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Can Reading Literature Make Us Moral?

This question has been asked since antiquity. Many have been deeply suspicious that literature might have the capacity to teach the wrong morals. Plato thought fiction dangerous and regretted, for instance, the depiction of the gods as given to laughter. During the Reformation, much Catholic art was destroyed; the Chinese Cultural Revolution sought to rid the world of reactionary artworks; and the Soviets, when they took power, were faced with the choice of banning pre-revolutionary literature or, as they eventually decided, reinterpreting it. Literature is so essential to the Russian self-image — it constitutes Russia’s great contribution to world culture — that Tolstoy and Pushkin simply could not be banned. They were read, instead, as the predecessors of the great Bolshevik literature the Soviets planned to produce.

Literature has a way of lifting us out of points of view that we take for granted. When we read The Iliad, the Tao Te Ching, Gilgamesh, Genesis, Paradise Lost, or Crime and Punishment, we enter into perspectives that may differ markedly from those presumed by our own culture. To the extent that one regards such an exercise as enlightening, reading literature will seem like a way of acquiring wisdom; it gets us off our little island in time and place and shows us how our own values might appear to others. We no longer accept our own values as the only possible ones for a decent, intelligent person to hold.

Some view such broadening as potentially dangerous. The more one regards differing perspectives as necessarily evil or stupid, the less one wants others to practice seeing the world from such perspectives. In that case, literature will be regarded as morally dangerous. Educated people are generally aware that the Soviets banned genetics, psychoanalysis, and even some doctrines in chemistry as contrary to Marxism-Leninism, but they are often unaware that whole literary genres were also denounced as false. Tragedy, for example, was considered pernicious for at least two reasons. First, it contradicted the official optimism of Communist philosophy, which held that it was inevitable that people would reach universal happiness. Second, tragedy affirms that the human mind is inadequate to understand the strange universe, whereas Communist philosophy held that, guided by Marxism-Leninism, people could not only understand the laws of nature and society, but also change them at will.

So the question of whether literature can teach us to be more moral raises a related question: Is it morally good or bad for people to adopt — even temporarily — unapproved points of view?

The genre I think about most, the realist novel, developed special methods to allow the reader to experience what it is like to be someone else. When one reads a great novel, one enters directly into the experience of other individuals. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith, who regarded sympathy for others as a universal human trait and essential to morality, pointed out that we are barred from ever experiencing the thought and feelings of another person. We can only infer them. Some fifty years later, Jane Austen invented a technique for allowing us to enter into the process of another person’s thoughts, and in so doing she in effect invented the realist psychological novel.

The Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin called this technique “double-voiced words.” Here’s how it works: The author paraphrases the sequence of a hero’s or heroine’s thoughts from within. The paraphrase assumes the tone, manner, and typical choice of words of the character, and we hear how she speaks to herself. Thus, when she needs to justify herself to herself, we hear her address an invisible judge. When she wants to do something she feels she shouldn’t, we witness her talking herself into it, banishing contrary arguments, veering away at the first sign she is about to stumble onto a consideration too strong to evade. We watch how, when inner alarm bells go off, she makes sure not to think something, and we recognize her moral responsibility for what she does not — but easily could have — known. Later, she might assure herself that a given counter-argument never occurred to her, but there is all the difference between simply not thinking of something and avoiding the thought of that thing. That difference is visible only to someone who can follow the process of her thoughts, and that is what readers of Jane Austen, George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, and Henry James routinely do. If we are to understand how people make moral decisions — and how we could make better ones ourselves — what knowledge could be more important?

Let me offer a brief example of how realist novels let us into the minds of others. I abbreviate a very long passage from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in which Anna, never forgetting that she is a married woman, rides the train home to St. Petersburg after having an intense flirtation with the seductive Aleksei Vronsky. The narrator tells us that Anna,

suddenly felt that he ought to be ashamed, and that she ought to be ashamed of the same thing. But what had he to be ashamed of? “What have I to be ashamed of?” she asked in injured surprise … There was nothing. She went over all her Moscow recollections … there was nothing shameful. And for all that, at the same point in her memories the feeling of shame intensified, as though some inner voice, just at the point when she thought of Vronsky, were saying to her, “Warm, very warm, hot.”

Note that, grammatically, this passage is in the third person (“she asked in injured surprise”), while the sequence of thoughts, the choice of words, and the tone of voice, are not the author’s but the character’s. We know immediately that the thoughts are Anna’s since the referent of “he” is not given: Someone speaking to herself already knows to whom a pronoun refers. Anna feels shame, but seeks to persuade herself that “there was nothing … there was nothing shameful” — an affirmation that betrays the shame she denies. If I quoted this whole passage, almost a page long, it would be evident how we overhear the steps with which Anna tries to banish a truth she knows, but senses it coming back against her will.

One might ask: Why not just use stream-of-consciousness and give the whole sequence of thoughts in the first person, as in the sentence “What have I to be ashamed of?” For one thing, the author is able to tell us things Anna herself would not notice, such as her body posture, her tone of injured surprise, the persistence of an unwelcome feeling she wants to pretend isn’t there and so wouldn’t comment on. People do not say to themselves what it is they refuse to say to themselves. They maintain plausible deniability to any moral self-examination they might later perform. Only an outside perspective can detect the trace of a thought one avoids entertaining. Another reason we need double-voicing, rather than stream of consciousness, is that the moral complexity of the sequence of thoughts depends on hearing simultaneously both the character’s thoughts and the perspective of another who might listen in. The author can tacitly supply the answer that might be given by the character’s social circle or by another character.

