On Reading Well After Virtue

Reading as Aesthetic Experience

The virtue—or excellence—of literature cannot be understood apart from its form. To read literature virtuously requires attention to that form, whether the form be that of a poem, a novel, a short story, or a play. To attend to the form of a work is by its very nature an aesthetic experience.

The content of a literary work is what it says; its form is how it is said. Unfortunately, we are conditioned today to focus on content at the expense of form. When we read (or watch a film or view a work of art), we tend to look for themes, worldviews, gripping plots, relatable characters, and so forth, but often neglect the form. Part of this tendency is the fruit born of a culture influenced by a utilitarian emphasis on function and practical use at the expense of beauty and structure. Yet we know from real-life relationships and experience that how something is communicated is just as important as, if not more important than, what is communicated. Form is what sets literary texts apart from informational texts in the same way that a painting differs from paint that covers a wall: same materials, different form.

Compare, for example, the various ways one might experience an encounter with the content of a literary work: through a CliffsNotes summary, a film adaptation, or actually reading it. Each of these experiences differs significantly from the others even though the idea communicated is essentially the same. Reading virtuously requires us to pay attention to both form and content. And because literature is by definition an aesthetic experience, not merely an intellectual one, we have to attend to form at least as much as to content, if not more. Form matters.

One of the earliest works of literary aesthetics—the study of literature’s form and how its form affects readers as an aesthetic experience—was Aristotle’s Poetics. In Poetics, Aristotle introduces the notion of literature’s cathartic effect, an idea that has had wide spread influence, referring to the way literature trains emotions by arousing and then resolving them through the structure of a well-crafted plot, the element of literature that Aristotle identifies as the most important. Aristotle’s emphasis on plot also bears fruitful insights into character. This is because plot, according to Paul Taylor in his essay “Sympathy and Insight in Aristotle’s Poetics,” “Centers on the fact that the individual actions of characters follow with probability or necessity from a combination of three factors: the characters’ humanity, their individual personalities, and their involvement in the circumstances depicted in the plot.” In other words, plot reveals character. And the act of judging the character of a character shapes the reader’s own character. Reading virtuously requires us to pay attention to both form and content.

Through the imagination, readers identify with the character, learning about human nature and their own nature through their reactions to the vicarious experience. Even literature that does not have character or plot, such as poetry, allows for a similar kind of process: the speaker of the poem is a kind of character whose experience the reader enters into, and the unfolding of the poem in time as it is read is itself a form of plotting.

This is the difference, as Taylor explains, between learning propositional truth through reading history or an argumentative essay and gaining knowledge aesthetically through the process of reading a fictional narrative. Or, in the words of writer George Saunders, “A story means by how it proceeds.” The aesthetic experience of literature—its formative quality—differs from its intellectual or informative qualities. Taylor says that “We learn from fiction in something like the way we learn directly from real life.” Just as in real life, a work of literature does not assert but presents. Thus the act of reading literature invites readers to participate in the experience aesthetically, not merely intellectually. Our desires as human beings are shaped by both knowledge and experience. And to read a work of literature is to have a kind of experience and to gain knowledge. Ultimately, this kind of aesthetic experience—formative, not merely informative—“can help to undermine an idealized picture of human nature—one which self-deception, or plain sentimentality, might otherwise sustain.” Visions of the good life presented in the world’s best literature can be agents for cultivating knowledge of and desire for the good and, unlike visions sustained by sentimentality or self-deception, the true.

So while reading for virtue means, in part, reading about virtue, in a deeper, less obvious way reading literature well is a way to practice virtue. Reading literature, to a certain extent, can inform us about many things (the injustices of the nineteenth-century English court system, the persecution of Christians in seventeenth-century Japan, and the manners and morals of the wealthy class in 1920’s America, for example). But The act of judging the character of a character shapes the reader’s own character. Certainly, literature does not inform on such matters as well as history textbooks and lectures do. Whatever similarities there might be in the content of, say, a documentary on the French Revolution and A Tale of Two Cities, the differences between their forms make all the difference in the way we experience them. Reading literature, more than informing us, forms us.

