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Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life

By Martha C. Nussbaum

Beacon, 143 pages, $20


Even in Plato’s Republic Socrates can already speak of “the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” quoting dismissive remarks now-unknown poets made about philosophy as though such jibes were common intellectual currency in his fourth-century b.c. Athens. But for us the “quarrel” begins when Plato banishes the poets from his ideal commonwealth”and the quarrel, as Martha Nussbaum often laments, continues even today.

The poets, Socrates complains early on in the Republic , thoughtlessly arouse emotions that cloud the citizen’s judgment; they present pictures of the gods’ behavior that young persons should be shielded from, lest they copy the shameful actions of the immortals. Socrates’ argument here is politically pragmatic, unconcerned whether the poets’ stories about the gods are true. But in the final book of the Republic , he returns to the poets to offer a further condemnation. In the intervening books he has developed the theory of the Forms (the ideal heavenly realities of which our material world offers mere copies), and so is now able to point out that poetry is not true, since its objects of representation are the things of this world. It presents us with mere imitations of imitations, copies of copies.

But of course Plato is a lover of poetry, and moreover a great poet himself. So it may not be surprising that he finds a possible means by which poetry may redeem itself and gain readmittance into the ideal polis: Poetry can defend itself, Socrates says, but it must speak philosophically, it must make an argument, it must put aside at least some of its power to charm the senses and the emotions. In short, poetry may enter the polis only on philosophy’s terms, not on its own.

From time to time, poets have taken up this challenge; in the English tradition one thinks especially of the sixteenth-century Sidney and the nineteenth-century Shelley. But still more poets have refused to play the game by the philosophers’ rules. Must poets, then, accept their permanent banishment? Not necessarily, for Socrates invites “those who aren’t poets but lovers of poetry” to show that poetry is “not only pleasant but also beneficial to regimes and human life. And we should listen benevolently. For surely we shall gain if it should turn out to be not only pleasant but beneficial.”

Some scholars have suggested that in his Poetics Aristotle does just this. Certainly that is what a modern (self-proclaimed) Aristotelian has done. In her recent book, Poetic Justice , Martha Nussbaum directly accepts the Socratic challenge. By the second page of her book, she has already linked modern political economists with Mr. Gradgrind, the fictional Benthamite educator and poetry-hater of Dickens’ Hard Times . Now she echoes (but goes beyond) the words of Plato:

If one should have some doubts about the books Mr. Gradgrind favors”as to their adequacy as visions of humanity, expressions of a complete sense of social life”one might then see in the very zeal of Mr. Gradgrind’s repudiation a reason to invite idle storybooks into the house to plead their cause. And if they should plead their cause successfully, we might have compelling reasons to invite them to stay: not only in our homes and schools, shaping the perceptions of our children, but also in our schools of public policy and development studies, and in our government offices and courts, and even in our law schools”wherever the public imagination is shaped and nourished”as essential parts of an education for public rationality.

The claims for poetry that emerge at the end of this passage are not only bold, they are very general; their boldness and their generality are alike problematic. Literary experience is defined too narrowly to do justice to the diverse worlds of poetry, and the poets whom she seeks to enlist in her army are not, by and large, conscientious objectors to the public sphere. But how these problems come to beset Poetic Justice is best understood in the context of Nussbaum’s longstanding determination to make literature useful .


Martha Nussbaum has devoted the greater part of her career to the rehabilitation of poetry for philosophical purposes”or, if that seems to make poetry merely instrumental to the greater task of philosophizing, Nussbaum can put it in another, more evenhanded way:

For the Greeks of the fifth and early fourth centuries b.c. , there were not two separate sets of questions in the area of human choice and action, aesthetic questions and moral-philosophical questions, to be studied and written about by mutually detached colleagues in different departments. Instead, dramatic poetry and what we now call philosophical inquiry in ethics were both typically . . . seen as ways of pursuing a single and general question: namely, how human beings should live.

In brief, philosophy and literature were different means by which the same goal was sought: eudaimonia , a key word often translated as “happiness” but more accurately rendered (by Nussbaum among many others) as “human flourishing.”

