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Why Civil Society Needs Great Stories

St Thomas More Society, Dallas

On this blog, I’ve written a lot on something I call “the moral imagination.” Recently I was invited to address the Dallas chapter of the Saint Thomas More Society (Catholic lawyers’ guild), on a topic such as the ones I deal with on this blog. Here’s a copy of the text of that talk. For the most part, it puts together ideas that I’ve dealt with in a variety of posts over the last few years, but I thought my readers might like to see all those ideas put together in one, coherent address. If you want to see the original context of each idea, just click on the category “moral imagination” in the blog menu to see a list of all posts on this topic.

Enjoy! And please leave comments, if you wish.

Literature and the Moral Imagination, or Why Civil Society Needs Great Stories

When I was a child, I was keenly aware that I was by no means wise. I hadn’t a clue about the world – how it is or why it is the way it is – nor about people – people never behaved the way I expected – nor even about myself – who was I, who should I be, how should I live? I was not only ignorant but painfully aware of my own ignorance. (I’ve since learned that this is called “Socratic wisdom” – to know how little one truly knows).

So being a timid, introverted, and confused child, I read. A lot. I read everything. When I was seven, my parents bought us the World Book Encyclopedia, purchasing a volume or two each month over a year or so. The first volume covered everything that started with the letter A – it was about that thick [indicate]. I read it cover to cover – which probably accounts for my lifelong interest in archaeology and anthropology. I read dictionaries, too. Newspapers. I even read the labels on pillows that said “Do not remove this label, under penalty of law.”

But mostly, I read stories of all kinds – biography, historical romance, mysteries, science fiction, fantasy – anything that would give me some glimpse of life that was different from my own confused life. So I read stories of foreign lands, other times, stories of immigrants and pioneers – I was fascinated by strange milieux and I admired the way the people in these stories faced challenges that would have terrified me. I wanted to be like them – not timid, but audacious; not baffled and indecisive, but confident and persevering, not small and meaningless, but someone who had a purpose in life and strode boldly forth to achieve it.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my reading – indiscriminate as it was – was forming my character, showing me how (and how not) to live, giving me a vision of what I could be, helping me to get a clearer understanding of who I wanted to be. Eventually, my teachers introduced me to more edifying – and more challenging – works, works written with a more serious purpose and with greater literary craft, and I gobbled these down avidly as well. I learned that these stories might be a bit more challenging than popular novels, but they stirred up such wonderful ideas that it was worth the extra effort.

Of course, not everyone takes as much delight in reading as I do. But I was stunned one day when I stood before a roomful of college English students and learned that most of my students didn’t read AT ALL. Ever. They hated reading, they hated my class, even though this was only the second day of the term. I later discovered that they were pretty much typical of American high school graduates these days. The first twelve or fourteen years of their schooling had somehow taught them to hate reading.

Statistical surveys support this awful news:

  • 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
  • 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
  • 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
  • 70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

Now I want to tell you why I find this so alarming, and why you should, too.

Great Stories can help us Become Wise

The title of this address is “Literature and the Moral Imagination, or Why Civil Society Needs Great Stories.” By “great stories,” I don’t mean specifically or only titles that might appear on a “Great Books”list, as this term is usually used in academic circles. What I mean by “great stories” are stories of perduring interest, stories that are capable from age to age of enlightening and inspiring readers, stories that can teach us something important about what it means to be human, and how we best should live.

I hope you will all agree that civil society needs wise citizens. I want to convince you that civil society also needs great stories, because such stories help to produce wise citizens. Perhaps you’ll resist this idea. Sure, stories can be entertaining, even edifying, but can they make us wise? And anyway, what does it mean to be wise?

To be wise, as I use that term, means to know the truth and to conform our lives to the truth. Many people these days, including educators, are shocked that anyone would propose that education is meant to make anyone “wise,.” But I do, and I hope you’ll agree with me that there is such a thing as truth, and wisdom.

So if wisdom consists of knowing the truth and living by it, how does literature help to instil wisdom? Doesn’t wisdom fall under the purview of philosophy, not literature? I say no, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Perhaps you’ll trust the authority of a couple of very famous lawyers, who were also philosophers: Saint Thomas More, the patron of your august society, and Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great statesman of the late Roman Republic. Thomas More is perhaps best known for his (often misunderstood) Utopia, a story with a philosophical purpose that stands in the great tradition begun by Plato’s famous dialogue on the nature of justice and the just society, which we call The Republic. Cicero also wrote his own version of The Republic, recast in the light of Stoic philosophy for the hard-headed Romans of his day.

All of these men – Plato, Cicero, and Thomas More – recognized the power of stories to convey truth. I’m sure that I don’t have to tell you that, while Socrates himself left no written teachings – in fact, he bragged about this during his famous trial – his great disciple Plato produced many written works that have survived, all written in the form of dialogues. Why dialogues?

