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Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

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Tag: The Republic

Homer’s Tardis: Literature is the best kind of time machine

Classics Illustrated cover: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

One of my favorite kinds of speculative fiction is the time travel tale, not the H. G. Wells sort of thing that takes you into a distant, purely speculative future, but the kind that takes a modern person and sends him (or her) into the past. The earliest piece of time travel literature that I can recall reading was an Classics Illustrated version of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which I read probably at age ten or eleven. (I had already been introduced to King Arthur several years earlier, through a Golden Book storybook based on Disney’s The Sword in the Stone.)

Imagining past lives

Time travel stories allow us to visit the past in our imagination, but we are always conscious that we are visitors, outsiders — and therein lies the limitation of the genre. It is always more interested in commenting on (or even passing judgment on) the past, rather than showing it to us as it had been lived. When I was reading A Connecticut Yankee, I was more interested in the world Twain was ridiculing than I was in the show-off shenanigans of his Yankee. Twain had a beef with the romanticization of the past, which he believed had helped cause the American Civil War, so he wasn’t too kind to King Arthur. I found this irritating rather than illuminating.

In my teens, I also read a number of historical novels, mostly about medieval English royalty. I enjoyed the details of historical setting and circumstance, but there again I was aware of the irritating anachronism inherent in the enterprise. I didn’t particularly enjoy the way modern authors seemed to think that twelfth century England was interesting chiefly because of the dynastic struggles of the Plantagenets — I’m sure people living in those days were concerned about such things only insofar as they had a real effect on their daily lives.

Later, I got a very different view of medieval life and concerns, by reading stories actually written in the twelfth century. Now that was (time) tripping! These stories, at first seemed strange to me. I guess I was experiencing first hand the truth of that saying: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” To understand such a story, I had to get inside the mind of a twelfth century reader (or writer) and try to understand not only their day-to-day concerns but also the furniture of their imaginations. To the extent that I succeeded, the literature really did transport me to a world lost in time.

Homer’s epics take me to an even stranger, more primitive world, different from our own in so many ways, and yet his over-sized heroic figures seem to embody universal human traits in a marvelous way. That, I believe, is why they are, in a peculiar way, timeless. As foreign as ancient Mycenaean Greece is to us today, Homer’s stories somehow manage both to embody that age perfectly and yet transcend the limitations of history and the particularities of culture. That is a mark of Homer’s genius — not every ancient epic manages that kind of transcendence. I can understand the motives of Homer’s Achilles or  Odysseus — or, for that matter Sophocles’ Oedipus — in a way that I can’t really sympathize with Gilgamesh or some other ancient heroes, who seem to lack a truly human dimension.

Touching the past

Mycenaean sword

The bronze blade has crumbled, but the gold hilt remains as bright as when it was last grasped by some Mycenaean hero 3,500 years ago.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), I’ve also long been fascinated with archaeology, particularly of the ancient Mediterranean world. I first discovered this fascinating field as a seven-year-old, after a traveling encyclopedia salesman gave us the A volume of the World Book Encyclopedia as a sample. (I promptly read it cover to cover, and fell in love with archaeology and, to a lesser extent, anthropology.)  I’ve since had a number of opportunities to actually walk the streets of the ancient past, in Spain and Italy. Thanks to the painstaking work of archaeologists, I’ve walked the streets of Pompeii — lost to the world for nearly two thousand years, and then brought back to light, stunningly preserved — and descended into the ancient cemetery that lies beneath St Peter’s Basilica, imagining the families that picnicked there long ago with the relics of departed loved ones. I love to read about archaeological discoveries that shed new light on the ancient world.

One such recent discovery, described in this recent news story, reminded me that Homer’s epics, wreathed though they were in myth and legend even in his day, nevertheless take place in a world that was still familiar to the poet who described them (although he lived several centuries after the events he described).

Archaeologists digging at Pylos, an ancient city on the southwest coast of Greece, have discovered the rich grave of a warrior who was buried at the dawn of European civilization.

