JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias

Philosophy of Literature. Part I.
Principles and Facts.

Chapter I.
Definition and Fundamental Principle of Literature.

LITERATURE is the verbal expression of man's affections as acted upon in his relations with the material world, society, and his Creator; that expression being as varied as the moods that pass over his soul, whether they speak of love or hatred, of joy or sorrow, of fear or hope. In a word, the language that addresses itself to the human in man is literature. It may be abstract, as in metaphysics; but so long as it deals with questions that touch him as intimately as his origin and his destiny, so long will it possess a charm for all times and all peoples. Matters purely scientific do not possess this trait. Men enjoyed the Light of day as well when the corpuscular theory was in vogue as they do at present, convinced of its absurdity, and of the truth of the wave theory. But he who reads the history of society, and studies the trials and triumphs and failures of individuals like himself -- who has watched the ways of a Pendennis and a Copperfield, or followed Evangeline in her tried and beautiful life, or imbibed the deeper and more earnest lessons taught by a Job and an Augustine -- will learn to look more kindly on his fellow-man; the light in which humanity will appear to him will be all the brighter for his extended acquaintance. The characteristic of literature is to speak in the ordinary everyday language of humanity, as distinguished from the technical language of science. "It is co-extensive with thought and with science, ranging as it does through every form of being, from the inmost depth of consciousness in the soul to the farthest and highest point outside of it, which is God, the Author of all being. It differs from thought not only in form, being its outward expression, and as it were its garment, but also because to thought it adds feeling; it differs from science, because it seeks to realize not only the true, but likewise the beautiful."{1}

Literature appeals to the sentiments in their widest range, from the sphere of simple delight, such as is afforded by the fable, the nursery tale, or the popular scientific treatise, through all phases of passion, to the intense strain of terror or pity inspired by tragedy. It enlists the reader's attention; it moves him to tears; it excites him to mirth and laughter; and often, while professing only to please, it initiates him into all the secrets of the heart.

Literature has its roots deep in the nature of man. He thinks, feels, and speaks; he has the faculty of remembering and the power of recording; and instinctively he believes his own soul to be the mirror in which he may read other men's. Hence the saying so frequently used: "He judges others by himself;" and its frequency shows how universally it is considered a criterion. "We are so constituted that each regards himself as the mirror of society; what passes in our own heart seems to us to be infallibly the history of the whole world."{2} It may therefore be concluded that the fundamental principle of all literature is that a common humanity underlies our individual personalities. What affects one, has power, as a rule, to affect all. For each of us is it true that he is a stranger to nothing human.

"Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto."{3}

Literature varies in its forms. These forms are limited by the social conditions under which they are produced. All literary ideals are determined by the environment of human association from which they issue. The ideals of one age are not the ideals of another. Individual character has much to do in moulding both form and expression; the social conditions influencing the author are no less potent in giving color and tone to his composition. The clan-spirit underlying that sum of social conditions out of which the poem of Beowulf grew, is widely different from the high culture, the philosophic grasp of thought and the complex social relations out of which is evolved In Memoriam or The Ring and the Book. Hence we may infer that a law of progress and of limitations runs through the history of all literature, and that literature varies in its ends according to the degree of civilization embodied in the manners, customs and modes of thinking of the people to whom it appeals.

{1} Mgr. James A. Corcoran: American Catholic Quarterly Review, vol. ii. p. 188. The passage occurs in a review of the second edition of this work.

{2} "Nous sommes ainsi faits que chacun de nous se regarde comme le miroir de la société; ce qui se passe dans notre coeur nous parait infailliblement l'histoire de l'univers." -- EMILE SOUVESTRE, Un {3} Terence. Heautontimorumenos, I. i. 25.

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