To begin with, probably because Plato wanted to capture both the method and the style of his great teacher, who pursued truth by constantly probing what men thought they knew, through penetrating conversations in which everyone chipped in their own ideas and Socrates systematically exposed the flaws and challenged them to try again. So it must have seemed natural to Plato to discuss philosophical concepts through imaginary dialogues in which the speakers were fictional representations of real people, Socrates and his friends.

But the dialogue form is also a handy way to engage the reader in the conversation – it is very easy to imagine ourselves standing there alongside Thrasymachus, Adeimantus, Glaukon, and the others, hanging on Socrates’ every word, objecting to some of his more outrageous suggestions, scratching our heads at some of the puzzling ones, and perhaps finally feeling the truth dawn on us as the discussion circles closer and closer to the true nature of justice, in the soul and in the city.

In other words, what Plato does in these dialogues is tell a story so captivating that it completely captures our imaginations, drawing readers in as if we were actually taking part in the conversation. The dialogue form, then, is actually a kind of fiction – a fiction that illuminates truth. A fiction that helps us come to wisdom.

Now, wait a minute, you may say, Plato hated fiction, didn’t he? Didn’t he call it mere imitation, twice removed from truth itself? In The Republic, doesn’t Socrates say that poets must not be allowed into the just city, because they will corrupt the youth with their lying tales? Well, yes but no. Yes, Socrates says that, but he is referring to poets who tell lying tales. He objected to poets like Homer and Hesiod, who he felt told unedifying tales about the gods and heroes, stories that made a bad impression on their young souls.

Plato would have to be a huge hypocrite to condemn fiction per se, not only because he used made-up dialogues, but also because in The Republic he has Socrates propose a number of bald fictions to preserve order in the just city. For instance, there is the so-called Noble Lie, with which every citizen of the hypothetical Just City will be indoctrinated from birth, namely the myth that the gods have infused in each soul a particular metal — gold, silver, or iron – which destines the individual to a particular role in society. And then there is also the Myth of the Cave (sometimes called the parable of the cave), which Socrates tells and then interprets for his young interlocutors, in order to help them see essential truths. And Plato ends the dialogue with the Myth of Er, a didactic story that says those souls who failed to achieve perfect virtue in their earthly lives will be sent back to try again, until they get it right.

Plato’s fictional Socrates makes up stories to help his followers perceive truth. Plato recognized that very few human beings will ever reach the level of contemplation that allows one to apprehend Truth directly. Instead, most people must be shown the truth in figures, through stories or metaphors.

Poetic truth

Plato knew this, and so did his famous pupil, Aristotle. Although Aristotle did not follow the dialectical method of his predecessor, he nonetheless shared Plato’s appreciation for the philosophical value of stories. One of his surviving lectures is on Poetics, or the literary art. Perhaps it should surprise us that Aristotle valued fiction more than history. Comparing epic poetry to historical accounts, he says:

It is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen — what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose.… The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.

So according to Aristotle, poetry of its very nature leads toward wisdom. How does fiction lead us to perceive truth? By creating an analogy between the reader and the fictional protagonist, so that in effect the reader vicariously lives through the actions of the protagonist.

Christian Stories

Pagan myth, which inspired the great works of the early epic tradition, sought to express imaginatively the relationship between gods and men. Unfortunately, as Socrates and Plato found, the results were not very satisfactory, so in Graeco-Roman culture myth was largely supplanted in the quest for wisdom by philosophy.

Judaeo-Christian culture, of course, has the benefit of Divine Revelation – truths that we could never grasp with our unaided human intellects and imaginations, God Himself has revealed to us. So, you might ask, does that mean that we Christians have no need of stories to learn truth? Of course not. There would be no Christianity (nor Judaism, either) without stories. Any Christian, be he Catholic, Presybterian, or Seventh Day Adventist, knows that the Christian faith is passed on primarily through stories – especially the stories found in that Great Storybook that we call the Bible, the Greatest Story Ever Told. Now, many Christians tend to look at the Bible as a kind of instruction manual cum history book, something purely factual which must be read with the most deadly literal-mindedness.

I’d like to propose that we should think of the Bible as the truest of all stories, almost like a novel – a true one — that has been written one chapter at a time over thousands of years, containing a masterfully developed, perfectly unified plot that reaches a triumphant climax in the death and resurrection of the hero. God is not only the author, he is also the protagonist of this great story – it’s a story about Himself, a story that he told the Jews over and over, the story of the salvation that He would achieve in time, for all eternity. He finally acted out the story when He became Man, to make things as clear as possible. And, of course, during his earthly ministry, Jesus himself constantly used stories to convey ineffable truths – we call these stories parables.

