Philosophy of Literature


Albee, Ernest. “Philosophy and Literature.” The Philosophical Review 27, no. 4 (1918): 343. https://doi.org/10.2307/2178576


WHILE I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, I shall venture to suggest what would be the probable reactions of a representative cultured inhabitant of Mars, if, through the good offices of some celestial or quite other visit, he should suddenly be confronted with three characteristic aspects of our terrestrial civilization. When made imperfectly acquainted with the strange medley of our religious beliefs and practices, considered apart from the civilizations to which they belong or have belonged, he would undoubtedly say: "Alas! these our brothers of a sister planet are surely insane!" When more methodically made acquainted with our boasted scientific explanations of the world order, he would presumably say: "Yes, in some respects we Martians have done very much worse; but, overall, could perverse ingenuity go further? I am reminded of that unfortunate person; did you call him Greek? Sisyphus, I think you called him, who was doomed to push up forever the huge rock that was eternally falling back. Why this gratuitous responsibility for a world that seems possessed to fall down rather than fall up, which apparently would have been equally logical?" But when the world of art, as we conceive it, should have been presented to this our Cosmo planetary brother, I think he would begin, dimly, to comprehend. Perhaps he would muse: "I also have lived in Arcadia"; but then he would be almost sure to spoil everything by a gross misquotation, for he would presumably say: "One touch of art makes the whole Cosmos kin."


But he would be right after all. Whether there be cosmological or anthropomorphic mythologies, they shall fail, whether there be contentious tongues of whatever vernacular, they shall cease; but humanity remains even after it has ceased to be, when translated into terms of the Promethean human spirit, which can suffer all things but cannot die. "He that seeketh his life shall lose it"; only that which is splendidly lost is eternally secureThis is the life eternal, and the gateway is through the Palace of Art.


But the Palace of Art is no simple dwelling; it is the only permanent refuge of the human spirit, but it is also the tabernacle of the Most High. In so far as we differ from 'the beasts that perish, ‘and our kinship in many respects is too patent to disown, the difference is to be marked in terms of the progressive conquest of the forms of brute matter without and worse than brutal passion within through the plastic agency of the human spirit. If man had not early conquered the coward's cringing at the prospect of death and the merely lustful exuberance of the will to live, he would have given place before the endless struggle had fairly begun to some more interesting animal species. The cave man is said to have invented the 'deadline,' a mere mark on the cave floor, which announced, with a view to possible invaders, as the most civilized nation has more recently said in its heart: "They shall not pass." If so, he was the founder of civilization; for it was only a question of time, even if a very long time, before the line should be drawn within as well as without. The enemies within as well as those without his more sophisticated descendants were bound to say in the same stern phrase: "They shall not pass." But all honor to the caveman! Much of sentimental modern philanthropy consists in the ill-omened attempt to do away with the deadline. When that shall have been accomplished, when we are all 'too proud to fight' and the vulgarian, who naturally resents the idea of 'differences,' shall finally have persuaded us that they do not exist, we shall pass into history, but presumably in the humble r61e of the warning example.


But, in the meantime, the spiritual kinship and even temporal continuity of the great civilizations that have prevailed in the world are perhaps the most consoling considerations, when it would almost seem to the timid observer that civilization itself had been rent in twain. For it will not do to say that Europe has reverted to barbarism, because the two great world factions are treating each other with ultimate severity. Millions of men may be lost before the grim question is decided, but I doubt if the spiritual manhood of any one of the great powers will suffer loss, unless the failure comes from within. It is something to know that civilization has not made the great nations decadent and that more heroism has been shown in our own generation than seemed humanly possible. The poignant misery caused by The Great War, all but world-wide but tragically concentrated at some of the older centers of civilization, can hardly outlast the present generation. The more permanent and perhaps more serious loss, all things considered, is in the temporary division of the great stream of western civilization, in the devastating floods and perplexed meanderings that must take place before the stream can really become one again and sweep majestically on.


