Theories about Lit’s Impact

Auguste Macke, “Blue Girl Reading”


Below is a transcript of the talk I delivered last night in Ljubljana that I promised the students.  I titled it “Unacknowledged Legislators: How Poets Change History.”

I present today a summation of my life’s work, which is to explore how literature changes the lives of readers. As you will see, many theorists have had strong opinions on this matter over the years, going all the way back to Plato, and this will of necessity be a quick tour.

For the second part of the talk, I will describe how you can examine your own responses to literature to determine how works have impacted you. While you may not see yourself as participating in history when you read a book, literature is always read/watched/listened to one book or one poem or one play at a time. When Plato worries that Homer will turn young Greek men into cowards with his frightening underworld scene or corrupt them with Odysseus’s enjoyment of feasting, he is imagining people like you listening to a skilled recite The Odyssey. When Percy Shelley asserts that poets helped end slavery and liberate women, he sees the process beginning when someone picks up a book and starts reading.

In short, I begin by summarizing the centuries-long conversation about how poets have changed history and then move to how you, yourself, are part of this changing history.

What do I mean by poetry? Over the ages, people have defined poets and poetry in many different ways, with Shelley even calling Sir Francis Bacon a poet. I will limit myself to what has traditionally been considered literature, which is to say poems, plays, and fiction. What has fascinated and threatened audiences from the beginning is literature’s power to pull one out of one world and into another, so I focus on that aspect.

The title of my talk comes from Percy Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, which makes one of the most sweeping and audacious claims for poetry ever:

Poets are the hierophants [interpreters of sacred mysteries, maybe prophets] of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

Note that, as Shelley sees it, poets don’t set out to change the world. They just write their works. If they are truly in touch with the spirit of the age, however–if they apprehend at some deep level humanity’s potential–then they can help bring about a better future.

Here’s my quick overview of the history of the conversation:

Plato wanted to keep poets out of his ideal republic because he thought that they would arouse passions that would disrupt his philosophers’ paradise. As one point, in The Ion, he compares inspired poets to maddened followers of Dionysus. One can’t expect from such people the reasoned discourse he sees as essential to his utopian society.

Although Aristotle doesn’t agree with Plato about literature’s negative effects, he does agree that people imitate what they encounter in literature and that this imitation has a powerful impact. Aristotle states, “Man is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.”

Rather than fearing that audiences will imitate the bad behavior of literary characters, however, Aristotle believes that they will gain a special insight into truth. Indeed, the penetrating truth provided by literature goes deeper than, say, the truth we get from philosophy or history.

In other words, rather than seeing Homer as a corrupter of youth, Aristotle believes he has a special handle on reality. Artistotle argues that poetry grasps truths that a purely factual approach misses. For instance, a statesman could learn a lot from reading The Iliad—say, on the advantages of keeping . your best warrior happy and not attacking people you depend on.

The difference between Plato and Aristotle here is one that we encounter regularly in our own censorship battles. Plato’s successors fear that young people reading, say, Catcher in the Rye will behave like Holden Caulfield, perhaps using bad language, disrespecting authority, running away from school, and employing the services of a prostitute. Aristotle’s successors, by contrast, might argue that adolescents will gain new insight into themselves as they interact with Holden, finding a language and a narrative for their confusion, their fears, and their longings. Platonists fear that such stories will ruin people for the world whereas Aristotelians figure stories help people better negotiate that world.

Put another way, Aristotle trusts audiences more than Plato does.

Predictably, subsequent theorists agree more with Aristotle than Plato. They love literature and want to believe that what literature does is good.

The Roman thinker Horace, for instance, says that the best literature both delights and instructs It’s as though, when there’s something we need to know to become better people, literature is the best way to get it. It’s like a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down.

Sir Philip Sidney, who liked Horace’s idea, got even more specific about the good that literature can do for us.  Poetry’s primary function, he believed, is to promote virtue, and each poetic form helps us become virtuous in a different way. Therefore, to cite a couple of examples, heroic poetry helps us become better warriors while comedy and satire make us ashamed of our faults, prodding us to do better through laughter and shame. I should mention that Sidney was the ultimate Renaissance man—a warrior, a poet, a courtier, a lover—so when he says that poetry helps us become better people, who are we to argue?

Note that, when Aristotle, Horace, and Sidney talk about literature making us better people, they mean making us into gentlemen and ladies of the time. Sidney, for instance, believed that literature would make people into better Elizabethan courtiers.

Percy Shelley, writing in revolutionary times, expanded the options. He believed that great literatures touches the arc of history, which bends towards justice, and therefore pushes against the forces that hold us back. Literature wants us to grow into our full potential.

