Article of the Week

Article of the Week: Great Literature and Ethics

Does reading great literature make us better human beings? Gregory Currie asks just this question in an essay posted yesterday on The Opinionator, the online commentary blog of The New York Times. In his essay, Currie defines great literature broadly as “challenging works of literary fiction” or “the classics” and better as “bright, socially competent and empathetic people.”

Currie challenges readers to think more closely about their generally held belief that reading literature makes you a better human being. Delving into philosophy and psychology research and theory, Currie highlights how little can be proved (or disproved) about the “civilizing” effects of literature on the human psyche.

While Currie dismisses the notion that literature is merely an arbitrary category that serves as a “badge of membership to the elite,”  he raises the red flag of challenge to readers. Our belief in the power of literature, he claims, has been founded on nothing but “airy sentiments” and we should start putting more manpower into research supporting our belief.

Do we need hard evidence or is the power of reading to morally improve us something that should be taken on faith?

Read and decide for yourself:


~ Michelle


2 thoughts on “Article of the Week: Great Literature and Ethics

  1. I don’t agree with Currie’s definition of “better.” But whatever definition of “better” you subscribe to, I think that most influences on human behavior are contingent on the choices of the individuals in question. In order for something to influence a person a certain way, the person has to let it influence him that way.

    • I agree that Currie bases his argument on concepts that may be overly vague–“better” human beings or “challenging” works of literary fiction. I’m not even necessarily convinced that only great literature has the power to make a difference. I think what you have to say is also very insightful. We can chose for literature to make us more empathetic humans, while it’s equally possible to gain nothing from the experience. So, I agree that choice likely plays an important role, but I think there are other influences, too. How you were raised–what values you learned, in school and in your family. Value systems that you pick up over the course of your life from peer groups. And so on.

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