Why Literature Matters: Some Presuppositional Considerations (Pt.3)


[Continued from Pt.1 & 2]

Epistemological Self-Deception

In a literary text, self-deception is not only attributable to the characters of the text, including the narrator, but also to the author. An author’s intention is often betrayed by the text he produces. How an author claims he views the world, in other words, is often contradicted by how he represents the world in his writing. Returning briefly to the so-called “Underground man,” it is easy to see how a character can contradict his explicitly stated intentions in writing. At a metanarratival level, however, there are very clear examples of this in texts which seek to promote a particular ideology but represent the opponents to their ideology in such a positive light that the original goal is either contradicted or altogether is never achieved.

A good example of such a contradictory intention-text relationship can be found in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton’s Satan was, according to many literary critics, portrayed in such a positive light as a rebel against monarchical demagoguery that critics still are not sure what to make of him. Is Milton’s Satan an anti-monarchy/anarchist hero? He is described in terms usually applied to the heroes of epic poems, after all. Is Milton’s Satan a fiendish enemy of God? He is, after all, described by the author as such. Although Milton believed he was writing a Christian epic (which he was not), he still portrayed the arch-enemy of God as a hero. Undergirding the narrative of Paradise Lost, then, are political beliefs that stand in contradiction to the overall picture which the narrative itself paints. The theological beliefs plainly ascribed to are contradicted by Milton’s underlying belief that kings and magistrates constituted an illegitimate form of government (see, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates). On its face, Paradise Lost extols the virtues of monarchical government as being reflective the kingdom of God; however, by portraying Satan as a hero, whose individualism and desire to rule himself (regardless of how good or bad the results of this self-rule turn out to be), Milton is embodying a set of political beliefs that are anti-monarchical, and to which he himself ascribed.

A similar argument can be made about Milton’s assumed empiricism and the Christian worldview which he thought he was portraying in his poem. In Milton and Empiricist Semiotics, Daniel Fried analyzes Milton’s work, and exposes the tension between his empiricist and nominalist philosophical assumptions, on the one hand, and the Christian faith’s teaching on the immateriality of God, angels, and the spirits of men, on the other hand. Likewise, Milton’s assumed empiricism comes into direct conflict with the opening chapters of Genesis where man is presented to us as being created with knowledge. From the first breath of life, Adam knows what God is saying to him, as well as the so-called “abstract” concepts of moral duty, life, death, love, companionship, the unification of two persons in a marital relationship, and so on. How can an empiricist epistemology coexist with these clear biblical declarations? In a word, they cannot.

Milton is not alone, however. To appeal to one more example, consider George Eliot’s novel Adam Bede. Briefly put, while the text is overtly concerned with downplaying strict doctrinal divisions among people, in George Eliot’s sinful and misguided attempt to steer her readers to act in kindness to others out of sympathy for their respective lots in life, the most morally upright man is Seth Bede. Seth Bede is the younger brother of Adam Bede, and he believes Scripture, reads it in its proper context, and applies it in accordance with its grammatical-historical interpretation. Eliot’s minor character, by virtue of his orthodox beliefs and righteous behavior, ironically, overturns the novel’s central assumption, viz. Doctrinal orthodoxy is trumped by sympathy towards one’s neighbor’s lot in life. Seth has both sound doctrine and upright behavior. There is no contradiction between the two, despite the narrator’s contrasting of sympathetic altruism and doctrinal orthodoxy.

  What’s worse, the narrator’s denigration of doctrinal division is, on the one hand, based upon the assumption that sympathetic altruism trumps strict adherence to doctrinal distinctives; yet, on the other hand, the narrative’s proposed doctrine (i.e. that doctrinalism is trumped by sympathetic altruism) is emphasized to the exclusion of any real reflection on Hetty Sorrel’s murder of her own child. The hypocrisy of Eliot, as well as of her narrator, becomes evident as the reader considers how the text cannot function without the death of this innocent infant, with whom, apparently, no one sympathizes.


[Continued in Pt.4]


2 thoughts on “Why Literature Matters: Some Presuppositional Considerations (Pt.3)

involve yourself

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