What’s the Great Scholastic Novel?

Yes, another aside at the beginning of a post, but, thanks to a very nice reference from The Smithy, home of other fans of John Duns the Subtle, ye olde humble blogge’s visitor counter’s pretty much exploded. Seriously, I’ve gotten almost as many people visiting in the last three days as I’ve ever gotten in a month around here. Thanks for visiting, y’alls!

Why aren’t there any great novels written from a Scholastic viewpoint? For that matter, how many truly great works of literature that weren’t written by Dante can those of you who don’t study the middle ages name that explicitly follow a Scholastic worldview? Heck, what about the great Stoic novel? Sure, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations aren’t poorly written at all, but really, what great play, poem, or book follows a Stoic worldview, rather than explicitly espousing one?* It seems that you can’t be an existentialist without writing novels (Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Camus, Sartre, and de Beauvoir were all pretty dang good novelists), and postmodern nihilism, especially of the “there is no truth—which should really scare you” postwar variety, produced any number of temporally disjointed and bone-crushingly dense black comedies. The Greek aristocratic ideal gave us some of the greatest epic poetry and drama the world has ever known, while postwar Japanese novelists infuse their works with Zen Buddhism’s unique wabi-sabi aesthetic, and Romanticism and German Idealism gave us a flood of great poetry. Heck, even Puritanism has produced great novels—according to at least one argument I’ve read, all of them.** So where’s the great stuff involving the nuances of virtue ethics, natural ends, and hylomorphism?

Yes, fine, Dante. I’m a fan. A big fan, actually. But as been pointed out before, there’s not that much that actually happens in the Inferno. Nor in Purgatorio. And the whole point of Paradiso (or, well, one of them) is that there’s not that much that really can happen in the perfected realm of eternal and unchanging Divine justice. So that leaves us with…what, exactly? The Carmina Burana? Sure, it’s great stuff, and yes, it was written by Scholastics, and…okay, some of the satires and love poetry uses Scholastic imagery and language, so there might be a point there. Or half of one, really, because the drinking songs and other half of the love poetry is just hedonism using Scholastic language for comic effect. Chaucer? While there are a lot of Boethius references, these are all to the first half of the Consolation—lots about fate, nothing about how you escape its power. Sure, you have to know that half to get the irony, but still. Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that half his source material is the humanist Boccacio. The Three Matters? Those, with their emphasis on heroism and the feudal order seem to be a harkening back to the Classical aristocratic idea. Langland? Scholastic, sure, but pretty preachy. Raymon Llull’s Blanquerna? Okay, now we’re just getting obscure, and, while there are elements of the modern novel there, it’s still pretty firmly within the tradition of didactic “moral progress” literature. And even though there’s a lot of Scholastic philosophy and theology in it (including a three-page summery of my BA thesis!), Eco’s Name of the Rose is espousing a theory of semiotic interpretation that, while loosely Augustinian, is also very postmodern.***

So what’s the deal here? Is Scholasticism just a bad philosophy to live by or something? Meh, probably not—it just makes for kinda dull or didactic literature. Or, perhaps more to the point, the idea of moral progress and habituation in virtue theory coupled with a very definite and teleological idea of a highest end for all humanity makes for a pretty repetitive plot. If there’s only one way to achieve happiness—union with God in the Beatific Vision—there’s really only one plotline (with minor variations based on circumstance) to any character’s life that ends in a place you’d want to end it. Everyone else burns in Hell for all eternity, which ain’t exactly “happily ever after.” So you can have temptations, but they’re resisted. Diversions and pursuits of false goods, but these are overcome.

Modernity supposedly eliminates this highest end—and even I’d agree that it places a much greater emphasis on attaining temporal happiness by whatever means someone sees fit. In modernity, there are just as many plotlines and happy endings as there are valid ways to achieve happiness, but, better yet for a novelist, this happiness isn’t  a permanent Boethian one rooted in the contemplation of the Highest Good, but one as transitory as the possession of any other temporal good—in other words, perfect for creating plot points and conflict in stories. The tale of the person who left the world behind to become a happy monk or nun, forsaking worldly goods and embracing the contemplation of God all day, every day, is a very very boring one if that’s how it really goes. The story of the idle nephew of minor English nobility who spends all his time involved in petty schemes to keep himself from being married off to a rather soppy-if-pretty girl who doesn’t quite suit him made P.G. Woedhouse a very rich man indeed…especially after the 15 sequels were published.

If we’ve abandoned the ideals of Boethius and those who influenced him—the Stoics, the Epicureans, and Aristotle—then we’ve also lost the idea of happiness being something permanent, something that comes from contemplation, something that can be done in any material circumstance. Abandoning this may not make for a good philosophy to live by, but it does make for characters who chase after transitory things and run into good literary conflicts. Aristocratic Greek and medieval heroes seek to conquer the world itself, and, even if it be the will of gods or Saracens that they die, their deeds give them nobility. The modern character chases after the goods and situations that will make them happy; the transitory and unpredictable nature of the world makes their quest uncertain, perilous, or sometimes even futile. The existentialist protagonist is trying to make themselves through their deeds—which may explain why existential novels are so common. A character in a novel is defined by what they do on the page, with no existence besides what they do, just like M. Sartre would tell you we real people are. Postmodernists? Well, if there is supposedly neither truth nor value, then it becomes really easy to create disjointed and broken narratives to show just how terrifying this situation is. Without the notion of an objective and transcendent highest good to guide all our actions, all sorts of delicious conflicts can result.

