Literature and Virtue in Sidney’s “Apology for Poetry”
In "An Apology for Poetry" Sir Philip Sidney attempts to reassert the fundamental importance of literature to society in general as well as to other creative and intellectual endeavors. Though Sidney's work does provide a synthesis (and in some cases an aberration) of much Greek and Roman literary theory, his argument aspires to go beyond an esoteric academic debate. Literature can "teach and delight" in a manner which other methods of communication do not possess (138). The moral/ethical impact any literary text has upon a reader is of paramount importance to Sidney. The argument Sidney presents and develops is built around the assumption that literature has the capacity to teach most effectively and to demonstrate virtue. Perhaps in better understanding how Sidney specifically supports this claim, we can better assess its strength or validity
Sidney places literature in an hierarchical relationship with all other forms of learning; literature inhabits the highest and most influential tier. Literature is "the first light-giver to ignorance", and from it all other sources of knowledge have been nurtured (135). As the first use of language beyond the completely utilitarian, literature stretches and expands language to accommodate broader and more conceptual inquiries. Though an ardent admirer of Platonic philosophy, Sydney, in order to serve his intellectual exercise, rewrites or rehabilitates Plato's harsh stance on the worthlessness of literature. Unlike Plato's poet who perpetuates images far removed from the Truth, Sidney's poet can dip into the world of Forms, the Ideal, and provide us with knowledge of virtue. While the tangible world of appearances "is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden" (137).
Against the established disciplines of history and philosophy, Sidney also uses a revision of Aristotle's Poetics to help demonstrate how literature mediates the interests of both forms of knowledge in order to teach virtue. Where philosophy deals solely with the universal, history is consumed with the particular. Literature is able to deal with the same abstract moral/ethical (universal) concepts with which philosophy grapples by providing examples rooted in concrete, albeit fictionalized, details. History is too concerned with the accurate recording of facts to make any conjectures on such broad, less substantiated concepts. Literature exists between and above history and philosophy because the knowledge it conveys (knowledge of the good) is the best and most useful knowledge that exists. As Sidney states, "no learning is so good as that which teacheth and moveth to virtue, and that none can both teach and move thereto so much as poetry" (149).
Sidney attempts to provide an utterly rational foundation for his claims, however. He develops a systematic analysis of the mechanisms employed by literature to teach virtue. He sorts literature according to its works and its parts. The works of a literary text can be seen in four specific ethical effects which it should seek to elicit in a reader. Sidney defines these four as: the purifying of wit, enriching of memory, enabling of judgement, and enlarging of conceit (139).
In order to purify the wit, literature must engage the intellect in new and different ways. By allowing the reader to view a particular idea, character, or situation from a new or novel vantage point, literature is able to provide a vicarious, condensed education available through no other medium. Memories gathered from these fictional experiences provide a common frame of reference between otherwise disparate individuals. Fictional examples become touchstones which can be understood and experienced more easily by others. Literary memories point toward a more universal experience and invite the reader to find new and possibly profound meaning(s) in personal experiences as well. Sidney implies that a life without such memories would surely be impoverished. Building upon the first two works, literature also provides a reader with ample and necessary practise in making moral/ethical judgments. A literary text provides a safe outlet for such judgments to be made, discussed, and re-examined. Personal and societal codes of behavior are shaped, both strengthened and challenged, by this practise. Literature engages the reader actively with virtue as a part of this decision making process. To enlarge the conceit, literature also expands a reader's knowledge and understanding of language (in terms of style, structure, form) as well. This, in turn, opens new modes of expression, new metaphors, to a reader. The ability to create new and different texts is stamped into the very nature of literature. The ability to articulate and teach virtue effectively is constantly in flux from generation to generation. Literature is constantly in demand of new metaphors in order to remain resilient and relevant. Each narrative, housing the potential to fundamentally redefine and reevaulate itself, represents a metaphor for the world. Thus it is vital that literature possess this self perpetuating but continually evolving quality.
To discuss literature in its various parts, Sidney develops a series of stylistic, structural, and thematic categories: pastoral, elegiac, iambic, satiric, comic, tragic, lyric, and heroic. Each category (part) of literature also attempts to elicit a specific ethical response from the reader. The parts themselves are arranged hierarchically as well, with the heroic being placed at the top. Though an interesting (if historically outdated) method of division, Sidney's categories seem to elaborate more than advance his general argument, however. He places more emphasis on the ethical questions posed by the works of a literary text, rather than its parts.
Sidney concludes his comprehensive defense of literature by attempting to answer various challenges to its merit and continued support. The most serious of these allegations, that literature is "the nurse of abuse, infecting us with pestilent desires", Sidney is forced to acknowledge as true to a greater or lesser extent. This might seem, at first glance, to refute or undermine the argument he has labored so long to create. Sidney, however, has qualified his praise of literature from the onset. Literature can contribute to learning virtue but does not ensure virtuous action. Because he is aware of the fact that literature can and is abused by some, Sidney describes literature as a tool with the greatest potential for good, but not an inherently virtuous invention in and of itself. The destructive qualities evoked by literature are products of the fallible fragile human beings who created it, rather than an indictment of the evil nature of all literature in general. Do not, as Sidney states, "say that poetry abuseth man's wit, but that man's wit abuseth poetry" (150).
Sidney's responses have become the mainstay of the supporters of a liberal arts education. Unfortunately, literature has become sanctified to the extent that knowledge of literature has become practically synonymous with virtuous action. Such modern interpretations of Sidney's defense of literature seem to strike against the very heart of his argument. Sidney seems to understand all too well that human beings house both virtuous and vicious impulses; it is within our power to infuse our creations with both the sinister and the sublime. Because this is true of any human invention, Sidney counsels that the potential of literature for good or ill should not be easily discounted or dismissed.
Sidney, Philip. “An Apology for Poetry” The Critical
Tradition. Ed., David H. Richter, New York: St.
Martin’s Press, 1989.