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Leading and Leadership . Edited by Timothy Fuller. University of Notre
Dame Press. 264 pp. $25

cloth, $15 paper.

Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying . Edited
by Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass. University of Notre Dame Press. 630 pp. $25

cloth, $15 paper.

The Eternal Pity:Reflections on Dying. Edited by Richard John Neuhaus.
University of Notre Dame Press. 200 pp. $25

cloth, $15 paper.

Working: Its Meaning and Its Limits. Edited by Gilbert Meilaender. University
of Notre Dame Press. 288 pp. $25

cloth, $15 paper.

Everyone a Teacher. Edited by Mark Schwehn. University of Notre Dame
Press. 392 pp. $25

cloth, $15 paper.

Recently my eight“year“old
son came home from school in (atypical) frustration: a project from his art
class was proving unexpectedly recalcitrant and, in his judgment, was taking
up far too much of his valuable time. After relating the sad tale, he cried
out, “What’s the point of Art, anyway?”

Ah yes, the Platonic question”we
all come around to it eventually. What indeed is the point of art? What is it
good for? And most of us know Plato’s answer: it’s not good for much. It carries
us ever farther away from the truth that can be known properly only through
a dialectical (question“and“answer) encounter that allows us to recollect the
inbred knowledge which, in this ever“changing world, we have forgotten. Moreover,
art, especially literary art, consists mostly of lies. Better to follow the
sure, though rigorous, route of philosophy if it’s truth that one is after.

Yet despite the Platonic warnings,
philosophers”especially moral philosophers, and others concerned with the great
question of how we should live”have typically found literary art, at least,
quite useful. Even Plato himself showed no reluctance to elaborate a tale when,
in his judgment, the situation called for it. And virtually any basic philosophy
textbook one could name will have a number of literary “examples” or “illustrations”
(these terms, as we shall see, need to be thought about) of philosophical themes,
questions, and issues.

Likewise, the University of Notre
Dame Press has recently published five volumes under the general heading of
The Ethics of Everyday Life, and, naturally, the books are well stocked with
selections from literary works that the editors deem germane to the general
topic at hand, whether that topic is work, courtship and marrying, teaching,
or dying. Timothy Fuller’s volume on Leading and Leadership is the only
exception: just a handful of its selections are literary. Among the others,
one“third to one“half of the selections are literary, even under a fairly strict
definition of the term that excludes philosophical and theological essays with
considerable literary merit. As I say, one would expect such mining of literature
for memorable characters, scenes, phrases, and events. But, however common the
practice is, it may be worth thinking about for a while. Why do we expect such
mining? And what do we expect it will do for us, the readers? In thematic anthologies
of this type, what’s the point of Art?

A common answer to our question
might go something like this: thematic anthologies are organized around abstract
topics that need to be illustrated with literary examples because
those examples are more concrete and therefore more comprehensible to
the common reader. Indeed, such an answer is so familiar as to be beyond controversy,
but for that very reason we should spend some time thinking about its categories
and assumptions. All of the italicized words imply, or enact, a particular view
of knowledge and understanding: the view that the general categories are more
substantive (at least philosophically or in terms of reflection) than the “examples.”
That is, the hidden assumption of this way of talking is that if readers had
sufficient philosophical training, and sufficient clarity of mind, the “examples”
would be unnecessary.

It was precisely this view of
knowledge that, more than two hundred years ago, provoked the philosopher David
Hume to write essays. In his explanatory “Of Essay Writing,” he begins by making
a distinction between the “learned” and the “conversible” branches of society.

The learned are such as have
chosen for their portion the higher and more difficult operations of the mind,
which require leisure and solitude, and cannot be brought to perfection without
long preparation and severe labor. The conversible world join to a sociable
disposition, and a taste of pleasure, an inclination to the easier and more
gentle exercises of the understanding, to obvious reflections on human affairs
and the duties of common life, and to the observation of the blemishes or perfections
of the particular objects that surround them.

