Litterature X Moral Philosophy

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We humans are born with more or less of a special feeling for what one could and should not do in any specific situation. This feeling is usually referred to as...the moral. The number of people who have been discussing and are discussing what the moral is are legion. The different camps in this discussion are also legion. Two of the camps are: whether or not literature has anything to do with moral philosophy and whether explaining the moral and educating the human race in its application is something that in the end is up to the ones who have gained insight...in other words philosophers. Out of all philosophy I am especially interested in moral philosophy so I have chosen to answer the question how literature can be a replacement, complement or alternative to moral philosophy.

Before one moves on to the attempts to answer the question stated above one needs to further define what moral in literature really is. It has been stated earlier that the moral is a feeling for what one should and should not do. This is one definition out of others, another one is the one used in christianity and other religions about the soul, besides these definitions there are many others. Just as good liquor should not be mixed up into a drink one should not be mixing up the terms moral and moral in literature. They are different things. True, they are similar, they are almost the same but they are not the same.
So, how do we define moral in literature? There are many ways. I think the following passage does a very good job of summing i up “The interest which literature has for human beings, it has because it possesses a humanly interesting content, because what literature presents or says concerns readers as human beings (Lamarque and Haugom Olsen Literary Practice, p.64).
A humanly interesting content. A humanly interesting content I assume is something that is supposedly morally interesting for us as a human race rather than as individual human beings. In other words literature exists morally in order to show us humans ways or patterns for how we should live our lives “Literature on this account plays an essential cultural role in the transmission of values, showing us patterns of excellence in such a way that we are drawn towards their imitation, a process which Socrates in the Ion likens to the activity of a magnet” (Weston, Philosophy, Literature and the Human Good, s. xi)
Literature is very interesting, and as Weston so brilliantly points out it is not just something to just idle away time, it can show us things that we imitate in our real life. I am however a bit critical to Weston’s portrayal of the relationship between the human and the literature. It seems to me as if Weston would like to say that the human is a tape recorder. When we read the literature the recorder kicks of and starts recording the morally important parts, that is the patterns of excellence. when we the encounter a situation where these patterns of excellence supposedly would work the recorder goes into playback mode which makes us act according to the patterns of excellence.
While I personally disagree with the idea that there is no process that we humans consciously have to go through to evaluate whether these patterns of excellence have a personal importance for us or that we have as little choice to personally choose to follow them as a magnet has of being attracted to another magnet I think that Weston has a good idea with his argument that literature has the important cultural role of showing how lives have been led in the past, how we are leading our lives in the present and showing the trends towards the future as well as in the process presenting us with characteristics that are just as you say...ideals.
These ideals are called thus mainly for the semantic reason instead of an expectation that everybody or anybody is going to possess them. It is most likely humanly impossible to possess all of them, or maybe even to possess one to the level that it can be called ideal. It is humanly possible however to aspire towards possessing these ideals and to realize whenever we do something wrong that we still have much maturing to do. To illustrate this with an example, I was going to start on this exam a lot earlier that I did, but I had an old make-up exam to do and it took me a lot of time to go through the material for this exam before I could actually start writing. Regardless of the fact that these are well-justified reasons I did not live up to the ideals of diligence and hard work as much as I might have, however by realizing this I can improve my awareness of the gap between the ideal and where I currently am at that specific characteristic and I can ponder which approach I should take towards closing that gap in order to improve myself as a human being.
Improving yourself as a human being. What does it mean to improve oneself as a human being? There are many ways that one could think of. For a man it could mean increasing his physical strength and in a way improving the self of the human body could it not? However what we really mean when we say this is something which in Japanese would be pronounced kokoro no shikara, that is the strength which comes from the heart. We now know that the heart is only an organ which pumps blood, however kokoro also in the correct context means soul, so it can also mean the strength which stems from the soul or spiritual strength, in other words the improvement to a better human being would be a spiritual improvement. How would this spiritual improvement take place? One way of answering this question could be that “Literature, shows us, by making us recognize ourselves through our responses, that ’the truth … is composed of opposites, Good and Evil’ [Bataille, Literature and Evil], that we are essentially and irredeemably attracted to both and that the attraction of one depends upon our being simultaneously attracted by the other” (Weston, s. 31.).
Good and evil both exist in the world that we live in...and for good reason. If there were no evil in the world, how could we define good? If immorality did not exist, what in heaven’s name would morality be? It could not be defined. We cannot truly define something unless we have something to compare it with. For concrete things if you take away an oak tree, well, you can just use a birch instead. However, for abstract things we cannot do this so easily. There are very few abstract things on the same level of abstractness so if you take away one it may be impossible to define something at all. Especially when dealing with things as abstract as morality and good we are getting so abstract that it may very well be impossible to define this something without their opposites immorality and evil. No, rather than saying that we cannot define these terms without the opposite we should say that even after the definition is done we need that opposite which in our society has been given a more negative feel.
