What is a Human Being and Why Should Novelists Care?

A human being is not an individual animal in the way that modern liberals imagine. A human being is an individual in a meaningful sense but he’s bound into various relationships, with his fellow human beings, with other creatures, with the non-living world. He’s not a solitary comet shooting through space. He’s a tree with his roots entangled with the roots of the other nearby trees, which entanglement takes in the entire forest.

I’ve spoken in my book, To See a World in a Grain of Sand, of Hermann Melville’s dislike of the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Along with at least Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, Sr., he considered Emerson and his side-kick, Henry David Thoreau, to be morally insane. I use this example repeatedly just because it speaks to a deep problem that affects American societies, in their political and economic aspects as well as their literary and artistic aspects.

Melville considered Emerson’s philosophy to be a spiritualized materialism that came from an excessive concern for comfort and safety. Moreover, he thought it masked pure selfishness, a profound lack of charity, of concern for others. To top it all, he feared that Emerson was a more typical American than we would like.

In fact, we have become so enwrapped in a certain type of mindless prosperity, directed towards maximizing marketplace activity and not directed towards human or humane goals, that we have lost sight of the need to make sacrifices at time. The sacrifices we generally need to make are those which integrate us into human communities of various types: family and local political community and community of worship.

From the viewpoint of a true writer, one aiming to be an author (think ‘authority’), a human being is a character in a complex set of interlocking moral narratives. There is a narrative that can be called his life and there is a narrative of his family and one of his local community and a number of other narratives, some of which have only an indirect effect on an individual, though they might have helped to form the earth or the human race or Europe or France.

There are a seeming infinity of views of this complex set of interlocking moral narratives. Different authors choose different views. Jane Austen concentrated on the concrete details of what might be called ordinary lives. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote allegories which came across as also being concrete stories but were actually loaded with symbols of various sort which manifested aspects of those other narratives in the concrete tales.

Writers play a part in forming those narratives and not just in relating them to the public. Good writers, that is — authors (think ‘authority’), can change the meaning of words and phrases, can introduce new metaphors and analogies, can even change the grammar that constrains or empowers us.

We live in an age where a genial mediocrity passes for morality and that also says something about the lack of courage and integrity of the writers we prefer to read. It’s hard to divide responsibility. A true author (whether ‘great’ or destined for the ash-bin of history) won’t compromise though he may seem to be doing that. It took a couple decades or more for critics to realize the novels of Charles Dickens were profoundly moral — and then it was too late. He was as well-established as the type of hack who flatters the public and panders to their worst tendencies rather than challenging their better selves.

The reader, if he’s truly a morally mature human being has to bear responsibility for his own actions, including the books he reads and, more generally, the way he spends his leisure time. In most cases, he’s also morally responsible for make some leisure time in his life. It is that time which allows for the contemplation and the seemingly unfocused activities which build moral order.

Narratives are necessarily ordered and the proper order for human stories is a moral order. Those of us who believe in a personal Creator believe, or should believe, that the entire universe is also morally ordered though some aspects of that order might be invisible so that we know only what God has revealed to men. That moral order turns the evolving partial differential equations of cosmological physicists into a story. That moral order also turns the brute facts of anthropologists and geologists and paleontologists and the theories of evolutionary biologists into a story of life on earth. But I speak mostly of more limited works of the imagination, ones dealing with human lives in a specific age and a particular place. Yet, that greater context flows through the most ordinary tale if it be morally well-ordered.

Modern readers have lost most of their skill, especially for reading a book in a greater context than what is on the currently open page. Without that greater context, the moral structure of the greatest of novels remains invisible. But novels written to pander to those who seek comfort and security first, and then make their moral decisions, will have no moral structure. And they won’t be able to help the readers to change and to try to put some purpose, some moral structure, in their lives.

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Explore posts in the same categories: literature, Modern culture, Moral issues

3 Comments on “What is a Human Being and Why Should Novelists Care?”

  1. jmoney Says:

    I hear what you’re saying, but morally mature human beings also have to learn to facilitate a more relaxed environment, as morality goes. I don’tmean to promote any serious ethical relativism. I mean that the focus has be on becoming more moral and not becoming less immoral.

    Anyway, I appreicate everything you’re saying—you’re saying it very well. And yet, while I think a strict level of quality control is essential, your standards are—or at least your tone is—coming off a little stringent to my ear.

  2. jmoney Says:

    appreciate, of course. Sorry!

  3. loydf Says:

    I’ve worried a little bit about the negative tone of my writings myself, though I follow Flannery O’Connor’s advice: in a world where people are deaf and blind, you have to shout and draw large, grotesque pictures.

    My positive views are, for now, buried in the difficult prose of my attempts to understand modern empirical knowledge in Christian terms — see loydfueston.com if you’re interesting. I’m moving towards a more positive statement of what’s possible in day-to-day terms though I really think we’ve done a lot of damage to our country and we need the courage to make sacrifices to rebuild — economically as well as morally. One or more generations will have to make those sacrifices for the future or else…

    We’re in serious danger of repeating the collapse of the Roman Republic into the Empire. And that’s the danger that deeper thinkers like Hannah Arendt saw decades ago. But her comments were even more frightening than mine just because they were delivered in the measured tones of a scholar. Some of her most frightening essays were published in Life magazine in the early 1960s and people read them and immediately forgot her warnings.

    I guess I would like to stir people up. I’ll follow Hermann Melville in that. He was also a bit harsh, to the point where he sometimes scared his friend Hawthorne. Prosperity brought a complacency that needs to be penetrated.


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