Christ’s apostles, once they had received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, recognized that all of Sacred Scripture is about Christ. They saw that Noah, Abraham & Isaac, Joseph of Egypt, Moses were all types of Christ – they prefigured or foreshadowed the act of salvation that would be achieved by God-made-Man. The apostles understood also that we, too, are called to be types or figures of Christ – we must be like Him, “put on the mind of Christ,” function as “members of His body.” We must write ourselves into that story of salvation. In fact, we would not know how to act, how to love, how to offer our lives for our brethren, if God Himself had not told us his story.

The Dearth of Good Stories Today

So stories are essentially extended metaphors or analogies that can provide us with inspiration on how (or how not) to live. When we read stories, we “live other lives,” as C. S. Lewis put it – in our vicarious participation in the protagonist’s plight, we experience his actions, and their consequences, at no real risk to ourselves. This is why for so many centuries, a large part of education consisted of reading and internalizing great stories. For the Greeks, these were the stories of great heroes, men who were virtually godlike some dimension (Achilles’ godlike rage, Hercules’ immense strength, Odysseus’ incredible wiliness). For Christians, of course, the greatest hero is Jesus Christ, not merely a “godlike” man, but actually God-made-Man, capable of the greatest of all heroic feats – rescuing all Mankind from the jaws of death, loving the miserable, vindictive sinners who put him to death in the cruelest possible way. Achilles could never do that. Odysseus could never do that.

Since the rise of Christianity, many new stories of Christian heroes have been added to the fund of Western literature – both those historical figures we call saints, and purely fictional heroes who are, in their own ways, Christ-like. Heroes unlike those of the pagan poets – they are humble rather than boastful, they struggle not for personal glory, but to protect the weak and innocent, or they struggle against their own inner demons. The Christian imagination simply cannot help but produce Christ-like protagonists.

Unfortunately, the Christian imagination has largely been banished from the public sphere, banished from our schools and universities, all but disappeared from contemporary novels, films, and television shows. The very idea of heroism itself has been diminished and distorted almost out of existence.

In the past, the so called “Great Books” constituted the core curriculum of education. They gave us a common fund of stories that formed our collective moral imagination, figures we could point to as examples to be emulated or avoided. Notice how, in the absence of such stories today, we simply point fingers at each other, and public discourse descends into a mess of name-calling and hate-mongering.

Make no mistake, the poets have been banished from our unjust republic. Literature is no longer studied in most colleges and universities – it has been displaced by so-called “cultural studies” whose goal is the not the promotion but the denigration of existing culture, the destruction of any common bond with those who have gone before, the destruction of anything that can be perceived as an ideology in competition with the cultural Marxism that has reigned in our universities now for generations. Any literature which has continued to speak to the human condition from age to age, any literature which has traditionally been considered edifying – has been branded “high” culture, therefore “elitist,” and therefore to be reviled and rejected by modern readers. After all, who are we to suggest that young people should strive to be more than they are, that they should greater than they are? Elitist heresy!

School children are no longer taught the stories of “great” historical figures or literary characters – they are allowed to admire only those figures who are in some way “transgressive” of existing norms, cultural outsiders who struggle against the predominant culture, social deviants who are admired simply for the fact of their deviancy. Stories written for young readers – those who choose reading over mindless video games – often mirror the darkness of our ever-darkening culture as we slip back into barbarism. Think of Harry Potter and his friends, misfits in the real world of non-magical “mugwumps” yet also their guardians and protectors from the forces of evil.

Books written for older adolescents often mirror the cultural and social chaos in which so many youngsters live – tales full of sexual experimentation, depression, broken families, broken relationships of all kinds. Look at the books on the “young adult” best-seller list – the phenomenally successful Hunger Games trilogy features a teen-aged protagonist who lives in a hellish version of our future, where children are exploited in the most brutal way in order to keep the general populace in submission to the thuggish ruling class. Katniss Everdeen is a bitter young person, who trusts no one and loves no one, except her younger sister, who becomes just another lamb to the slaughter. I read these books a year or so ago, and found them both engaging and deeply pessimistic. By the end of the series I was heartily sick of Katniss Everdeen and her unrelieved bitterness – what a bleak picture of human life such books present.

But the fact is that young people these days have no better stories to inspire them. The great stories of the past have been forbidden them. For nearly two thousand years, aspiring writers carefully emulated the work of the best of their predecessors until they had mastered their craft and could fashion their own stories. But the writers of the present have not read the great stories of the past, they’ve had no great models from which to learn their craft.

Today’s writers, sadly lacking literary models, are forced to look to cartoons, comic books, and old television shows for models — the only “old stories” known by modern illiterates.