Hume finds the learned world
to be dominated and populated almost exclusively by men, while women are “the
sovereigns of the empire of conversation” (though men also dwell, as subjects,
in that world). The task that Hume sets himself in his essays is to draw the
two worlds together, for he laments their severance:

The separation of the learned
from the conversible world seems to have been the great defect of the last age,
and must have had a very bad influence both on books and company: for what possibility
is there of finding topics of conversation fit for the entertainment of rational
creatures without having recourse sometimes to history, poetry, politics, and
the more obvious principles, at least, of philosophy? Must our whole discourse
be a continued series of gossiping stories and idle remarks?

Thus Hume’s decision to write
“literary” essays for poorly educated but “conversible” women; whereas the learned
men, accustomed to “the higher and more difficult operations of the mind,” could
proceed to the “severe labor” of reading Hume’s philosophical treatises”though
with the occasional break to enjoy the pleasures of feminine society. What the
conversibles get from this deal is knowledge; what the learned get is social
polish and the opportunity to disseminate knowledge to a crowd incapable of
acquiring it for themselves. The role of the literary essay is to expedite this
meeting of very different worlds, and to help dissipate the inevitable friction
between them.

One could cite any number
of current examples of this attitude towards literature, but let’s take just
one, from the political philosopher Ronald Beiner’s book What’s the Matter
with Liberalism?
Beiner makes my point especially nicely because the “Prologue”
to his book, called “The Theorist as Storyteller,” is a defense of “the narrative
dimension of our quest for truth.” Beiner argues that to consider theorizing
as a mode of storytelling is not to diminish theory, but to enhance and embolden
it. However, Beiner is quick to say, theoretical storytelling is not to be confused
with the philosophical use of fiction. “Theory may well incorporate fiction
. . . but it needn’t do so, and in any case its use of fiction is certainly
subordinate to the very different purposes of theory.” Beiner takes care not
to “dissolve the distinction between theoretical and literary activity.” Thus
what may superficially appear to be a respectful attitude toward literature
proves, upon examination, to be thoroughly patronizing: the theorist, the philosopher,
is a self“sufficient storyteller; the products of the novelist, while they may
prove to be occasionally useful (presumably for strictly exemplary purposes),
“certainly” cannot be granted philosophical seriousness. Throughout Beiner’s
work, and work of this kind, philosophy is virtually equated with theoria ,
or detached reflection”an ancient equation, to which Beiner but adds the idea
that theoria is a kind of narrative.

This is almost Platonic, but
not quite. Though Plato was at great pains to insist upon the superiority of
philosophy (by which he means dialectical inquiry only) to literature as a means
of discovering truth, he would never have claimed that philosophy was any sort
of storytelling, even a superior sort. Storytelling for Plato is what you do
when you have heard about something; you repeat a story that you have heard
from someone who (in his or her turn) was repeating it without knowing the truth
of the matter. What the teller or hearer of such a story possesses is something
quite different from truth, which one discovers only through the agonistic rigors
of the dialectical encounter. What Beiner wants is to have it both ways: to
claim the superiority of philosophical theoria to literature while simultaneously
claiming that such theoria is the best sort of storytelling. This leaves
to literature no indispensable role in the quest for truth about what Beiner
calls “the grand questions of human nature and human destiny.” It may
be used, if one desires, to illustrate that which has been learned, and can
(in principle, at least) be taught, on other grounds”theoretical, philosophical

It is hard to overstress the
dominance of this view of the relationship between literature, stories, or art
more generally, and (philosophical) knowledge. Indeed, a position analogous
to Beiner’s has shaped”to take an example close to the heart of my own interests”understandings
of the narrative portions of Scripture almost since the beginnings of the Church.
Consider, for instance, how many preachers and theologians understand Jesus’
parables (against the textual evidence, by the way) as a series of “concrete
examples” meant to illustrate “general spiritual principles.”

