Ethics and literature: a theoretical proposal

The study of the relationship between ethics and literature, quite widespread in Europe and North America, has traditionally been marginal in Italy. For an indirect confirmation of this, it is enough to consider the lines of literary criticism that were most prevalent in Italy in the 20th century: Croce’s idealism and structuralism. It is well-known that Croce considered poetry to be an intuitive form of knowledge which operates via images; for this reason it belongs to the theoretical realm, and has nothing to do with the practical sphere, that of ethics and economics. Works which claim to have moral or educational aims are downgraded  by Croce from “poetry”  to simple “literature”, a respectable activity, but one that lacks true artistic value. Later, also as a reaction to Croce’s idealism and his literary hegemony during the first half of the century, a new line of criticism arose in Italy based on formalist ideas linked to structuralist models. These critics paid close attention to the formal composition of a literary work, to the interaction of words and to the linguistic structure of texts, but as a rule they considered less important the factors related to the actual content, which, rightly or wrongly, are generally regarded as typical of the ethics of literature.

At first sight, it is difficult to deny that this scant interest in the connection between ethics and literature  is well founded, especially if one considers how the ethical-literary issue has traditionally been dealt with. The standard approach is in effect of a straight educational type, and consists in searching through a work for explicit moral values, immediate messages, positive behavioural models (or, if they are negative, clearly identifiable, so that they will dissuade a reader from imitating them). This traditional approach basically has three limits: a) it tends, to a greater or lesser extent, to exploit the literary text, which ceases to be an end in itself, but is rather used for external purposes; b) it shows an implicit lack of faith in literature, which is under open or hidden surveillance, rather than allowed to freely fulfil its own ends; c) it often turns into an act of violence towards the text, especially when one tries at all costs to find ethical messages in it which are just not there, or when the text is scornfully rejected because it does not contain the desired indications.

It is not at all easy to get away from this traditional ethical-literary formulation. In effect, this approach, which is basically content-oriented, corresponds to a very ancient tradition that dates back to Plato and Aristotle and which left its mark on European culture up until the 19th century, when an opposite and typically modern conception, that is to say the idea of the autonomy of literature, began to become dominant. This occurred in philosophical circles between the Critique of Judgement by Kant and Hegel’s Aesthetics, whereas in the field of literature, writers began to declare their right to be free of the dominant social morality. Autonomy of literature thus asserted itself basically as autonomy from ethics. If one were to identify a crucial date for this change, it would be 1857, the year of the great trials against Madam Bovary and The Flowers of Evil.   Another reason why it is difficult to abandon the traditional ethical-literary way of thinking is the fact that this is the way literature is presented in schools. From the very first years, children are asked to read texts in order to draw explicit and direct lessons from them;  later, when one goes on to study the history of literature, one starts at the beginning, that is to say with the traditional ethical content-oriented considerations and it is only much later that the modern autonomy of literature is considered.

Thus it should not be surprising that this traditional conception constitutes, although indirectly, the historical background of many of today’s debates on the relationships between ethics and literature, and that it is still an underlying focus of many “ingenuous” readings of literary texts. In the United States in particular, a context that is not immediately comparable to the European one, this traditional perspective constitutes the basic structure of the field known as “ethical criticism”, a field that is quite well established but which, nevertheless, may aggravate the problems inherent in the conventional approach. This may often turn into a content-oriented, controversial examination of passages from literary works which come from periods that are far from our own, and bear little resemblance to today’s shared ethics. For example, Jane Austen’s novels are criticized for the subordinate social role given to women; Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is read as a testimony of European orientalism and of its prejudices concerning Africa;  Proust’s Recherche has been rejected as a testimony of egocentrism and affective solipsism. This content-directed moralism, with its approach which sees works of the past through today’s eyes, runs the risk of losing sight of what is truly significant in a literary work, without obtaining much in exchange.

Thus one has the impression that today a truly practicable theory of the ethics of literature should be developed with full respect for the principle of autonomy. In other words, it should look at how the text works and not at its direct content; or, using a distinction already present in Plato’s thought, an ethics of literature should consider “how” a literary work is developed and expresses ideas, and not “what” it says. In this sense, it is possible to suggest three central nuclei in a potential ethics of literature. The first is knowledge, which refers to the fact that literature is a form of knowledge involving an emotionally influenced interpretation of the world, that is to say characterized by the reader’s identification with and specific participation in what is being described. The second central nucleus refers to the concept of pietas, that is to say the compassionate care with which the literary work preserves in the reader’s memory elements which would otherwise be lost. The third central nucleus  is orientation, which can operate in two directions.  First of all, the work orients the reader, thanks to the manifold knowledge it transmits, in a kind of cartography which identifies striking and punctiform meanings, which can never be included in a systematic pattern of thought. Then the work orients the reader in late modernity by presenting itself as a model, as a form of knowledge endowed with pietas, and thus characterized by attention, respect, care and preservation.