In the Introduction to her Love s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (1990), Nussbaum relates that when she was in high school and college, she wrote papers about literary works that explored questions that she would later learn to call “philosophical” questions. Reading ancient literature especially, she says, “I always wished to ask, What does all this mean for human life? What possibilities does this recognize or deny?” And she found that her teachers encouraged such reflections, such pursuits. But graduate school was a different matter. Here she encountered pressure to choose: the literary classicists understood their task to be “philological and to some extent aesthetic” rather than philosophical, while the ethical theories she encountered in studying philosophy were in different ways and for different reasons “hostile to literature.” The value of Nussbaum’s work derives chiefly, I think, from the steadfastness with which she has refused such choices.

An especially noteworthy and brilliant example of how this refusal can bear fruit is found in Nussbaum’s reading of Plato’s Symposium in her first book, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (1986). To the conventionally trained philosopher, the sudden appearance of the drunken Athenian general Alcibiades just after Socrates finishes his speech seems to be little more than a way, perhaps a rather clumsy way, for Plato to bring the dialogue to an end. Indeed, in G. M. A. Grube’s classic commentary, Plato s Thought ”as in a number of other accounts”a detailed summary of the Symposium ends with Socrates’ argument; one would never learn from Grube that Alcibiades had entered at all.

But the scholar trained in literary reading smells a rat. Why would Plato, who as a writer obviously knows what he is doing, use such an artificial means to end his dialogue? And stranger still, why would he allow Alcibiades to go on for several pages in a rambling confession of his love for Socrates? Nussbaum contends that the speech of Alcibiades enacts a refutation of the speech which Socrates has just completed. For Socrates, true love is a matter of ascent (this is the famous scala amoris ) from the physical and the individual to the spiritual and universal: the purest form of love is love of the Forms, or of Being itself; love in its highest and best sense is undifferentiated and abstract. But for Alcibiades it is senseless to speak of love-in-general: the only way to talk meaningfully about love is to celebrate the particular person whom one loves, and in his case that is Socrates.

Plato, then”this is the heart of Nussbaum’s argument”presents us with a “harsh and alarming” picture of love: “We see two kinds of value, two kinds of knowledge; and we see that we must choose. One sort of understanding blocks out the other. The pure light of the eternal form eclipses, or is eclipsed by, the flickering lightning of the . . . unstably moving body.” The traditional philosophical interpreters of Plato, like Grube, do not see the choice because their disciplinary training has already eclipsed one of the possibilities. It is Nussbaum’s determination to understand the philosophical and the literary as different means to the same end ( eudaimonia ) that enables her to recognize the choice that we are offered.

But, unlike Plato in his thinking about the divergent ways of love, Nussbaum does not seem to believe that we must choose between the two disciplinary ways of philosophy and literature. Her books remind us that when we are engaged in abstract, theoretical reflection we occasionally need to ground our thought in the particular and historical, and by that grounding to find out if our theories work ; likewise, when we are caught in the flow of particular events and historical experiences, we need to pause long enough to consider where we are going, what all these particulars add up to. Philosophy and literature thus need each other.

But because Nussbaum has addressed most of her work primarily to philosophers rather than to literary critics, her emphasis has typically been on the poverty of a moral philosophy that fails to use the great resources provided by literature. In the essays that make up Love s Knowledge , she focuses on the novel as the literary genre most useful in tracing the lineaments of our moral lives. The sheer length and complexity of great novels, their patient playing out of the consequences of our moral choices, make them infinitely more useful than the brief schematic narratives that are commonly employed by moral philosophers to illustrate their claims. Indeed, says Nussbaum, any philosophical examples that were to develop “the particularity, the emotive appeal, the absorbing plottedness, the variety and indeterminacy of good fiction” would by that very development become works of literature.

What Nussbaum finds most compelling in great novels is their accounts of the richness of our emotional lives. In Love s Knowledge and elsewhere Nussbaum uses the fiction of Proust, Henry James, Dickens, and others to buttress her claim that the emotions are not necessarily opposed to reason”that, in fact, a truly rational person will experience certain emotions as the consequence of proper understanding. (It would be irrational not to feel grief upon hearing of the Oklahoma City bombing.)