But what if, despite the ubiquity
of this view, it is wrong? What if some fictional (or nonfictional) narratives
are able to discover truths about “human nature and human destiny” that are
inaccessible to theoretical reflection? I would like to suggest that, if this
high view of narrative’s ability to generate (not merely illustrate) knowledge
is ever right, it will be within the realm of “everyday ethics.” For the everyday
is precisely what is most inaccessible to “general principles.” This is why
the reductive quasi“narrative examples used in ethics classes for the last thirty
years”which have us throwing people off lifeboats or stealing drugs for our
dying children”rarely touch on the genuinely everyday. The popularity of the
television series Survivor can be accounted for on like grounds: it presents
a decontextualized, drastically simplified ethical cosmos in which people make
decisions that bear little resemblance to the ones that we regularly face. Indeed,
Survivor is little more than a dramatization of bad ethics textbooks.
The assumption behind such impoverished “stories” is that only when the complexities
and contingencies of everyday life are stripped away can we get at the underlying
“principles” of ethics. And this may well be true. But what use are ethical
principles that vanish from our sight once complexity and contingency enter
the picture?

If we look at this issue from
the literary perspective, it is readily seen that “everyday ethics” is the province
of the novel. Not the everyday per se, mind you, for much modern poetry is deeply
in love with the quotidian”“bearing witness / To what each morning brings again
to light,” as Richard Wilbur says in his great poem “Lying.” But poetry illuminates
the beauty of the ordinary moment , giving it full attention and even

Gold crosses, cornices, astonishment
Of panes, the turbine“vent which natural law
Spins on the grill“end of the diner’s roof,
Then grass and grackles or, at the end of town
In sheen“swept pasture land, the horse’s neck
Clothed with its usual thunder, and the stones
Beginning now to tug their shadows in
And track the air with glitter.

How beautiful; how just. And
the ethical significance of such attentiveness to the particularity of the created
world should not be undervalued. Yet in the more common sense of the term “ethical””involving
one’s choices and responsibilities to oneself, to others, and to God”the ethical
dimension of everyday life finds its fullest exploration in fiction. Historians
of ideas commonly give the Reformation considerable credit for both the rise
of the novel and the attribution of dignity to the everyday”through, for instance,
its emphasis on the priesthood of all believers and its belief that all Christians
(not just those who have taken vows) have a divinely appointed vocation. But
the point need not be argued here. Suffice it to say that there is undoubtedly
a deep connection between the development of the novel and an unprecedented
attention to the ordinary. When Balzac begins his great novel Père Goriot
with an astonishingly detailed inventory of almost every shabby, tacky object
in and around the house of Madame Vauquer”and then proceeds to use the language
of epic heroism to describe the adventures and misadventures of a callow youth
from the provinces trying to “succeed” in Paris”he is engaging in a project
that Homer or Dante, or for that matter Shakespeare, would have found incomprehensible.

It may be that certain Christian
beliefs about the dignity and value of each human life, however apparently insignificant,
undergird and even produce the genre we call the novel; but by the time of Balzac
those beliefs had, among the intelligentsia at least, become attenuated if not
invisible, leaving the fictional genre floating there, in ethical mid“air as
it were, unsupported by any particular set of convictions. I am strongly tempted
to argue that the kind of philosophical liberalism that emerged in the eighteenth
and especially the nineteenth century was a way of trying to articulate and
justify the value placed on ordinary human life by novels. Indeed, this argument
would scarcely overrate the importance of the novel in post“Enlightenment European
society (though its importance in America was less). Great novels present the
everyday bathed in a warm, even illumination like that of Vermeer’s interiors
(themselves a product of the same cultural moment).

Surely the compelling power of
those books had to have some philosophical justification. As Iris Murdoch points
out, the philosophy of John Stuart Mill (once he had his utilitarian upbringing
tempered and corrected by literary experience, as he records in his Autobiography )
amounts pretty much to this. As Murdoch also notes, Mill’s philosophy is notably
unsuccessful at justifying and defending the value of the ordinary individual
life”considerably less successful than, say, the novels of Dickens, Balzac,
and Tolstoy. It is likely that the average philosophical liberal owes his or
her beliefs more to an encounter with George Eliot than one with John Rawls;
indeed, it is difficult to imagine Rawls convincing, or even interesting, anyone
whose mind has not already been shaped by nineteenth“century fiction. (Interestingly,
I do not believe that there is a single literary example in the six hundred
pages of the Theory of Justice ”a rhetorical miscalculation, at the least,
on Rawls’ part.)

