Literary Study and the Social Order

By Tanner, Stephen L. | Humanitas, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Literary Study and the Social Order


Tanner, Stephen L., Humanitas


Determining how literary study relates to the social order has occupied the best minds at least since Plato excluded poets from his ideal republic. The subject has been so thoroughly aired that it seems difficult, in Samuel Johnson's phrase, to say anything new about it that is true, or true about it that is new. Plausible arguments contend that the study of literature is a civilizing influence that nurtures good citizenship by providing instruction and models in compassion, justice, and the moral law. But forceful arguments also contend that engagement with literature is primarily an aesthetic experience having no direct practical consequences for civil affairs. After centuries of consideration, the matter still defies resolution. But because it is perennially relevant, each age grapples with it in the context of its own views regarding the nature of literature and the ideals of society. My purpose in what follows is to survey some significant recent contributions to this endless debate over what literary st udy can or should do to promote the civic good and offer some observations concerning the debate and the direction it should take in the future.

The question of the moral and social effects of literary study is so knotty that even people who have made a career of teaching literature sometimes reverse their beliefs concerning the effects of the study of literature upon human conduct. For example, Peter Thorpe explains in Why Literature Is Bad for You why he, as a professor of literature, became disillusioned with his former belief in the edifying consequences of literary study. "For years," he says, "I believed that if a person lived with great books he would be a better specimen of humanity--more mature, aware, happy, tolerant, kind, and honest. But I'm not a believer anymore" (vii). His approach is to examine the behavior of people who devote large portions of their life to literary study--writers, students, critics, and particularly professors. His conclusions are these: "That literary art, instead of making us more mature, has a subtle way of guiding us into a new immaturity. That the great books, instead of endowing us with more awareness of the cosmos and the human condition, put the blinders on. That instead of showing us the way to happiness, literature moves us toward gloom. That it fogs our minds, instead of enabling us to think more clearly. And finally, that instead of improving our ability to communicate, it keeps us from getting through to each other" (xii). These are controversial assertions, of course, and his evidence, although extensive, is unlikely to be widely persuasive. But I must admit that having associated closely with literature professors for thirty years, I find that much of Thorpe's characterization of them rings painfully true. Obviously, studying the best literature does not, in itself, produce the best people.

A more significant example is the case of Lionel Trilling, one of the most distinguished literary intellectuals of his age. He began his career with a published doctoral dissertation on Matthew Arnold in 1939, a book that has never been out of print. Arnold is a giant figure among those convinced of the edifying effects of literary study, and Trilling was strongly influenced by Arnold, who said, "It is important, therefore, to hold fast to this: that poetry is at bottom a criticism of life; that the greatness of a poet lies in his powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life--to the question: How to live" (478). This notion of literature as a criticism of life is apparent in the preface to Trilling's famous collection of essays The Liberal Imagination (1950), in which he suggests that in the job of criticizing the liberal imagination, "literature has unique relevance, not merely because so much of modern literature has explicitly directed itself upon politics, but more importantly because literature i s the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty. …

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