We are agreed, of course, that science must be cosmopolitan. National prejudices may keep even scientists themselves from paying sufficient attention to the work of men of other nationalities at times of supreme stress like the present, but nobody would deny that this is simply to the detriment of science. But is a cosmopolitan literature possible or desirable? Before attempting to answer this question, I should prefer to say that, while cosmopolitanism itself is a philosophical ideal, directly traceable to the Stoics, of course, it is not clear to me that even philosophy must necessarily be cosmopolitan in the same sense that science certainly should be and tends to be under all normal conditions. For observe, science, and I refer particularly to the physical and the biological sciences, is really the only wholly impersonal thing that we know anything about; while philosophy, which equally aims at essential truth, so far as attainable in its own more complex sphere, cannot rule out personality, since personality is its own ultimate category, if we are still to take seriously, as I myself do take most seriously, the general method and conclusions of modern idealism.


Common sense believes that science deals always with the real and generally scouts the pretensions of philosophy; philosophy knows that one must define the sense in which the more abstract sciences can be said to deal with the real. I do not refer to obscure questions of methodology, but to the patent fact that, if we recognize only the mathematical or causal explanations of science, we thereby rule out the world of aesthetic, moral, and religious values. When we attempt to deal in fundamental fashion with this world of appreciation as opposed to the relatively abstract world of scientific description, and to determine the true relations of one to the other, we are, of course, in the realm of philosophy, whatever the particular investigation may happen to be. Here personality, which tends to become a vanishing point for scientific description, may assume varying degrees of importance, according to the particular method in question; but any marked tendency to rule out personality altogether as a fundamental philosophical category seems to me dangerous in the extreme.


Now can philosophy, which certainly aims to be as objective as possible, deal wholly impersonally with personality itself in its myriad manifestations? I do not mean to phrase the questioning a question-begging way; but, just as Plato and Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, Kant, Fichte, and Hegel could never have become the great philosophers they were, if they had not had commanding personalities, so I venture to doubt if they would have achieved as much as they did, if they had been men without a country, as some of the more prominent early Stoics may, in a sense, be said to have been. The Stoic philosophy was very noble, so universal in one sense that it was the most natural thing in the world that a slave and a Roman Emperor should have been among its more prominent late exponents; but it was after all the philosophy of a gradually dissolving civilization, the last stand of all that was heroic in the human soul against the seemingly inevitable. Spinoza phrased it better, when he said: "A free man thinks of death least of all things; and his wisdom is a meditation, not of death but of life." Philosophy must look forward, not back; but it will achieve more by bringing to clear consciousness what is most vital and significant in contemporary civilizations than by attempting to act too literally upon Spinoza's principle that the philosopher should view things only sub-species eternities. Another words, it is life itself that is eternally significant, not the changeless abstractions that are sometimes idolatrously made in its supposed image.


There are limits, then, to the cosmopolitanism of philosophy itself. More human than science, it must pay that penalty of humanity, if penalty it be. What is the truth about literature in this respect? This is rather difficult to formulate, unless I mistake. From what might be called the strictly intellectual point of view, literature cannot, of course, compare with philosophy in its capacity to attain the cosmopolitan attitude. What is more to the point, any serious attempt to do so would be almost sure to result in something very different from what we ordinarily mean by literature. Local and temporal peculiarities, the very things that we attempt to abstract from in philosophy, have a perfectly legitimate place in the more concrete method of literature, though I must confess it seems to me that ' local color 'has been worked to death in some forms of recent literature, particularly in the short story.


Like all forms of art, literature must deal with the concrete individual as opposed to any or all abstractions; but nonetheless it must, consciously or unconsciously, embody the significant or the universal in the individual shapes. Without that, art would cease to mean anything at all; for it is a crude mistake to suppose that the only objection to the 'art for art's sake' formula is that it comes into conflict with certain irreducible demands of morality and common decency. In idealistic philosophy we hear much of the 'concrete universal' as opposed to the spurious ‘abstract universal' that is obtained by the mere elimination of particulars. I have long thought that in art more than elsewhere and I refer more particularly to the higher products of art we find to hand almost the best examples of the ' concrete universal ' taken in its relatively literal sense. Philosophy tells us that only the individual, in the sense of that which is unique, is real; art proves that nothing can be more universally significant than the unique individual, as interpreted by the greatest artists, whatever the particular art in question.


