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Tag: value of stories

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).

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Literary Neanderthals (and you thought they were stupid!)

One of the online journals I read fairly regularly is MercatorNet, a site that features articles on a variety of subjects, whose common link is attention to the inherent dignity of the human person. The subjects of the articles are taken from news headlines, and one of the aims of MercatorNet’s editorial policy is to take on polemically the assumptions embedded in many offerings put out by “objective” journalistic media. Or, as the MercatorNet editorial staff put it,
We’re proud to have enemies and we attack them repeatedly by confronting them with evidence. Here they are: moral relativism, scientism, crass commercialism, utilitarianism, materialism — in short, any ism which reduces persons to ciphers and treats them as soulless machines. We delight in dissecting media cliches.
They actively invite comments on their articles and encourage discussion among readers who may or may not agree with the views expressed. Since comments are moderated, the resulting discussion is always civil in tone, although not necessarily univocal. (By the way, the same publisher also has an online journal that focuses on bioethical issues: BioEdge: bioethics news from around the world.

Reconstruction of
Neanderthal child

I mention this partly to encourage others to read MercatorNet online, and partly to draw attention to a recent piece discussing a Harvard professor’s proposal that we begin cloning Neanderthals. The view of the professor, genome researcher George Church, is that of most proponents of scientism: “If we can do something [e.g., clone Neanderthals], we are ethically compelled to do it if it will yield new knowledge.” This is just another permutation of the old “Might makes right” argument, which most thinking people would consider suspect, if not plain wrong. For this kind of scientist, however, the only moral imperative is to seek knowledge (scientia). But while knowledge itself may be morally neutral, the means by which we seek it, and the uses to which we put it, are not. (I seem to recall a story about a couple of early humans — even before the Neanderthals! — who sought some knowledge for self-serving motives, which turned out not to be good for themselves or for anyone else ever since.)


It’s quite an amazing thing that scientists have been able to reconstruct the genetic sequence of members of a long-extinct branch of the human race, and I can well understand the burning curiosity such a development must excite in the imaginations of many modern people. However, as Michael Cook, author of the MercatorNet article, points out, the global scientific community has already acknowledged that human cloning is unethical and should be off limits; that general rule should apply as much to ancient strains of the human race as it does to those of us living today. Read the article for Cook’s analysis of why cloning Neanderthals would be unethical, and and his answer to the arguments Church uses to try to head off objections.
All of this made me think about some literary treatments of questions that Michael Cook raises, such as: what were Neanderthals like? why did they die out while we (homo sapiens) survived and throve? Is homo sapiens really superior and, if so, in what way? What would the world be like if we suddenly found cloned Neanderthals among us? Would it be good for us? Good for the Neanderthals? And, if you think about it, it would be strange indeed if we did not try to imagine what these ancient human cousins were like, and how the world might be different today if they had survived (or if they should return through the miracles of modern genetics). These questions have already been explored to some extent in modern fiction (no, I’m not talking about Clan of the Cave Bear or suchlike). Two quite different novelists came to mind as I read the MercatorNet article: William Golding and Jasper Fforde.

William Golding’s The Inheritors: Were Neanderthals pre-lapsarian humans?

William Golding The Inheritors cover

Golding was morally serious novelist, while Fforde’s novels are light-hearted and whimsical, but they both manage to deal imaginatively with some of the moral and ethical questions about our relationship to the Neanderthals. It has been many years since I read William Golding’s The Inheritors (he is better known for Lord of the Flies), but it made a big impression on me at the time and I’ve been intending to re-read it ever since. As I recall, the story follows a small Neanderthal family as they live their simple but happy lives, until they meet a race of more intellectually gifted men. I won’t spoil the story for you by telling you what happens, except to say that the Neanderthals were very sweet and appealing, while the “superior” race they met struck me as quite demonic, almost as if Golding intended the Neanderthals to represent unfallen humanity and homo sapiens as the fallen race of Man (ironically, the more advanced humans in the novel view the Neanderthals as demons). That realization struck me rather hard at the time. I’ve read a few more of Golding’s novels since then and have found that fallen human nature is one of the most pervasive themes found in them. While I can’t entirely trust my 30-year-old memory of the novel, I believe that it pretty effectively turns on its head the materialist Darwinian assumption that whatever species survives is in some fundamental way “superior” to whatever has already suffered extinction;  at least, the novel provokies the reader to question what equivalence (if any) there may be between biological and moral “superiority.”

