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  • Lolita and Aristotle’s Ethics
  • Peter Levine

Many philosophers have argued that stories, if they are valuable at all, gain their value through their correspondence to general truths that they encapsulate or exemplify in concrete form. Since philosophers can know these general truths directly, fiction and history are inferior to philosophy. Socrates, as presented by Plato, held such a radical version of this position that he was ready to expel all poets from his ideal state, and replace their books with myths contrived by philosophers. Kant held a generally more complex theory of art, but he nevertheless agreed with Socrates’s view about the relationship of stories to moral philosophy. “Imitation,” he wrote, “finds no place at all in morality, and examples serve only for encouragement, i.e., they put beyond doubt the feasibility of what the law commands, they make visible that which the practical rule expresses more generally, but they can never authorize us to set aside the true original which lies in reason, and to guide ourselves by examples.” 1 This position harmonizes well with the view, also common among moral philosophers, that moral truth is ultimately a matter of theory. As J. S. Mill put it, “the morality of an individual action is . . . the application of a law to an individual case.” 2 If truths in the moral realm are laws, maxims, or doctrines, then stories can (at best) offer instantiations or illustrations of these doctrines.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the position that narrative is an autonomous form and a rival of philosophy, capable of carrying moral meanings that are not subject to philosophical paraphrase. Intimations of this latter view appear in Aristotle’s Poetics. Its opening phrase promises a manifesto against the Socratic doctrine of literature, for it announces that the work will be “about poetry in itself and its [End Page 32] various forms, and the capacity that each has . . . .” 3 By contrast, Socrates had treated poetry as a potential vehicle for philosophy, and not as a genre “in itself.” For Aristotle, imitation is natural, pleasurable, and instructive (1448b4ff.). Further, poetry ought to realize its natural form to the greatest possible extent, aiming toward unadulterated imitation. In terms used by high-school English teachers, Aristotle believes that literature ought to show us what it wants to communicate, and not tell us. He knows that “imitation is not [merely] transcription,” and that descriptive or narrative prose can contain meaning, even if the text never mentions abstract ideas. 4

Aristotle argues that a well-constructed tragedy is not haphazard; it unifies a series of actions into a rational plot-line. Each incident flows into the next for a reason (1450b21ff.); closure is reached; and the qualities of pity and fear are impressed upon the whole structure of the work (1453b9). We know from the Nicomachean Ethics that Aristotle views moral argument as a matter of perceiving and describing people and their actions so as to portray them as either noble or base. 5 This is just what a playwright does. For example, by showing that a tragedy can be discerned within the complex history of a family, the tragedian passes judgment on the characters (for a tragedy is a lamentable thing that happens to a sympathetic person). In short, good poetry is the imitation of nature by means of a comprehensible story that incites selected emotions. 6 These emotions—such as the pity and fear that are normally induced by tragedy—have an ethical function, because they authorize and encourage certain actions and prevent others. Furthermore, they have a rational basis, because a story is a form of argument that must be taken as seriously as a logical deduction.

We can imitate the playwright’s methods of representation when we face dilemmas of our own, evaluating our lives by telling coherent stories about ourselves that produce specific emotions and judgments. Thus the playwright demonstrates a technique that we can employ for ethical purposes. In addition, we may sometimes notice analogies between episodes in literature and the events of our own lives; and these analogies can provide valuable moral guidance. According to Aristotle, such methods of ethical judgment are superior to the methods...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 32-47
Launched on MUSE
1995-04-01
Open Access
No
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