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Category: The Moral Imagination (page 2 of 2)

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Poetic Knowledge, the lost “science”

I was delighted to run across this article on the Crisis Magazine web site. The article is a review by Kirk Kramer (originally published in 1999) of a book by James Taylor called Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education. Actually, I was amazed to find anything whatsoever in print (even the “virtual” print of an internet magazine) referring to poetic knowledge, because I thought that the deconstructionists, not to mention relativism’s current reign of terror in contemporary society, had put paid to any notion that “poetry” (i.e., “literature”) can shed any light on truth, which is what is meant by the term “poetic knowledge.” But, of course, Crisis (and undoubtedly many of its readers) is part of the Catholic counter-culture, who continue to teach and believe that there is such a thing as truth, that it can be known, and that it can make you free.

Taylor, it should be noted, takes his term “poetic knowledge” from Thomas Aquinas’s own term poetica scientia, one of four scientiae or kinds of knowledge/knowing. This term “knowledge” could, with justice, be translated “science,” except that for English speakers these days science means only empirical science, which believes only what it can observe and measure. Poetic knowledge, unlike “science,” has to do with experience, which comes from within and relies to a large extent on imagination, rather than empirical “science,” which relies on material evidence and hard reason. In the middle ages, however — when Thomas lived, wrote, and taught — the Latin term scientia had not yet been reduced to its narrow, modern meaning. It meant broadly “knowledge” (from the verb scio, “I know”), and might refer equally well to theology, “the Queen of the Sciences,” to material science, or to poetry, a term which, as it was used in Thomas’s day included both what we would call poetry and what is usually called fiction today.

Rehabilitating poetry’s reputation

In the Middle Ages, poetry had a bad rep in certain quarters, because it was “fictional” (made-up stories) rather than “factual” or true (like the Bible, the truest book ever written); nonetheless, it is heartening to note that Thomas Aquinas, probably the wisest person alive in those days (some would say ever) listed it among the various ways of “knowing” (scientia), albeit not a perfect one, as it does not appeal to reason (which was Thomas’s Big Thing). I would say not that poetry is not “true” (although that might be said, with justice, of individual poetic works), but that it deals with truth differently than the rational sciences. It deals with truth “poetically,” i.e., analogically rather than analytically. Analogy is the basic tool of the poet — he makes us see that one thing is like another, and in seeing that we glimpse some truth about the thing that might have escaped us before. This is why Aristotle said that poetry is more “philosophical” (concerned with wisdom) than history, which is merely factual.

Bust of Aristotle

Aristotle, Roman copy of Greek bust

I’ve recently begun a new semester teaching a course called Medieval Epic Poetry, for the Walsingham Society of Christian Culture and Western Civilization. It’s a continuation of the Ancient Epic course, in which we studied the great classical epics of Homer and Vergil. (In fact, it was with Homer in mind that Aristotle called poetry “philosophical.”) In the Middle Ages, the Christian vision collided with the assumptions of pagan heroism, so epic per se didn’t really survive (until Milton, anyway), but the works we’ll be studying in the present course show how the Christian imagination adapts the epic legacy to keep readers thinking about philosophical questions, such as “What is the best way to live?”, “What should we live for – glory? Or something else?” and “Whom should we admire? What makes a great leader?”. While the Christian authors of the works we’ll be reading this semester – Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost – largely agree on the answers to those big questions, they explore the questions in rich and varied ways that both delight and provoke our imaginations.

The cultural collapse of the West, particularly precipitous over these past fifty years, has many causes, but one of them surely is the abandonment of great literary works in our educational curriculum. The world is a poorer and more dangerous place these days, because our imaginations have been starved (when they haven’t been poisoned by pop culture). Catholics who wish to live well, and to celebrate the upcoming Year of Faith, would do well to acquaint (or re-acquaint) themselves with some of the great works of our Western literary tradition and to ponder, in the light of Faith, the questions they pose and the examples they present.

©2012 Lisa A. Nicholas

Reading and the Moral Imagination: Aristotle and C. S. Lewis

girl reading a book
Doing this in public could earn you funny looks.

If you are a reader of books (not just blogs), these days you are apparently in the minority. Some alarming statistics I’ve run into on various web sites claim that:

  • 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.

    Today’s column by Fr. James Schall on The Catholic Thing suggests that one reason young people don’t read much any more is that they are tethered to their cell phones, which constantly demand their attention, making it impossible (unlikely, at least) for them to devote themselves to reading or sustain reflection — these days, college students hit the beach with their “smart phones,” not paperback novels. Fr. Schall goes on to comment that he is not encouraged by the current fad for “electronic books” that can be read off of computer and smartphone screens, a view that I share. I’ll let you read for yourself his reasoning. (What do you mean, you don’t read The Catholic Thing? Why on earth not? They publish a new and thought-provoking essay each day, by an impressive variety of excellent Catholic thinkers.)

