“A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.” -Percy Bysshe Shelley, A defence of poetry
Countries waging war - that is to say, humanity waging war against humanity, rulers upholding nuclear weapons, in order to safeguard their sovereignty, terrorist attacks escalating like wild fire, workers exploited in obscurity, vulnerable females undergoing female genital mutilation, innocent children tacitly murdered prior birth, asylum seekers ‘snubbed - the list is endless.
Contemplating upon all of the above, anyone deemed humane is bound to feel uncomfortable - burdened almost. Such phenomena have been taking place for centuries, one would think we have learned a lesson, and yet, it is clear that we have not. Shall we, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn rightfully asked once, “have the temerity to declare that we are not responsible for the sores of the present-day world? “
This results hence in the questioning of how we are to amend such injustices; though it seems foolish of me to suppose we could, once and for all, eradicate them. Evidently, certain mishappenings are utterly out of our control, and yet, we must not adopt the “blessed is he who expects” outlook: a rather crude form of ‘bystander apathy”. By contrast we must act, and we must do so with prudence and care, by subscribing to a set of noble ideals. Without an ideal blueprint the architect could never incarnate his craft; Without an ideal, the very possibility of progress falters.
Contending there is room for progress, one is left with the task of looking for the tools with which to generate such progress. Education may present itself as a promising candidate and yet, theoretical education will fail to bring about the necessary change. This is due to it being unable to stimulate the human ‘will’, and hence, to instil the sufficient ‘motivation’ to act righteously. For, it is our ‘will’, our emotive side, which dictates our actions, not our intellect. All that said, the question therefore becomes, how is one to make his will ‘will’ good actions? - How is the ‘good will’, which Immanuel Kant so fervently prioritised, formulated?
What I’m getting to and what I’m proposing is literature; Literature is language manifesting itself creatively; is the only tool present to human beings with which we could, somehow, inculcate some measure of humanity and compassion in each other, in a world which lacks both. Compassion is the child of Pity, and Pity the child of Selflessness; of the man who sees in others himself, one who recognises the plight of the human condition and is able to relate, understand and ultimately - act. The French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau stated something similar in his treatise ‘Emile; on education’, contending that it is only he who pities, and is able to put himself in the shoes of another, can be good and virtuous: “When combined with pity, [the] imagination puts us in the place of the miserable man” and as a result, instead of feeling envy or enmity, we are able to metaphysically comprehend the other with compassion. Rousseau’s use of the word ‘imagination’ reels in the notion of literature.
Be it novels, drama, poetry, music or film - literature always employs the method of defamiliarising the reader, showing a whole new array of possibilities that he/she might have never experienced. We all can relate and learn from Hamlet’s plight — partially why it is so widely read, and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness tells us of the horror and evil which reside within us, yet we often disregard; Kurtz is not just a fictional man, he is us. Narnia’s C S Lewis portrays forgiveness as the greatest, most valued act to be practised - we froth at the mouth while watching Schindler’s list because we are able to recognise the evil wrongdoings of the holocaust and thus condemn them. Orwell’s 1984 urges us to be cautious against the dangers of utopic aspirations’ and totalitarianism. Storm of Steel, a novel by Ernst Junger, illuminates the horrors of war through the eyes of an ordinary soldier. I could go on and on. We must not forget that such themes, capturing both the negative and the positive side of human life, ultimately teach us lessons that could never become anachronistic.
Literature shows those who want to see the danger in certain motives like envy, selfishness, blinded ambition, pride, resentment and at times, the virtue in others. It is a telescope which captures human behaviour and analysis it, exposing the wickedness and sublimity of human life and its course. Essentially, it is up to the author and his skill to instil compassion. If one is unable, by virtue of self-discipline, to impel himself to act virtuously, he may turn to literature, not merely for the sake of pleasure or distraction, but to become better, for the sake of goodness.
That being said, one realises that reading literature alone will not suffice. Once our compassion is roused and we are fully aware of our wrongdoings, we must be practical and act accordingly. I propose one engages in simple acts, which simple as they are, could make the greatest difference. Contemplate upon what is right and wrong, and, above all evaluate your own actions critically; In the words of Socrates, “let him who would move the world first move himself.” It is only after one has a clearer conception of both himself and the world that he is to flourish and reform.
This article was primarily written as a reaction to a number of propositions which suggested that Literature be removed from a compulsory subject at Secondary school: an act which, I believe out rightly fails to take in to consideration all the above points, and more.