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Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

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Tag: benefits of reading

Movie makers need to read great literature, too

I’ve  talked quite a bit on this blog about the importance of good stories, and how sad it is that our culture no longer seems interested in stories that enlarge us, that take us out of our petty interests and connect us to the larger human condition. Part of the problem, I believe, is that, by and large, people don’t read
any more, and when they do read they read the literary equivalent of
Twinkies and Red Bull.

Of course, reading is not the only way to be exposed to great stories. Film can also tell engrossing, thought-provoking stories. The problem is that most American filmmakers are more interested in spectacle than story, as Barbara Nicolosi and her collaborator Vicki Peterson discuss in this video interview:

I applaud people like Nicolosi and Peterson who are trying to educate screenwriters in the importance of storytelling. In an increasingly illiterate culture, visual media such as movies and graphic novels are the only way to engage the imaginations of many people these days. Still, I wonder how much headway they can make if those they are trying to teach never read and ponder significant works of literature.

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury foresaw the way
technology’s exaltation of the visual
and superficial leads to the exclusion
of the written world.

There is a tendency these days to act as if the age of reading is passed — as if, before entertainment technology was developed, people read for entertainment because they couldn’t do any better, but once movies and TV came along, the world “progressed” beyond mere words on a page to images on a screen.  (If you believe that, you should read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.) But the fact is that, as moving, resonant, and thought-provoking as visual stories can be, movies simply can’t engage us as completely as literature. Films make us merely spectators, rather than participants, while reading is an immersive experience, in which we inhabit the lives and experiences of the characters. This recent New York Times article discusses a scientific study that demonstrates the ways reading literature engaged our imaginations on a deep level, in a way that lighter fictional fare cannot. Literature can also affect our capacity for empathy and even change the structure of our brain.

I don’t want to pit literature against movies, however. There is room for both in our lives. But I agree with Barbara Nicolosi and Vicki Peterson that the world needs movies that do more than titillate or provide the cheap thrills of a carnival ride. And I think there’s a better chance of that happening if movie makers spend more time reading great literature.

Learn more about Barbara Nicolosi and Vicki Peterson and their screenwriting enterprise, Catharsis, here.

©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Reading and the Moral Imagination: Plato and truth in fiction

Nota Bene: I originally published this post back in 2012, and it has been one of the most-read posts on this blog ever since. In fact, it sums up pretty well my defense of the necessity of literature — an apologia pro literatura, if you will. For this reason, I’ve decided to pin it here to the top of the blog, so that anyone who stumbles on this site accidentally will know what I’m on about. If you want to know more, try reading some of the other articles in the “popular posts” list that you’ll find in the sidebar to the right. Welcome, and don’t feel shy about leaving comments. I respond to all comments on this blog (which is how I happened to write my most popular post of all time).

I like about this edition chiefly because
it’s easy to follow who is speaking
in the dialogue.

Some time ago, I lamented the fact that people — even allegedly “educated” people — these days are reading less and less; and I began to explore the question of why this fact should alarm us. Isn’t reading just one of many ways to amuse ourselves in idle moments? Why should reading novels, say, be any better than watching movies or playing video games? After all, all three require us to enter into an imaginary world, not of our own making.

Good fiction is interested in truth

It’s true that some reading material provides merely escapist pleasures — these are what C. S. Lewis, reasoning as he does in An Experiment in Criticism, would classify as “bad” books, because they require little of the reader, and they repay that little effort poorly. Frankly, I don’t care if anyone engages in such reading, although I would be concerned about anyone who made a steady diet of such fare. What I am more concerned about is the reading of well-crafted fiction that treats carefully the kinds of “universal” questions that Aristotle refers to in his Poetics, which he said makes literature “philosophical,” i.e., capable of making us wiser. Greek culture in Aristotle’s day deeply acknowledged the importance of epic poetry, the predominant kind of literary fiction in that age. In fact, the narrative poetry of such poets as Homer and Hesiod, which told of the interactions of gods and men, were regarded with much the same kind of reverence as the Bible is in Christian cultures (not quite, however — the Greeks didn’t really have anything analogous to Sacred Scripture), and they considered such literature to be absolutely essential to education.

detail from Rafael's School of Athens
Plato points upward toward transcendent truth,
while Aristotle gestures toward the Earth.

Plato, of course, is famous for having Socrates say, in The Republic, that the “lying poets” would have no place in the ideal society. Many people, especially in modern times, have argued that this means Plato was against “fiction.” Many of those same people will go on to say that this is evidence of the way in which Plato’s views differed from those of his most famous pupil, Aristotle. A common, but simplistic, characterization of the differences between the two philosophers claims to find a marked dichotomy between the two:

  • Plato is interested in transcendent truth while Aristotle is more interested in “real life.” 
  • Plato is focuses on the theoretical and abstract while Aristotle on the practical and concrete. 
  • Plato says poetry is a dangerous pack of lies while Aristotle says it is “philosophical” and can teach us about the human condition.

Like many over-simplifications, this one is misleading. It’s worthwhile to take a closer look at what Plato really did say about poetry (or at least the poets) in The Republic; anyone who does so will find that he does not object to storytelling per se, nor does he dismiss fictional literature as just so many lies. What he objected to were the poet’s (e.g., Homer and Hesiod’s) depictions of the gods as being no better — and often much worse  — than we mere mortals. So it wasn’t the fiction he despised, it was the lies. In fact, he could not (and would not) have written The Republic — his most famous and enduring philosophical work — if he did not believe in the powerful ability of “fiction” to show us truth.

