Literature and Philosophy: Contrary or Complementary?

Literature and philosophy: their goals, methods, and pleasures seem so opposed. Literature tells fictions; philosophy dispels them. Literature loves beauty; philosophy loves truth. “There is an old quarrel,” wrote Plato in 380 B.C., “between philosophy and poetry.” However, even Plato was a master of literary philosophy. Such a marriage of literature and philosophy might give birth to an exceedingly rare experience: feeling ideas. Fyodor Dostoevsky and William Shakespeare achieved this marriage, and the results of their inquiries are not in wordy monologues but fulfilling narratives.


In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov pits his philosophical convictions against his own conscience. Guilt and law, Raskolnikov asserts, are both simply “prejudices” that society presses on individuals. Some men, supermen, rise above guilt and law and do what they please. Raskolnikov plans to confirm his philosophy by committing a murder. The murder is a consequence of his philosophical belief (“No superman is subject to guilt!”) and an attempt to prove himself a superman.

Likewise, Macbeth’s philosophical convictions push him toward life or death. The whole of Macbeth can be viewed as a debate over the nature of manhood: What is a man? How should a man act? Should sympathy curb a man’s ambition? When Macbeth has second thoughts about assassinating King Duncan, Lady Macbeth challenges him as failing in his manhood:

When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And [if you did it] you would
Be so much more the man.

Macbeth eventually concedes to Lady Macbeth’s vicious definition of manhood. Both Shakespeare and Dostoevsky shove these philosophical positions to their maximum conclusions.

At the end of the play, Macbeth is a monster. Yet we can still feel sympathy at his lament that life has become a meaningless cycle of days:

It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov carries his philosophy to its maximum conclusion. He murders the money-lender and her sister, then crabs into his psyche where guilt pursues him like a hunting hound. For a few days, he hides beneath his stony philosophy. But upon receiving a gentle letter from his mother, Raskolnikov begins to cry. One minute, lethal pride. The next minute, sympathy. Dostoevsky’s readers feel Raskolnikov’s philosophy yanking him back and forth.

Dostoevsky and Shakespeare’s achievement comes, in part, from never forcing their characters to be philosophical mouthpieces. Macbeth and Raskolnikov both become monsters, but they do not cease to be human. These characters resist simplistic philosophizing because, no matter their beliefs, they remain a baffling salad of impulses. They are, in short, us.

Neither Shakespeare’s and Dostoevsky’s characters nor their conclusions are tidy. They wrote narratives, after all, not philosophies. Yet both litterateurs endorse philosophy as a lamplight to understanding. Their marriage of literature and philosophy helped make them masters of both. Their works, like any healthy marriage, use the strengths of each to bolster the weaknesses of the other.


[This edited excerpt is from “War between the Bookshelves” by Tim McIntosh. To read the original article, click here. More about Gutenberg College here. Or check us out on Facebook.]


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