Weston says that we as humans are being constantly attracted by both good and evil. To take a concrete example of this I will use the situation of scandals. People love scandals, it is beautiful seeing all the ugliness that rich and famous people do. Even if it many times is nothing worse than what we ‘commoners’ may do, when celebrities are involved it gets special treatment. This enjoyment is what would be labeled as evil. We read articles, see pictures and watch films showing the weaknesses of other people who are just as human as we are...and we delight in it. This delight is what would be called evil. The contrast to this is of corse good, the feeling that our public face should not like scandals and that when we hear somebody is a scandal reporter we should condemn them for digging up the dirt from other people, regardless whether we like to engross ourselves in his results or not. We feel the need to do one thing, but we also have a contrasting feeling for its opposite. As the good and evil grind against each other like teeth during our dormant cycle they will eventually wear down and require braces. However by the time that we require these mental braces the balance has been disrupted, there is no longer any equilibrium. Since the mental teeth are no longer equal one side may very well have triumphed over the other. If it is the way society (and god if he exists) wants it, then good will have defeated evil and our public disgust of scandals will lead to us throwing away the satisfaction of engrossing ourselves in them even in the innermost of sanctuaries of our private room.
Evil and Good may have separate values, but they can through the battle they go through inside of us change our own perspective on things such as the above mentioned scandals and many other youthful and not so youthful embarrassments. This perspective that good and evil, that is the morality and immorality, a path of excellence and its opposite will sooner or later force us to choose one contrasts a bit with Weston’s statement that we are more like a live camera going on and off, but rather seems to imply to me that we humans in the end have an important role in the choosing of the path shown to us through literature. If we humans, that is, in the forum of literature as readers and listeners have a role to play then we must make sure what this role of ours could be “The relation of the reader, spectator or listener to the work of art is one of contemplation which requires our seeing ‘what is there’ independently of our desires. Such relating is itself, therefore, a moral activity” (Weston, s. 74.). An act of contemplation. After we have through literature gained the knowledge that the author wanted to give us, we must ponder this something until that knowledge is no longer the one that the author wanted to give us, but has been assimilated into our very own knowledge. However, this must somehow be done independently of our desires.
Our desires in this context are of course not the simple desires that we have everyday of what food to eat for dinner or what future profession we would like to have, at the same time this desire does not exclude, these everyday desires. the desire is everything that we wish for in a condensed form that colors our perception. Thus, Weston means that in order to truly see what literature means, one must actively be attempting to study it through a frame of reference that lies outside preconceptions and subjectivity - this then becomes the true nature of the world. Even if one does not manage to reach that place or even to form the perfect frame, the activity of attempting to understand something through this contemplation is the moral activity that comes through literature, or as the British philosopher Iris Murdoch puts it “Art then is not a diversion or a side issue, it is the most educational of all human activities and a place in which the nature of morality can be seen. Art gives us a clear sense to many ideas which seem more puzzling when we meet with them elsewhere and it is a clue to what happens elsewhere” (Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, s. 87f.). Murdoch makes one thing clear above everything else, that literature, and in fact all art is nothing to be swept away under the carpet as merely ‘recreation’. It may be recreation, but it is so much more than that. She says that it is the most educational of human activities due to the fact that we can see the nature of morality in it. How is it that we can see the nature of morality in literature when we may not be able to see it elsewhere? To show how morality is seen in a different perspective in literature I will use the book The locked room1 by Paul Auster. In the locked room Fanshawe (not the main character, though the story centers around him) leaves his wife behind and runs off and he does this by making it seem as if he is dead. In real life we would consider a man who does this for whatever reason, scum. However, because this is literature we are able to gain emotional distance and are able to see this from a different perspective. We can gain the emotional distance form events and see that he was forced to leave and so ‘died’ in order to set up an old friend as her new husband, which worked perfectly well and in the end led to a better result than if he had been with her (mental deterioration).
Was it morally correct of Fanshawe to do this? Hard to say, that will be up to a council or something to decide, what is true however is that through such a writing we can see the underlying moral in a different light than in real life. The reason is that we gain distance from it. We can not say what is the moral of the world of today easily, because we are in it. The moral of today are one of the things that has almost become matter-of-fact to us. However, when we write about it or show it in another art form we are able to see it in a different light due to gaining distance and in like Murdoch says “. (…) We surrender ourselves to its authority with a love which is unpossessive and unselfish. (…) Art pierces the veil and gives sense to the notion of a reality which lies beyond experience” (Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, s. 87f.). We give ourselves completely to the work while we read. Even though the reading is a process of analyzation we are still not in this world of the ‘invisible morals’, but in a place of in-between where we can view the morals of this world. If the morals that we gain in ‘the world in-between’ are applicable in ‘the real world’, then is there some sort of connection between literature and morals? If there is no connection at all it does not seem possible that the morals could be applied to this world. This connection one might be able to illustrate in the following way “Art and morals are, with certain provisos, one. Their essence is the same. The essence of both of them is love. Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.” (Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, s. 215.).