Plato’s Socratic dialogues are works of fiction

Why do I make such a claim? First of all, because Plato chose a “fictional” format for virtually all of his philosophical treatises. Famously, all of Plato’s treatises are written as dialogues, with fictionalized versions of Socrates and other real people as the participants in the discussion of whatever the topic may be: justice, beauty, etc. They are like conversations in which Plato really participated, but they are by no means transcriptions of real conversations — they are as carefully crafted as any poem. Why teach in this way? Because the dialogue format allows and invites the reader to be an imaginary participant in the discussion.

Socrates teaching
In a Platonic dialogue, the participants are trying to
get at the truth of some matter.

I believe Plato wanted his students to learn the way he learned from Socrates. That is why his philosophical dialogues are modeled on the kind of discussions that Socrates regularly engaged in in real life. Typically, they portray the philosopher and his friends trying to get at the truth of some concept by starting with their own assumptions and then putting them to the test to see if they hold water. True to life, this method does not lead directly to a clean, clear view of the truth of the matter; rather, the dialogues often reach a point at which the interlocutors find themselves at loggerheads, unable to reach an agreement, but not really sure why. (If you’ve had a college philosophy class, you may recall that this situation, in Greek, is called aporia). Some of Plato’s early philosophical dialogues end at this point, leaving the reader to figure out why the discussion came to an unsatisfactory end, or how the dialogue might have advanced had it been allowed to continue. The dialogue format, in other words, gets the reader imaginatively engaged in the discussion at hand, in such a way that s/he is likely to continue mental rumination after the reading has come to an end.

I remember the first time I read Plato’s Euthyphro, in which the title character is discussing with Socrates the nature of piety — Socrates had almost gotten Euthryphro to arrive at a good general definition of piety, when Euthyphro gets frustrated and throws in the towel, just a moment too soon. I’m sure I must have groaned with frustration, because I knew he had quit at just the wrong moment — I wanted to shout after him as he walked away, “Come back! You were almost there!” At that moment, I could see what piety was, even if Euthyphro could not. (Don’t ask me — read the dialogue!)

By the time he wrote The Republic, Plato seems to have refined his use of the dialogue as a way to get at philosophical truth. Here, when Socrates’ interlocutors reach aporia or deadlock, on the subject of the nature of justice, he doesn’t let them throw in the towel; instead, Plato has Socrates say, “Well, let’s look at this another way …” When they come up empty on defining “justice in the soul” (i.e., how the individual can behave justly), Socrates suggests that they widen the focus and try envisioning “justice in the city” (i.e., what a just society would be like). Even here, their first attempt at creating a just “city of words” (a made-up city that exists only in their imaginations) is not very good, and Socrates starts to suggest several features that such a just city would need to have in order to function. He gets his conversational partners to agree with each addition before moving on. It’s in this context of creating (theoretically) a just city that Socrates makes the startling assertion that the poetry of such literary giants as Homer and Hesiod should not be allowed to pollute the minds of schoolboys. His reason is that such poets portray the gods in such a way that they make poor role models for young men destined to become the guardians upon whom the city will have to depend for its safety and good order.

Good fiction teaches us to recognize, and to love, what is true

Plato Myth of the Cave
The “myth of the cave” is a parable that illustrates
the nature of, and the need for, philosophy.

Plato makes it pretty clear that the objection is not that all poetry corrupts but that lying poetry corrupts — in other words, poetry (fiction) should lead the imagination closer to truth, and should hold up models for us to emulate and present images that reflect truth. The Republic itself is full of “made up stories” of this kind. For instance, the famous “myth of the cave” (mythos being simply the Greek word which means “story”) is a kind of parable or analogy that Socrates uses to help his young friends see something that they were having trouble envisioning earlier when they were inventing their theoretically just city. The thing about parables, though, is that they are not necessarily self-explanatory. This is why Socrates tells them his parable and then explains what it means — much as Christ did with his own followers when he taught them in parables (see, for instance, Matthew 13). In other words, the made-up tale is a way of conveying a truth that the young men could not grasp directly with their minds; another way of saying this is that they are not yet able to contemplate the truth (in the sense that Plato used that term), so he had to create an illustrative tale.

There are other instances of Socrates in The Republic using parables or “noble fiction” (γενναῖον ψεῦδος, often translated “noble lies”) for instruction for those who can’t grasp certain kinds of verities with their naked intellects. In each case, the fiction is meant to convey truth, and is intended for those who are not yet (and may never be) capable of grasping the truth with their unaided intellects. Aristotle undoubtedly, as a student of Plato, learned the value of these stories, and perhaps they helped shape his belief that poetry (fiction) can be “philosophical” (help its audience become wise).

The Matrix and the Myth of the Cave have a lot in common
The Matrix and the Myth of the Cave have a lot in common

We will always need “noble fiction”

I think it is a great pity that our schools and universities no longer teach literature as a way of grasping universal truths about human nature, presenting models from which we can learn. As a consequence, young people (and adults as well, for that matter) now have little or nothing to form their moral imaginations, while the culture at large feeds them a constant stream of images of violence and brokenness, with no censure implied, intended, or allowed. We have lost the idea that truth is beautiful, or that the beautiful is true; instead, popular reading material (as well as television and film) is often tawdry and shallow, when it is not full of darkness, despair, and depravity. “Realism” is offered rather than truth, and stories that show good people triumphing while wicked ones suffer are deemed “unrealistic” and untrue.

Is there no one left to tell us “noble lies”? If you know any contemporary writers who tell morally uplifting  or instructive tales, please mention them in a comment.

©2012 Lisa A. Nicholas

If you would like to read more about literature and the moral imagination, read this (or click the tab at the top of the page).

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

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!