Moreover, Nussbaum argues, there are some kinds of knowledge that are accessible to us only when we experience certain emotions such as love. There is a reciprocal relationship between love and knowledge: we love people because of what we know about them, to be sure, but we also come to know them more fully because we love them. Novels are particularly rich in their explorations of these issues, though such understanding need not be gained only from novels: In The Therapy of Desire (1994) Nussbaum seeks”not always successfully”to discover in certain Hellenistic thinkers a distinctively philosophical account of the value of the emotions. She is particularly fond of the stoic thinker Chrysippus, whom she thinks to be “the most profound thinker on emotion in the entire philosophical tradition.”

In sum, Nussbaum has been engaged for some years now in a fascinating and important project in ethical thought. Her work has distinct and troubling limitations, to be sure: one would never learn from Nussbaum that there are people called Jews and Christians who have had a thing or two to say about what constitutes human flourishing. Moreover, as Donald Marshall has pointed out, Nussbaum never considers what might happen if one were to formulate one’s personal telos as “holiness” or “righteousness” rather than goodness. (Nussbaum’s lack of a discernible interest in religion has not prevented the University of Chicago Divinity School from assigning her a course in Theological Ethics.) But her work has been exciting and provocative nonetheless”or only somewhat the less.

And in Poetic Justice she seeks to expand her range: from a primary interest in the personal dimensions of ethics to the social and political implications of the philosophical-literary enterprise. Which is appropriate, after all, since most of the ancient thinkers who have inspired her work certainly understood that our quest for eudaimonia is profoundly dependent upon the social order in which we live and think. But this transition exposes certain flaws in Nussbaum’s project.


Poetic Justice seeks to employ literature as a tool for training the minds, and more particularly the emotions, of the Guardians of the state. It is thus a characteristically Platonic project: Nussbaum simply disagrees with Plato about the role of the emotions and in the growth of mature persons. She quite explicitly states that many of the ideas of this book started to take form when she began to teach a course called Law and Literature at the University of Chicago Law School. To these future lawyers, judges, corporate leaders, and politicians, Nussbaum wishes to present a vision, a distinctly literary vision, of a more just and moral polity. Though she uses a number of texts (by E. M. Forster, Richard Wright, Walt Whitman), her key and recurrent model is Dickens’ Hard Times . What she wants above all is to formulate a philosophical and political justification for Dickens’ repudiation of Benthamite utilitarianism, and his replacement of it with an imaginative sympathy for others. Nussbaum is not at all afraid of speaking in the classic terms of liberal earnestness: she celebrates “the value of humanity as an end in itself,” she encourages empathy and understanding, broad-mindedness, toleration. The virtue of literature, she says, is that it encourages these tendencies.

What Nussbaum wants above all is a political economy that does not reduce persons to mere digits or counters. This is a goal both admirable and common; but how is it to be accomplished? I find it interesting that Nussbaum chooses to emphasize the education of the leaders, not of the people themselves. In other words, her project suggests that if our governments are going to treat people more humanely, that will not be because the people are sufficiently educated and articulate to demand humane treatment, but rather because their Guardians have been convinced through the imaginative sympathy engendered by the novels they read to be kinder and gentler toward their charges. So they read Hard Times in order to gain sympathy for the poor, Wright’s Native Son in order to gain sympathy for racial minorities, and Forster’s Maurice in order to gain sympathy for homosexuals. (E. D. Hirsch, Jr., in his book Cultural Literacy , understood that the problem with making novels work publicly is that the reading of them is private. His solution to this problem was to recommend that as many Americans as possible read the same novels, and other works, in school, so that there would be a common fund of knowledge on which we could draw to help form a more unified polity. This recommendation, of course, earned Hirsch the label of white male cultural imperialist. Nussbaum dodges this kind of problem by making her recommendations only to the Guardians. What the underlings read does not here concern her.)

