Philosophical Fiction

A few nights ago, Jim and I sat up late discussing philosophy.

Yes.  We really do this sort of thing.

A Few Renault Novels

Jim admitted he’d never really understood philosophy or why the questions philosophy tries to answer are important for us to study.  When I’d been an undergraduate, Fordham University had just re-designed the curriculum in reaction to some of the more unstructured educational theories of the 1970’s.  Therefore, I’d actually had something closer to a classical education.  This included metaphysics, epistemology, some existentialism, and, later on, a very interesting course in bioethics.

Despite all of this, I confessed to Jim that I didn’t really understand why philosophy mattered until I learned more about the historical context in which it evolved.  Despite my excellent professors and my own extensive later education, none of this was what opened the door for me.  What did was a novel by Mary Renault called The Last of the Wine.

I’m not sure when I first read a Mary Renault novel, but I’m pretty sure the one I first encountered was The King Must Die, her excellent retelling of the story of Theseus from Greek mythology.  In it, she takes the scattered hero tales, places them in a historical context that includes many of the archeological discoveries of Evans on Crete, and makes them into a coherent story.  The sequel, The Bull From the Sea, follows up with the later part of Theseus’s life.

I liked these novels a lot, especially since even then, long before I met my archeologist husband I was interested in anthropology.  I’m pretty sure that when I picked up The Last of the Wine, I was hoping for more of the same.  Instead, what I got was a historical novel set in the time when Athens was a ruling power in the Greek world not only in military strength, but in cultural impact.

Alexias, the main character, begins the novel as a boy rising into manhood.  Since we’ve talked about narrative hooks before (WW 10-19-11), I can’t resist sharing the novel’s opening lines:

“When I was a young boy, when I was sick or in trouble, I used to remember that on the day I was born my father had wanted to kill me.

“You will say there is nothing out of the way in this.  Yet I daresay it is less common than you might suppose; for as a rule, when a father decides to expose an infant, it is done and there the matter ends.  And it is seldom a man can say, either of the Spartans or the plague, that he owes them life instead of death.”

I was caught from that moment on.  The first line might have been that of any young man in a modern novel caught in conflict with his father, but the second opens a door to an entirely different world view – one where a father killing his son is routine and acceptable.  The final sentences provide the historical context, including Spartans and plague.

As The Last of the Wine continues, we enter this world.  Americans in particular are taught to see the Athenians as our ancestors.  Like us, they valued democracy as a system of government.  However, Mary Renault shows us not only the similarities but the differences.  And, through Alexias (a fictional character), we come to know Sokrates, Alkibiades, and other historical figures to whom philosophy was not a matter of dry texts taught in stuffy classrooms, but  an unfolding way of thought that would transform Western civilization – and their own life choices.

With this novel, why philosophy mattered suddenly made sense to me.  I’d go as far as saying I wish it had been the very first text taught in my introductory philosophy course.  I think if I’d read it first, Plato’s symposia would have made a great deal more sense and Aristotle might not have put me to sleep.

Yet it is a novel.  I’m certain Mary Renault did her absolute best with the historical documents available to her at the time.  Doubtless, there have been new discoveries since the 1950’s when the book was published.  Would they invalidate the novel as a tool for understanding the Athenians and their world?

I know that further archeological discoveries on Crete have shed doubts on Evans’ interpretations of his archeological discoveries.  Does that mean The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea have lost any value as anything other than entertainment?

I’m not sure.  I know I learned more about not only the Napoleonic wars but the larger context in which they were fought from the novels of Patrick O’Brian than I did from any history course.  George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels gave me a twisted but interesting view of the spread of the British empire.  Yet both of these novelists state in the notes to their novels that in the interests of narrative they took liberties with the order of historical events.

Should fiction be intermingled with history in the classroom or would there be too much unlearning to do?  Just wondering and wandering on…

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10 Responses to “Philosophical Fiction”

  1. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    Absolutely, fiction should be intermingled with history, at the very least in introductory courses. As you said, it gives life to otherwise dull and/or difficult matter. A particularly good novel makes us care about the characters, and thus, ususlly also about the issues they face. How delightful it would be to take a class in which the students invested their emotions in the subject matter!

  2. heteromeles Says:

    I feel like suggesting that it’s difficult to teach history without some fiction creeping in, from what is covered to how it’s covered. There’s nothing like reading, say, a native American version of the settlement of the western US to make things look very different.

    Still, I think accurate history can be a venue for good story-telling, with no fiction at all. For example, Charles Mann’s 1491 and 1493 are as factual as he could make them, and they’re gripping reading. So was At Dawn We Slept, which I read back in high school.

    I’m currently reading Meyer and Brysac’s Tournament of Shadows about the Great Game (subtitle: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia), told from the view of the spies, conquers, and secret agents in the field. Everything from Madame Blavatsky to Rudyard Kipling’s Kim to the founding of the CIA gets covered, and it’s fascinating reading. There’s got to be material for at least a dozen fantasy novels in here.

    • janelindskold Says:

      _Tournament of Shadows_ sounds like a good read. Maybe it’s because I grew up in DC, but I’m always more interested in the war behind the battles than the battles themselves.

      • heteromeles Says:

        Hope you get a chance. It’s pretty cheap on Amazon right now. I’m playing with the notion of what the Great Game would have looked like if it played out in Faery, or in HP Lovecraft’s Dreamlands. It puts a whole new spin on the war for hearts and minds…

  3. Tori Says:

    As very much a concrete thinker, philosophy is largely lost on me. It has to be cleverly hidden in fiction for me to appreciate it.

    Certainly fiction with historical figures in it has made me more interested in the real history. I do anticipate the problem of students (or teachers!) getting the history and fiction confused in a classroom context though.

  4. Alan Robson Says:

    There’s a school of thought that claims that being knowledgeable about a subject consists in knowing lots of facts about it (something that is, unfortunately, all too often reflected in school exams). I’ve always regarded facts as being rather unimportant — if you need a fact, you can always look it up. Deeper understanding and deeper knowledge comes from examining the ideas that lie behind the facts and, it seems to me, that novels are a perfect way to do this. And a historical novel is perhaps the best example.

    A story (we all love stories) is the sugar that helps the complexities slide down rather more smoothly. Characters you care about can often make the abstract very concrete.

    The importance of philosophy in the classical world definitely has its place even today. have you read “Zen And The Art Of Motor Cycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig? It’s a truly superb examination of classical philosophy together with what you might easily call its practical implications.


    -Alan

  5. heteromeles Says:

    Wow, it took me a day to remember to thank Jane for reminding me of those Mary Renault books. I haven’t read them, but since my partner got me a reproduction bronze sword for Christmas (wonderful gift!), I’ve gotten much more interested in the era.

    As for philosophy, alas. I spoiled myself for the subject as an undergrad by reading Chuang Tzu, and the Tao te Ching. I still treasure the expression on an Oxfordian professor’s face when I pointed out that his precious 20th Century relativism had actually been first articulated by Chuang Tzu in the 4th Century BCE if not earlier. I’ve always been a contrarian, I fear.

    • janelindskold Says:

      You are very welcome.

      I just finished re-reading _The Last of the Wine_. It’s not exactly a bright and light story — Athens is paying the consequences for hubris — but it’s a very good story.

      And the epilogue is absolutely brilliant, but you need to read the novel to know why.

  6. Paul Says:

    I have a much better idea of what life was like in merry olde England by reading Charles Dickens than by reading history texts about it. You can better understand the effects of the Depression on individuals by watching “It Happened One Night” than by reading the history. I’m all for mixing in the fiction — as long as we understand that it is fiction.

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