When we inhabit another person in this way for hundreds of pages, we can appreciate directly what it is like to be someone else: a person of another culture, social class, gender, or psychological type. We can empathize with a person whose values and social position we might normally find disagreeable. Readers often feel that Anna Karenina and Lily Bart (in The House of Mirth), for instance, represent values they deplore. And yet those same readers — if I am an example — still feel deep compassion as Anna and Lily descend into suicide.

In some genres, we empathize not so much with individuals but with whole perspectives alien to our own. The work itself comes from a whole different moral world. As noted above, to read The Iliad or Paradise Lost is to share, however briefly, an epic perspective on events, as well as to adopt the values taken for granted by ancient Greek or English Renaissance culture. The more alien the culture, the more we are likely to encounter authors or protagonists who do not share our values. If we learn to empathize with them, and regard them as holding their views for motives no less sincere than our own, could we perhaps learn to do the same for people in our own culture, for example, who do not share our political party or social class? For partisans or for an educated class presuming its moral superiority, that may be an unsettling notion.

Some literary critics and teachers have tried to “de-literize” literature. They try to remove the essential literary act of experiencing other points of view by treating literature as propaganda that endorses what one already believes, or by only assigning works by approved authors with an approved message — the simpler and less ambiguous the better. That is what so many high school (and college) English teachers do, not only because it is gratifying to get students to share one’s own beliefs, but also because it is a lot easier to teach such works. One can do it without ever having loved a literary work at all. One reason for the current “crisis in the humanities” and the rapid decline in enrollments in literature courses may be that students are bound to wonder why they should put in the hard work to read long books only to learn what they already knew.

Bakhtin praised great works that take us out of a “Ptolemaic universe” into a “Galilean” one, that take us from a world in which our perspective is the center of all things — like the earth in the ancient Ptolemaic model of the solar system — into a world in which our perspective is just one of many possibilities — like one planet among others orbiting the sun. The value one is likely to place on great literature depends on whether one thinks it is moral or immoral to escape the prison of one’s own social group in one’s own culture at a given moment in time. The more a culture wants to protect its citizens from potentially harmful viewpoints, the more it will de-literize the literary. For totalitarian regimes, intolerant religions, and morally superior social-justice warriors, the way literature can make us moral may seem like a threat to all they hold sacred.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does inhabiting other peoples’ points of view help us to become moral?
  2. Can other forms of art make us moral?
  3. Is there a connection between absolute certainty in one’s convictions and a distaste for complex realist novels?
  4. How often is literature taught in a way that allows students to appreciate what it has to offer? How often in other ways? Why?

Discussion Summary

This discussion helped foreground a number of important issues concerning the adoption of other points of view. Can’t one be compassionate without that? And how, exactly, does adopting other points of view help with morality? What is behind these good questions, I suppose, is the sense that there is more to morality than empathy and that empathy is not always an uncontaminated positive. Both these worries have merit. Still, although empathy can be abused — as can any good thing — it helps us to overcome the natural assumption that everyone wants what I (or we) do, a position that does not allow for real difference in values, personality, and perspectives. Morality includes the idea that others are genuine others, and that you cannot determine another’s needs entirely from without. To do so turns the other into something closer to an object than a person.

To read literature in the right way, one needs to be willing to surrender oneself to the author’s (and characters’) perspectives temporarily, before returning to oneself. Those who are too sure of themselves, or who want to restrict others to knee-jerk reactions, find this to be dangerous and try to discourage or restrict it, either by censoring literature, restricting points of view, or interpreting literature without that kind of surrender. We live in an age when many people who teach literature do not really believe in it — or even actively disbelieve in it — and so discourage their students from surrendering to it, even temporarily Of course, how one surrenders to a work depends on the genre — epics, for instance, invite us into a world different from that of novels — and the reason we need many genres is that each embodies a particular sense of human experience.

Appreciating the perspectives of others does not have to leave us paralyzed or indifferent. You don’t have to become a relativist in that sense. You just need to recognize that all knowledge is partial because your own experience is necessarily limited (partial in the literal sense) and that you will be wiser if you can appreciate how others see the world. Doing so makes you more humble and more tolerant. And so one grows less likely to see anyone with a different perspective as evil or stupid or ignorant of what is good for them. Their idea of the good may legitimately differ from yours. Suppose one believes that it is moral to help others to be happy. One can err by prescribing what would make oneself, but not someone else, happy. By the same token, a social reformer genuinely interested in helping others will invite, not preclude, criticism of one’s plans because then he or she becomes aware of problems that, if solved, would make the plans more likely to work. In short, reading literature in general, and novels in particular, helps us to practice not being too sure of ourselves and to get out of the prison house of self.

New Big Questions:

  1. How can reading literature help us to treat others as persons rather than objects?
  2. How do different genres of literature embody different moral perspectives on human experience?