For my Philosophical Literature class, I was supposed to write an argumentative paper to defend whether or not the novel I am reading, which was Lord of the Flies, is philosophical. Before I could discern such, I had to define clearly what is a philosophical work and what is a literary work.
This paper will review the nature of the novel Lord of the Flies by William Golding to determine whether it properly belongs to the category of philosophy rather than literature.
The debate over the issue of whether fiction can be philosophy can be stated in the following terms:
One school of thought exemplified by Martha Nussbaum holds that “certain novels are irreplaceably works of moral philosophy”. By extension, this contention should include not only novels but all works of fiction involving narratives such as short stories, epic poetry, extended allegories, and the like. These literary works can be included in a phrase – fictional narrative.
The other school of thought exemplified by Iris Murdoch’s description of philosophy as excluding the works of literature. Murdoch views philosophical works as “abstract, discursive, and direct”. This necessarily excludes fictional narratives from the realm of philosophical writing.
In Nussbaum’s liberal approach to moral philosophical writing, Lord of the Flies would clearly be a novel of moral philosophy. In Murdoch’s concept of moral philosophy, it is not.
Lord of the Flies in Murdoch’s Distinction
According to Murdoch, philosophy and literature are “two radically different kinds of writing”. Philosophy to Murdoch is essentially “an attempt to perceive and to tease out of thought our deepest and most general concepts” and “the critical analysis of beliefs”. This clearly rules out all literary novels in the form of fictional narratives. Unquestionably, Golding’s Lord of the Flies is fictional narrative. Although Murdoch knows the value of literature in showing to the reader areas of moral life to which philosophy merely alludes, she insists that the two spheres are separate.
Lord of the Flies in Nussbaum’s Inclusive Definition
In Nussbaum’s concept of moral philosophy, fictional narrative can state philosophical truths that slip through the cracks of philosophical prose. It is Nussbaum’s thesis that writing style is not neutral and that the form of writing influences the content conveyed. She suggests that fictional narrative is complement to philosophical prose in that one states truths that escape the other. Moreover, philosophy’s concentration of rules obscure the need for perception of particular, even unique, features found in concrete situations. Therefore, she finds fictional narrative superior to philosophical prose in conveying truths about moral life. Finally, Nussbaum says that great novels engage the reader in thinking through moral possibilities of portrayed lives – something philosophical writings cannot do.
Undoubtedly, in Holland’s formulation, literary fiction often qualifies as moral philosophy and in certain cases is superior.
Literary Work as a Subset of Moral Philosophy
In a sense, all literary works are philosophical writings. All literary works, if they were to be coherent, must have a single overarching theme. Without such theme, the literary work loses its sense of unity and coherence. A literary work without a theme is, in the words of Shakespeare,
“… a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”
Where a work is disjointed and is not bound together by the Aristotelian unities of time, place and theme, it is essentially a work of a madman. Thus, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the eponymous tragic hero finds the world “out of joint”, seemingly out of coherence as he lapses into the madness of his guilt. In William Faulkner’s Sound and Fury, the disjointedness of plot is an emblem of the madness of the main character.
Despite the fact that all literary works deserving of the name is structured over a unifying theme, there are many variants and gradations of such a theme, from the ridiculous to the sublime, from the profane to the sacred, from the non-philosophical to the philosophical. Where the theme of the literary work is philosophical, that is to say, it delves into the ultimate nature of the universe and of human life, then the literary work partakes the nature of a philosophical work.
This would be regardless of the style of the work. The problem arises if the style of the work is fictional narrative. To Murdoch, as stated above, philosophical writing is “abstract, discursive, and direct”. Literary fiction is concrete, situational, and indirect. Fictional narrative does not say, it merely shows. I disagree with this distinction because it is premised entirely on a non-content based difference. As Murdoch herself holds, and she agrees with Nussbaum on this, great works of literature enhance moral understanding. It is my opinion that all fictional narratives on philosophical themes are necessarily philosophical works regardless of the style or approach, regardless of whether it is prose or poetry, narrative or non-narrative. The distinction should be based on the primary source of the fictional narrative, whether it springs from a philosophical idea and is therefore, properly speaking, philosophical literature or from experience, in which case it is pure literature. In this sense, therefore, philosophical literature, that is to say fictional narrative qualifying as moral philosophy, is a subset of the wider category of philosophical writing even as it is a subset of literature.
