Great literature teaches us how to face an imperfect world and live bravely in it.
Parables, cautionary tales, morality plays, allegories—the notion that we can study literary works as texts of ethics is as old as literature. Academics like Martha Nussbaum at the University of Chicago have argued that Aristotle, for instance, was responding not only to other philosophers but to the great tragedians—Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides—in his lectures on ethics. Influenced by plays like Oedipus Rex and Antigone, the Oresteia and The Bacchae, Nussbaum argues, Aristotle refined a subtle, essentially tragic view of the universe, in contrast to Plato’s simpler, more complacent utilitarianism. In both his Poetics and his Ethics, Aristotle insists that character is revealed through actions, through the choices an individual makes. Tragedy is “a representation not of human beings [i.e., mere portraiture—Lyon] but of action and a course of life.” The best tragedies will feature a character who is neither “depraved” nor “outstanding in moral excellence or justice,” but rather one who is somewhere in between—esteemed but not faultless—whose fall from good fortune to bad will evoke (famously) “pity and fear.”
If ethics is (at least in part) the study of human decision making, it is only natural for the ethicist to turn to literary texts, particularly tragedies of the Aristotelian sort—representations of human actions and the course of human life—as case studies. In The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, Nussbaum writes: “The great tragic plots explore the gap between our goodness and our good living, between what we are (our character, intentions, aspirations, values) and how humanly well we manage to live. They show us reversals happening to good-charactered but not divine or invulnerable people, exploring the many ways in which being of a certain good human character falls short of sufficiency for eudaimonia.” (Eudaimonia can be defined, roughly, as a fulfilling happiness.) Great literature, on this reading, is deeply pleasurable in no small part because it is deeply instructive: it teaches us how to face an imperfect world and live bravely in it. This interweaving of ethics and literature was not lost with the ancient world. In her other works, including Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature; Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and the Public Life; and Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, Nussbaum puts authors as diverse as Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Henry James, Richard Wright, James Joyce, Emily Brontë and Samuel Beckett on her philosophical reamer, extracting their ethical juices.
It’s telling, though, that few of Nussbaum’s examples are drawn from our own times. Opponents of her holistic approach to ethics and literature argue that such research, while mightily interesting, has little practical application. The most public application of the study of ethics is in law, so it is perhaps unsurprising that one of the most eloquent rebuttals of Nussbaum’s claims for the relevance of literature to contemporary ethics comes from the former Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Richard Posner. Fun facts about Posner: he has speculated that men find high heels sexy because they appear to prevent women from running away; he believes adoption should become market-driven, with biological parents being allowed to sell their parental rights; in 1999 he was appointed to mediate in the U.S. government’s anti-trust lawsuit against Microsoft; he claims to have the exact same personality as his cat—“cold, furtive, callous, snobbish, selfish, and playful, but with a streak of cruelty” (from an interview with Larissa McFarquhar in the December 10, 2001, issue of The New Yorker).
Posner is also one of the founders of the law and economics movement in the U.S. He believes that legal decisions should be driven by considerations of economic efficiency rather than rights and duties and ethics. In his book Law and Literature, Posner writes that “law’s techniques and imagery have permeated Western culture from its earliest days” because “most literature is about screwing up one’s life in one way or another.” But he goes on to write that as a field of study, “law and literature is also full of false starts, tendentious interpretations, shallow polemics, glib generalizations, and superficial insights.” Reading good books doesn’t make you a better person, he argues; English majors are not moral paragons. At best, reading can make you empathetic, but “empathy is amoral.” Moreover, treating literary works as texts of ethics is the straight and narrow road to the kind of political correctness that would toss out Homer for misogyny, Shakespeare for anti-Semitism and Huckleberry Finn for using the word nigger.
And if this is not enough, Nussbaum’s theory cannot account for extra-ethical pleasures in reading: in escapism, say, or in frisson-inducing portraits of villains like Richard III or Hannibal Lecter. It’s not hard to catch in Posner’s objections a whiff of Adam Smith: values, schmalues. The literary marketplace is too varied and teeming to support a single, narrow, warm-fuzzy-liberal interpretation of its appeal.
So where does all this leave the Canadian reader? If Nussbaum is right, we turn to thoughtful works like Anne Tyler’s The Amateur Marriage or John le Carré’s Absolute Friends (both, as I write this, on the Canadian best-seller list) for an understanding of what it means to live well, and how such a life can tragically exceed even an essentially good person’s grasp. If Posner is right, we take from these same works a deeper understanding of our own tastes, perhaps—I see myself in this character, yes!—but no broader lessons about the world.
Granted, Nussbaum’s view of literature privileges certain modes (she really likes Henry James) and implies a particular ethical outlook: that the “gap” between goodness and good fortune implies a universe threaded with an essentially tragic weft. But Posner’s unwillingness to allow even the greatest literary works true ethical relevance is like the unwillingness of the laissez-faire capitalist to allow that in some situations there really is no alternative to the rock and the hard place. Those who have merit will advance; hard work always pays off; money and celebrity are the ultimate measures of success; all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.
Sometimes optimism can seem like wilful blindness. We take a risk when we close our eyes to the “lessons” of great literature. We risk, at our peril, forgetting what tragedy is.