My friend Phil
has a good defense
Near the end he says, "But what are the correct lines between fiction and non-fiction? Or, is the error in looking at the differences of these two, and not considering the broader issues?"
I like this suggestion; it reminds me of a particular connection across genres and eras that really tickles my fancy. In my off-hours reading last year I found a thread in Xenophon's Memorabilia that shed some light on an issue arising in Jane Austen's
Pride and Prejudice (with ramifications far beyond).
(I am not the first to draw a connection between these two authors; the great political philosopher Leo Strauss
remarked their similarity in writing styles, and Allan Bloom develops this point in his essay on P&P. The key to both of them is irony and its uses, as you'll soon see.)
The issue in P&P concerns Mr Bennet, the paterfamilias whose wit graces the first chapter of the novel, and many that follow. Mr Bennet has five daughters and a wife, all of whom, by his own admission, are fools, excepting the eldest daughter Elizabeth. She shares his native intelligence and insight into human character. Mr Bennet mainly displays these qualities by mocking his family with barely disguised irony; Elizabeth on the other hand is more kindly when she can be, though she endures the vices of others more easily by being able to laugh at them.
Elizabeth's greater concern for the affairs of the world is understandable, since she and her sisters stand to inherent practically nothing and must all be married off, but her family has little standing in society. The central concern of the novel is the romance that develops between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, one of England's richest and most respected bachelors, whose marriage proposal she turns down because he had insulted her family. As events instruct her (especially her sister eloping with a coxcomb) she begins to realize the validity of Darcy's complaints, and she reflects on the limitations of her family, including Mr Bennet.
Her specific criticism of him is revealing. Mr Bennet fancies himself something of a philosopher; his greatest wish is for the peace and quiet of his study; his chief pleasure is to share in mockery of others' follies with his only sensible daughter. He revels in his own sanity vs. others' insanity. At a key point when his disciplinary action might have averted disaster, Elizabeth asks him to exert his authority. He makes a certain point in justification of his inaction: his daughters are foolish by nature and he can do nothing in response but note this and make light of it.
Disaster follows, and Elizabeth sees just how much wiser she was. She sees her father's fundamental mistake: by mocking his wife, however genuinely foolish she may be, he undermined her authority and gave a free reign to his foolish daughters, thereby making the entire family (including his wise daughter) vulnerable to scandal. His discipline could not make the girls wise, but it might have served the common good of them all. In the end, he becomes very emotional at the apparent loss of the foolish child and his inability to do anything about it. It turns out he is not so philosophically detached after all, but the pretense of philosophy has led him astray.
Here's where Xenophon comes in. How does a real philosopher treat his family? By reputation Socrates was not much of a father -- he earned no money, spent all his time with strangers and their children, and if his friends had not paid his rent who knows what would have become of his wife and kids. There is very little in the Memorabilia about his family, confirming this overall view. But there is one chapter on the subject which is very instructive.
Socrates' son Lamprocles was angry with his mother for being harsh and shaming him. Socrates confronts him on this and re-establishes the authority of the mother. I won't repeat all the arguments (this is Book II Chapter 2) but suffice to say Socrates does not defend Xanthippe's character per se. Rather, he goes over all the sacrifices parents make for children and the good intentions L's mom has for him. He makes L feel like an ingrate for not appreciating the favors and returning them with obedience. Right away we see the gulf between Soc and Mr Bennet.
What of Soc's reputed indifference to his family (which might have given Mr Bennet a self-justification of his own behavior)? I think an answer is suggested by what at first appears to be a minor detail. Soc makes his case to L in part with the image of a ship -- he asks his son whether the decisive thing in finding a "shipmate" is not the friendliness or hostility of the person, and his son says yes, "good intent" is the most important thing when traversing the seas.
N.B. this is *not Socrates' opinion! In the first chapter of the work, Xenophon tells us that Soc was fond of saying that the decisive criterion for choosing a shipmate was judging whether he is "someone who understands or does not understand how to pilot". This is paralleled by a number of other statements. Knowledge, and not good intent, is the central issue for Soc.
If we look back at where Soc instructs his son, this comes in a section (Book 2) about how Soc dealt with his friends and family; the far larger part is about his friends. Socrates spent his time seeking knowledge and this brought him together with others who in one way or another fit into this plan of action. As he says in the introductory chapter, he sought to know the "human things" -- piety vs. impiety, noble vs. shameful, just vs. unjust, moderation vs. madness, courage vs. cowardice, polis, politician (statesman), rule, skilled rulership, etc. Knowledge of these things, he thought, makes a noble and good man; ignorance of them makes for a slave. So he spent his time conversing about them to escape slavery and achieve freedom in the human things.
For this, as Xenophon reminds us from the get-go, he was put to death by the city. Athens executed him for not believing in the things it believed in -- the gods, for instance -- and for corrupting the youth. The city is not engaged in seeking the truth about the human things, but it does depend on a certain understanding of those things; its chief concern is not one's knowledge of them but one's adherence to the accepted version of the story -- i.e., one's friendliness or "good intent" to the city as such. By looking beyond the city Socrates raises suspicions about his loyalty to it; and this is entirely understandable seeing as how he considered passive acceptance of the city's ways to be slavery (or, to paraphrase Soc in Plato's Apology, "I would rather die than live as you do, less-than-men!"). (This is the meaning of: "The unexamined life is not livable for a human being.")
Before advising his son to apply the friendliness litmus test -- the standard of the city -- as opposed to the knowledge litmus test -- the standard of the philosopher -- Soc asks L, "Do you think you should serve anyone else?" L responds, "By Zeus, for my part, I think one should". The advice suits the recipient. Socrates is aware of a vast gulf between himself and the city -- i.e., the majority of mankind -- including his own family. Rather than attempting to pave over this natural fissure, he finesses it with irony. This is Xenophon's defense of Soc against Athens -- not that he was innocent of despising its views regarding the most important subjects, but that he was careful to avoid harming the city and its youth -- even his own son (who of course was also a citizen and therefore not just his own son) -- by calling attention inappropriately to this contempt. This is something that escaped Mr Bennet with his head in the clouds -- to his own detriment.
Is this a cynical view of things? Someone I recently met in Portland would certainly say so -- but she is postmodern, so who is she to point fingers? ;)
I see it as deeply moral, but in a way that has often been overlooked in our simplistic and ideological age. Compare St. Augustine's discussion of human ends. For him, the only true object of our enjoyment -- of loving something for its own sake -- is God. All else, including other human beings, is to be used. Not abused, of course, used. That is, dealt with while maintaining awareness that its (or their) goodness is from and for God, not from itself or for itself. Looking at the world this way does not entail neglecting ourselves or others, since we are all children of God. It does involve a certain backing away from the reflexive attachment we have to things and the moral superficiality with which we regard them as good because they are merely thought or seem to be so.
It is standard fare today among the high-minded to look for "moral absolutes" in all the wrong places; to regard human beings as "ends in themselves" and other such curious constructions, which have infiltrated even theological points of view. In my view this is an artificial and unhealthy "morality" which ignores the fundamental issues and sometimes makes it a sin even to ask the fundamental questions. As different as are Xenophon, St. Augustine, and Jane Austen in crucial ways, each of them knew better than to think it was so simple. Each of them saw that the good does not come without a cost and that a certain awareness of the limits of life goes a long way both towards preserving the highest things, and towards managing the less elevated things in prudent fashion.
So yes, I think issues are the way to go! And fiction can deliver them as well as (and sometimes better than) anything.