Every time I hear the word essence my mind flashbacks to Sartre, but I understand that is not what Murdoch is going for here. She is linking them both with a glue that is used, well everywhere. In literature, if we are talking about novels only I don’t think you can find a novel where love is not present in one form or another. At the very least I think it is far more common with a form of love present than it not being present (note that I count family bonds and friendship as love as well, as do I love towards animals). Murdoch talks about love being the perception of individuals. The perception of individuals, that is taking the act of morality, remember she saying that art and morals were one, down to the individual-based relationships we find in our beloved novels. In the same way she is saying that the novels are studied today as a work of art, but maybe that perception is entirely wrong, maybe we should be studying it as a work of love. With the author putting all that they have into that work, the morals that the characters who are summoned like the proverbial djinni in a bottle, are like the morals of you and I, we have received the love of at least one parent, in this way the characters in the book are no different. If the author has a wife or girlfriend or some other partner then of course they will be a support for loving the characters as well and if not then the author will have to manage on his own just as many single mothers and fathers do, and their children are no worse off in morals than any others. So the morals in this work of love cannot be seen as only taken from another world, or not raised properly, it is applicable to our world and our values. Murdoch also talks here of love being the realization that something other than yourself is real, the discovery of reality. This is understandable, when you feel absence of love, you feel very dark and lonely, that is a negative, dark, black emotion. In darkness nothing exists except for more darkness. Even if you are n the darkness, it is only you in the darkness, the darkness is still lonely. By gaining love you are bringing things into the darkness, and slowly so slowly the darkness is retreating from the depths of you mind. Existence''''s other than you can be made out, because there is no longer darkness, so in order to realize all that you can you should go on and love with all of your heart.



In this exam essay I have attempted to answer the question whether literature can be an alternative, complement or replacement to moral philosophy. The point of entry I have attempted to make into this area of discussion is whether or not literature has anything to do with moral philosophy and whether explaining the moral and educating the human race in its application is something that in the end is up to the ones who have gained insight...in other words philosophers and from this point of assault I have tried to answer the initial question.
The first argument that I have used in this essay comes from Weston in his claim of literature as transmitting moral cultures “Literature on this account plays an essential cultural role in the transmission of values, showing us patterns of excellence in such a way that we are drawn towards their imitation, a process which Socrates in the Ion likens to the activity of a magnet” (Weston, Philosophy, Literature and the Human Good, s. xi). In response to this argument I have mostly been agreeing with Weston however I have been arguing for the fact that you are forced to imitate rather than through contemplation coming to the insight that these are good patterns of excellence. I have after the initial criticism against Weston been trying to identify the patterns of excellence and then trying to come up with a how our relationship with these patterns of excellence should be.
The second argument I found from Bataille in his discussion of oppositional forces “Literature, shows us, by making us recognize ourselves through our responses, that ’the truth … is composed of opposites, Good and Evil’ [Bataille, Literature and Evil]. My answer to Bataille’s argument was to think about the evil and good in a practical illustration. How we are drawn to the ugly side of life. Publicly we don’t admit it, but privately we aren’t all that clean and good as we may pretend. I linked the more to the common media than to plain literature, but since I feel that this also comes under the influence of the subject ‘art’ I feel that the argument only gains force form this.
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Inactive member [2007-07-25]   Litterature X Moral Philosophy
Mimers Brunn [Online]. https://mimersbrunn.se/article?id=8499 [2019-10-14]

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