Lit Opens Minds to Suffering of the Other

Jean Germain Drouais, "Philoctetes"

Jean Germain Drouais, “Philoctetes”


I wrote recently about attending a Keti Koti dinner—a ritual modeled on the Passover Seder to look back at our slave past—and can now report that we had a follow-up workshop about how to build upon our insights. We broke into small groups—I was with three students—and they came up with goals that moved me deeply.

I also saw how literature could play a role to play in attaining those goals. Here’s our statement:

We need to foster empathy among students, faculty and staff. For example, when a racial incident occurs on campus, it shouldn’t just affect the minorities, it should affect everyone. We said that having this empathy would create an environment in which all people feel accepted regardless of their religious beliefs, sexuality, race, etc.

I recently taught a superb essay by philosopher Martha Nussbaum in my “Theories of the Reader” course that speaks to the power of “the narrative imagination” to foster such empathy. I’m planning several future posts on this essay, but today I will focus on her use of Sophocles’s Philoctetes and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Nussbaum starts with Roman Stoic Marcus Aurelius, who she says

insisted that to become world citizens we must not simply amass knowledge; we must also cultivate in ourselves a capacity for sympathetic imagination that will enable us to comprehend the motives and choices of people different from ourselves, seeing them not as forbiddingly alien and other, but as sharing many problems and possibilities with us. Differences of religion, gender, race, class, and national origin make the task of understanding harder, since these differences shape not only the practical choices faced but also their “insides,” their desires, thoughts, and ways of looking at the world.

While all of the arts “cultivate capacities of judgment and sensitivity,” Nussbaum writes that literature makes “an especially rich contribution.” That’s because of “its ability to represent the specific circumstances and problems of people of many different sorts.” She then quotes Aristotle:

As Aristotle said in chapter 9 of The Poetics, literature shows us “not something that has happened, but the kind of thing that might happen. This knowledge of possibilities is an especially valuable resource in political life.

Nussbaum’s first literary example is Philoctetes, a play about the great Greek archer who is stricken by a lingering disease after stepping on a serpent guarding a sacred shrine. Because of his cries of pain and his wound’s stench, he is marooned upon a desert island for ten years. A seer informs the Greeks, however, that they cannot win the Trojan War without his archery skills.

Because Philoctetes is so bitter against his former comrades, Odysseus believes he must trick the archer into joining them, and he uses Achilles’s son Neoptolemus in the deception. After much agonizing, Neoptolemus blows up the plan by telling Philoctetes the truth.

Nussbaum observes that the play shows us two different ways to treat people. Odysseus doesn’t care anything about Philoctetes the man, regarding him as merely as the means to an end.

The chorus of soldiers, however, have a different response:

For my part, I have compassion for him. Think how
with no human company or care,
no sight of a friendly face,
wretched, always alone,
he wastes away with that savage disease,
with no way of meeting his daily needs.
How, how in the world, does the poor man survive?

This is the narrative imagination at work. Nussbaum writes,

Unlike their leader, the men of the chorus vividly and sympathetically imagine the life of a man whom they have never seen, picturing his loneliness, his pain, his struggle for survival. In the process they stand in for, and allude to, the imaginative work of the audience, who are invited by the play as a whole to imagine the sort of needy homeless life to which prosperous people rarely direct their attention. The drama as a whole, then, cultivates the type of sympathetic vision of which its characters speak. In the play, this kind of vivid imagining prompts a political decision against using Philoctetes as a means, and the audience is led to believe this to be a politically and morally valuable result. In this way, by showing the public benefits of the very sort of sympathy it is currently awakening in its spectators, the drama commends its own resources as valuable for the formation of decent citizenship and informed public choice. Although the good of the whole should not be neglected, that good will not be well served if human beings are seen simply as instruments of one another’s purposes.