So primarily, what literature does for our Guardians is to cultivate in them a richer and more responsive emotional life: this adds vivid color to the bland landscape of Benthamite economic thought, and puts human faces to political decisions. I don’t see how anyone could object very strenuously to this, provided (as Nussbaum does provide) that “rules and formal decision procedures, including procedures inspired by economics,” are not supplanted but rather supplemented and corrected by the emotional knowledge provided in literature; and provided also that we caution ourselves against using emotional affect frivolously and sentimentally. Those ubiquitous network news stories about the “common people” whose lives are destroyed by out-of-touch policy wonks inside the Beltway do not meet any reasonable criteria for the appropriate political use of emotion and narrative particularity. Nussbaum knows this too, and that is why (I think) she warns that “the emotions have limitations and dangers . . . and their function in ethical [and political] reasoning must be carefully circumscribed.”

But what are the particular emotions that are to be cultivated in Chicago’s Guardians by their reading of literature? It soon becomes apparent to the reader of Poetic Justice that Nussbaum has an extremely limited range of emotions in mind. Indeed, as far as I can see, literature does little other than inculcate in our future leaders a sympathy for the downtrodden, the oppressed, the marginalized. In part this emphasis stems from Nussbaum’s repeated claim that we need literature to help us “concern ourselves with the good of other people whose lives are distant from our own,” and the experiences of the Guardians are likely to be quite “distant” from the poor, from racial and ethnic minorities, and from homosexuals. But I think it stems more fundamentally from Nussbaum’s apparent conviction that ethical and political flourishing are defined by the virtues of sympathy and toleration. Granted that there is a place, and a significant place, for sympathy and toleration in our public life; but might there not also be a place for more fully and carefully developed faculties of judgment ?

Nussbaum has loaded her dice by using novels whose overt purpose is precisely to generate sympathy for marginal figures. But what if she had chosen another kind of book”say, for instance, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina ? Anna’s tragic story, the terrible price she has to pay for her adulterous relationship with Count Vronsky, certainly and properly elicits our sympathy, but Tolstoy would have us recognize Anna’s moral culpability as well. The book’s celebrated and controversial epigraph-“Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Romans 12:19)-points to this twofold message. It encourages us to recognize that Anna has sinned and put herself in moral and spiritual danger, that she has alienated herself from God (as she perfectly well knows and admits to herself); but it also warns us against condemnation from some supposed position of moral authority and superiority. We are invited to acknowledge the immutability of the moral law, and to place ourselves under its judgment even as we also recognize Anna’s placement.

Here, then, is a work of literature which calls for something more than sympathy, and moreover which distinguishes sympathy from toleration. For the careful reader of Anna Karenina will wonder if pure tolerance is indeed the most charitable, the most sympathetic , of responses to Anna’s adultery”and to the society which loudly condemns adultery at one moment and winks slyly at it the next. To take one of Nussbaum’s examples, it should be possible for a reader of Forster’s Maurice to grow in understanding of, and even sympathy for, homosexuals without automatically endorsing governmental recognition of gay marriages. The possible meanings of the words “sympathy” and “toleration” are not exhausted by a recitation of the preferred policies of the left wing of the Democratic Party.

All this is not to say that Nussbaum does not employ judgment in her book”she certainly does, as do her novelists. Wright is scarcely tolerant of racism (nor should he be), Dickens is scathing towards the utilitarian Gradgrind and his cohorts, and Nussbaum, in claiming that the enemies targeted by Wright and Dickens are her enemies too, joins their condemnations. The problem is that Nussbaum fails properly to account for the political uses of moral censure. What are the potential political uses of Dostoyevsky’s terrifying portrait of one kind of criminal mind in Crime and Punishment , or of others in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or even Norman Mailer’s The Executioner s Song ? Could it be that the reading of some novels might arouse the courage necessary to decree that there are some persons who disqualify themselves from participation in our polity? Dorothy Parker once wrote that a performance by the young Katherine Hepburn “ran the gamut of emotion from A to B.” Nussbaum allows literature a similar range of feeling.


