom Jones. Above all, he commends the goodness of heart. When Jones asks Sophia's pardon for his inconstancy, he particularly mentions the goodness of his heart

"O my Sophia, my only love, you cannot hate or despise me more for what happened there, than I do myself but yet do me the justice to think, that my heart was never unfaithful to you. That had no share in the folly I was guilty of; it was even then unalterably yours."

      And Tom Jones is really a man good at heart, and he does love Sophia sincerely. There is a significant sentence in the novel which shows his genuine love for Sophia

He then caught her in his arms, and kissed her with an ardor he had never ventured before.

      It is clear from this sentence that for Sophia, Jones had a feeling which he never had for any other woman. That feeling is love, which Fielding distinguishes from mere sexual desire. Love is a strong yearning to possess its object, a deep passion which makes the whole being of a man restless. Fielding calls it "a consumption". But mere sexual desire is an instinct which makes its appearance in youth and seeks its satisfaction. Tom Jones loves Sophia, but his sexual affair with other women was just the outcome of a powerful instinct.

Tom's Goodness of Heart

      The goodness of Jones is also revealed in his pardon of Blifil who had done him incalculable harm. Even Squire Allworthy, who himself is a good man, is astonished at his nephew's extraordinary goodness, and says, "My good child, I am equally astonished at the goodness of your heart, and the quickness of your understanding". Tom has to save Black George in the face of dire consequences. He realizes that if Black George is found out, he might lose his job. In order to provide financial help to the gamekeeper's family, Tom sells his horse. On his way to London, he fights and overcomes a highwayman, but on being told that the man had turned to robbery to get some much needed money, Tom gives him half of his own possessions. Tom also makes a sincere attempt to help his landlady, Mrs. Miller, by bringing about her daughter's marriage with Nightingale. Tom cannot tolerate anyone suffering. He, at once, springs to help those in distress. He is an example of what Fielding implies by virtue, in his willingness to help others even at some cost to himself.

      Blifil offers a sharp and direct contrast to Tom. His apparently virtuous actions mask wicked intentions. He sets Sophia's bird free, not to give the poor captive its freedom, but to cause pain to Sophia. His exposure of Tom to Allworthy is not the outcome of his intention to be truthful, but the result of his desire to degrade Tom in his guardian's eyes. His desire to marry Sophia is not prompted by love, but by his greed for the estate as well as by the satisfaction he will get by defeating Tom's purpose. Blifil stands for unredeemed hypocrisy, the greatest vice according to Fielding. Fielding means to warn the reader that vicious hypocrisy might be found lurking below the surface of extreme politeness and piety.

Combination of Goodness of Heart with Prudence: Fielding's Standard of Common Sense Morality

      Though Fielding commends the goodness of heart, he also believes in the necessity of prudence and circumspection. In a comment on "goodness" as a virtue, he says:

In recording some instance of these, we shall if rightly understood, afford a very useful lesson to those well-disposed youths, who shall hereafter be our readers for they may here find that goodness of heart, and openness of temper, tho' these may give them great comfort within, and administer to an honest pride in their own minds, will by no means, also do their business in the world. Prudence and circumspection are necessary even to the best of men. They are indeed as it were a guard to virtue, without which she can never be safe. It is not enough that your designs, nay that your actions, are intrinsically good, you must take care they shall appear so. If your inside is never so beautiful, you must preserve a fair outside also. This must be constantly looked to, or malice and envy will take care to blacken it, so that the sagacity and goodness of an Allworthy will not be able to see thro' it, and to discern the beauties within. Let this, my young readers, be your constant maxim, that no man can be good enough to enable him to neglect the rules of prudence nor will Virtue herself look beautiful, unless she is decked with the outward ornaments of decency and decorum.

      For the happiness of life it is essential that goodness be assisted by prudence and circumspection, and that virtue should retain "the outward ornaments of decency and decorum". Towards the end of the novel, Squire Allworthy, a wise and experienced man, warns Tom Jones against imprudence. He says: "You now see, Tom to what dangers imprudence alone may subject virtue....Prudence is indeed the duty which we owe to ourselves; and if we will be so much our own enemies as to neglect it, we are not to wonder if the world is deficient in discharging duty to us; for when a man lays the foundation of his own ruin others will, I am afraid, be too apt to build upon it."

      Folly, according to Fielding, is the source of misery, and wisdom the source of happiness in. life. Tom Jones attributes his vices to folly. To Squire Allworthy he says, "I think, heaven, I have had time to reflect on my past life, where, though I cannot charge myself with any gross villainy, yet I can discern follies and vices too sufficient to repent and to be ashamed of; follies which have been attended with dreadful consequences to myself, and have brought me to the brink of destruction." Fielding's view of life is based on commonsense. Follies are to be satirized, but at the same time, life is to be enjoyed.

      But, if folly leads man to "the brink of destruction", wisdom leads him to happiness. In one of the Prefaces of Tom Jones, Fielding says that wisdom is the principal virtue:

.....for, with regard to this life, no system, I conceive, was ever wiser than that of the ancient Epicureans, who held this wisdom to constitute the chief good; nor foolisher than that of their opposites, those modem epicures, who place all felicity in the abundant gratification of every sexual appetite.

