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Literature and the Irreducible Problem of Value

Stephen Halliwell

One reason why we can still profit from arguing about/with ancient attitudes to ‘literature’ (itself a concept with an unstable identity – a point which needs to be fed into our discussions) is that they form a vital part of the ancestry of issues which, in constantly evolving ways, remain important to our cultural and educational challenges. Among those issues is the irreducible problem of literature’s value(s): the inescapable tension, so I shall argue, between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ perspectives of value (at the extremes, between various kinds of aestheticism or formalism, on the one hand, and functionalism or consequentialism, on the other). Radical attempts to resolve such dichotomies in favour of one or other side – e.g. by arguing that all supposedly literary/aesthetic value is really political, or, conversely, that the literary/aesthetic can stake a claim to pure autonomy – are ultimately unsustainable: they either collapse under their own weight or fail to do justice to the full richness and complexity of cultural experience (ancient and modern).  

            Building on the arguments of my book Between Ecstasy and Truth: Interpretations of Greek Poetics from Homer to Longinus (2011), I shall suggest that while ancient critics occupy a whole spectrum of subtly inflected positions on the problem of ‘literary’ value, none of them can escape its dilemmas (which are also creatively visible in ancient literature itself, from Homer and Hesiod onwards). Through its manipulation of resources of language, imagination, and emotion, literature entices critics into contrasting and shifting perceptions of either its self-sufficiency or its capacity to meet the demands of larger life-values. My attempt to illuminate some of the fundamental issues will include selective discussion of Plato (who, I maintain, is keenly aware of the problematics in question, despite his misleadingly one-sided reputation in some quarters as an ‘enemy’ of poetry), Isocrates (a much cruder ‘utilitarian’ in matters of literary value, but also very important for his long-range cultural and educational influence), and ‘Longinus’ (who exposes the underlying problems of literary value by seeking in the sublime a possibility of transcendence while still supposedly showing its usefulness to ἄνδρες πολιτικοί). What I hope will emerge is a dialectic which, though it cannot be finally resolved, can be put to constructive work in the way we study and teach the history of ancient criticism.

Session/Panel Title

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

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