The question is, why are novels
so much more effective than philosophical arguments at articulating and promoting
a liberal view of human value? Could it be that the texture of everyday life
is something that finds its full worth, and adequate description, only in narrative
form? If so, it would follow that “the ethics of everyday life” must
be a narrational ethics, grounded in and fully communicable only through stories.
Some may protest at this, and protest by calling our attention back to those
Christian principles out of which the novel originally emerged. But in the biblical
faiths of Judaism and Christianity, it is narrative that always produces, rather
than derives from, or exemplifies, principles. Indeed, everyday ethics may be
said to begin when Moses descended from Sinai, with the Law’s scrupulous attention
to every aspect of ordinary people’s ordinary lives; and Sinai is an event comprehensible
only within the context of the narrative we call “the history of Israel.”

But how does this account
of the narrative embodiment of ethical meaning work? Let’s get down to cases.
In the largest and richest of the Everyday Ethics books, Leon and Amy Kass’
Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying , we find
an excerpt from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice . At eleven pages, it
is one of the longer ones in any of the volumes. It is placed within a section
called “Why Marry? Defenses of Matrimony,” and is given its own subtitle by
the Kasses: “For Love or Money?” The episode that the Kasses provide involves
Mr. Collins, the cloddish and sycophantic young clergyman who (according to
the terms of a legal document called an “entail”) will inherit the estate of
his cousin Mr. Bennett, leaving the cash“poor Bennett’s five daughters unprovided
for. Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth, the oldest Bennett daughter and the
heroine of the story. Were Elizabeth to accept him, at least some of her family’s
financial uncertainty would be relieved, and the estate would remain in the
family. But to her father’s great relief and the vast discomfiture of Mr. Collins
and his enthusiastic supporter Mrs. Bennett, Elizabeth declines”only to discover,
soon afterward, that Mr. Collins’ amorous overtures have been accepted by her
friend Charlotte Lucas.

The Kasses say that the chapters
they excerpt “make clear what prompts a Mr. Collins and a Charlotte Lucas to
marry, and indirectly and by contrast, what might lead an Elizabeth to marry.”
I am not sure that matters are so clear; the “Love or Money?” headline may be
misleading here. There’s no reason to think that Charlotte is marrying simply
or even primarily for money: as she tells Elizabeth, though in the more reticent
language of a young Regency lady, she’s not getting any younger (Charlotte is
twenty“seven, Elizabeth only twenty) and doesn’t know how many more chances
for matrimony she will have. Moreover, she speaks of the value of having “a
comfortable home,” even in the admittedly imperfect company of Mr. Collins,
and though Elizabeth cannot imagine that this is a significant consideration,
perhaps that’s a failure of experience on Elizabeth’s part. (Later in the novel,
when Elizabeth visits the Collinses, she has to admit that “there [is] really
a great air of comfort” about the house, and notes Charlotte’s “evident enjoyment
of it.” Mr. Collins remains cloddish, but perhaps Charlotte’s choice is not
as completely indefensible as Elizabeth thinks. Austen remains silent on this

Moreover, it’s not clear that,
were she to agree to marry Mr. Collins, Elizabeth would be acting from purely
mercenary motives. Money might be involved, but so too would be the peace of
mind and future security of her parents and sisters. What Pride and Prejudice
seems to show is that money cannot always be so neatly disentangled from other
values, and the value of money from the value of what one receives in exchange
for it. (We live by various economies, almost all of which overlap.) Indeed,
the great function of the novel in relation to everyday ethics is its ability
to demonstrate the various forms of entanglement, the ways in which even small
and apparently simple choices”still more the evidently momentous ones”can have
unanticipated repercussions and unintended consequences.