But here the problem of the possible cosmopolitanism or, better, the possible universality of significance of the greatest products of art comes up in a somewhat unexpected form. We have already conceded the palm to philosophy, so far as possible universality of strictly intellectual assent is concerned. But we are confronted with the fact that, while Homer (assuming for convenience that he was an historical individual) was, from one point of view, typically Greek and Shakespeare was, from the same point of view, not only typically English, but typically Elizabethan, both are more universal, in the sense that they actually make a more universal appeal to minds capable of literary appreciation, than any two philosophers who could be mentioned make to the more limited class who are capable of reading them critically. How is this to be explained? I shall attempt nothing more than suggestion by way of answer. If Homer and Shakespeare had not each been one of the highest exponents of his own civilization, there would have been no question as to the universality of either. This must be frankly admitted, and even emphasized; for nothing could be more foreign to the essentially concrete method of literature than abstract internationalism. But the further question as to the explanation of their universal appeal remains. Would we be justified in holding that, deeper than any strictly intellectual interpretations will carry, there is an essential unity or harmony of our human nature, generally realized only obscurely, but most adequately revealed by the greatest masterpieces of art, and more particularly of that art of which we have been speaking, literature? For art, even in its pathetically faded, worn, or shattered fragments, where painting, sculpture, or architecture are concerned, in literary fragments also, which sometimes, in extreme cases, seem to tell us only of the incalculable value of what has been irrevocably lost, art, I say, is apparently the only thing that, strictly speaking, endures. When we look back to the time of the highest development of Greek civilization, it must be admitted that what we know about the actual conditions of society, though vastly interesting, seems rather foreign and sometimes rather quaint. There will never be anything foreign or quaint about the greatest works of Phidias or Sophocles. Again, there is much in the mediaeval conception of the world-order that seems remote to many of us; but who can stand in one of the great cathedrals quietly, reverently without having the majestic vision recreated and realizing that the cathedral builders indeed "built better than they knew "? No theological rancor or temperamental or reasoned skepticism can really stand between the humanely cultured man and Dante's Divina commedia, though even he may find the Vita Nuova somewhat foreign and perplexing. The “voice of ten silent centuries" will always be relevant; for even if science shall finally give us a new earth, it can never deprive those who are not spiritually blind and deaf of the Kingdom of Art, for that is 'within us.'


I fear that some of you may think me reactionary in thus emphasizing the importance of art, and particularly of literature, for philosophy, and remaining silent as to the obligations of philosophy to science. I can only reply that I am by request speaking of art rather than of science at this hour, though I will interject my admission that a very large number of the most important problems now before philosophy have been suggested by science. Philosophy would be groping in the world of factual reality, if it were not for the supremely important assistance of

modern science. But the inevitable reconstruction for philosophy cannot be wholly in terms of science, if only because the science of the scientist is the science of the special sciences.


Of course, science is sometimes, as it were, spelled with a capital letter: we are given to understand that, when the special sciences become coordinated, there will forthwith be an end of philosophy. But that could not possibly be what would really emerge would be merely another kind of philosophy, not specially recommended by the consideration that, up to the present, materialism has often been tried and has often been found wanting. For observe, leaving out the crudities of traditional materialism which are not necessarily relevant, so long as one holds to the merely mathematical or the merely causal methods of explanation, or, perhaps better, those of 'scientific description,' nothing is better or worse, beautiful or ugly, right or wrong. In other words, from this point of view, what we call order and disorder, harmony and discord, do not exist. The late Professor Huxley’s rather defiant remark on that point, though made more than thirty years ago,1 remains interesting and pertinent. He says: “It is conceivable that man and his works and all the higher forms of animal life should be utterly destroyed; that mountain regions should be converted into ocean depths; the floors of oceans raised into mountains; and the earth become a scene of horror which even the lurid fancy of the writer of the Apocalypse would fail to portray. And yet, to the eye of science, there would be no more disorder here than in the sabbatical peace of a summer sea."


