In my readings I came across a fascinating theory by Stephen Toulmin that concerned the relationship between modern philosophy and literature. Philosophy underwent a paradigm shift in the 17th century, a time that was torn by religious wars (only 30 years of European peace between 1560 and 1715). Thinkers who grew tired of the pettiness of their time urged for a theoretical approach that was atemporal, all-inclusive, and independent of context. They were convinced that a pure theory, a formal logic that was free of the taint of history or culture could issue forth truths that avoided the vicious reality of violence (war, punishment, etc.) and the practical wisdom of rhetoric.
Prior to the 17th century, traditional philosophy dating back to Aristotle’s phronesis, esteemed practical wisdom a critical subject, where ethics was actually more about perceptive judgment than the logical deduction from a priori principles.
“Whereas young people become accomplished in geometry and mathematics, and wise within these limits, prudent young people do not seem to be found. The reason is that prudence is concerned with particulars as well as universals, and particulars become known from experience, but a young person lacks experience, since some length of time is needed to produce it.” Nichomachean Ethics
There was a confidence about this 17th century theoretical approach that supposed the complexity of life could be adequately captured and brought under control. Yet, this approach only shrunk philosophy to a mere academic discipline by expelling the tradition of practical wisdom from its court.
Luckily for us, this wisdom did not disappear, for it migrated to a new home in literature – the modern novel. Since the middle ages, casuistry (case-based reasoning, case by case basis) has unfairly degraded into a pejorative, no thanks to the relentless efforts of Pascal, but it is actually the secret method in literature that investigates moral judgment in concrete situations.
Early attempts are found in the works of Daniel Defoe and Jane Austen, where self-deception and honest introspection are devices of casuistry. For instance, Austen illustrates how the best judgment includes both the deep understanding of particulars and a healthy amount of doubt about one’s own perception that usually prevents the understanding of those particulars. This in effect demonstrates how theory based method in moral reasoning is doomed to failure. In Les Liaisons Dangereuses the socialite Marquise de Merteil proved the incompatibility between vanity and happiness through shrewd manipulations of her rival, the inveterate rake Vicomte Valmont. However, it isn’t until the Russian novelists does casuistry emerge explicitly, particularly in the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
Most philosophical novels consists of a protagonist advocating a philosophy that shrinks to an idee fixe, and attempts to live his life according to its letter. Usually, this effort is proven inadequate, for life’s complexity far exceeds such simplistic formulas, and the protagonist is defeated at the end of the novel. In The Brothers Karamazov, a protagonist is convinced that morality is mere social convention, but eventually loses his sanity due to guilt over a crime he never committed. This is but only one case where Dostoevsky showed how useless our intentions are. According to common sense, our actions depend on the determination of our will. However, in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov actually does not decide to off the old woman. He does plan for it, fantasize how it is to be carried out, but a strange turn of events transforms this hypothetical possibility to the actual reality of the murder. However, afterwards, Raskolnikov is unable to come up with any concrete explanation for the murder (he does advance phony ones from ideology, from utility, that he is the perfect homo sapiens, for justice, self-overcoming, and etc.), which means he did not truly “decide” his action. This effectively paints a case of the oversimplification of the common sense model of the mind, action and ethics.
The novel is a testbed of a though experiment, where reality and the idea square off, and those that succeed its inner aesthetic logic survive. If the experiment exceeds the conditions of realism, where the author attempts to create events that only happen to validate his theory, then the novel will fail in a cliched abortion of a mess. The characters’ actions end up contrived, their motivations thin and transparent. Dostoevsky’s most audacious experiment was The Idiot, where he attempted to place a Christ-like figure in late 19th century Russia aristocracy, but rendered by a master psychologist’s gift of insight. A simple Christian would’ve contrived to prove that the Christ-like figure would’ve overcome all the difficulties of human perversity and made other people better, but Dostoevsky knew better. In the end the Christ-like figure ended in utter destruction, for himself and others.