In his important work A Defense of Poetry, Renaissance poet and courtier Sir Philip Sidney offers one of the first Christian arguments for the power of poetry, saying that it surpasses the power both of history, which teaches by example, and of philosophy, which teaches by precept:

Now doth the peerless poet perform both, for whatsoever the philosopher saith should be done, he giveth a perfect picture of it by someone by whom he pre-supposeth it was done, so as he coupleth the general notion with the particular example. A perfect picture I say, for he yieldeth to the powers of the mind an image of that whereof the philosopher bestoweth but a wordish description.

Since history is restricted to what was and philosophy to what could be, Sidney argues, literature exceeds both by offering a picture of what should be. And because “the end of all earthly learning is virtuous action,” poetry is more likely than either philosophy or history to cultivate virtue.

A famous passage on the relationship of virtue, or excellence, to practice comes from Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy in his chapter on Aristotle, in which Durant quotes from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics:

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; “these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions”; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit: “the good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life . . . for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”

Reading “After Virtue”

We would be remiss to examine virtue without considering that virtue in the ancient world existed within an entirely different context from that of the modern world in which we find ourselves. The Aristotelian philosophy of virtue is tied to a sense of human purpose or telos—in other words, humanity’s ultimate end or purpose. In this understanding, virtues are parts of a whole that is oriented toward one end. For Aristotle, this end is living well, or (as his Greek term is often translated) happiness. Today we might refer to this as human flourishing. For the Christian, however, the ultimate end or purpose of one’s life is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. This end does not always translate to our own happiness or flourishing. Quite the opposite, as the Christians in Endo’s novel Silence prove, along with a host of believers in the history of the real world.

In fact, a persistent question about virtue arises in most contemporary discussions, a question that I examine further in my On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books. This question centers on whether virtue is an end in itself or a means to some other end. The evidence that many think of it as the latter can be seen in the pervasive belief today that if one simply does a certain thing right, the reward will be a particular desired outcome. This way of thinking about virtue owes in part to the fact that we no longer have a sense of our larger purpose. Without knowing what the purpose of a bicycle is, we cannot determine its excellence. Similarly, we can hardly attain human excellence if we do not have an understanding of human purpose. Human excellence occurs only when we glorify God, which is our true purpose. Absent ultimate purpose, we look for practical outcomes.

The modern age that emerged from the Enlightenment stripped humanity of a commonly understood human telos, or end, taking with it the shared moral language necessary for agreeing upon and cultivating virtue, as Alasdair MacIntyre explains in After Virtue. Apart from a unifying whole, virtues are like lifeless limbs severed from the body that once gave them purpose. Severed from an understanding of human purpose, virtue becomes mere emotivism. MacIntyre describes emotivism as the belief that “moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling.” In other words, without an external, objective source of meaning and purpose, we are left with only our internal and subjective feelings. Emotivism is not simply having and expressing emotions but being overwhelmingly informed and driven by them. And because emotivism appropriates the language of morality, it appears in the guise of virtue, despite the fact that the true foundation of virtue—a transcendent absolute—has crumbled. Because the language of morality has been hijacked by emotivism, giving us a “simulacra of morality” (a mere image or reflection in place of the real thing), talking about virtue and morality is nearly impossible in a life “after virtue.” It is something like when a kid hears an orchestra perform a Beethoven number and thinks it is a riff on his favorite cartoon song.

The Virtues of Literary Language

Although now emptied, moral language “was once, too, at the full” (to echo Matthew Arnold in his poem “Dover Beach”). Literary language, inherently resonant with layers of meaning, reminds us what fullness of language looks like. The language of literature can fill this gap between meaningful language about virtue and empty gestures toward it. According to Keith Oatley, the ability to understand figurative language, in which “a word is both itself and something else,” is unique to human beings and, as one cognitive psychologist explains, “fundamental to how we think” in that it is the means by which we can “escape the literal and immediate.” We see this quality most dramatically in satire and allegory. Although very different, both satirical and allegorical language employ two levels of meaning: the literal meaning and the intended meaning. In satire, the intended meaning is the opposite of the stated words; in allegory, the intended meaning is symbolized by the stated words. Satire points to error, and allegory points to truth, but both require the reader to discern meaning beyond the surface level. In this way, allegory and satire—and less obviously, all literary language—reflect the transcendent nature of the human condition and the “double-willed self” described by Paul in Romans 7:19.