While Nussbaum doesn’t comment on how the conflict between community and individual is resolved, it’s worth looking at how Sophocles handles it. We see a divine intervention (a “deus ex machina”) where Heracles, now a god and the one who gave Philoctetes his bow, descending to tell him that he will be healed if he goes to fight for the Greeks. Thus Sophocles lets us know that respecting the individual can also lead to a good outcome for society—a vital lesson for us to keep in mind in 21st century America.

I’ve written many times about Nussbaum’s other example (go here for the list), making the same point. By judging Invisible Man only by the color of his skin, society cannot see him for who he really is:

Its hero describes himself as “invisible” because throughout the novel he is seen by those he enncounters as a vehicle for various race-inflected stereotypes: the poor, humiliated black boy who snatches like an animal at the coins that lie on an electrified mat; the good student trusted to chauffeur a wealthy patron; the listening ear to whom the same patron unburdens his guilt and anxiety; the rabble-rousing activist who energizes an urban revolutionary movement; the violent rapist who gratifies the sexual imagination of a woman brought up on racially charged sexual images—always he is cast in a drama of someone else’s making, “never more loved and appreciated” than when he plays his assigned role. The “others,” meanwhile, are all “lost in a dream world”—by which they see only what their own minds have created, never the reality of the person who stands before them. “You go along for years knowing something is wrong, then suddenly you discover that you’re as transparent as air.” Invisibility is “a matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.”

Nussbaum then links Invisible Man with Philoctetes:

Ellison’s grotesque, surreal world is very unlike the classical world of Sophocles’s play. Its concerns, however, are closely linked: social stratification and injustice, manipulation and use, and above all invisibility and the condition of being transparent to and for one’s fellow citizen. Like Sophocles’s drama, it invites its readers to know and see more than the unseeing characters. “Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through?” In this way, it works upon the inner eyes of the very readers whose moral failures it castigates, although it refuses the easy notion that mutual visibility can be achieved in one heartfelt leap of brotherhood.

Nussbaum’s essay as a whole argues that at stake is the very functioning of democracy, with novels being of utmost importance in the formation of good citizens. Ellison, she notes, thinks similarly:

Ellison explicitly linked the novelist’s art to the possibility of democracy. By representing both visibility and its evasions, both equality and its refusal, a novel, he wrote in an introduction, “could be fashioned as a raft of hope, perception and entertainment that might help keep us afloat as we tried to negotiate the snags and whirlpools that mark our nation’s vacillating course toward and away from the democratic idea.” This is not, he continued, the only goal for fiction; but it is one proper and urgent goal. For a democracy requires not only institutions and procedures; it also requires a particular quality of vision, in order “to defeat this national tendency to deny the common humanity shared by my character and those who might happen to read of his experience.”

At a time when, in our political discourse, we are seeing Mexican immigrants reduced to “rapists and murderers,” women reduced to beauty ratings, Muslims reduced to potential terrorists, and black urban communities reduced to “hellholes,” literature is no mere luxury. As Nussbaum summarizes her argument,

Narrative art has the power to make us see the lives of the different with more than a casual tourist’s interest—with involvement and sympathetic understanding, with anger at our society’s refusals of visibility. We come to see how circumstances shape the lives of those who share with us some general goals and projects, and we see that circumstances shape not only people’s possibilities for action, but also their aspirations and desires, hopes and fears.

And finally,

All of this seems highly pertinent to decisions we must make as citizens. Understanding, for example, how a history of racial stereotyping can affect self-esteem, achievement, and love enables us to make more informed judgments on issues relating to affirmative action and education.

This is essentially what the students in my work group were saying. If St. Mary’s is to function as a vibrant interracial community, we must “foster empathy” and then use that empathy “to create an environment in which all people feel accepted regardless of their religious beliefs, sexuality, race, etc.”

The courses I teach and the way that I teach them can contribute to this worthy end.

This entry was posted in Aurelius (Marcus), Ellison (Ralph), Sophocles and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • 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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