But if the indirect obligation of philosophy to literature be as great as I have suggested, the question naturally arises: What side or sides of literature are to be regarded as especially important for philosophy? I put the question in this form, for of course it would be plainly absurd for philosophy to define literature in terms of its own sphere of interest. Unless I am mistaken, one must employ more than ordinary caution in dealing with this matter. All of you are familiar with Matthew Arnold's dictum, that poetry is, or should be, essentially a 'criticism of life.' Of course, one would do Arnold a great injustice, if one should assume that he meant the phrase to be taken in the literal sense. He himself explains that he would put didactic poetry, not on the highest, but on almost the lowest plane. But, despite all disclaimers and supplementary explanations, it seems to me that the formula is unfortunate, not so much because it points in the wrong direction as because it points in only one direction. Poetry most certainly may take the form of a criticism of life, Arnold’s own poetry, admirable of its kind though distinctly narrow in range, is an example in point, while the essay (incidentally Arnold’s own prose form) is as likely to be a criticism of life as anything else. I am inclined to think that a more plausible case could be made for regarding literature in general rather than poetry in particular as a 'criticism of life'; for the direct emotional appeal of most poetry makes the word 'criticism' seem particularly out of place where poetry is concerned. Be that as it may, I doubt if Arnold (at any rate, when defending his pet phrase) meant anything very different from what could have been expressed in more commonplace terms by saying that poetry, and let us include literature in general, should deal insignificant fashion with the really significant things in life. To that most of us would probably agree, though Professor Saintsbury and certain other critics holding similar views might demur.


But now we must face the crucial question. Granting that literature may very well be a 'criticism of life,' and that some literature of a very high order undoubtedly is that more than anything else, witness the case of Montaigne's Essays, which happen to appeal to me personally almost as much as any book ever printed, are we prepared to say that literature of this type is necessarily the most significant for philosophy? To this question, I, for my own part, would have to reply very distinctly in the negative. All literature is inevitably an interpretation of life, but a 'criticism of life' is something different. Any writer who attempts that does it at his own peril. After all, it is likely to turn out to be a case of having something to prove, and the man of letters, who at many points has the philosopher at a distinct disadvantage, is here more or less at his mercy. How many of the world's great men of letters have combined the broad humanity and the subtle instinct of humane self-criticism that we find in Montaigne? The fact that he was a sceptic hardly commends him to philosophers, but his being the kind of a sceptic that saved him from irreparable blunders. Take The case of Shakespeare himself, and is there any significance in the fact that almost his only known autograph is to be found in his copy of the Florio translation of Montaigne's Essays, what was his 'criticism of life'? The supreme dramatist is said to have played some of his own minor parts, but he never appears as one of the characters or addresses us from the stage.


But let us turn to altogether lesser men. Tennyson, Arnold, and Browning were presumably the greatest Victorian poets; and, according to the judgment of most competent critics, Browning and Tennyson were unquestionably greater poets than Arnold. And yet, while Arnold's 'criticism of life,' as shown in his poetry, the best of which was written comparatively early in the poet's life, has an extremely narrow range, it is fundamentally sound, unless we take exception to the rather monotonous note of sadness and to what may seem the overemphasis of what proved a somewhat transient phase of religiousreconstruction.1 Tennyson, on the other hand, is the one of these three poets who shrinks most, when considered from this point of view. A very great artist in perhaps the narrower sense, an unrivalled interpreter of the thoughtful conservatism of his generation, a fairly genuine poet on the whole, his 'criticism of life,' so far as it takes the form of more or less definite theory, is never secure, and, at its worst, is nothing less than preposterous His Promise of May must, I suppose, be regarded as an argument, since it certainly is nothing else; but the not very intellectual Marquis of Queensberry of that day, principally known, I believe, as an authority on boxing, was certainly justified, as a professed agnostic, in his protest from his private box at the theatre, when the play was first produced. The apparent assumption that, if a young man happens to become unsettled in his views regarding personal immortality, he almost necessarily loses not only his feeling of social obligation but his sense of common decency, speaks for itself. This is simply an extreme example of the extent to which Tennyson was capable of losing his head in dealing with some of the religious problems of his time. The Idylls of the King, again, are about as faulty as a 'criticism of life' as they are undeniably beautiful and impressive, when considered merely as a series of loosely connected narrative poems, highly romantic in character and certainly not improved by the liberties Tennyson took with the traditional plot of the Arthur cycle. But the poet of In Memoriam and Crossing the Bar remains. Not only so, but there is a large body of poetry of a very high order to his credit, even if we feel obliged to make considerable deductions where’d-Victorian ideas and ideals seem too much in evidence. In truth, so long as Tennyson was content to confine himself to the sympathetic interpretation of what he thoroughly understood and appreciated, his success was nearly always complete; for his powers of poetic expression were almost unexampled for a poet ranking well below the greatest. It is absurd to underrate Tennyson the poet because he was not also an independent and intrepid thinker; philosophy itself owes much to his artistic interpretations of the ideals, aspirations, and spiritual struggles of the really great generation to which he belonged.