The question of what possible role poetry can play in the polity suggests the question of what role poetry wants to play in the polity. Nussbaum has failed to take into account the historical development of literature in relation to its surrounding culture, especially in the two centuries since the advent of Romanticism. If indeed in ancient Athens poets were willing to serve the community that sought to know itself and its commitments, for two hundred years now modern poetry has reveled in its dissociation from the colorless and quotidian concerns of petty politics.

Shelley, it is true, famously said that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” but one would be sorely mistaken if one concluded that Shelley wished for these legislators to be acknowledged. If the poets’ legislative role were to be publicly recognized and accepted, then poets would be in the position of having to acknowledge their responsibility and accountability to those on whose behalf they are legislating. But such an acknowledgment would be utterly at odds with the Romantic belief in the autonomy (which is to say the unaccountability to anything but itself) of the poetic imagination.

Nussbaum appears not to know this, and so in a grotesquely inappropriate move appropriates Walt Whitman to buttress her project. She speaks of the conviction, which she shares with Whitman, that “storytelling and literary imagination are not opposed to rational argument but can provide essential ingredients in a rational argument.” But Whitman, in company with virtually every other figure in American Romanticism, would scarcely have accepted this endorsement of reason: like most Romantics, he accepted the Enlightenment’s radical distinction between reason on the one hand and on the other hand emotion and imagination, and merely inverted the hierarchy. Instead of seeking to use reason to master feeling, he saw the great cultural task of his time as the liberation of feeling and imagination from the tyrannies of reason. This can only happen if feeling and imagination break the shackles of accountability to the public sphere.

Whitman says this about as plainly as it is possible to say it. When society does not heed its poets, “things are grotesque, eccentric, fail of their full returns.” The poet does not, and if he is to be a poet cannot, listen to others, but woe unto those others if they do not listen to him. “He is the arbiter of the diverse, he is the key, / He is the equalizer of his age and land.” In case anyone has failed to get the point, Whitman restates it: the poet “is no arguer, he is judgment (Nature accepts him absolutely.) / He judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling round a helpless thing.” “Not as the judge judges””that is, not according to precedent and law, before which he stands as a humble interpreter; not according to constitutional criteria for a responsible judiciary. The poet’s judgments cannot be argued with any more than the brilliance of the noonday sun can be gainsaid: the light the poet sheds on humanity and Nature is just like that, clear and vivid and plain enough for all with eyes to see.

Astonishingly, Nussbaum quotes just these lines to support her claim that poets can be useful servants to a polity in quest of general eudaimonia. To her, Whitman’s comparison of the poet to the sunlight simply means that the poet’s vision is detailed and specific and complete, that it “illuminates the situation of the helpless,” that it “does not yield to bias or favor.” The titanic arrogance of Whitman’s claims for himself and his fellow poets utterly eludes her. Caught up in her enthusiasm for readmitting poets to the Republic from which Plato banished them, Nussbaum fails to notice that the poets have not only grown accustomed to banishment, they have come to like and prefer it. They don t want back in . They prefer their little shacks just outside the walls of the great city because there no one tells them what to do, and left to their own devices convince themselves that it is really the great city that lies beyond the pale of their settlement. More precisely, they are like Milton’s Satan, newly deposited in hell, who says, “Here at least we shall be free . . . . Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” Nussbaum cheerfully tells the post-Romantic literati that in her ideal commonwealth they can be useful , not suspecting that there is nothing in the world they find more horrifying.

Martha Nussbaum has never written a boring book, and Poetic Justice is no exception: it is usually stimulating and provocative, though not as often or as much as her earlier work, especially The Fragility of Goodness . But her project of bringing about a specifically political reunion of reason and emotion, economics and poetry, is fraught with errors and inconsistencies. Perhaps it can ultimately be done, but first Nussbaum must convince poets that the radical autonomy they earned through the Romantic movement came at far too high a price. And she must be able to demonstrate that this glorious reunion of poetry and (economic and political) philosophy will do more than provide further support for the already agreed-upon policies of American left-liberalism. Literature and politics alike are richer than that, and cut out for better things.

Alan Jacobs is Associate Professor of English at Wheaton College.