All this is not to say that
the Kasses were wrong to give the episode the title they do”though perhaps they
are wrong”but rather to show that no category or nostrum can account
for the nuanced and fully contextualized ethical world of great fiction, even
when it is given to us in small chunks. Of course, neither the Kasses nor anyone
else would contest this point: we all recognize, though we may also sympathize
with, the mistake made by the young Richard Rodriguez, who tells this story
in his wonderful autobiography Hunger of Memory :

In the sixth grade I simply concluded that what gave a book its value
was some major idea or theme it contained. If that core essence could be mined
and memorized, I would become learned like my teachers. I decided to record
in a notebook the themes of books that I read. After reading Robinson Crusoe ,
I wrote that its theme was “the value of learning to live by oneself.” When
I completed Wuthering Heights , I noted the danger of “letting emotions
get out of control.” Rereading these brief moralistic appraisals usually left
me disheartened. I couldn’t believe that they were really the source of reading’s
value. But for many more years, they constituted the only means I had of describing
to myself the educational value of books.

We may smile wryly at this boy’s
labored attempts to find categories with which to organize his experiences as
a reader; but of course the desire to categorize never goes away, even if our
methods grow more complex. One of the problems with William Bennett’s Book
of Virtues
(and its progeny, such as The Children’s Book of Virtues
and The Moral Compass ) is that it tends to do for its readers what the
young Rodriguez did for himself, that is, to provide an executive summary of
a given tale or poem’s “moral””and in an editorial preface to the tale or poem.
For instance, “Good people stick to good manners, as this story from a turn“of“the“century
reader reminds us.” “Aristotle would have loved this poem and the one that follows
it. The first illustrates excess, the second deficiency. The trick to finding
correct behavior is to strike the right balance.” Such prevenient instruction
actually impedes the act of reading by telling readers in advance what the stories
will teach them. (The latter example is particularly lamentable, since it precedes
one of Hilaire Belloc’s hilarious “Cautionary Tales””in this case, “Rebecca,
Who Slammed Doors for Fun and Perished Miserably””which manage simultaneously
to moralize and make fun of moralizing.)

The attentive reader may already
have noted that the Austen novel we were just discussing offers in its very
title a neat set of categories, a binary scheme (pride/prejudice) by which we
can organize our experiences as readers. Yet even as she employs such a scheme
Austen implicitly notes its limits. Very early in the book we hear this discourse
from Elizabeth’s youngest sister Mary:

“Pride,” observed Mary, who piqued herself upon the solidity of her
reflections, “is a very common failing I believe . . . . Vanity and pride are
different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may
be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves,
vanity to what we would have others think of us.”

Mary is a comic character, more
specifically the kind of comic character we call a bore . She bores people
because she does not recognize that such abstract nostrums do not constitute
conversation, or even significant reflection”just as the young Rodriguez did
not realize the inadequacy of the “morals” that he appended to the books he
read, and so bored himself. Austen, in her typically sly way, here warns us
against an unimaginative use of the very scheme she offers in her title”and
indeed, confusion ultimately comes to the reader who notes the early identification
of Mr. Darcy as a “proud man” and assumes that Elizabeth must therefore represent
“prejudice.” In this book, matters don’t fall out that neatly: but if hard cases
make bad law, they make good novels.

We see, then, the difficulty
of finding schemes or categories adequate to the ethical world of well“written
fiction. (Badly written fiction is another matter.) If the schemes were adequate,
then the fiction would be unnecessary. Yet no one thinks that such schemes are
adequate. The question that we then face is whether philosophical arguments
about the quality and features of the life well lived are significantly more
adequate”sufficiently adequate, as Hume and Beiner suggest, to make the use
of literature in elucidating the moral life unnecessary, if occasionally useful.
Thinking back to the moral choices faced by Charlotte Lucas and Elizabeth Bennett,
we might see dialectical argument as having this in common with schematic categorization:
it can, in a highly generalized way, take such overlapping and often competing
obligations into consideration, but has no hope of teasing out the practical
interaction of those obligations. The moral philosopher who sought to produce
“examples” with the richness and depth necessary to an adequate account of the
moral life would find himself or herself writing novels”which is indeed what
happened to Iris Murdoch, who, though a professional philosopher, wrote only
a handful of philosophical treatises, but twenty“five substantial works of fiction
that collectively provide a compelling picture of the moral world of late“twentieth“century
British intellectuals.