Examples of Philosophical Literature
Where a literary work, especially a fictional narrative, springs from a philosophical idea, there are bounds to be a number of indicators.
- The plot does not flow naturally, but is structured along the lines of the writer’s thesis.
- The characters tend to be paper thin and one-dimensional.
- There is a persistent hammering of the philosophical theme.
A case in point is Voltaire’s Candide. The eponymous character has not depth and is single-faceted. The plot and the theme are clearly geared to demonstrate Voltaire’s idea that this is not the best of all possible worlds, a philosophical refutation of the conservative elements in pre-revolutionary French society that oppose and form of change.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is another case in point. It is a polemic against the evils of pre-Civil War American slavery in a form of a novel. Contrast with Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which the young Huck which is a complex character has a complex relationship with a runaway slave, Jim. The plot is as meandering and crooked as the Mississippi River with a number of subplots running, and a theme as complex as the characters. There is no question that in Huckleberry Finn, Twain was writing from experience and not in pursuit of an idea.
Examples of Pure Literature
Aside from Huckleberry Finn, world literature abounds in great fictional narratives that cannot be characterized as philosophical in character and yet have strong philosophical implications. This is so because the author is writing from a transmutation of experiences rather than from a philosophical idea.
Ernest Hemmingway, a Nobel laureate like William Golding, started out as a reporter rather than a writer of fiction and in his writing fictional narratives, he has been cited as having portrayed the true face of his generation. In A Farewell to Arms, he says
“I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand for except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honour, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the number of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”
In the above quoted, there is no hint whatsoever that Hemingway is pursuing a philosophical idea or a moral point. He merely records as objectively as he can the butchery of the First World War and the reaction to it.
In the words of William Barrett in Irrational Man,
“The example of Hemingway is valuable here, for he is not an artist inspired by intellectual themes; quite the contrary, he is a reporter and a poet intent on reporting what it is he really sees in experience, and what he has seen and reports to us in this story is the Nothing that sometimes rises up before the eyes of human beings. A story by Sartre on the same subject would be much more suspect to us: we would have reason to believe that the Existentialist writer was loading the dice intellectually, reporting on experience out of a previous philosophical commitment. But to reject Hemmingway’s vision of the Nothing, of Nothingness, might well be to close our eyes to our own experience.”
This is the heart of the distinction between fictional narrative as great literature and fictional narrative as moral philosophy.
Lord of the Flies as Moral Philosophy
Based on the standard of what constitutes moral philosophy, I am in my opinion that Lord of the Flies is moral philosophy in the guise of a fictional narrative.
This is obvious from, first of all, the characters in the novel that are found to be not so much flesh and blood characters but are symbols of a philosophical idea. In the novel, Ralph represents civilization, Piggy represents rationality, Jack represents the primitive in man, and the conch shell represents society. The characters are one-dimensional. They do not contain within their character the internal conflicts of a human being that which makes them human. They are rather like pieces on a chessboard which the author puts into play to determine the outcome which he then leaves hanging.
The plot is basically unoriginal, previously Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson, depicting the ultimate triumph of rationality and civilized feeling in a scenario which there is no dominant government or other institutions of civilization. Golding’s plot does not suggest the triumph of civilization and rationality. Towards the end, they were about to lapse into primitivism until they were saved by adults.
Lord of the Flies is an extended allegory. As such, it is meant to prove a point, to make a case, to exemplify an idea. It is not meant to depict experience. Golding admits this in a publicity questionnaire, he answers
“The theme is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature. The moral is that the shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system however apparently logical or respectable. The whole book is symbolic in nature except the rescue in the end where adult life appears, dignified and capable, but in reality enmeshed with the same evil as the symbolic life of the children on the island.”
Thus, I conclude that Lord of the Flies is moral philosophy in the form of fictional narrative. The fact that Golding won a Nobel Prize in Literature does not detract from the fact that his work is more moral philosophy than literature because it is in fact overtly moral philosophy.