Published Humanitas, Volume XII, No. 2, 1999

Determining how literary study relates to the social order has occupied the best minds at least since Plato excluded poets from his ideal republic. The subject has been so thoroughly aired that it seems difficult, in Samuel Johnson’s phrase, to say anything new about it that is true, or true about it that is new. Plausible arguments contend that the study of literature is a civilizing influence that nurtures good citizenship by providing instruction and models in compassion, justice, and the moral law. But forceful arguments also contend that engagement with literature is primarily an aesthetic experience having no direct practical consequences for civil affairs. After centuries of consideration, the matter still defies resolution. But because it is perennially relevant, each age grapples with it in the context of its own views regarding the nature of literature and the ideals of society. My purpose in what follows is to survey some significant recent contributions to this endless debate over what literary study can or should do to promote the civic good and offer some observations concerning the debate and the direction it should take in the future.

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