If my argument here is right,
then the ideal means to illuminate “everyday ethics” might be in books just
like these: compilations, anthologies, gatherings of poems and stories. Poems
provide photographs, as it were, of the moral life: frozen moments of dilemma
or insight. Thus Richard John Neuhaus’ employment of Dylan Thomas’ impassioned
“Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,” or Gilbert Meilaender’s
choice of George Herbert’s précis of the Lutheran theology of vocation, “The

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for thee; . . .

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold:
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.

Because lyric poems possess this
capacity to focus, freeze, and intensify, they tend to be brief, and therefore
can be given in these anthologies in full; but the narrative forms are different,
and I believe there is only one complete story in any of the volumes, Flannery
O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (in The Eternal Pity ). This is
not a bad thing, as long as it is clear that excerpts are excerpts. If poems
are ethical photographs, excerpts from stories are more like cylindrical plugs
of rock removed for study by a geologist: the plugs register certain structural
features of a formation, lay bare some of its strata, and reveal some of the
forces that created it, but cannot capture the whole massive form. If the plugs
stimulate interest in the larger geological productions, if the excerpts stimulate
interest in the comprehensive story of which they are a part, they will have
served their proper purpose.

This is not to say that fiction
contains no set“pieces that to some degree stand alone. In Working , Meilaender
includes the famous mowing episode from Anna Karenina , which unforgettably
portrays the experience of being lost in one’s work, absorbed (in this case)
in the physicality of the task:

The longer Levin went on mowing, the oftener he experienced those
moments of oblivion when his arms no longer seemed to swing the scythe, but
the scythe itself his whole body, so conscious and full of life; and as if by
magic, regularly and definitely without a thought being given to it, the work
accomplished itself of its own accord. These were blessed moments.

But of course the beauty and
meaning of this passage are intensified when we realize that this “blessed”
relief from the burdens of self“consciousness is something only very occasionally
granted to Levin, and near the end of the book wholly withdrawn from him. That
is, the set“piece is wonderful in itself, still more wonderful in the narrative
context from which it stands out as a miraculous and longed“for moment.

Some set“pieces, of course, are
too much of a good thing; Dickens was famous, or notorious, for those. One thinks
particularly of the death of Little Nell, from The Old Curiosity Shop ,
a scene from which Dickens would later extract tears by the bucketful in his
public readings. (As Oscar Wilde said, “One must have a heart of stone to read
the death of Little Nell without laughing.”) Father Neuhaus spares us Nell,
preferring instead little Paul Dombey, whose end is less mawkish”though not
as compelling, in my judgment, as the story of Jo, the illiterate crossing“sweeper
in Bleak House . But with regard to our last earthly act the set“piece
of all set“pieces is surely the death of Tolstoy’s Ivan Illych, which Neuhaus
rightly includes. (It may seem too obvious a choice, but like great tunes, great
stories are famous for a reason.) Even so, Ivan’s tormented demise makes more
sense and has more power in the context of the life that precedes it: Tolstoy’s
genius is nowhere more evident than in his decision to begin the story with
Ivan Illych already in the coffin and then to circle back to describe a life
that was “most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.”

