Literature As A Medium To Express Philosophic Ideas
Updated: Jun 24
Whenever I write articles for this blog, I am tempted to open with anecdotes from Directed Studies, a program focusing on great books in which I was enrolled for the entirety of my first year at Yale. I will, for my third article in a row, maintain that tradition here. However, I think there is probably not a more fitting instance to do so.
When I studied Paradise Lost, Milton’s monolithic epic poem describing God, Satan, and the fall of man, I found one element of his text particularly interesting: the fact that Paradise Lost is written as a theodicy, an attempt to reconcile a perfectly good and powerful God with the existence of evil. I have studied theodicies in great detail in the past and, for the most part, been wholly unconvinced by them. The basic problem is that evil in our world is just too gratuitous for free will or soul-building to constitute a reasonable defense. It thus came as a surprise that I was genuinely compelled by Milton’s description of the fall of man. I began to think maybe (just maybe) there was something to Christian theodicy.
The difference between Paradise Lost and the other texts I have read revolves around their form. Paradise Lost is a beautiful, evocative work of literature, whereas the other theodicies I have read contain precise, dry philosophical arguments. While the latter sticks almost religiously to barren logic, Paradise Lost instead uses imagery, rhetorical flourishes, and story-building to make a broader argument.
In my philosophical studies, especially in the UK, the home of the sacralized analytic tradition, I have often heard that the former type of argument — based on premises and logic — is the only real way to answer the big questions. One of my teachers once castigated “continental bullshit”, referring to continental philosophy, the mainland European tradition of using imagery and metaphors in philosophy (God forbid using literature itself). The basic argumentative superstructure underpinning this idea is fairly obvious. Analytic philosophy, using reason and logic, can have greater clarity than simple imagery or stories, which instead are based on our emotions. In this apparent dichotomy, literature relies on sentiments, subjective responses without any mechanism for their adjudication, whereas the superior analytic philosophy relies on logic, something objective and indisputable.
On some level, this approach is pretty convincing. There is a domain of questions literature is not particularly good at answering. I wouldn’t rely on literature to answer deductive truths, or truths which are true by necessity. If I say ‘Socrates is a man’ and ‘Every man is a human’, it would follow through the axioms of logic that ‘Socrates is a human’. In this case, analytic philosophy reigns supreme. However, as the last few hundred years of philosophy have shown, the number of truly deductive truths is limited, and essentially never gives us new knowledge (with mathematics probably being the big exception). To be true using reason alone an argument needs to smuggle in some first axioms to construct their system, which cannot be done using reason itself.
This, in turn, leads to a problem. The big questions need something other than reason at some point. You cannot pass the buck down indefinitely. Take, for instance, the following example:
You are watching the World Cup, along with hundreds of millions of other people. You are all enjoying it greatly. The cameras recording are powered by a great mass of cables, without which the live broadcast will be shut off. Unfortunately, a cameraman has fallen into the cables and is slowly getting electrocuted. You could either save him, thereby stopping the game, and making hundreds of millions of people unhappy, or let him die, killing him, but keeping the people happy. Due to the sheer volume of people watching the game, the net happiness in the world will be greater if the game continues.
In the case above, it is possible to use pre-formulated moral principles, and then logic to apply them. I could have the moral principle that what is good for the greatest number of people is always right, which then logic can tell me implies I should keep the game going. Or I could have the principle that we should save lives whenever possible, which would tell me to rescue him. However, importantly, reason itself cannot be used to come up with either principle. We can smuggle things in resembling reason, but fundamentally, reason builds off of meaning which, at some point, must be constructed.
The limitations of reason are not a new problem in philosophy. The debate started most fully with Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature, where he outlines the limitations of reason for arriving at ethical first principles. However, they do raise the question — if the reason is so limited, what can help us arrive at basic answers to the big questions? The point of this rather convoluted digression is that I want to propose that literature, while perhaps not giving us all the answers, is an essential tool to develop our intuitions and responses to these questions.
Let’s return to my original example of Paradise Lost. At first, I felt that there was no way that a perfectly powerful and good God could allow evil things to exist in this world. Yet, envisaging the beautiful portrait of the world that Milton paints, his sophisticated and human Satan, his mournful, benevolent God, and the loving, imperfect figure of Adam and Eve, a loving God allowing the Fall becomes far more plausible. I perhaps had some preconceived notion that a good God would never allow evil, yet this is not something entirely backed up by reason — it is an axiom like any other, which literature allows me to question. While literature may only build on our intuitions and emotions, which are in some sense objective, we can’t do much better. Any paradise of logic in which you can eschew the artistic and literary is illusory.
I thus conclude that literature can be a great complement to philosophy. It is a tool to help us derive basic axioms, and maybe something more than that. Building on our emotions and intuitions, it constructs a plane of meaning altogether different from what pure argument can muster.