JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias

Chapter IV.
Summary and Conclusion.

LITERATURE is the expression of man's affections as influenced by society, the material world, and his Creator. It expresses individual feelings, as in the lyric; national feelings, as in the epic; and appeals to our common humanity, as in the drama.

2. Its fundamental principle is that a common humanity underlies our individual personalities.

3. Its legitimate function is to interpret the fainter emotions of our nature.

4. Its origin dates from the fall, and man's consequent degeneracy.

5. Climate influences language and language reacts in the moulding of thought. There are "plastic moments" of language, when it throws off the chrysalis of an old speech and puts on the garb of a new one. and at such moments appear geniuses who give it a significance it retains afterwards. Such geniuses are Homer, Dante, the author of the Nibelungen-lied, and Shakespeare.

6. The architecture of a people, as a rule, is inspired by a spirit akin to that which inspires its literature. It is therefore an excellent counter-check in determining the predominant spirit of a people or an age, and should not be overlooked in criticism. He has but a partial acquaintance with Mediaeval Europe who shuts his eyes upon the Gothic cathedrals.

7. There are epochs when the expression of a people is mature, rounded, fully developed. Society has an external polish. Language reflects the refinement which society affects. It also is polished, and becomes the standard for after-times. Such epochs develop the drama. Given a people with an initial literature, engaged in a long period of struggle, and triumphantly issuing from that struggle, a golden era of literature may be predicted for such a people immediately after the first flush of victory. A Pericles will beautify his Athens. An Augustus will find his Rome of brick, and will leave it of marble. And then can we look for the decline of that nation; for with refinement in manners, in letters, in art and architecture, there invariably appears corruption. Labor is the law of life. When men cease to fulfil that law -- when, instead, they abandon themselves to a life of ease and indolence, they already begin to hatch the germs of degeneracy. Such is the lesson to be learned from the law of literary epochs.

8. Literature is the varied expression of thought, laboring under emotions produced by different influences. Religion and philosophy are among the most potential. They shape the same thought in many ways. They underlie the whole history of literature.

9. The sum of thought is a constant quantity. Time may develop and apply in different directions the same thought, so that it appears a new idea. Strip it of its accidentals of time and place, and it will be seen to be an old acquaintance. And this suggests a good rule in reading. Deduct all the negations, all the side views, all the merely illustrative matter,. all the digressions of a book, and it will be found that the absolutely positive in it -- the main idea -- can be condensed in the space of a paragraph.

10. The spirit of rationalism, fostered by the Renaissance, and fanned into a great religious flame by Martin Luther, is, in its nature, tendency, and results, destructive of sound thought, inasmuch as it doubts, denies, and grows inconsistent, without adding or developing any positive idea, and thus begets illogical habits of mind. The instinct of faith is necessary for man. Those loudest in its abuse are in a thousand ways its creatures. All great intellectual discoveries and achievements are based on this instinct.

11. The spirit of rationalism undid the work of centuries by widening the breach between the secular and religious elements of society. To reconcile these two elements is the great problem of modern thinkers, and the most earnest efforts to solve it seem to have no other effect than to widen the breach. Witness the theories of Positivism, Evolutionism, Hegelism, and Pessimism. The great social characteristic of ancient times was, that the religious and secular elements were harmoniously blended. This harmony is reflected in their literature. Its absence is felt in ours. A completely developed modern literature will only result from this harmonious development.

12. Modern subjectivism is a literary disease. It arises from the spirit of rationalism. In breaking from the moorings of the past, men found in themselves only self for a criterion; they adopted it, and made it enter into all their views.

13. We must go beyond self for the source of truth, which is also the source of beauty. In God is found both. But, beginning with the denial of revelation, men have ended with the denial of God. Hence there is no science in modern times beyond the science of the material. The science of beauty is not explicable in the light of materialistic principles. The beautiful is the expression of the ideal -- the created ideal placed in man by the creative act, and recognized more or less clearly when the sense of the beautiful is awakened in the soul.

14. Literature is classical in proportion as it expresses the beautiful. Eliminate that, no matter how broken its reflection may be, and there is destroyed the conservative element that constitutes the essence of a classic. Unbelief, in destroying the religious basis of literature, weakens its power.

15. Literature requires art. Art in its highest expression is the product of genius. Genius is talent intensified. As art is imitative of the creative act of God, and as whatever God creates is symbolical of Himself inasmuch as it symbolizes some one or other of His attributes, so the product of art is expressive of the ideal in the artist's mind, and the more faithful the expression is, the more the creative intellect resembles the Divine Mind; and as that Mind has but one idea -- His own essence -- if that may be called an idea which is essentially subject and object -- Himself -- so the more elevated the intelligence is, the less is the number of ideas in which it comprehends all things.

16. As literature reflects the Divinity in its most essential characteristics, the higher, the holier, the more ennobling it is, the more clearly it reflects these characteristics. It fulfils its true mission, then, according as it ennobles man's nature, and makes it like to Him who said: "Be ye holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy;" and it is ennobling to man's nature in proportion as it is in strict accordance with the immutable laws of morality. The morality of life is not one thing, and the morality of art another. They are both one. This is a Canon of criticism the critic should hold to under all circumstances.


In reading the history of a particular country, the student sees a people rise from comparative barbarism to civilization; he is very apt to generalize the fact, and say that such has been the order of things from the beginning; and he has but one more step to take in asserting that man is a development of the lower order of life. Rousseau prepared the way for Darwin and Herbert Spencer. But when all literature is taken into account; when we see nation instruct nation; when we realize the fact that society is a creature of education, that men may invent a new mechanical power, but that they cannot create an idea; we are led to seek a beginning for this infusion of knowledge, and we find it when God created everything good and perfect in its kind, and gave man dominion over the earth and all it contains;{1} when he brought "all the beasts of the earth and all the fowls of the air. . . . to Adam to see what he would call them;"{2} when, to use the beautiful words of a voice that is stilled for time, "He plants an Eden for His new-made creatures, and there comes to them Himself; and the evenings of the young world are consecrated by familiar colloquies between the creatures and their Creator."{3} When God walked with Adam "in Paradise at the afternoon air,"{4} what profound secrets His presence must have revealed to this child of earth! What grand thoughts he must have suggested! What mysteries unravelled! What revelations made known! The knowledge that men boast of to-day is, in its totality, but a broken fragment of that grand whole possessed, in germ and principle, by the primeval man.

{1} Genesis, i., 26.

{2} Ibid., ii. 19.

{3} Father Faber, The Creator and The Creature, p. 132.

{4} Genesis, iii. 8.

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