JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias

Chapter II
The Function of Literature.

MAN, as we now find him, is restless, ill satisfied with himself, seldom content with the sphere in which his duties lie, and always looking above and beyond, dreaming of ideal worlds and ideal situations, in which he loves to forget the smoke and dust, the thorny paths and stony roads, through which he moves in his every-day existence. Literature fosters and partially satisfies this craving of his nature. It bears him into the regions of the sublime, the beautiful, the marvellous; and his soul rejoices in the transfer. Deep in the recesses of his heart there resound vague whisperings, the exact import of which fancy seems incompetent to catch -- spectres of thought to which imagination has been unable to give shape or hue; weak impulses, whither tending he cannot tell. These it is the function of literature to interpret. It also evokes ideas; for man is so much the creature of education, so totally helpless is he when isolated, that his intelligence cannot be developed until external influences are brought to bear upon it. The clash of thought educes new thought. Mind influences mind, even over the chasm of ages. VergIl bows before Homer, and Dante acknowledges Vergil to be his master and model. For a thousand years Aristotle is the inspiration of the philosophical world. The genius of Thackeray expands only after it has been saturated with the master-pieces of Richardson and Fielding, Thus is wrought the chain of thought that girdles the world.

We cannot perceive in either literature or science that unlimited power which modern partisans conceive the one and the other to wield as reformers of the world and restorers of man's moral excellence. Were he a being of mere intellect, such a course were well. But no; man has a will to guide, passions to restrain, a duty to perform; and neither literature nor science alone can avail him in these higher purposes of life. Knowledge and virtue do not always go hand in hand. The result of this misguided movement has been expressed by the poet of the day: "Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers, and I linger on the shore, And the individual withers, and the world is more and more."{1}

Let the people have literature and science; let them have museums and reading-rooms and popular lectures; but let them have more. Let them have religion. It will restrain violence; it will be their solace when beset with difficulties, their support when all else fails them, their happiness here, and their guiding-star through life to the great hereafter that awaits them. It alone has power to reform and perfect man's moral nature. It alone gives nations their first progressive impulse. It is the basis of civilization. It has inspired the sublimest themes in all literature. It has laid down and enforced those moral laws that are the chief characteristic of our superiority. All this is beyond the sphere of literature, the legitimate function of which is to awaken sentiments and draw out parts in our nature almost smothered by the cares and duties of life.

{1} TENNYSON, Locksley Hall.

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