The case of Browning is another warning against the rather crude mistake of confusing the provinces of poetry and philosophy. His actual 'criticism of life' is faulty enough at times and occasionally grotesque; but his own larger and really poetic interpretation of life, though far from infallible, is, overall, a magnificent refutation of what is wrong on the theoretical side. He had no more intellect than Tennyson; but he had a great heart and a great imagination, and when a poet is thus endowed, we are all sure to be his debtors. Browning has probably suffered more than any other recent poet from the inevitable myth, which, unfortunately, he did something to foster. It is a mistake to suppose that his early work was not appreciated by competent critics; but his real popularity certainly came somewhat late in life, and it is to be feared that he met the Browning clubs fully halfway, despite certain anecdotes that might seem to indicate the contrary. The result was most unfortunate: instead of a very human and sometimes erratic poet, we had presented to us for our homage an all-round philosopher, who for some reason had chosen to write in verse. Incidentally, Browning was almost the only really great poet we know of who could not also write good prose. People could hardly tell whether he accepted or declined dinner-invitations, according to Chesterton's probably exaggerated account of the matter.


No, Browning is not a philosopher, but a poet pure and simple. Sometimes he argues very cleverly, but this is generally after the essential matter has been decided on other than purely rational principles. This, of course, does not necessarily mean that the decision has been wrongly made. Of his much-vaunted optimism various things may be said. At its best, it really is splendid, a triumph of imagination; but at its worst it is simply abominable, the unconsciously cruel optimism of a man who never had a real care in the world until his wife died, and who from his earliest years had enjoyed almost abnormally good health and spirits. As regards the melodramatic vein that runs through his work, perhaps best exemplified by such a poem as "The Statue and the Bust," the idea that, after all, life is an adventure and that the only really important thing is to play the game to the limit, one can only agree with Mr. Santayana that this is purebarbarism.1 Probably Browning would never have strayed so far from reality in this respect, if he had ever learned the wholesome lesson of ' the day's work.' This most reckless adventurer inverse (when the mood seized him) was wholly circumspect in life, and his father always paid the bills so long as he lived and left the wherewithal when he died.


But these personal peculiarities have little to do with the really significant Browning. Tennyson's fight for a real place in the world in his early manhood was as heroic as Browning's easy acceptance of his own very easy circumstances was commonplace; but the fact remains that, when the two poets faced the spiritual problems of their generation, Tennyson simply lost his nerve on more than one critical occasion, while Browning, whose preliminary attempts left much to be desired, and who was quite capable of losing his way altogether in dealing with a particular problem, grew in spiritual stature from being an exponent of a somewhat blustering optimism and a rather noisy, but most unorthodox, faith to the nobly catholic attitude expressed in the splendid poem, "Development," published in the Asolando volume, which appeared on the day of the poet's death. The "Development" might well be called a 'criticism of life' at its highest; but its wisdom is not that of a philosopher spoiled in the making, but of a great poetic personality that had finally fulfilled itself through sympathy and imagination. In short, what Browning thought about many problems, together with the reasons that he gave for his conclusions, is largely a matter of biographical interest, for he was never at his best when reasoning in set terms, as he was rather fond of doing; what he makes us appreciate in our common human nature or in the direction of our more distinctly spiritual interests is what really does matter, and what will continue to matter so long as our human nature and spiritual interests remain recognizably the same.


And now we finally have come to our tentative conclusion: Science enables us to comprehend the world from without; literature helps us to appreciate the world from within; philosophy endeavors to prove that the world is one after all, despite the apparent antithesis of description and appreciation.


2 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All