    Fiction matters

    Schall mentions all this as a lead-up to his consideration of a question that I think is an important one: Does it matter if we read fiction? (Notice, he does not insist that it be “important literature” or “timeless classics,” just “fiction,” including poetry.) I think the answer is, “Absolutely, yes!” I know plenty of people who think of themselves as “readers,” but proudly proclaim, “Oh, I only read non-fiction,” as if that were a virtue. On the contrary, I can’t help but think of it as a character defect, revealing an undeveloped moral imagination. Why? Well, Aristotle gave an answer that I think is as valid today as it was nearly 2,400 years ago, in his Poetics. Aristotle, of course, was a philosopher, not a poet, but he believed in the ethical value of poetry (by which he meant what we mean by “literature” — in his day, all “fiction” was written in poetic verse). Comparing poetry (“fiction”) to history (“nonfiction”), 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 work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. 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. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims … (Poetics IX)

    So it looks like Aristotle would not have been too impressed by those people who proudly proclaim that they read only “nonfiction.” 

    C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, Canto edition

    But, one might ask, was Aristotle right in claiming that “poetry” is a “high and philosophical thing”? And if so, why? I would say yes, if we recognize that, while his use of the term “poetry” would include literary fiction generally, it probably would not extend to pulp fiction (the sort of mass-produced schlock that keeps many booksellers in business, for which there was no analogue in Aristotle’s day). I think that Aristotle had in mind something more like what C. S. Lewis, in his An Experiment in Criticism, classified as “good books.” Lewis proposed that we define “good books” not by something inherent in the book but by what sort of reading it provokes and rewards. A “good” book is the one that allows the reader to find something new with each reading and re-reading, to which the reader returns time and again, a story that provokes reflection, and rewards reflection with discovery, which in turn causes delight. Good books provoke good reading, taking us out of ourselves while we read and returning us to ourselves, at the end of our reading, somehow enlarged:

    One of the things we feel after reading a great work is “I have got out.” Or from another point of view, “I have got in”; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside. … We therefore delight to enter into other men’s beliefs (those, say, of Lucretius or Lawrence) even though we think them untrue.  And into their passions, though we think them depraved, like those, sometimes, of Marlowe or Carlyle. And also into their imaginations, though they lack all realism of content.

    This is not to say that to say, of course, that a good book cannot be read badly; rather, the important distinction is that good books “permit” a reading that enlarges the reader, whereas bad books make such reading impossible. The good book meets Aristotle’s criterion of being “philosophical”because it allows us to gain new insight into some truth about the human condition, the way of the world, etc.

    People who don’t read suffer from anorexia of the imagination

    Matthias Stom,  Young Man Reading by Candlelight
    With free books and free reading apps for every gadget,
    there’s no excuse not to read.

    None of this is to say, however, that every work of fiction we read should be “good” (using Lewis’s terminology) or “philosophical” (using Aristotle’s), any more than every bite we eat has to be “healthy” or “nutritious.” If we want to carry this food analogy a little further, however, we would have to acknowledge that, much as a complete lack of appetite for food indicates some underlying illness, and prolonged fasting will, in the end, prove deadly, in a similar way, it is not healthy for an otherwise civilized person never to read a book, or to regard reading (as too many students do!) as simply a necessary evil that must be performed to survive, a bitter medicine that must be swallowed. Avid readers are baffled by people who never read, in much the same was as people who delight in healthy, delicious, well-prepared food are baffled by anorexics, or those who never eat anything but tasteless processed junk.

    The fact that even college-educated adults quit reading books as soon as they are able suggests that our schools and colleges do a very poor job of teaching the delight of reading tales well told, and that many parents set a bad example by never reading books themselves. What can or should be done about that is a separate question, and outside the scope of this blog. The delight and benefits of reading, however is a topic that I’d like to pursue further, so I’ll undoubtedly return to the question of why reading fiction is good for you.

