The Case Against Literature As Moral Education

The other day, Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, eviscerated Christopher Hitchens over two morally dubious comments he made. Robin concluded from them that, contrary to his reputation, Hitchens was not at all an internationalist but rather “a narcissist, the most provincial spirit of all”. Robin ended his post quoting George Steiner’s “To Civilize Our Gentlemen” (which can be found in Language and Silence) challenging vigorously the notion that being a literary person–such as Hitchens was to his core–is actually good moral training in general:

The simple yet appalling fact is that we have very little solid evidence that literary studies do very much to enrich or stabilize moral perception, that they humanize. We have little proof that a tradition of literary studies in fact makes a man more humane. What is worse — a certain body of evidence points the other way. When barbarism came to twentieth-century Europe, the arts faculties in more than one university offered very little moral resistance, and this is not a trivial or local accident. In a disturbing number of cases the literary imagination gave servile or ecstatic welcome to political bestiality. That bestiality was at times enforced and refined by individuals educated in the culture of traditional humanism. Knowledge of Goethe, a delight in the poetry of Rilke, seemed no bar to personal and institutionalized sadism. Literary values and the most utmost of hideous inhumanity could coexist in the same community, in the same individual sensibility….

…I find myself unable to assert confidently that the humanities humanize. Indeed, I would go further: it is at least conceivable that the focusing of consciousness on a written text which is the substance of our training and pursuit diminishes the sharpness and readiness of our actual moral response. Because we are trained to give psychological and moral credence to the imaginary, to the character in a play or a novel, to the condition of spirit we gather from a poem, we may find it more difficult to identify with the real world, to take the world of actual experience to heart…The capacity for imaginative reflex, for moral risk in any human being is not limitless; on the contrary, it can be rapidly absorbed by fictions, and thus the cry in the poem may come to sound louder, more urgent, more real than the cry in the street outside. The death in the novel may move us more potently than the death in the next room. Thus there may be a covert, betraying link between the cultivation of aesthetic response and the potential of personal inhumanity.

This reminded me of another, long and interesting, argument against authors as moral and political guides which Megan McArdle wrote this summer:

I reject the unspoken assumption here that art is supposed to make you better–the novel as a sort of secular religious work.  This is a long tradition in American literature, and it goes back to an era when art was supposed to be a sort of religious religious work, and many families shunned books that didn’t offer appropriately treacly moral themes.  Most of those novels are now forgotten, and the ones that remain, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, are mostly regarded as historical curiosities, not mighty fine reading.  History has mostly rewarded the ambiguous and the transgressive, not the sermons-with-a-cast.

Art isn’t very good stand-in for Sunday School teachers, for all that we repeatedly imbue it with the job of shaping morality–”poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, said Shelley, and it’s a damn good thing he was wrong.  Having a keen eye for detail, a a morose grasp of the tragedy of the human condition, and hypertrophied verbal mental muscles does not make you a good policy analyst. George Orwell, who was more of a gimlet-eyed realist than most ideological writers, nonetheless believed a fair amount of ludicrous nonsense, such as his assertions that collectivism was necessary because a capitalist society could never produce enough to win World War II.

Of course, talent may give you the ability to construct a convincing alternative universe where all the difficulties are imagined away, and more than one person has confused this with the ability to identify what schemes will work in the real world.  After all socialism was prosperous and peaceful–in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and other novels in the genre.  The novels are often very convincing, and indeed seem to address all possible objections.  Yet in practice, socialism was mostly good for killing unreasonably large numbers of people–30,000 alone building the massive Magnitorsk steelworks that were trumpeted as the sort of thing that could only done by collectivism.  We should thank God that capitalist democracies don’t make such appalling waste of human life.

But when art-as-politics airbrushes out the dead people at the steel works, it can be very convincing, which is why advocates like it; Uncle Tom’s Cabin did more for the Abolitionist cause than a hundred thousand lectures.  The problem is, it can convince of the bad as easily as the good–Gone With the Wind reached many more people than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in part because–despite its ugly racial politics–it’s a much better book with richer characters and more believable action.  There are also the heroic misfires, where the author rouses fierce passions about the wrong issue.  Soviet documentaries about the horridness of American life inspired the audience with subversive thoughts about our prosperous avoirdupois and profusion of consumer goods.  Upton Sinclair envisioned The Jungle as a socialist manifesto which would inspire people to rise up and tear down the system; what he actually wrote was a food-safety tract which inspired massive sanitary regulation of the meatpacking industry.

You see the point: what makes a political narrative convincing is not the correctness of its ideas, but power of the characters and the imagery–the most powerful images in The Jungle are the grotesqueries of mass butchering, and that–not the injustice of capitalism–is what people fastened onto.  Worse, the most convincing feature of all may simply be the author’s facility at imagining away the difficulties–and the most successful works are often those where the limits of the author’s imagination are closest to those of the imaginations of his audience.

Because it is the power of the narrative, that we are responding to, not the soundness of the ideas themselves, we have no way of knowing whether we have been convinced of good things or bad.  Policing art so that you only get “good” ideas from it is even more futile–the quest for stirring narratives which reinforce what you already believe is no healthier in a person than in a society. In some sense, we live inside a well-imagined novel, and so it’s not exactly surprising that even when we’re confronted with new evidence, it’s emotionally difficult to discard the “evidence” of our own “experience”.  In some fundamental way, great political narrative has the power to make you, not smarter and better, but stupider and more passionate.

Feminists who admire political fiction should think hard about the ways in which women have learned to love their restrictions through the fiction that romanticized them. If you are saying to yourself, “which is why it’s so important to combat this with the right sort of moral narratives” then you are simply begging the question.

Arguably authors live in their creations even more deeply than we do–so perhaps that’s why, too often, authors have granted the license of their imagination to actual governments with horrible economic and political policies which sounded great on paper; these governments did actual horrible things to actual people that could not be undone with a hasty edit.  Yet the authors proved surprisingly adept at imagining them away.

Authors aren’t good policy architects.  They’re also not good moral philosophers–they’re good at dramatizing moral conundrums, which is not the same thing as resolving them.  Look at how some major authors resolved relatively simple questions like “should I cheat on my wife with this nubile fan?”  “Would it be a good idea to stick my annoying wife in an asylum for the rest of her life and never visit her?” “Should I use my position as a screenwriter to double as an inept propagandist for the Soviet Union?”  “Might it be a good idea to abandon my children to whoever will care for them?” “Should I stab my wife if I am mad at her?”  “Who should I support in World War II–my own country, or the Nazis?”  “Should I try to get a murderous felon released and feted by the New York literary establishment in the brief time before he kills someone else?”

This is not to say that all authors are moral midgets. Perhaps they aren’t any worse than the rest of us, on average–naturally, the stories we know are the sensational ones, not the lived-with-their-three-boring-kids-and-husband-until-they-died-at-96.  I am not arguing that artists are generally bad people, but merely that we have no evidence that they’re better than us–all of them are at least as flawed as we are.  And we’re pretty flawed.

But because we love the worlds they create, we often imagine that we should also love them–that they can finally show us how to live, or at least, how not to live.  But the people in stories never lived; they only struggled with the limited problems that the author gave them, and they only overcame them with the author’s help.  This limits how far we can take them as either models or warnings–and limits, too, how worried we should be about the morals of the author.  The problem is not with the author who might be steering us wrong, but with the people who expect that author to somehow help steer them to safety . . . as if we’d allowed someone to show us around New York because they’d once drawn a beautiful map of Chicago.

As long as that quote is, it’s not only half the article, so I encourage you to Read More.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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