Emma Planinc, Reading Literature as Practical Wisdom [2017 C4eJ 27] (Forum)


Emma Planinc

Department of Political Science, University of Toronto 

Richard Posner and the critics upon which he focuses (in Against Ethical Criticism) seem to gravitate toward three axes of discussion: first, whether or not the ethical principles of the authors matter; second, whether authors have an obligation to be moral; and third, whether or not reading literature actually can make us better people (about which Posner is very skeptical).

Mark Kingwell (in The Ethics of Ethics and Literature) is less skeptical on the third.  On Posner’s reading, Mark claims, if works of literature have no ethical demand on the reader, the same can be said of ethical treatises. Mark claims that if treatises excite the imagination, so much so, then, do novels; not because they will necessarily make readers better people, but because “this is one of the essential ways by which we humans reflect on our own possibilities.”

Reading a book, Mark writes, is “consciousness in action.”

He cites Engelby: “without good examples such as preserved in literature there would be nothing to live up to, no sense of transcendence.”

Reading literature he thus ties to Aristotle’s contemplative mode, seeing this as, “rather than simple ethical action,” the highest or most divine activity of the human soul.

I want to stay in Aristotle’s world (also dabbling a bit in Plato at the end) to discuss this claim; but rather than discussing the contemplative Aristotle, I do want to talk about the practical side.  That is, what can literature say about practical wisdom itself?

Much of the focus in the materials on philosophy and literature are about authorship and I want to focus instead on the readers, to whom Mark also turns in the conclusion of his piece.   That is – not is literature ethical, does it have an obligation to be ethical, is it right or wrong to abstract ethical principles from what authors have written, but can reading literature cultivate practical wisdom?

It is more about, in my analysis here anyhow, the activity of reading, and the form of the novel itself  – its focus on particulars, and particular lives, as opposed to abstract principles.  This, I believe, is what lends literature, and the form of the novel, to the cultivation of what Aristotle calls practical wisdom.  Novels, much more than treatises have the capacity to make us better people.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle indeed claims that the highest activity of the human soul is the contemplative life.   But much of the ethics is spent describing moral virtue, or the cultivation of what he calls practical wisdom (which is itself an intellectual virtue – founded on the exercising of moral virtue).

The virtues, he claims, are states of character that are cultivated; and a virtuous man is one who has the state of character that “makes a man good and allows him to do his own work well.”

Aristotle famously claims that “it is possible to fail in many ways . . . men are good in but one way, but bad in many.”

This seemingly dogmatic claim is, however, much more dynamic than it first appears.  Aristotle describes the determination of virtuous activity as finding the mean between extremes: the middling state between excesses and deficiencies.

Aristotle immediately proceeds to describe this mean between extremes not in abstract terms, but in relation to persons who could be seen to embody this mean:

“With regard to the truth, the intermediate is a truthful sort of person.

“With regard to pleasantness in the giving of amusement the intermediate person is ready-witted.”

“The intermediate person is modest.”

The definition of moral virtue itself relies on a qualifier, which is that it is demonstrable in a man of practical wisdom.  Virtue requires particular exemplars.

In terms of our own lives, then, and in terms of seeing virtue in the world in the form of exemplars, practical wisdom, Aristotle claims, must recognize the particulars.

In terms of cultivating virtue in ourselves we must also “incline sometimes towards the excesses, and sometimes toward the deficiencies, for so shall we most easily hit the mean and what is right.”

This is precisely what literature allows us to do.  In the interest of time, I will say two things that I think are the most integral.

Firstly, novels, and literature, are by definition focused on particulars.  They are focused on particular people, and the narratives of particular lives, as opposed to abstract universals.  If Aristotle is right, as I believe he is, that moral virtue is cultivated through the examples of persons, the form of the novel is exemplary of this understanding of how one comes to determine a mean.

So, then, secondly, Aristotle’s claim that one must experience both the excesses and deficiencies, is integral here.  Debates about the obligations of writers to cultivate proper empathy, or whether they ought to impart ethical principles, here become moot, I would claim, from the perspective of the reader.  Novels and literature that make us uncomfortable, that present unsavoury characters, flawed characters (as most of them do – and certainly as the good ones do), are doing the most work for us ethically. Contrary to popular opinion, novels are themselves the ultimate safe spaces to experience these things – to see excesses and deficiencies that will allow us to think through and determine a mean for ourselves.

So literature, and novels, say in their form something that is foundationally true about human life, I would argue.  That ethics involves particular persons, and that being a good person involves cultivating a state of character that recognizes the flaws in other human beings, and adapts to the world.

Practical ethics  – actually being good in the world – is something that is small.  That is, it is always a particular and bounded endeavour, contingent not on sweeping philosophic theories, and metaphysics, but on the physical; those persons who are around you and who matter to the narrative of your life.

In this respect, fiction and literature are the most expressive of this truth of the human condition; a truth which Aristotle understood when he was describing moral virtue always in terms of particularities, and engagement with particular persons.

Novels tell small stories about particular persons – slices of narrative (or narratives) that attempt to say something true about specific human lives.

I will however speak to the one objection that I am sure is in everyone’s minds, which is that Aristotle, of course, grounded his account of the cultivation of moral virtue in action, not in the reading of books.

This action is, however, dependent on the formation of habit.  For Aristotle, this depends not only on the exemplars around you, but on the regime in which you find yourself.  This too depends on the type of education you receive.

Mark discusses Plato in his piece as the example of the censorship of fiction due to its negative effects.  But Plato too, of course, employed the very narrative devices he criticized, and emphasized the importance of early childhood education, because what you hear when you are young sticks.  The formation of habit begins early.

Here then I am certainly employing my own narrative to make a point – – – which is that I spent a lot more time with books than I did with people when I was growing up. I spent as much time reading every Goosebumps novels as I did reading other more ”elevating” things – and spent equal amounts of time reading the Babysitter’s club, Encyclopedia Brown, and pulp science fiction novels.

While this was not action per se, it was certainly an activity, and one that has had very real consequences on the way I act in the world because of the diversity of materials that I read when I was a kid.

So it is again not about the content but the activity; not, as Nussbaum claims, really about empathizing with the other and so on, but primarily about experiencing a diversity of characters, narratives, and persons, and thus cultivating a habit of drawing means between extremes.   The habit of reading and experiencing extremes prepares you for the world, and to encounter the world with, I think, an habituated sense of reflection and moderation when you have to begin to act – and act with and amongst real and diverse persons.

Ultimately, then, I think is where Mark and I are in agreement – that literature is a kind of exploratory space.  But it is one, I would argue, that has very real consequences, as it must.  These are not merely “narratives about interior possibility,” but narratives that also cut deeply into the territory of exterior possibilities.

Most importantly, novels prepare you to deal with particular people, when the narrative of your life intersects with theirs.  It is not, then, so much that novels are themselves morally instructive, but the act of reading them is.


Ameriks, K., & Clarke, D. M. (2000). Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics. Cambridge University Press.

Kingwell, M. (2014). The ethics of ethics and literature. World Literature Today88(5), 23-26.

Posner, R. A. (1997). Against ethical criticism. Philosophy and Literature21(1), 1-27.