Etica e letteratura


The idea of an ethics of literature founded on its distinctive feature of knowledge was explored by Martha C. Nussbaum in the work Poetic Justice, which quickly became a reference point in the debate on this topic.[1] According to Nussbaum, literature is a form of knowledge that is typically affective, empathetic and associated with identification. The reader of a novel or story, in effect, is constantly putting  him/herself in the place of the different characters, sharing their experiences and learning to know their feelings and ideas from inside. This habit of identifying with others, a characteristic of the reader's role, cannot but increase his or her tolerance and understanding in everyday life: in a certain sense, this can be seen as a way of giving the reader a multiple identity, that will make him/her less dogmatic and more democratic. Secondly, by presenting each character in his/her individuality, the novel helps to eliminate those stereotypes that often influence widespread opinions in which, frequently, a single person with his or her history and specificity is inserted in a general category (i.e. immigrants, politicians, Americans); this category then recalls immediately a negative stereotype (crime, bureaucratic parasitism, material imperialism), and the individual finally becomes objectified and reified in an us/others or friend/enemy dichotomy. On the contrary, because of the richness and specificity of human knowledge that it transmits, literature actually opposes this descriptive simplifications, which in general foreshadow exclusion, marginalization and violence.  


In more general terms, there is clear evidence that the idea that literature is a form of knowledge with emotional and participatory connotations has run throughout continental philosophy during the last two centuries. Kant stated in Critique of Judgement that «beauty prepares us to love something, even nature, without self-interest».[2] Moreover, in the act of differentiating in strictly ethical terms between the beautiful and the sublime, Kant also points out that experiencing beauty stimulates in the person who contemplates (or reads) it «a feeling of love and intimate inclination».[3] Hegel uses similar words in Aesthetics:


«From the point of view of the poetic idea and configuration, each part, each moment must have intrinsic interest and its own life, and this poetic conception joyfully indulges in the single aspect, depicts it with love and treats it as if it were a whole all by itself».[4]


The affective and participatory character of literary knowledge is also clearly present in Dilthey's famous distinction between Verstehen in the humanities and Erklären in the natural sciences. The former is in fact a form of knowledge (or understanding) involving identification, in which the subject is personally implicated in what he knows, while the latter, which is typical of the scientific method, implies, on the contrary, keeping at a distance from the object under observation.  Following this conceptual line, in Truth and Method Gadamer theorized that artistic experience is a fusion of horizons, a circular process in which what is known is not "other" than, or separate from, the person who comes to know it, but is simply the second pole in a relationship of a dialogic  nature.


Writers and poets have also reflected, not unexpectedly, on the fact that literature, as a form of emotionally connotated knowledge, gives a richer and more articulate understanding of the world than a purely logical-conceptual one would be. Among many other authors, one can mention Leopardi, who almost seems to have anticipated Dilthey's polarized distinction between Verstehen and Erklären in a passage from Zibaldone.


«It is not enough to understand a true proposition, it is necessary to feel its truth. There is a feeling of the truth, like that of passions, sentiments, beauties, etc.: of what truth is, what beauty is. The person who understands it, but does not feel it, understands what that truth means, but does not understand that it is truth, because he/she does not feel the meaning, that is to say the persuasion».[5]


An ethics of literature founded on its distinctive feature of knowledge allows us to clarify what may, at first sight, seem to be quite a serious problem, one that arises when a literary work presents and explicitly describes what is evil (violence, cruelty, tyranny, disdain), that is to say the opposite of what is ethical. One of the most significant historic examples of this can be found in Flowers of Evil by Baudelaire. In this work the central theme, starting from the very title, is the beauty of evil: not just as a form of aestheticization  (presenting evil in a beautiful, elegant, impeccable poetic form), but also and above all in the sense that evil is "beautiful", that is to say pleasant to accomplish. This is a truth that is embarrassing but hard to contest, seeing that evil continues to recur; yet a knowledge of it is essential for every mature, conscious ethical reflection. Thus it is due to this awareness,  that operates not only in Flowers of Evil, that literature becomes a key place where evil can be known, since it is an expressive context in which evil can be met and one can learn about it in depth, directly and with identification, without however practicing it or actually submitting to it, as can happen in the real world. Clearly, literature that speaks about evil (that describes it, structures it and knows it) is problematic and requires a "second level" reading, one that is not ingenuous or demands immediate adherence to the text: but, in reality, what is truly problematic is evil itself, not the literature that interprets and knows it.


In summary, even works that describe evil, that portray it as it unfolds and present it as beautiful and pleasant to achieve, are useful and at times absolutely necessary from an ethical point of view.  But if this is true, this awareness questions the traditional concept of a literary ethic, that which is content-oriented and edifying, claiming that a work has moral value only if it contains positive messages (or, in case of negative models, if they are explicitly presented as such, by passing direct judgements or by destining them to a disastrous ending).

[1] Martha C. Nussbaum, Poetic Justice. The Literary Imagination and Public Life, Beacon Press, Boston 1995.

[2] Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urtheilskraft, in Kants Werke. Akademie-Textausgabe, Bd. V, De Gruyter, Berlin 1968, p. 267.

[3] Ibid., p. 271.

[4] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik, III, Die Poesie, hrsg. von Rüdiger Bubner, Reclam, Stuttgart 1971, p. 35.

[5] Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone di pensieri, a cura di Anna Maria Moroni, Mondadori, Milano 1983, I, p. 229 [349].