He lies with a yardlong bronze sword and a remarkable collection of gold rings, precious jewels and beautifully carved seals. Archaeologists expressed astonishment at the richness of the find and its potential for shedding light on the emergence of the Mycenaean civilization, the lost world of Agamemnon, Nestor, Odysseus and other heroes described in the epics of Homer.

Agamemnon, Nestor, Odysseus — those guys are all buddies of mine, whose homes I’ve visited, not by touring archaeological sites, but by way of the time machine created by Homer. I’ve lived through their travails with them, grieved with them and for them. No travel agent can provide that kind of experience. And even though archaeology can allow us, literally, to touch the past, it cannot allow us to live it. Ancient literature, however, when read well, can do just that.

Timeless truth

This may be one reason Homer’s epics were so highly regarded, even in his own day. The ancient Greeks believed that the best was already behind them, and they sought to learn from the past, where greater wisdom lay than anywhere in their contemporary world. Homer’s heroic poems capture the past so masterfully that Greeks in following centuries actually regarded them as a kind of encyclopedia or textbook that they used to educate their children. This is why, in Plato’s Republic, Socrates objects to “the lies of the poets” — every son of a prominent family was steeped in Homeric literature from a young age, a practice that Socrates (both the historical Socrates, and Plato’s literary character) believed filled their heads with dangerous ideas, not just of bravado and heroism but warped ideas about the gods. (Curiously, this puts Mark Twain and Plato on the same side.) One of the most important things Plato is doing in The Republic is proposing a better way of educating young men destined to be leaders. He objected not so much to fiction as to false ideals, which is why he has Socrates invent truer fictions.

Ornate book cover, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer

Keep your Tardis, this is my time travel device of choice.

Today, I don’t think we need to worry that Homer will warp the minds of our young — quite the opposite. Today, in fact, we may have the opposite struggle — to get young people (and older ones, as well) to see how much truth is conveyed by these ancient tales of legendary figures. Few people in the modern world appreciate the real value of imaginative literature. Time travel stories, though, remain popular, and one of  TV’s most popular characters is the time-traveling Doctor Who, so there may yet be hope.

I’ll be returning to my series on ancient epic, by the way, so get the Tardis warmed up for a return to Augustan Rome and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I’m also planning a post on some of my favorite time travel fiction, including Jack Finney’s Time and Again, and Andrew M. Seddon’s Ring of Time.

©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

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

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Plato, Homer, and the Saints in Outer Space

great literature cultivates wisdom and virtueIn The Republic, Plato acknowledges the power of the arts (chiefly music and literature) to shape impressionable young souls. Concerned parents today, worried about the music their children listen and the books they read (if they read at all), may appreciate why Plato has Socrates say, in his discussion of a theoretical “just city” (i.e., just society), that youngsters should not be exposed to dangerous ideas — such as Homer’s depiction of the gods as powerful, spoiled brats. In the modern era, Plato has often been accused of being against art, music, and poetry, but I’ve always thought this a gross distortion to what he is actually saying in The Republic. He acknowledges the immense power of the arts to form — or deform — the soul, and he suggests that those who are destined to be leaders should be taught to be wise. The reason he infamously forbids poets in the just city is that he wanted to present young souls with inspiring images, and he just didn’t find Homer and Hesiod to provide healthy inspiration. The imaginations of the future rulers of the just city should not be infected with the bad examples of the poets’ gods.

Since Plato found the popular literature of his day to be unwholesome for impressionable young people, he made up edifying stories of his own. In fact, each one of Plato’s great philosophical works is itself a made-up story, meant to lead the reader toward the truth. He peopled his stories with figures familiar to himself and his fellow Athenians: Socrates the great truth-seeker, and the men with whom Socrates often associated, each of whom typifies some particular point of view. Anyone who has ever read The Republic with any attention will be unlikely to forget Thrasymachus, the belligerent young man whose idea of justice was something like “might makes right”; Thrasymachus drops out of the discussion of justice pretty early on — he just doesn’t have the patience for it. But Glaukon (modeled on Plato’s own brother) hangs on Socrates’ every word, and follows the discussion closely, asking questions and advancing ideas. Socrates, who is trying to get his young interlocutors to glimpse the true nature of justice, makes up one story after another to illustrate the points he hopes they’ll grasp. Plato’s Socrates never teaches didactically; he always tries to help the others to see the truth in their mind’s eye, using both their intellect and their imagination.

