War Between the Bookshelves

by Tim McIntosh


Literature and philosophy, my competing loves. They are like rival teachers. I love them both, but they do not love each other. How could they love each other? Their goals, methods, and pleasures seem so opposed. Literature tells fictions; philosophy dispels them. Literature loves beauty; philosophy loves truth. Literature heats the blood; philosophy cools the mind.

Fearing a war might erupt, I have long kept my novels and philosophy on separate bookshelves. Still, I imagine, they cast jeers across my room. The philosophy books insult the novels for flighty resistance from hard truths. The literature mocks the philosophy for being distant from real life.

I am not the first to discern this war between the bookshelves. “There is an old quarrel,” wrote Plato in 380 B.C., “between philosophy and poetry.” Plato believed the two were simply incompatible. Philosophy is written for the few, he said, literature for the many; philosophy is abstract, literature is particular; philosophy aims to dispel illusion, literature creates it.

Even Iris Murdoch, an Oxford philosopher who wrote philosophical novels, suspected the two were incompatible. She included philosophy in her novels only because she knew philosophy. “If I knew anything about sailing ships,” she said, “I would put in sailing ships.”

A few philosophers believed literature and philosophy could make peace. Philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) believed poetry was a model of what philosophy could be. His philosophy is laced with obscure sayings about the power of poetry: “Poetically, man dwells” and “Language is the house of the truth of Being.” I am not quite sure what he meant. And his poems do not help; in fact, his endorsement of poetry was undermined by his poor attempts at writing it. (His poems are—to put it briefly—bad.)

Despite Murdoch’s skepticism and Heidegger’s obscurity, a hope remained that philosophy and literature might marry. What a marriage it might be! Such a marriage might give birth to an exceedingly rare experience—feeling ideas: not just to scrutinize them, but to experience them with the nerves and heart and lungs.

A few have achieved it. Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and George Santayana wedded philosophy and literature by blending poetry with pointed inquiry. Kierkegaard did so by blending parables, wit, and humor with inspired theology. Nietzsche wrote short bursts of poetic philosophy. Santayana wrote novels abounding in lucid wisdom. (“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” is his.) Even Plato, despite spurning the poets, was a master of literary philosophy.

My two favorites are William Shakespeare and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Their methods and their mediums differed (Dostoevsky wrote novels; Shakespeare, plays), but they succeed for a common reason: they married philosophy and literature without letting the strengths of one corrupt the other. In other words, they wove together philosophical plots and characters without forcing their characters to become mouthpieces for their philosophies. And the results of their inquiries manifest themselves, not in wordy monologues, but in fulfilling narratives.

Many of Shakespeare’s characters are either philosophers or trained in philosophical debate. Hamlet and Horatio both attended Wittenberg where they would have studied logic and ethics. Hamlet and his fellow characters thrust and parry using the weapons of logic. Some scenes consist of two characters battling over a syllogism (an argument with a conclusion drawn from a major and minor premise). When one character proffers a syllogism, the other rejects it, amends it, or recasts it. For example, when Prince Henry calls Falstaff “a natural coward” in Henry IV, Part 1, Falstaff counters, “I deny your major!”

Often Shakespeare uses syllogisms to humorous effect. In Twelfth Night, Feste challenges Olivia to a contest of wit, promising that he will prove she is a fool:

Feste: Good madonna, give me leave to prove you a fool.

Olivia: Can you do it?

Feste: Dexteriously, good madonna.

Olivia: Make your proof…

Feste: Good madonna, why mourn’st thou?

Olivia: Good fool, for my brother’s death.

Feste: I think his soul is in hell, madonna.

Olivia: I know his soul is in heaven, fool.

Feste: The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul, being in heaven!

Shakespeare’s philosophers do battle onstage; Dostoevsky’s philosophers do battle in their own minds. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov pits his philosophical convictions against his own conscience. Guilt, Raskolnikov asserts, is not evidence that human beings are moral creatures. No, guilt is simply a “prejudice” that society presses on individuals. Likewise, law. Like guilt, law is an “artificial terror.” Since guilt and law are artificial terrors, thinks Raskolnikov, “there are no barriers.” Some men, supermen, rise above guilt and law and do what they please.

Raskolnikov plans to confirm his philosophy by committing a murder. The murder is a consequence of his philosophical belief (“No superman is subject to guilt!”) and an attempt to prove himself a superman. He will murder a decrepit lender-woman (“noxious louse! worthless human being!”) and get away with it. Only the weak would crack under the strain of guilt. But not Raskolnikov; he will not crack. Yet even before committing the murder, he fears:

Can it be, can it be, that I shall really take an axe, that I shall strike her on the head, split her skull open… that I shall tread in the sticky warm blood, blood… with the axe… Good God, can it be?