    ©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

    Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

    Moral lessons from historical figures: Plutarch’s Lives

    Plutarch's Live, Modern Library Edition

    While I’ve got Rome on my mind, I’ve begun dipping into some of the biographies of ancient Romans (and Greeks) written by Plutarch, who is credited with being the author of the literary genre we know as “biography.” The most famous of these are Plutarch’s “parallel lives,” in which he pairs off a Greek and a Roman figure who share some significant biographical features (e.g., Demosthenes and Cicero were each renowned orators), describes the life of each, and then compares the points on which each should or should not be admired (Demosthenes was more mercenary than Cicero, but Cicero engaged in unseemly boasting about his own abilities and accomplishments).
    The Fall of the Roman Republic: Six Lives (Penguin Classics)I’ve got two different editions of Plutarch on hand to choose from: one is the Penguin Classics’ Fall of the Roman Republic, a selection of Plutarch’s Roman biographies that highlights figures who played a key role in the collapse of the Roman Republic (Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, Cicero). This edition presents a modern translation by Rex Warner, with an introduction by Robin Seager. The other book is Volume II of the Modern Library edition of Plutarch’s Lives, some of which are paired and compared, while others are “solo.” This volume contains the (17th century) Dryden translation of the Lives, along with a 19th century Preface by Arthur Hugh Clough and an editorial introduction by American biographer, James Atlas.
    Plutarch Fall of the Roman Republic, Penguin

    Character matters …

    Before I began reading any of the biographies themselves, I read the editorial introductions and the preface by Clough, and I noticed something that struck me as rather curious, namely the fact that modern scholars, although they acknowledge the importance of Plutarch’s work, seem to regard his method and purpose as quaint and even illegitimate. Plutarch himself made it plain that, in writing these biographies, his intention was to examine the character of the men whose lives he was writing rather than analyzing their historical importance (“My design is not to write Histories but Lives”):

    And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their character and inclinations than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever. Therefore as portrait painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in any other parts of the body, so I must be  allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men …

    This purpose is characterized by James Atlas, with a note of indulgent condescension, as “moralizing,” as if it were rather peculiar, in considering the lives of historically important figures, to be interested chiefly in the moral quality of their character. Perhaps he is willing to allow Plutarch his moralizing because Atlas himself acknowledged in an interview shortly after the publication of his biography of Saul Bellow:

    We want to know how people lived, we want instruction in what critics used to call “manners and morals.” Biography is our school, our church, our family, our community. It does the work the novel used to do: it educates us.

    Robin Seager goes beyond questioning Plutarch’s “moralizing tendencies” — he blames Plutarch for failing to credit historical figures for their cleverness in political scheming. Take, for instance, his editorial note on Plutarch’s life of Gaius Marius; the historical record clearly shows Marius to have been a ruthless self-promoter with little regard for the rule of law and a nasty taste for bloody vengeance against his political rivals, but Seager seems to think that Plutarch takes too dim a view of these facts and fails to show “appreciation of the political skill with which Marius fostered and exploited equestrian and popular discontent in order to oust Metellus from the Numidian command.”

    … unless you’re Macchiavellian

    Livy and Sallust
    Livy and Sallust, two unabashedly
    “moralizing” Roman historians.

    This view, to me, smacks of a modern, Machiavellian expectation that political figures should be judged for the crude efficacy, rather than the morality, of their actions, which is completely at odds with the view of classical writers. The historian Livy would have had few quibbles with Plutarch’s “moralizing,” as he himself said, in the preface to his history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita, that his purpose in writing was to provide examples of men and actions to imitate or to avoid — that is, he intended his history to provide moral instruction, and he thought his presentation would make it plain enough which actions had been destructive and which admirable. He says:

    The subjects to which I would ask each of my readers to devote his earnest attention are these – the life and morals of the community; the men and the qualities by which through domestic policy and foreign war dominion was won and extended. Then as the standard of morality gradually lowers, let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.

    In other words, in Livy’s view, a high moral standard produced social benefits, and declining morals brought about social ruin. He wrote, for the generation following the collapse of the Republic, to help people of his own day avoid repeating the disasters of the past and, in fact, his History reads like a series of moral vignettes. It has always struck me as quite inexplicable that Machiavelli, who was well-read in classical history and even wrote a famous commentary on Livy (his Discourses on Livy), seems not to have been influenced at all by the classical tendency to equate personal morality with the public good; in fact, in The Prince, he quite explicitly denies this equation, urging the prince to do what is expedient rather than what is ethical.

    Perhaps, though, Robin Seager, in complaining that Plutarch fails to appreciate Marius’s political savvy, is not so much reflecting a Machiavellian preference for expediency over ethics as he is revealing his own preoccupation as a biographer — Seager has published two well-received political biographies of Roman figures whose lives were also treated by Plutarch: Pompey and Tiberius Caesar. At any rate, it certainly seems that modern biographers do not share Plutarch’s interest in “moralizing.” I, however, am looking forward to seeing what moral lessons Plutarch draws out in his Lives.

    ©2010 Lisa A. Nicholas

    Please leave your thoughts or comments below!