Human beings “inhabit language,” explains theologian Graham Ward in an article titled “How Literature Resists Secularity.” He writes, “Although the best writers of literature demonstrate a phenomenal control over their language, associations escape, rhythms beat out older and more sacred patterns, and words carry memories of previous use.” Words carry resonances that spill beyond the bounds of logic and even conscious thought. Ward says of literary texts that “their acts of naming and our acts of reading” cannot but conjure the possibilities of transcendence, “particularly when we attend to experience rather than dictionary definitions, as either a writer or a reader.” The fullness of literary language echoes meaning—and reminds us that there is, in fact, meaning.

When Emily Dickinson, for example, writes, “I dwell in Possibility— / a fairer House than Prose,” the suggestive, layered senses of each word expand the meaning of these lines far beyond a mere nine short words. The metaphor of the house links “possibility” with poetry, which, the lines assert, is fairer than “prose,” which is now implicitly linked to the opposite of “possibility.” “Dwell” means both live and ponder. “Fairer” suggests both beauty and justice. And the word “in” differs meaningfully from other possible word choices such as “with” or “by.” These echoing meanings mark only the beginning of the possibilities poetic language opens up. Many more meanings could easily be drawn out of these two lines and the rest that follow in the complete poem. But even this brief examination shows how literary writing—all literary writing, not just poetry—uses language in a way that relies on layers of memory, meaning, and associations that can be objectively supported once explicated. The fullness of literary language echoes meaning—and reminds us that there is, in fact, meaning.

In this way, literary language encourages habits of mind, ways of perceiving, processing, and thinking that cultivate virtue by reminding us of the meaning that cannot be found apart from telos. To read a literary work well, one must attend not only to the parts but also to the way in which the parts support the whole and meaning accrues. Literary language, as Sir Philip Sidney says, “figures forth good things.” In so doing, it is virtuous in and of itself, and it figures forth virtue in the reader as well. “Figuring forth” refers to the use of the imagination, which in its most literal sense refers to our ability to create a picture or image in our mind’s eye. The stories in which we are immersed project onto our imaginations visions of the good life—as well as the means of obtaining it. We must imagine what virtue looks like in order to act virtuously.

All literature—stories most obviously—centers on some conflict, rupture, or lack. Literature is birthed from our fallenness: without the fall, there would be no story. “Only desire speaks,” writes Jacques Ellul in The Humiliation of the Word. “Satisfaction is silence.” Thus it is the nature of literature to express—and cultivate—desire. Marcel Proust says that “it is one of the great and wonderful characteristics of good books . . . to provide us with desires.”

But the desires that are cultivated by books (and other forms of stories, including film, songs, and especially commercials) can pull us toward the good life—or toward false visions of the good life (as Gustave Flaubert shows in romance-reading Emma Bovary). Reading well entails discerning which visions of life are false and which are good and true—as well as recognizing how deeply rooted these visions are in language. Mark Edmundson explains in Why Read?, “Such visions are easier to derive from words, from writings, in part because for most of us the prevailing medium, moment to moment, is verbal.” Bucking the fashions in literary theory that have prevailed for decades, Edmundson (a distinguished professor at the University of Virginia) makes an assertion most of his colleagues would deem quaint at best: “The ultimate test of a book, or of an interpretation, is the difference it would make in the conduct of life.”

Certainly, reading great books is not the only way to cultivate virtue and achieve the good life. (Plenty of virtuous people I know and love don’t love books.) But literature has a particular power in forming our visions of the good life. “Once past the issue of sheer physical survival, human lives are about feeling, believing, and judging, and stories profoundly map themselves onto this agenda of human concerns, because at the core of every story is a set of invitations to feel, to believe, and to judge as the story dictates,” explains Marshall Gregory. Indeed, “Our hearts traffic in stories,” James K. A. Smith writes in Imagining the Kingdom. “We are narrative animals whose very orientation to the world is fundamentally shaped by stories.” We see this storied aspect of our lives in the most mundane, everyday ways—for example, when a loved one relays a funny or interesting incident, not by rushing to the outcome but by re-creating the whole scene, narrating it from start to finish in the form of an entertaining story.