An ethics of literature thus outlined, precisely because it postulates and respects the autonomy of the literary work, seems to be able to distance itself quite well from the limits of the traditional conception. Above all, however, it is a way to confirm once again the meaning and value of the literary experience, even in a period like ours, which does not seem to need it at all. It is in effect difficult to deny the fact that in late modernity societies are dominated by what Heidegger calls calculating thought or what Habermas refers to as instrumental rationality (the relationship with the world that Schiller criticized calling it «tabular understanding»): in a word, the increasing tendency to apply economic reasoning to all aspects of life. If this is true,  literature, considered as a form of knowledge endowed with participation, pietas and preservation, and as a way of orienting the reader towards these very values, appears concretely, albeit unobtrusively, as a model of experience that is an alternative to the current ones. It thus may help us to hold back the pervasiveness of the technical-economic logic.

For further information, see also:

Pino Menzio, Da Baudelaire al limite estetico. Etica e letteratura nella riflessione francese, Libreria Stampatori, Torino 2008.

Pino Menzio, Nel darsi della pagina. Un’etica della scrittura letteraria, Libreria Stampatori, Torino 2010.


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].


In Greek and Latin culture, literature was already being interpreted as an expressive place whose role was to preserve the memory of people and events that otherwise would be forgotten: for example the loved one in Sappho and in Theognis, or the combatants at the Thermopylae  in Simonides of Ceos. This memorial function has since become a well-accepted  topos, used again intentionally by Foscolo in Sepolcri. It also inspires a famous passage in Zibaldone, crucial for the definition of Leopardi’s theory of poetry, in which the specific object of poetry is identified not in the present reality, but in what is far away in space and time, and which therefore must be captured, and preserved, in the piteous light of memory. Precisely in this sense, for Leopardi, it is memory or «remembrance», the attention for what “is no longer” because it is remote, already finished and lost, that constitutes «the essential and principal element of the poetic sentiment».

«Any object, for example a place, a site, a field in the countryside, no matter how beautiful it may be, is not poetic to look at unless it arouses some form of memory. The same object, even a site or a very common thing, although non-poetic in itself, will become highly poetic when it is  being remembered. Remembrance is the essential and principal element of the poetic sentiment, if for no other reason than that the present, no matter what it may be, cannot be poetic; and the poetic, in one way or another, is always found in what is far away, indefinite, and vague».[1]

Clearly,  Leopardi thinks that the present cannot be poetic, because it is only the past that is poetic:  but the past is poetic precisely because the specific task of poetry is to preserve the past (what is transitory and caducous, that which was but is no longer) in the preserving light of memory.

In philosophic terms, the aim of saving the memory of what would otherwise be lost is a central part of Benjamin’s thoughts, which look in the direction of a Messianic time, set outside of history, in which all the past is saved or redeemed, with no distinction made between small and important events. Throughout Benjamin’s works, this task of salvation is at different times entrusted to different concepts. In The Task of the Translator (1923) what is saved is a linguistic function («To set free in his own language the pure language spellbound in the foreign one, to liberate the pure language imprisoned in the work by rewriting it, is the translator’s task»).[2] In The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928) people and concrete events are preserved in the reader’s memory through allegoric figures («One of the strongest motives behind the allegoric concept is the perception of the transitory nature of things and the desire to save them by transporting them into eternity»).[3] In the notes of the Arcades Project, the preservation in the memory is carried out through the concepts of images or dialectic images, and in the thesis On the Concept of History (1940) the same role is attributed to quotations. Thus it can be seen that all the concepts used by Benjamin to identify this redemptive sphere («pure language», allegory, image, quotation) are directly linked to the field of literature; this confirms the claim that one of the most typical functions of literature is precisely that of saving in the reader’s memory that which is fragile, transitory, marginal and destined to disappear forever.

This function of literature also emerges in one of the main passages in Truth and Method by Gadamer, which analyzes what happens in the relationship with a work of art. The  first part of the passage clearly explains the fact that the work is a form of knowledge, of access to the deeper meaning of things; in the end, however, Gadamer points out that artistic and literary knowledge saves its own objects from the confusion, variability and dispersion which they are submerged in; it takes them away from the basically phatic register of everyday communication and delivers them with pietas to the reader’s memory.

