Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


What Does Plato Have To Do With It?

James Seaton

It was great to see the review of my new book Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism: The Humanistic Alternative in the 7/21/14 issue of The Wall Street Journal by Barton Swaim. I have a special reason beyond the obvious ones to be pleased my book was reviewed in the Journal. My book makes a case for the kind of criticism—I call it “humanistic”—that is addressed not just to academics but also to the general reader. That’s the kind of criticism Barton Swaim writes and the kind that appears in  WSJ. As Mr. Swaim makes clear in the last paragraph of his review, my “eloquent complaint” is not about politics. Outside the academy, journals of opinion from both the right and the left—National Review and The Nation, not to mention newspapers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, publish book reviews rooted in what I call “the humanistic alternative.”

Many academic critics treat the aesthetic pleasure made possible by literary works as something dangerous

I suspect that some reviewers in academic journals will be less favorable than Mr. Swaim. I argue that some of the most influential academic critics think works of literature are dangerous for much the same reasons that convinced Plato to ban the greatest poems of Greek culture, the Homeric epics, from his ideal republic. Of course few, if any, contemporary critics would admit to having anything in common with Plato. He was a straightforward elitist who took it for granted his ideal republic would be ruled by “guardians” who were intellectually and morally superior to the rest of the population.  Plato himself enjoyed the Homeric epics. He didn’t think the Iliad and the Odyssey were bad poetry. He was, however, worried that the ordinary citizen who shared his delight in Homer’s stories about hot-headed warriors like Achilles might become hot-headed themselves and refuse to obey the laws of the republic, just as Achilles refused to obey King Agamemnon.

Today nobody wants to be considered an elitist. Yet many academic critics treat the aesthetic pleasure made possible by literary works as something dangerous—not dangerous to them of course, but dangerous for the (allegedly) easily misled general reader. A Marxist critic of Jane Austen’s Emma worries, for example, that Austen’s literary skill prevents readers from seeing her characters not as interesting individuals, each with their own story to tell, but instead as “victims of a capitalist system.”

Marxist critics are not alone in this view of literature. In many of the most prestigious colleges and universities, humanistic literary criticism has given away to “culture studies.” Culture studies differs from humanistic literary criticism in that novels, plays and poems are not treated as imaginative literature but instead as sources of sociological data about the biases and prejudices endemic to all societies except the ideal republic of the critic’s imagination.

In contrast, the humanistic tradition believes that in the long run the general reader may be trusted to sort out the truly valuable insights of a work from the prejudices it may also convey. Humanistic critics believe novels, plays and poems, if they are any good, tell us something we don’t already know. They also assume literary works—again, if they are any good—provide the kind of pleasure that is usually called “aesthetic.” In other words, works of literary quality both “delight and teach,” in the phrase of the old humanistic credo first formulated by the Roman poet Horace and, I contend, still true today.

This is the first post in what I hope will be an ongoing conversation. All are welcome, whether you’re a professor of literature or a general reader and whether you’ve read my book or not.

About The Author

James Seaton

James Seaton is the author of Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism....

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