Jasper Fforde’s Lost in a Good Book: Neanderthals would not thank us for their return

Jasper Fforde’s novels are pure fun, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t (at least obliquely) draw his readers’ attention to some of the more problematic trajectories of modern culture. He does this primarily by the means satirists have always used — drawing ridiculously distorted pictures of the world and then daring readers to recognize themselves in the caricature. Successful satire gets the reader first to laugh at the ridiculous and then, almost simultaneously, to feel a pang of discomfort as he realizes how close to home it strikes. In Fforde’s well-known Thursday Next series of novels he satirizes, among other things, contemporary culture’s increasing disregard of literature, as well as its penchant for exploiting each new technological achievement quite mindlessly, without concern for the consequences — for instance, selling home genetic reproduction kits, by which ordinary consumers can create for themselves pets from now-extinct species (Thursday herself has a pet dodo from an early model kit — the poor critter has no wings or feathers, but Thursday keeps it warm by knitting it cozies to wear). Among the cloned species are Neanderthals — developed in a government program, I believe, for experimental purposes, which had to be abandoned when the scientists realized that they had cloned people, not simply “medical test vessels.” As our heroine, Thursday Next, tells it:

The neanderthal experiment was simultaneously the high and low point of the genetic revolution. Successful in that a long-dead cousin of Homo sapien [sic] was brought back from extinction, yet a failure in that the scientists, so happy to gaze upon their experiments from their ever lofty ivory towers, had not seen so far as to consider the social implications that a new species of man might command in a world unvisited by their like for over 30 millennia. It was little surprise that so many neanderthals felt confused and unprepared for the pressures of modern life. It was Homo sapiens at his least sapient. (Lost in a Good Book, ch. 4)
The neanderthal characters in the novel are sensitive, thoughtful (sometimes to the point of being morose), unimpressed by the complications of modern life, and melancholy over being brought into a world where they don’t really belong, and where they are not legally considered to be human, although they are eventually allowed to take employment in jobs that most modern humans think beneath them. In this fictional world — as would likely be the case in our real world, should we ever successfully clone one — male Neanderthals are infertile, so there are no Neanderthal families, a real tragedy since they are very clannish by nature.
This last is a serious point that Michael Cook raises in his MercatorNet article when he analyzes why it would be unethical to clone Neanderthals:
The ultimate argument against cloning Neanderthals is that it violates human dignity to create a being outside of the loving circle of a family. The first right of a human being is to be loved for who he or she is, not as a product or scientific experiment. A cloned Neanderthal would be as close as possible to synthetic humanity as you can imagine. Part of her would be chimpanzee [because the proposed method would involve using a chimp ovum]; the rest would be a patchwork quilt of Neanderthal DNA sequenced from the bones of dozens of forebears who may have lived thousands of years apart, scattered across Europe. Everyone involved in her conception and birth would want to exploit her; none of them would cherish her. She would enter the world as a circus freak.
If this is true, isn’t there something really troubling about the mindset of scientists who are willing to acquiesce in cloning a Neanderthal? They ignore the humanity of the being they propose to create, viewing it merely as an instrument for their own curiosity or utility. For them, a human being is reduced to his genetic code or to anatomical novelties. Of course, it is just a thought experiment, but an unsettling one. Because what it reveals is the persistent capacity of science for dehumanisation.
This last point, I think, is what troubles me most about researcher Church’s proposal to create a Neanderthal clone — he views as an ethical imperative a project which, ultimately, is as unethical as it could possibly be. Science reduces human beings to abstractions, and it’s hard to empathize with an abstraction. Imaginative literature, however, can do what science never will — it humanizes the abstractions by turning them back into concrete individuals (even if imaginary ones) whose thoughts we hear, through whose eyes we can see the world. We can’t help but feel the desolation of Golding’s Neanderthal protagonist Lok after the last of his family has been killed by the new race of homo sapiens or that of Fforde’s Neanderthal, doomed to a short, lonely life among people who don’t even respect him as a human being. By getting us to engage imaginatively with possible worlds and situations, literature can help us to consider the consequences of our choices without actually putting anyone at risk. We can indulge our curiosity without allowing it to take us into realms where we should not wander. In this way, it is superior to science.

©2010 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Conversion stories in the Christian Tradition

St Benedict Restores Life to a Young Monk, by Giovanni del Biondo St Benedict Restores Life to a Young Monk, by Giovanni del Biondo
St Benedict restores life
to a young monk

Various things the last couple of weeks have kept me from much reading or writing. (Okay, I read a few Janet Evanovich novels about a New Jersey woman who becomes a bounty hunter after she loses her job as lingerie buyer at a local department store — I’m all for career flexibility, but have decided not to follow her example.) This being Lent, I scrounged around for some appropriate reading (not that City of God would not be appropriate!), and found a copy of the second book of St Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, which is devoted entirely to the life of Saint Benedict, the father of Western monasticism, and a number of miracles worked through him. This is an edition from Macmillan’s Library of Liberal Arts series, translation and introduction by Myra L. Uhlfelder, which I picked up a few months ago from Half Price Books for 98 cents.

Hagiography — i.e., stories of saints working miracles and fighting off temptations and demons — was wildly popular reading during the Middle Ages, and of course the Christian literary tradition has always given great importance to the inspiring stories of those who have gone before us and to firsthand accounts of personal experience with the trials and triumphs of Christian life. One of the key differences between the Old & New Testaments is that most of the books of the Old Testament were written long after the events they describe transpired, but the Christian Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles are based on eye witness accounts that had been shared orally for a generation or so before being committed to writing. In fact, much of their authority comes from the fact that they were written from eye witness testimony. St Paul’s personal encounter with Christ, risen and ascended, on the road to Damascus lends authority to his many epistles, as well as his preaching. So, one might say that from the very beginning, personal accounts of God’s action and intervention in men’s lives is a unique and essential feature of the Christian tradition.