«What is really experienced in a work of art, that is to say what attracts our attention, is rather whether or not it is true; it is the fact that the person who contemplates it can know and recognize something in it, and at the same time know and recognize him/herself. What  recognition is in its deepest essence cannot be understood if we limit ourselves to state that it means that something that is already known is known again, that the known is recognized.  The pleasure of recognition consists instead in the fact that it implies that one knows more than what is already known. During recognition the known thing emerges, almost as if it were newly illuminated, from the randomness and variability of the conditions in which it is usually immersed, and is captured in its essence».[4]

Pietas, intended as compassionate attention towards what is mortal, fragile and ephemeral, is also central to Gianni Vattimo’s weak ontology. For him, pietas is precisely that «other term which, together with An-denken and Verwindung,  can be taken to characterize the weak thought that goes beyond metaphysics».[5] According to Heidegger, we cannot have full prehension of Being but only remembrance, traces, memories. Mortality and caducity are thus not traits that are limited to finite entities, but also touch Being. As a result, no experience of the world can take place without being aware of this mortality; and according to Vattimo, the post-modern subject is called upon to relate to this with «the pietas that is due to the traces of what once was».[6] The specific place for this pietas is the literary work, which can be seen as a weakened monument, as a «low voice, Gering»[7] the temporal essence of which is not different from that of Being: in other words, it can be seen as an act of witnessing and salvation of something transitory, marginal and unrelated, that would be lost in time, but is instead saved in the trace and memory left by the text.

The literary work is, thus, ethical to the extent that it preserves in the reader’s memory that which is destined to be lost: in particular that which is humble, part of everyday life, and apparently irrelevant, as are in general the objects described in novels, short stories and poetry. In this preserving focus, literature proposes a model that is quite different from that of the market economy which, on the contrary, operates via the permutation of all goods, in a process that becomes always faster and faster, as they must be consumed and immediately replaced by others. But this constant shortening of the product’s life-cycle, which is necessary to sustain consumption, implies in reality that the single things (or persons) have no real importance, since they are immediately replaced by others; what counts is the whole process. Literature, on the other hand, looks at every single thing with affection and attention, no matter how marginal, minor, unproductive or irrelevant it may be, and considers it worth saving: in this way, perhaps, it suggests that it is possible to get away from the logic of the market and its application to the whole real world.

[1] Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone di pensieri, a cura di Anna Maria Moroni, Mondadori, Milano 1983, II, p. 1166 [4426].

[2] Walter Benjamin, Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers, in Gesammelte Schriften, Bd. IV/1, hrsg. von Tillman Rexroth, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a. M. 1991, p. 19.

[3] Walter Benjamin, Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels, in Gesammelte Schriften, Bd. I/1, hrsg. von Rolf Tiedemann u. Hermann Schweppenhäuser, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a. M. 1991, p. 397.

[4] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode. Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik, Mohr, Tübingen 1960, p. 109.

[5] Gianni Vattimo, Dialettica, differenza, pensiero debole, in Aa. Vv., Il pensiero debole, a cura di Gianni Vattimo e Pier Aldo Rovatti, Feltrinelli, Milano 1983, p. 22.

[6] Ibidem.

[7] Ibid., p. 28.


One of the most effective images used to describe the punctiform nature of literary knowledge and its orientation function comes from the stars. The symbolic reference to stars recurs frequently, for example, in a kind of poetry that is typically auto-referential (that speaks about itself) and poetological (that speaks about Poetry in general), like that of Mallarmé. One of the most significant aspects of the use of this image can be found in Mallarmé where the symbol of the stars is associated with the sunset, which in turn represents the fading of personal illusions, of religious faith, of the historical, political and cultural foundations of the nineteenth century: in other words, it refers directly to the phenomenon of European nihilism. It is by no means a coincidence that, even without knowledge of each other’s works, Nietzsche, in the same period, also used the image of the sunset to describe the death of God.[1] Thus it is in this context of night and darkness that Mallarmé’s poetry declares its essence in the image of the stars:  the «seven splendid lights» that conclude the Sonnet in -yx or the «constellation / cold from oblivion and disuse» into which the Throw of the Dice changes in the end. These lights stand out in the sky to indicate a multitude of meanings, and to suggest a wide variety of orientations. It is not uncommon to find in Mallarmé the symbol of the stars mixing with the metaphor, also auto-referential, of a voyage at sea, creating lines of extreme density, like «Solitude, rock, star» in Greeting, or as in the similar passage «Night, desperation and jewels» in Vasco’s Sonnet. These triptychs express the human cost of the poetic experience, the risk of being shipwrecked at night, and the orientation function of poetry, whose star-like light (or like that of a diamond) helps one to find one’s way in the obscured world, or to map out one’s own route.