Hope for the future

Some might say I am painting too black a picture. So what if we have Batman rather than Sir Gawain or Beowulf? Isn’t it enough that the good guys win and the dastardly villains are vanquished? Well, that depends – who are we calling the good guys? Or the villains? Batman himself is famously dark and conflicted, full of self-doubt, as are many other superheroes popular these days. And what about protagonists like Dexter, the serial killer? Or Hannibal Lecter, the sadistic cannibal? One recent TV series set in the 1970s, featured as protagonists a couple of embedded Soviet spies, Russian sleepers passing as ordinary Americans, who tuck their two children into their beds in American suburbia, before going out at night to torture and murder agents of the American government. With “heroes” like these, how can we even define “good” or “evil”? No, if we want to rebuild our society, we must rebuild our literary culture – and we must do so NOW, before another generation is lost.

We need to return to the great classics, written in ages when literature, like art and music, was intended to elevate the soul, to allow it to glimpse heights where the truth dwelt — but to do so using forms familiar from daily life. such works take great care to find a balance between portraying human nature as it is and showing it as it ought to be and can be.

Not only that, but great stories of the past should continue to shape great stories of the future. This is one of the reasons I’ve decided to become not just a reader but a writer as well. I believe that the Catholic perspective on life is too seldom glimpsed in books today. Too often reality is portrayed as flat, ugly, and merely factual, when the Christian knows that it is complex, beautiful, and full of mystery. We need more stories that transcend the superficial and mundane facts of life in this world, to hint at truth, beauty, and goodness. This requires writers who, like Flannery O’Connor, realize that the world has become blind and deaf to the mystery of life and the Creator’s tender regard for his Creation.

In his 1999 Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul II affirmed the social value of artistic creation when he compared the artistic works to God’s own creative work. He said that the artist, as much the parent or catechist, as much as teachers or professionals like yourselves, helps to “ensure the growth of the person and the development of the community by means of that supreme art form which is the art of education.”

The good news is, there is a small but growing subculture – or perhaps I should say counter-culture – that is striving to fulfill the challenge presented by the cultural vacuum of our times. For instance, many members of the Catholic Writers Guild, like myself, are striving for a Catholic literary Renaissance, writing new stories illuminated by the light of faith – not just for Catholics, but for the wider culture. These works seek to reflect a world of hope, a vision of human life that acknowledges its inherent dignity and worth, a set of values that respects the reality of good and evil and distinguishes between them.

There are also new publishing concerns, such as the Tuscany Press, dedicated specifically to publishing works of fiction by Catholic authors. Barbara Nicolosi, a well-know Catholic film critic and screenwriter, has founded Act One, a school to train Christian screenwriters, not just to make explicitly Christian films, but also to “leaven the lump” of Hollywood with scripts that reflect the Christian worldview. Artists, too, and musicians are also beginning to acquaint or reacquaint themselves with the best of traditional music and art, to seek inspiration from a culture that has largely been abandoned in recent decades.

Although our public schools have, for the most part, banished traditional culture and the whole notion that education is meant to teach not only facts but virtue, there is a growing number of schools – many religious, others public charter schools – that have reclaimed classical education, that enthusiastically and rigorously teach both great and good stories that can make a beneficial impression on young minds, young souls. Homeschooling families have long used such curricula.

There are also a number of Catholic colleges that retain the classic liberal arts ideals, even while preparing their students for virtuous and productive lives in the modern world. My own alma mater, the University of Dallas, is a very fine liberal arts college. The Walsingham Society of Christian Culture and Western Civilization makes the reading and discussion of great works available to adult and non-traditional learners. We need to support these institutions, and send our children to them, so that they can imbibe the great stories of the Western tradition and pass them on.

Let’s be clear, these are minority efforts. And some of those engaged in them have developed a Catholic ghetto mentality, which we need to get away from. If we Catholics want to thrive, we cannot abandon the wider culture. Christian charity demands that we take pains to extend these efforts beyond the narrow confines of the Catholic sphere. Our society needs light and truth, perhaps now more than ever. Our culture is diseased and crumbling – we should not abandon it, but rebuild it.

Pope John Paul II and his successors have seen this need clearly. In Tertio Millennio Adveniente, Pope John Paul called for a new evangelization – a re-evangelization of the Faithful, so that in this third millennium we may find new zeal, new inspiration to present the Gospel in a fresh way to our failing culture. This should include great stories that can capture the benighted imaginations of our young people and inspire them with hope. We should welcome and encourage cultural revival wherever possible – inside or outside the Church.

If we do so, perhaps we can bring our society back from the brink of barbarism. To paraphrase the slogan of the recent TV series, Heroes: “Save the stories, save the world.”

Presented to the Dallas Chapter of the Saint Thomas More Society, 7 November 2013