This is even true of literature written in unfree times. If poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” it is because they grasp our essence as human beings. They sense what we are capable of and sow seeds that grow to fruition, albeit sometimes centuries later. For instance, the respect accorded to women in 12th century chivalric romances and by Dante to Beatrice set in motion developments that would lead to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women.

 If Sidney believes that literature makes us virtuous, Shelley believes that it makes us free.

Aristotle’s heirs didn’t have the literary stage all to themselves, however. A number of theorists thought that literature could actually be bad for you. Conservative Samuel Johnson, for instance, thought that novels like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones would turn young people into licentious rakes. Johnson seems to be following Plato’s line of reasoning here.

Johnson hated social disruption and wouldn’t have agreed with Bertolt Brecht that art should be a hammer to change society rather than a mirror to reflect it. Brecht was in favor of literature that causes us to question class oppression, and he criticized literature that reinforced existing class society. Some of the works that we consider great he would regard as reactionary.

And what about literature that makes us feel that blacks are inferior to whites? When we read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe argued, we see Africans as a howling mob. Achebe therefore saw literature as good only if it gave black characters full personhood. As he saw it, bad characterizations perpetuated racism. The great African American thinker W. E. B. DuBois thought the same way.

What about literature that tells women their place is in the home? Feminist Rachel Blau du Plessis argues that women writers in the 19th century were trapped by the marriage plot and so helped to perpetuate women’s second-class status. She even criticizes novels like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre for that reason. She wants women to write narratives desiring personal growth rather than marriage to a man, the quest plot rather than the marriage plot.

Do you see what happened with these activists? The ancient writers assumed that there was only one set of values and that the literature they loved should uphold these values. Shelley, on the other hand, believed that literature could overthrow traditional values and usher in a new society. Figures in the various human rights movements are Shelley’s heirs.

To be sure, not all progressives demand that literature follow a progressive agenda. Karl Marx famously said that he learned more about capitalism from the reactionary author Honoré de Balzac than he did from economists. Frederick Engels chided an author for writing a novel that read like propaganda rather than literature. They believed that literature’s first obligation is to truth, not to politics. But since they believed that history moves in a progressive direction (albeit in dialectical fashion), they could afford to believe that truth and freedom are on the same side. Later Marxists like Terry Eagleton and Frederic Jameson have argued the same.

Turning from liberals and radicals to conservatives, British poet and critic Matthew Arnold believed that literature civilizes us. We are in danger of being overwhelmed by cultural barbarians—Arnold called them philistines—and so argued that literature would keep this from happening. Since he was particularly worried about the working class, he believed that literature should be taught to workers. As Terry Eagleton later described his program, throw the workers a few books and they won’t throw up any barricades.

A line of conservative educators has grown out of Matthew Arnold’s ideas. When American English Departments went through the culture wars in the late 1980’s, conservatives quoting Arnold called for “Jane Austen, not Alice Walker,” Walker being the author of the Color Purple and a radical black feminist.

For all their differences, however, the thinkers I’ve mentioned agree that literature changes lives. Some believed that it changes lives for the better, some for the worse, but they all pay it respect.

Because many of my students become English teachers so that they can change the lives of future generations, I’ve identified three different sets of ideals at play. Conservative teachers, like Arnold, use literature to affirm traditional values and uphold existing class, gender, ethnic, and other norms. Liberal teachers, like University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum and theorist Wayne Booth, use literature to instill humanist values and foster responsible citizens within the existing system. Radical teachers, tracing their thinking back to Shelley and Brecht, want to change the system altogether and see literature as a means to fight against inequality and in favor of social justice. All committed teachers may see it as their mission to use literature to produce good citizens and good people, but their criteria for “good” varies.

Now, of course, there are people who see literature as irrelevant to their lives and will wonder what these centuries-old fights are about. Perhaps you know Slovenians who don’t see the point of literature, much less fighting about it. But as some of Slovenia is seeing in the recent attacks against novelist Jiri Bezlaj, literature continues to stir people up.

I want to mention one last issue before I shift to the second part of my talk. Frankfurt School thinkers like Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno examined what Slovenians call “trivialna literatura.” While on the one hand they believed, with Shelley and Marx, that great literature supports human progress, on the other they saw popular literature as an opiate of the masses, distracting workers from the real struggle. Some feminists make the same argument about romance literature, fearing that it prompts women to focus on finding Mr. Right rather than developing themselves.

Other feminist scholars, however, argue that even bad romance literature will often contain a struggle for female dignity and female agency. Otherwise women wouldn’t read it.


In the second part of the talk, I described the reading histories that I have assigned students and what has emerged. What I said can be found, stated more succinctly, in the following posts:

What Personal Reading Histories Tell Us

Literature That Caused a Commotion

An Afghan Vet’s Green Knight Encounter

Jane Eyre Still Challenges Us

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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