Because we first make sense of the world aesthetically (referring to its root meaning of sensory experience), Smith says, our primary means of processing is “more like poetry than propositional analysis.” Just as our first response to the world comes from its physical shape, so too our first response to literature comes from the way its form shapes our experience of it. Training our affect, or emotions, is a way of shaping our very perceptions, of “training people to ‘see situations in the right way.’” Developing perceptiveness—the sort that literary reading requires—cultivates virtue because action follows affective response. This connection between literary interpretation and affective response is seen in one study in which participants could retain the meaning of a word better if they used facial expressions to match the emotions conveyed by that word. Our actions, our decisions, and even the very perceptions we register in our consciousness have been primed by the larger story—of our family, our community, our culture—in which we imagine ourselves.

Literary form echoes the form of the virtuous life, teaching us “to live as good characters in a good story do, caring about what happens, resourcefully confronting each new thing . . . search[ing] for truth,” according to moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum. Literature conveys not life, but “a sense of life, and of value, a sense of what matters and what does not . . . of life’s relations and connections.” Echoing Aristotle’s argument on the role literature plays in developing virtue, Nussbaum writes later in Love’s Knowledge:

We have never lived enough. Our experience is, without fiction, too confined and too parochial. Literature extends it, making us reflect and feel about what might otherwise be too distant for feeling . . . All living is interpreting; all action requires seeing the world as something. So in this sense no life is “raw,” and . . . throughout our living we are, in a sense, makers of fictions. The point is that in the activity of literary imagining we are led to imagine and describe with greater precision, focusing our attention on each word, feeling each event more keenly—whereas much of actual life goes by without that heightened awareness, and is thus, in a certain sense, not fully or thoroughly lived.

Great books offer perspectives more than lessons. Literature shows us, according to Joseph Epstein, “how a different character, a situation, an event seems from different angles and perspectives, and even then how inexact our knowledge remains.” Literature replicates the world of the concrete, where the experiential learning necessary for virtue occurs. Such experiential learning does not come through technique. As Nussbaum puts it in Love’s Knowledge “One learns it by guidance rather than by a formula.”

Reading and interpreting literature notoriously lacks hard and fast rules. It is this very quality that makes literature exciting for some, frustrating for others. There is no one right reading of a literary text—but there are certainly erroneous readings, good readings, and excellent readings. Similarly, virtue ethics, rather than proffering a rigid set of rules by which to determine decisions (deontological ethics) or considering the likely consequences or outcomes of a decision (pragmatic ethics), relies on moral character, developed through good habits, for the governing of behavior. For the most part, this is the hardest and most challenging course. Cultivating and exercising wisdom is harder than consulting a rule book. As Aristotle says, “Both skill and virtue are always concerned with what is harder, because success in what is harder is superior.”

Human virtue, or moral excellence, is a habit of moral character; because it is a habit, it becomes a kind of second nature. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle locates virtue, or excellence, between the extremes of excess and deficiency: the virtuous mean. Both the deficiency and the excess of a virtue constitute a vice. For example, the virtue of courage is found between the excess of rashness (a vice) and the deficiency of cowardice (also a vice). Each of the virtues is such a mean. This idea is expressed in the old aphorism “everything in moderation.”

Various virtues have been identified and cataloged throughout the history of philosophical thought. The Greeks, Romans, and early Christians all had different but overlapping concepts of virtue as a whole and of specific individual virtues. In On Reading Well, I discuss twelve of the most central virtues and group them according to their traditional categories.

Content taken from On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior ©2018. Used by permission of Baker Publishing www.bakerpublishinggroup.com.

Featured Image: August Macke, Blue Girl Reading, 1914; Source: Daily Art, PD-Old-100.


Karen Swallow-Prior

Karen Swallow Prior is an award-winning professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. She is the author of several books, most recently On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books.

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