In a less direct way, the orientation function of literature can also be seen in Benjamin’s works, in particular in those that analyze the modern metropolis as a specific location and as a remarkably effective image of a vast collection of persons, things and messages that can no longer be all brought back to an all-encompassing theoretical system. In this context, the notes of the Arcades Project suggest that the Parisian flâneur does not wander aimlessly around the city, but rather finds his way there by following the thresholds and the street names. The latter, however, have an ambivalent status between order («The city, with the names of its streets, is the image of a linguistic cosmos»)[2] and chaos («What has the modern metropolis done with the ancient concept of a labyrinth?  It has raised it to the level of language, through the names of its street network» which makes up the metropolis).[3]  Above all, however, street names are not merely toponymic signs; they are real symbolic nuclei, or poetic words. Organically linked to what they designate, they can make «our perception more complex and stratified that it really is in our daily life».[4]

«When the electric lights went on, the internal splendour of the arcades faded away and concentrated in their names. But the name became like a filter that let only the most intimate, bitter essence of what was come through. (For real travellers, the exciting, mysterious power of the name lies in this marvellous capacity to distil the present as the intimate essence of what once was)».[5]

A similar example of the orientation through names, that is to say through poetic words, can be seen in Berlin Childhood around 1900. In this collection of autobiographic texts, in which Benjamin describes how he gave a meaning to the world around him when he was young, he insists on a particular naming activity in which he slightly modified the names of streets, markets, neighbourhoods and monuments in Berlin, thus creating arbitrary, but evocative associations, full of new meanings.  This passage, for example, shows how Benjamin recalls the place where he went to catch butterflies.

«The air in which the butterfly once hovered is today imbued with a word – one that has not reached my ears or crossed my lips for decades. This word has retained that unfathomable reserve which childhood names possess for the adult. Long-kept silence, long concealment, has transfigured them. Thus, through air teeming with butterflies vibrates the word “Brauhausberg”, which is to say “Brewery Hill”. It was on the Brauhausberg near Potsdam that we had our summer residence. But the name has lost all heaviness, contains nothing more of any brewery [Brauhaus] and is, at most, a blue-misted [Bläue] hill that rose up every summer to give lodging to my parents and me. And that is why the Potsdam of my childhood lies in air so blue [in so blauer Luft], as though all its butterflies – its mounting cloaks and admirals, peacocks and auroras – were scattered over one of those glistening Limoges enamels on which the ramparts and battlements of Jerusalem stand out against a dark blue ground [vom dunkelblauen Grunde]».[6]

One can see that the colour blue (blau), which permeates and transforms the memory of this place, comes directly from the term Brau, which is taken over by the young protagonist by the way he pronounces it as a child, transforming the “r” into “l”;  and it is precisely this change that creates a totally new suggestion. Benjamin comments in another chapter of Berlin Childhood:  «Misunderstanding disarranged the world for me. But in a good way:  it lit up the paths to the world’s interior. The cue could come from anywhere. […] If I distorted myself and the word in this way, I was only doing what I had to do to set foot in my life»,[7] in other words to orient myself in it. This spontaneous operation on linguistic elements is, however, one that is precisely (and technically) poetic; likewise the central and original nucleus of the literary experience consists in the attribution of meanings through words.  In more specific terms, both the flâneur in the Arcades Project and the protagonist of Berlin Childhood can say,  like Ungaretti in La pietà: «I populated the silence with words»: that is to say I filled a space, which otherwise would have been shapeless and de-semanticized,  with poetic meanings, and oriented it in a new cartography.[8]

[1] Cfr. in particular § 343 in The Gay Science.

[2] Walter Benjamin, Das Passagen-Werk, in Gesammelte Schriften, Bd. V/2, hrsg. von Rolf Tiedemann, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a. M. 1991, p. 1008 (F°, 20).

[3] Ibid., p. 1007 (F°, 19).

[4] Ibid., p. 1021 (L°, 25).

[5] Ibid., p. 1002 (D°, 6).

[6] Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood around 1900, trans. by Howard Eiland, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 2006, p. 82.

[7] Walter Benjamin, Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert, in Gesammelte Schriften, Bd. IV/1, hrsg. von Tillman Rexroth, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a. M. 1991, pp. 260-261.

[8] For more on this topic consult:  Pino Menzio, Orientarsi nella metropoli. Walter Benjamin e il compito dell’artista, Moretti & Vitali, Bergamo 2002.