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Debates about the Value of Literature from Homer to Aristotle

Andrew Ford

Implicit justifications for the value of learning “literature” (i.e., songs and verse) can be found sporadically in Homer and archaic poetry but become increasingly common and explicit in 5th-century texts; from these, three main claims (not necessarily mutually exclusive) can be extracted: that poetry improves the moral character of the student; that it inculcates wisdom; that it has practical utility. Counterarguments to each of these claims can also be discerned, indicating that the teaching of literature is always liable to encounter opposition. Against the background of this long-running debate, the present paper will highlight a new and different defense of studying poetry made by Aristotle in his Politics (esp. 8.3-8). After an informative survey of reasons for keeping literature (mousikê) in the curriculum, Aristotle argues that, quite apart from its potential practical and ethical benefits, the “noblest” reason to teach young people mousikê is so that they may enjoy its pleasures later in cultivated  leisure.

Aristotle’s conception of “noble leisure” (skholazein kalôs) may be criticized as parochial, a projection of the life-style of the Greek gentleman and the world view of his fellow Peripatetics. Yet at a time when Why literature? is an urgent question not only for Classics but for the humanities in general, it seems worth considering whether Aristotle’s arguments for its study are simply to be discarded as the fruit of the poisonous tree. I will suggest that Aristotle’s orientation to the student rather than the city and his emphasis on literary study as a non-instrumental good can usefully connect questions about the value of literature and the liberal arts with our debates about the relationship between citizenship and economic inequality, wealth and culture, work and leisure, art and consumerism.

Session/Panel Title

Presidential Panel - Ancient Perspectives on the Value of Literature: Utilitarian versus Aesthetic

Session/Paper Number


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