A Commonsense Approach to Literary Criticism

By Adler, Eric | Humanitas, Spring-Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

A Commonsense Approach to Literary Criticism


Adler, Eric, Humanitas


Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism: The Humanistic Alternative, by James Seaton. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 236 pp. $103 cloth, $29.99 paperback.

Academic literary criticism has gone off the deep end, its practitioners besotted with radical politics. So contends the late James Seaton (1944-2017) in his book Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism. As Seaton himself recognized, by no means was he alone in harboring this view. During the course of the so-called academic culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, traditionalistic critics of the humanities railed against what they perceived to be the politicization of English departments in the United States. John Ellis's polemic Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities (1997), for example, argues that literature scholars have abandoned earnest concern for forthright criticism in favor of untutored political grandstanding. Thus, thought Ellis, did such professors undermine the study of the humanities and endanger our cultural heritage.

But Seaton differs from other traditionalistic culture warriors in proposing a novel intellectual framework for this state of affairs. In his estimably wide-ranging study, he discerns three traditions of Western literary criticism, all inaugurated by the ancients. Seaton attributes the first to Plato, although he makes clear that this supposedly Platonic conception actually stems solely from the Republic, rather than Plato's more ambiguous--and incongruous--estimations of poetry's value in the Ion and the Symposium. In the Republic, Plato's Socrates famously banished poetry from his ideal state, contending that it lies about the gods and in general purveys false notions. Seaton stresses that those who follow in this "Platonic" tradition despise and devalue literature, subordinating it to various ideological and theoretical worldviews. He numbers contemporary devotees of postmodern cultural studies among this Platonic camp, despite the hostility with which such critics would view Plato's metaphysics.

Seaton labels the second camp "Neoplatonic." To him, Neoplatonists such as Plotinus "believe that art and literature properly understood can lead adepts to spiritual heights from which the concerns of everyday life would be revealed as mere trivialities" (2). "Critical schools that are Neoplatonic in their tendency," he continues, "value great literature, especially poetry, as a vehicle for moral and/or spiritual transcendence of conventional common sense" (ibid.). Seaton includes romantics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Ralph Waldo Emerson in this group, and perceives that such disparate figures as John Stuart Mill and Allen Tate were Neoplatonic sympathizers.

He names the third and final school of literary criticism "humanistic," and views it as the wellspring of Aristotle's Poetics. "The humanistic tradition," Seaton avers, "follows Aristotle in paying due respect (although not unquestioning allegiance) to common sense while turning to literature for insight into human life rather than knowledge about the gods or for access to a higher spiritual realm" (ibid.). Seaton considers critics such as Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, and Henry James "humanists." He stresses that followers of the humanistic tradition pitch their criticism to general readers, trusting the good sense of nonexperts to intuit the value of great works of literature.

As Seaton views matters, the problem with contemporary literary criticism in the United States is that "versions of the Platonic tradition have been dominant in the academy since the 1960s, whereas, in the earlier part of the twentieth century, partisans of modernism offered a secular version of the Neoplatonic tradition in defending the modern masterpieces" (3). Seaton believes that the spirit of humanistic criticism lives on in magazines such as The New York Review of Books, The Weekly Standard, and The Nation, but laments its near-complete disappearance in American colleges and universities. …

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