In some cases, though, the extracts
are more powerful standing alone than in context. Neuhaus offers the gut“wrenching
climax to Peter DeVries’ novel The Blood of the Lamb , which struck me
more forcefully in the anthology than it did when I read the novel itself, which
is a flawed one. Likewise, by excerpting from Hard Times Dickens’ description
of Mr. Gradgrind’s teaching methods, Mark Schwehn allows us to focus our attention
on the questions of what teaching is, should be, and should not be. Ultimately,
I expect, we will want to look at the whole novel and see how Dickens’ critique
of Gradgrind’s teaching fits within his larger critique of the mechanization
and rationalization of a culture under the sway of Benthamite utilitarianism;
but there are good reasons for extracting the “plug” from this larger complex
of ideas and considering it on its own terms.

In the end this is what a
good anthology”and each of the anthologies under consideration here is a good
one”does: provide extracts suitable for meditation. Or, to replace my geological
metaphor with the gustatory one Paul Griffiths uses in his excellent book Religious
, provide “gobbets” that can be chewed to extract their flavor, gobbets
that can ultimately be swallowed and digested as sources of nourishment. That
metaphor is a venerable one: in medieval monastic practice the word of God was
to be tasted with the palatum cordis (the “palate of the heart”) and
then chewed, ruminated upon ( ruminatio means chewing), before
being digested. If stories and poems are to play a role in the development of
ethical consciousness and living, they must be treated in like manner. The Ethics
of Everyday Life series offers us an opportunity to read in just this way; though
no book can compel profitable reading.

Developing his account of the
role that anthologies play in “religious reading,” Griffiths draws an interesting
contrast between two “ideal types” of anthology. The first type tends to contain
large “gobbets” (perhaps even complete works), rarely if ever indicates their
source, offers paraphrases as well as exact quotations, and provides few if
any instructions for how to categorize its contents. The second type is “an
anthology the sources of whose excerpts are carefully and precisely indicated,
together with information on how to find them; whose gobbets are of widely varying
length; whose method of quotation is only and exactly verbatim; whose method
of organization appears designed for repeated use and reference rather than
for memorial storage (perhaps it contains indices, subject headings, and the

In Griffiths’ view, the former
type of anthology is more characteristic of “religious reading,” whereas the
latter “is likely to be an object for consumerist reading, plundered for particular
purposes, kept on the shelf for repeated use. Its blooms [this is another traditional
metaphor employed by Griffiths] are not likely to be used in the formation and
nutrition of a religious account.” That first kind of anthology, so rare today,
is a more personal document, closer to a commonplace book, and hence”so Griffiths
argues”more amenable to playing a significant and sustaining role in a religious
account of life and in religious practice.

Does this distinction work?
Only in part: anthologies like the Ethics of Everyday Life volumes may not create
or even offer major sustenance to a religious view of life or to religious practice,
but they are something more personal and substantive than the anonymous and
methodical kind of anthology that Griffiths refers to as nonreligious. It’s
worth noting that, as the preface common to all five books notes, these anthologies
grow out of dialogues among friends, friends from different religious traditions
(Jewish, Catholic Christian, Protestant Christian) who nevertheless share a
belief in the necessity of religious tradition, the interest of their own traditions
in the ethical contours of ordinary lives, and the importance of finding various
ways, direct and indirect, to cultivate the ethical gardens of those traditions.
Such cultivation includes, one would think, the making of anthologies.

It’s also worth noting that the
editors trust their traditions sufficiently to provide less direct interpretive
direction than William Bennett does in his collections; indeed, the volumes
do not embody a single approach to the task of organizing and commenting on
the anthologized materials. Some introduce each gobbet individually, some introduce
whole sections; some have simple organizational schemes, some more complex.
But literature provides these editors with insights and stories that help make
sense of religious traditions”but which themselves make sense, or complete sense,
only by being included in an overarching religious tradition. If poems and stories
do not precisely constitute those traditions, they seem to be necessary to its
full expression, to have a value that is more than merely heuristic or instrumental.
When asked how we should work, or love, or teach, or die, we naturally respond
with stories; one might go so far as to say that questions beginning with “How”
demand answers in narrative or poetic form. And that”minimally, though certainly
not exclusively”that’s the point of Art.

Alan Jacobs is Professor of English
at Wheaton College.