Importance of Feeling

      In Fielding's concept of morality, 'feeling' has an important place. Happiness depends upon the intensity of feeling. A man who is capable of feeling, feels the joys and sorrows of his fellowmen keenly. Feeling goes hand-in-hand with goodness of heart. If by good nature, you can imagine other people's feelings so directly that you can have an impulse to act on them as if they were your own, it is the source of your greatest pleasures as well as of your only unselfish actions, as Empson points out Tom has both feeling and goodness of heart. Fielding's moral vision is quite clear throughout "Tom Jones".

Tom's Sexual Escapades and Fielding's Moral System

      If Fielding is not immoral, how are we to fit in Tom's sexual escapades within the moral scheme? It is a question which faces all critics of Tom Jones. It is true that Tom's sexual weakness is a defect, and Fielding recognizes it as such. But he does not condemn it with virulence. He turns an indulgent eye upon his hero's shortcoming — and this is what shocks the puritanical critics.

      If we study Tom Jones closely, however, certain aspects emerge which fit Tom's behavior in Fielding's moral scheme. We note that Tom's "love affairs" are placed in certain extenuating circumstances. His involvement with Molly comes before he can tell Sophia of his love for her. His entanglement with Mrs. Waters comes at a time when he has no hope of gaining Sophia. Lady Bellaston is more a means to get in touch with Sophia than an attraction herself. Furthermore, in all three cases, Tom is not so much the seducer as the seduced. All three women are experienced flirts and are easily able to overcome Tom's negligible resistance power. Tom does resist Mrs. Fitzpatrick's advances and Arabella Hunt's proposal.

      Fielding does not excuse Tom's sexual escapades. But he places it in a wide moral perspective. He takes a humane view of human frailties. His indulgent view is in keeping with his concept that strict control of instincts does not constitute virtue. The carefree animal vitality is indicative of mental health. It is preferable to frigid virtue. It has, however, to be tempered by discretion, and this Tom learns in the course of the novel.

Essence of Religion and Morality

      Ordinarily, the subject of religion should not come in the context of a novel unless it forms the theme of it, in which case the piece of composition should better be termed as a religious novel. But Fielding never wrote any religious novel, nor did he make religion as the main or even as the minor topic of many of his novels. So far as Tom Jones is concerned, wherever Fielding makes any mention of religion, he does so with the greatest respect. He says: "Virtue and religion are the greatest perfections of human nature which alone purify and ennoble the heart of man, and raise him above the brute creation. These two in their purity are rightly called the bonds of civil society, and are indeed the greatest blessing". He regarded both philosophy and religion as wholesome for the mind as physical exercise is for the sick body because they (religion, philosophy and physical exercise) enable the mind and the body to become healthy by tiding over the misfortunes and ill-health.

Fielding's Three-fold Purpose

      Fielding's intention in Tom Jones is three-fold. He wanted to show the loveliness of virtue, convince men that they should pursue virtue and avoid vice, and make people realize that virtue or goodness of heart should be guided by discretion or prudence. Fielding manifests this threefold purpose well enough in Tom Jones.


      Fielding tries to give a broad moral perspective on Tom Jones. He does not believe in punitive operations against licentious behavior. His Morality is connected with his broad and tolerant view of humanity in general. It is healthy as well as liberal, but Fielding does not, at any time, become "immoral". Richardson was mistaken in calling Tom Jones "a dissolute book". Even an otherwise astute critic like Dr. Johnson failed to realize the merit of the novel when he wrote: "I scarcely know a more corrupt work !" But Coleridge shows discernment when he says "There is a cheerful, sun-shiny, breezy spirit that prevails everywhere, strongly contrasted with the close, hot, day-dreaming continuity of Richardson." W.M. Thackery, too, appreciates Fielding's morality: "He gives a strong, real picture of human life, and the virtues which he exhibits shine out by their contrasts with the vices which he paints so faithfully "Commenting on Tom's sexual misdemeanors, Michael Irwin observes that the reader is "meant to see Tom's story, as he himself so specifically does, as a series of follies bringing eventual retribution." But it is also clear that "Tom falls through folly rather than vice".


Says Ian Watt about Fielding: "He believed that virtue far from being the result of the suppression of instinct at the behest of the public opinion, was itself a natural tendency to goodness or benevolence." What goodness do you find in Tom Jones?
"Fielding offers not merely an interesting narrative but a responsible wisdom that plays upon the deeds and characters of the novel." Discuss with special reference to Tom Jones.
Fielding declared that his purpose was to show how to make good men wise. To what extent is his purpose served in Tom Jones?
What is Fielding's view of morality as expressed in Tom Jones?
"In spite of the adverse criticism of contemporaries like Dr. Johnson, Fielding was as serious a moralist as Richardson himself." Illustrate this dictum from Tom Jones.
What is Fielding's philosophy of life as implied in Tom Jones?
"Utter honesty of soul; that is the quality which sums up the genius of Henry Fielding." Discuss this statement with reference to Tom Jones.

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