A Sentimental Education
All these questions may be asked. First, have poetry and elo-
quence the power of calling out the emotions? The appeal is to
experience. Experience shows that for the vast majority of men,
for mankind in general, they have the power. Next do they
exercise it? They do. But then, how do they exercise it so as to
affect man's sense for conduct…?
Matthew Arnold, 'Literature and Science'
It is often claimed that great novels can teach us important truths about the world. Certainly there is a relatively unproblematic sense in which novels can teach us facts about the Napoleonic Wars or Victorian London or Gladstone. But in addition to such factual information about particular historical events, places or people, novels are often also thought to provide more profound knowledge of human nature and morality. Several writers have stressed that the most important learning we achieve through reading great novels is emotional: we learn both through watching the emotional development of the characters and through responding emotionally to them. Martha Nussbaum, for example, has argued that much of what is psychologically important and morally profound in a novel is learned through our emotional involvement with it.1
Nussbaum comes to the emotions from a background in classics, and in this respect she is a follower of Aristotle rather than Plato. Despite his own love of poetry and the literary language in which he couched his philosophical dialogues, Plato notoriously argued that the