Does literature have a value, or values? Literary scholars might reasonably be tempted to reject the question on the grounds that utilitarian metrics cannot measure what we do. We might say that literature improves us because it sharpens critical reasoning, encourages empathy, or inculcates desirable social ideals. Or we might make the more radical claim that literature’s value resides in its disconnection from or opposition to conventional social values — in the shocks and pleasures it gives, the skepticism it engenders, the new ideas it unlocks. All these claims are difficult if not impossible to measure in the customary institutional frame of a single class or even a curriculum, let alone over a lifetime (though neuroscientists and psychologists are now working the problem).
Saying yes in this way is a risky proposition. It means demanding stipulations that skeptical questioners are unlikely to grant. And any institutionally obedient attempt to affirm value risks reinforcing the skeptics’ conviction that literature is ultimately somehow reducible to instrumentality.
Despite these caveats and others, I think the risks of evading the question of value are bigger than the risks of tackling it. This paper argues that the Roman rhetorical tradition reframes the problem by starting not with literature’s nature or its effects on us but with the question “for whom and for what we read, and in the service of what kind of world” (Butler, 102). Rhetoric’s answer collapses the utilitarian and the aesthetic. Cicero and Quintilian start from Isocrates’ belief that political relations among human beings only become possible when humans begin to communicate; communication involves aesthetic perception and artifice (closely linked to emotion) as well as reason; the aesthetic is thus a core element of politics, ineradicable and impossible to ignore. Their valuing of literature does not arise from a post hoc justification in a worldview where literature lives in the realm of appearance and mimesis, apart from reality and action. On the contrary, as they prepare students to engage in the “expression of public thought” (Farrell 140), the rhetoricians turn them resolutely, actively toward the public, that is, to the space of appearance. In the rhetorical context, literature cannot be reduced to the study of narrative or ornament or figures of speech, because these are grounded in the field of communicative action where ethos is a central concern; nor can be it understood as an individual, private pursuit, because the orator reads with a view to moving the people he speaks to. Reading literature is part of becoming expert in the affiliations and reconciliations of individuals and groups. It involves the reader in a relation of responsibility not to the text or the author (Larmore, 49-54), but to other people with whom we make the world in common.
Defending literature by appealing to its ethical value is by now a familiar move (e.g., Attridge, Harpham, Nussbaum). Where many such critics have focused on the affective or cognitive understanding literature allegedly provides (of moral exemplars, emotions, oneself, strangers), I share Joshua Landy’s desire to explain what literature trains us to do (Landy, 4-11): I focus on Quintilian’s claims for how literature enlarges our habits of speech, developing in us the intuitive sense of knowing the right words to say at the right time, grasping the sensus communis, and
understanding how people change under the force of words (Inst. Orat. 6.1-3, 8.1-16, 10.1-2). My argument draws (as I will explain) on Hannah Arendt’s claims about politics and the space of appearance in The Human Condition (198, 204) and her reading of Kant’s Critique of Judgment as political philosophy.
Presidential Panel - Ancient Perspectives on the Value of Literature: Utilitarian versus Aesthetic