Literature and Morality

There are two schools of thought holding opposite views about Literature or Art in general. The view of the moralists, philosophers and Puritans is that the writer does, and inevitably does, influence the lives and character of his readers; and therefore he should try to be a good influence. The view of aesthetes, who believe in the theory of Art for Art’s sake, is that, on the contrary, the writer cannot influence his readers; or, alternatively, that he can, but must never try. For them literature is wine. Only its pleasure-value matters.
The theory of Art for Art’s sake came into prominence in the nineteenth century in France. Its important champion was Gautier who believed that Art is not merely amoral, but anti-moral. Flaubert, a great novelist of France, who also believed in this theory, remarked: “No great poet has ever drawn conclusions”. Baudelaire, another great writer, pronounced: “Poetry has no end beyond itself. If a poet has followed a moral end, he has diminished his poetic force and the result is most likely to be bad.”
In England the theory of Art for Art’s sake did not move so fast or so far as in France, though it went quite far enough. It was started by Swinburne, but the most important figure was Walter Pater, who could claim to be the major prophet of English Aestheticism. In his Studies in the History of the Renaissance, he made a significant remark: “Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive for us—for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself is the end”. Pater’s heir was Oscar Wilde, who went a good deal further. He remarked: “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written; that is all;” “No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism;” “All art is quite useless.”
On the other hand, the protagonists of the theory that Literature or Art has a moral purpose are of a far larger number than those who believe in the Art for Art’s sake theory, and in fact it is the former who at present hold the field. Plato and Aristotle both lay emphasis on the moral value of literature. Sir Philip Sidney in his Apologie for Poetrie argued that the value of creative literature lies in the fact that by adding emotional appeal to the finer human qualities, it can do more to make men finer than the philosophers can. Spenser wrote The Faery Queene in order to “fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline”. Milton wrote Paradise Lost with a view to “justifying the ways of God to man”. Dryden, a great poet and critic, expressed his view of the moral value of literature. He remarked: “Delight is the chief, if not the only end of poesy…The first rule for heroic or dramatic poet is to lay down to himself what that precept of morality shall be which he would insinuate into the people.”
Dr. Johnson seems to fluctuate in his view about the moral value of literature. From Shakespeare, he thought, one might collect ‘a system of civil and economical prudence”, and yet, he feels, Shakespeare “seems to write without any moral purpose”. But one sentence of Johnson summarises the truth admirably: “The only end of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” Endurance, of course, involves qualities of characters.
In the Romantic period Shelley remarked: “Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton are philosophers of the loftiest power”. Wordsworth emphasised the didactic element in literature when he remarked: “I am nothing if not a teacher”. Keats also, who was a worshipper of Beauty, wrote in Sleep and Poetry, that the great end of poesy is
that it should be a friend
To soothe the cares and lift the thoughts of men.
And in Hyperion he said that only those can be true poets “to whom the miseries of the world are miseries, and will not let them rest”.
In the Victorian period Matthew Arnold made a slight concession to the ethical demands of his age by defining poetry as the “criticism of life”; but Ruskin was the most emphatic in his view of the moral value of Art and Literature. According to him Art in the higher sense is supremely useful, in that it enables man to fulfill his real function, which is to be “the witness of the glory of God and to advance that glory by his reasonable obedience and resultant happiness.”
Another great writer of the nineteenth century who laid great stress on the moral aspect of Art and Literature was Tolstoy. According to him Art is “a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feeling, and indispensable for the life and progress towards well-being of individuals and humanity”. Some twentieth century writers have followed Tolstoy’s views in a milder form. H. G. Wells remarked that the writer should class himself “not with the artists, but with the teachers, the priests, and the prophets”.

Bernard Shaw remarked: “Art for Art’s sake means merely success for Money’s sake…Good art is never produced for its own sake. It is too difficult to be worth the effort.” Mr. Somerset Maugham is another modern writer who belongs to this group. He remarked: “The value of art is not in beauty, but in good action…Little as I like the deduction, I cannot but accept it; and this is that the work of art must be judged by its fruits, and if these are not good, it is valueless.”

If we look at this problem dispassionately, and weigh the arguments on both sides, we find that there is an element of exaggeration on both sides. The main purpose of literature, as we have already pointed out, is to give aesthetic pleasure, but it is wrong to say that literature should be amoral or anti-moral. On the other hand, the business of the literary artist is not to teach, but to exhibit. “Life ought to be like that,” says the moralist. “Life looks like that”, says the artist. Having had his intuition and being satisfied with that, the artist has no other duty except that of expressing it as perfectly as he can and communicating it to others. But we admit that moral considerations cannot fail to enter into the subject-matter of every artist who is handling life and character. A moral issue may characterise the theme which has been chosen—as it does in Hamlet, in Macbeth, and in most of the great tragedies of the world. Characters will often be lovable or the reverse according to the manner in which their moral attributes have been sympathetically treated. Morality being one of the principal issues in life belongs to the very fibre and texture of all literature. It cannot be otherwise, for life is its subject-matter.

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