For more than two thousand years, this is what “high” literature took as its task: to illustrate some truth about the human condition or the world which would impress itself on the reader’s imagination, to “form the soul,” to use Plato’s terminology. It is a sad fact that this literary project has largely been abandoned by writers today, even those with “literary” pretensions. Contemporary literature seldom makes any attempt to be edifying. Indeed, most contemporary writers would hotly deny that they have any moral obligation to the reading public, aside from being true to their own “vision.” But a diseased eye cannot have clear vision.

This may be the reason that so many parents and educators who are concerned about presenting young people with edifying stories 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. In such works, the writer has taken great care to find a balance between portraying human nature as it is and showing it as it ought to be and can be.

Homer, Plato, and the Saints among the stars
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 Catholic reader, reading with an eye to truth, but a Catholic writer as well. I believe that the Catholic perspective on life as it is lived and as it ought to be lived is one too seldom glimpsed in books today. Too often reality is portrayed as flat, ugly, and factual, when the Christian knows that it is complex, beautiful, and full of mystery. We need more literature that transcends the superficial facts of life in this world, to hint at truth, beauty, and goodness. For this reason, when I refer to Catholic writers I do not mean simply those who write for a Catholic audience. Instead, I mean those whose work reflects the vision of reality that I’ve just described, but who may not write for a necessarily Catholic audience. Writers who, like Flannery O’Connor, realize that the world has become blind and deaf to the mystery of life and the Creator’s imprint on his Creation.

As many readers of this blog will already know, I’m currently working on what I call a “Catholic science fiction novel.” It is intended to be “Catholic” in both senses: it has characters who are Catholic (one is even a priest) and it illustrates themes that will resonate with Catholic experience: growth in virtue, the redemptive value of suffering, and others. But it is also meant to be Catholic in the broader sense I just mentioned: to present a reality that has depth, in which superficial appearances cover metaphysical depths, in which the natural and the supernatural coexist and correspond. I hope that this vision will imprint itself on the imaginations of my readers.

dystopia word cloud
Many speculative novels
paint a bleak future.

So many futuristic science fiction novels, by Christians and agnostics alike, present a kind of nightmarish future, in which science, technology, and rigid secularism have distorted human life to such an extent that it is barely recognizable, or else an absurdly utopian future in which, by his own efforts, Man has created a paradise without poverty, disease, or even death. My story is very different; it focuses not on technology, but on people, who are not imaginary aliens but ordinary human beings, with ordinary human struggles — which just happen to take place in a distant part of our galaxy, far in our future, and sometimes using technology that we can imagine but will probably never see.

And yet, when I began to think about the shape of my story, I found that it contains remarkable parallels to ancient epics, such as Homer’s Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid. I was surprised to realize that it also parallels American history, in depicting people escaping a world in which religion is often persecuted to create a new home, in a distant land, where a new society may be built, guided by Christian principles — much as the English Pilgrims did when they came to North America. Biblical echoes can also be found in it. Why? Because my imagination, quite unconsciously, has been shaped by the great stories most familiar to me and has fashioned a tale that bears a familiar resemblance to them.

I’m sure few readers will be conscious of these allusions, any more than I was conscious of them as I began shaping my story, But perhaps my story will make an impression on the imaginations, and the souls, of my readers, similar to the way ancient epics and Holy Scripture have made an impression on my own. I’d like to think so. I’d like to believe that, like Plato, I have created a story that helps my readers glimpse some aspect of truth that had previously eluded them, or that, like Flannery O’Connor, I have drawn vividly enough for the blind to see unsuspected beauty in the ordinary struggles of life.