For Dostoevsky (and Shakespeare), the stakes are high. Raskolnikov’s philosophical convictions will push him toward life or death. Likewise, Macbeth’s philosophical convictions push him toward life or death. The whole of Macbeth can be viewed as a debate over the nature of manhood: What is a man? How should a man act? Should sympathy curb a man’s ambition?

Early in the play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth argue about assassinating King Duncan. But a deeper question lurks below: What is a man? Earlier in the play, Macbeth was ambitious to kill the king; when he has second thoughts, Lady Macbeth challenges him as failing in his manhood:

When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And [if you did it] you would
Be so much more the man.

Macbeth defends himself, saying that being a man means knowing how to curb one’s evil ambitions:

I dare do all that becomes a man!
Who dares do more is none.

But Lady Macbeth jabs back in frustration. She implies that she is more of a man that her husband. And she wraps her argument with some of the most chilling lines Shakespeare ever wrote:

I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.

Macbeth is perversely touched and concedes to Lady Macbeth’s vicious definition of manhood. He praises her, saying she should give birth only to males:

Bring forth men-children only;
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males.

The debate over the definition of manhood continues after the assassination of King Duncan. Macbeth challenges two soldiers to prove their manhood through murder. When one of soldier replies, “We are men, my liege,” Macbeth counters sarcastically, “Aye, in the catalogue you go for men.”

The good Macduff offers the counterpoint to Macbeth’s savage manhood. Macduff is no less courageous than Macbeth, but he embraces sympathy and gentleness. Macduff breaks into tears upon learning of his wife’s murder. When a fellow soldier challenges him to “Dispute it like a man!”, Macduff replies, “I shall do so; but I must also feel it like a man!” Macduff retains a tenderness that Macbeth has lost. And in the end, Macbeth’s hardness will destroy him.

Both Shakespeare and Dostoevsky shove their philosophers’ positions to their maximum conclusions. Macbeth becomes the man that Lady Macbeth wanted: cold-blooded, ambitious, and unrelenting. The consequences are a destroyed marriage, a lost kingdom, and a loss of life. Macbeth’s audience feels the consequences of his ideas as his marriage dissolves, his kingdom crumbles, and his life falters.

At the end of the play, Macbeth is a monster. Yet we can still feel sympathy at his lament that life has become a meaningless cycle of days:

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time…
It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov carries his philosophy to its maximum conclusion. He murders the money-lender and her sister, then crabs into his psyche where guilt pursues him like a hunting hound. For a few days he hides beneath his stony philosophy. Then he splits in half: half yearns for mercy; the other half rejects it as weakness. Upon receiving a gentle letter from his mother, Raskolnikov begins to cry:

Raskolnikov’s face was wet with tears; but when he finished it, his face was pale and distorted and a bitter, wrathful and malignant smile was on his lips.

One minute, sympathy. The next minute, lethal pride. Dostoevsky’s readers feel Raskolnikov’s philosophy yanking him back and forth.

Dostoevsky and Shakespeare’s achievement comes, in part, from never forcing their characters to be philosophical mouthpieces. Macbeth and Raskolnikov both become monsters, but they do not cease to be human. In the hands of lesser writers, they might become creeds. Take Ayn Rand for example.

As a novelist, Ayn Rand is an excellent propagandist. Her heroes are well-dressed, articulate titans; their enemies are sniveling, yellow parasites. The former have no weaknesses; the latter have no virtues. Her methods stand in stark negative relief to Hamlet, Macbeth, and Raskolnikov. These characters resist simplistic philosophizing because, no matter their beliefs, they remain a baffling salad of impulses. One minute they nurse the weak; the next minute they prey on them. They are, in short, us.

Neither Shakespeare’s nor Dostoevsky’s characters are tidy. Neither are their conclusions. They wrote narratives, after all, not philosophies. Real characters are never so tidy as treatises. In fact, both authors warn against the excesses of philosophy. Hamlet chides his best friend, saying, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”; Dostoevsky decries Western rationality as being demonic and destructive. Yet both litterateurs endorse philosophy as a lamplight to understanding. Their marriage of literature and philosophy helped make them masters of both. Their works, like any healthy marriage, use the strengths of each to bolster the weaknesses of the other.

Copyright March 2011 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Tim McIntosh