St Augustine of Hippo understood this when he wrote his Confessions, which is essentially a meditation on how God’s providence led him to become to be a Christian. In Book X, after he has completed the account of his life up to the time of his conversion and baptism, Augustine (who has constantly addressed his narrative to God) brings up the question of why he should allow readers to eavesdrop on his confession to God:

What therefore have I to do with men that they should hear my confessions, as if it were they who would cure all that is evil in me? Men are a race curious to know of other men’s lives, but slothful to correct their own. Why should they wish to hear from me what I am, when they do not wish to hear from You what they are themselves? (X. iii.3)

This, of course, was one of the most important reasons Augustine wrote the Confessions — to get others to see in his own story something that resonated with their own experience, and to learn, perhaps, a lesson similar to the one he has learned. He wants others to recognize what God has wrought in his life, seeing “not what I once was but what I now am,” recognizing his former faults and the way God’s grace has amended them:

Let the mind of my brethren love that in me which You teach to be worthy of love, and grieve for that in me which You teach to be worthy of grief […] but whether they see good or ill still love me. To such shall I show myself: let their breath come faster for my good deeds: let them sigh for my ill. (X.iv.5)

Perhaps what inspired Augustine to take on such a project was the fact that he himself found encouragement to turn from his sinful ways in the conversion stories of others. Book VIII of the Confessions relates a series of episodes in which the example of others inched him step by step closer to the brink of conversion. By this point in his account, Augustine has overcome all of his intellectual scruples and has become convinced of the truth of Christianity, but he hesitates to convert because he knows that the Christian life will demand a total commitment on his part. (Sadly, few Christians today appreciate this!) Doubting that he will be able to overcome his lustful nature, Augustine finds himself caught on the horns of a dilemma: he wishes to take up the Christian life whole-heartedly, living a celibate life of devotion dedicated entirely to God, but his inability to control his sexual urges suggests that he should marry, which would mean that much of his time and attention would be consumed in providing for his family. Seeking advice on how to overcome this dilemma, he visits a wise old priest, Simplicianus.

Rather than giving him straightforward advice, Simplicianus chooses to encourage Augustine by telling him the story of the conversion of one Victorinus. He probably chose Victorinus because he had a lot in common with Augustine: both were prominent teachers of rhetoric, “deeply learned, trained in all the liberal sciences,” who came to accept the truth of the Christian faith but who hesitated to enter the Church formally. In the case of Victorinus, his hesitation seems to be due to his prominence among the pagan “movers and shakers” of Milan, whom he apparently did not wish to offend by a public profession of Christian faith. Repeatedly, when Simplicianus told him, “I’ll believe you are a Christian when I see you in church,” Victorinus would parry by asking facetiously, “So is it walls that make a Christian?”. However, Simplicianus was honest enough that when, through his careful reading and study of Scripture, he became “afraid that Christ might deny him before his angels if he were afraid to confess Christ before men,” he promptly requested formal instruction in the Faith and shortly thereafter made public profession of faith and was baptised. Afterward, when it became illegal funder Emperor Julian (the Apostate) for Christians to teach rhetoric and literature, Victorinus quite willingly abandoned his career.

Saint Augustine reading

Augustine was greatly encouraged by this testimony and “was on fire to imitate him.” But he did not immediately do so he attributed because what was holding him back was not simply pride (which had caused Victorinus’ hesitation) but a divided will, a sinful habit of the flesh that he was not eager to break — we might say, “The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.” As Augustine puts it:

The new will which I now began to have [to love God] was not yet strong enough to overcome that earlier will [to indulge his lust] rooted deep through the years. My two wills, one old, one new, on carnal, one spiritual, were in conflict and in their conflict wasted my soul. (VIII.v.10)

Not long after his visit to Simplicianus, however, Augustine would get further encouragement from a personal account told him by an old friend, Ponticianus, which would give him hope that God would be able to help him overcome his struggle against his lustful habits. That, however, is a story for another day.

Meanwhile, we might consider the extent to which these stories from the Confessions resonate with our own experience. How many of us have not known (or been!) someone who claimed that (s)he was a Christian but was unwilling — because of laziness or what “other people” might think — to make any public show of it? Shouldn’t we, like Simplicianus, doubt the sincerity of such a claim? (Isn’t Christianity more than merely a private opinion?) And haven’t we all, from time to time, made Augustine’s mistake of thinking that it is up to us, on our own, to overcome our bad habits and sinful proclivities through a force of will (“mind over matter”)? The Augustine who wrote the Confessions — many years a Christian and now a bishop — can recognize how God was working in his life, although his younger, unregenerate self remained blind to those operations. He “now” knows that Grace can work even through an obstinate will, and that only God’s grace would allow him to overcome his old, carnal will.