So it’s not just the case that nobody’s written a good Scholastic novel; rather, I don’t think you really can.

What about contemporary philosophy? What kind of good literature is it going to produce? Well, analytic philosophy is primarily dominated by a combination of strict mechanism and utilitarianism (though, of course, there are exceptions). While utilitarianism would seem to imply that we keep up the whole modern ideal that let us send characters chasing after transitory conflict, the mechanistic worldview would kill the idea of free will and self-determination that makes reading about the exploits of characters so interesting. Do you really want to read about a character whose exploits are a foregone conclusion, just a cog in the mechanism of the universe? You don’t even get good and valiant vain struggle against fate, just submission to it! It’s no fun watching a character get crushed by the world with the only conclusion being “and then they had some automatic neuroimpulses that set off a complex cascade of somatic functions resulting in a hand removing their light sensitive cells. The end.” Way to make Sophocles boring, dude. Gods, souls, and superstition make for better fiction than that. Seriously, who reads physics journals for their literary merit? That’s what hardcore analytic philosopher lit classes would look like.

That said, David Foster Wallace does make a lot of allusions to Alvin Plantinga’s modal actualism in his first novel, The Broom of the System. Of course, the difference between “modal actualism” and “acting like something you don’t admit is really existentialism solves problems of contemporary metaphysics no existentialist would even admit are problems” is pretty small.

Continental philosophers…well, that’s complicated, partly because they’re so fragmented, but also because most of the literary establishment has co-opted a few domains of contemporary continental philosophy. Unfortunately, it’s often the bad stuff—the worst of critical theory, the bullshit artists who call themselves philosophers but nobody in a philosophy department has ever heard of, much less read, etc. Also, while I’m very much in favor of interpretations of literature that don’t condone implicit biases, I’m not in favor of creating characters without nasty flaws. There’s a word for them: “boring.” That said, the interest continental philosophy has in literature,  literary theory, and the lived experience and languages of various groups means that, at the very least, we might get some works of literature that are both innovative and good. I’m allowed to hope, right?

*And, as might become clear later, I’m not much of a fan of didactic literature. If you’re writing a Mary Sue character who just happens to espouse your viewpoint at some point, or only becomes happy when they embrace it, then I’m excluding you. Voltaire only barely gets away with this in Candide because he’s witty and makes everyone suffer so much first.
**Short version: because, in Calvinism, you could never be sure of your salvation, you always had to be on the lookout for signs of your reprobation, or even that you might not be reprobate. So you think about what you would have done if you were one of the elect. Which is probably different from what you actually did. So then you construct a narrative about what a different, fictional you would have done. It’s a short step from constructing  narratives about what you would do in a hypothetical situation to constructing narratives about what some someone would do; from there, we get stories about the exploits of invented characters in invented situations, and thus, the novel is born.
***And for all you medievalists mad that I skipped over your favorite work: sorry. There’s only so much of the world’s literary history I can dismissively hand-wave away in the course of argument.

4 thoughts on “What’s the Great Scholastic Novel?

  1. It’s been quite a long time since I’ve read the The Name of the Rose. I don’t have any recollection of it even being slightly post-modern. Other works by Eco certainly meet that description (The Island of the Day Before, Foucault’s Pendulum) but IIRC The Name of Rose was a pretty straightforward murder mystery set in a very Scholastic environment. Maybe I should re-read it.

    I’m tempted to point to The Hunger Games as a Scholastic novel but that is poor joke.

    • The thing with NotR is that, if you’re not familiar with Eco’s semiotics, you’re not going to catch that it’s a postmodern critique of overinterpretation, of seeing connections between signs that aren’t really there. While I agree that it’s not architypically po-mo (gag), in that there is a coherent narrative, there’s not too much experimentation with the form, etc., there is some mixing of anachronistic elements (a medieval setting and writing style coupled with a postmodern theory of semiotics) and use of nonsensical signs (really, what *does* the title mean? According to Eco, it’s essentially meaningless, and intentionally so).

      Now, as to whether Eco’s theories of interpretation are much more than an exposition of Augustine…now that’s a different question alltogether.

  2. Classing anything written in the Middle Ages as a “novel” is already a problematic case of anachronism. Given that, I think your concept of what the “scholastic novel” would be is too shallow. The basic intellectual thrust of scholasticism is the sic et non, the “on the one hand…on the other hand…”, and if we take *that* as our building block for “scholastic” literature, then I would have to think that the German romances (think “Parzifal” or “Tristan”) would come up for consideration. Think, for example, upon the wonderful lines from the Prologue of “Tristan”:

    ein ander werlt die meine ich,
    diu samet in eime herzen treit
    ir süeze sûr, ir liebez leit,
    ir herzeliep, ir senede nôt,
    ir liebez leben, ir leiden tôt,
    ir lieben tôt, ir leidez leben.

    [I am speaking of a different world / that gathers together diverse things into a single heart: / its sweet bitterness, its lovely suffering, / its heart’s delight, its passionately painful distress, / its beloved life, its painful death, / its beloved death, its painful life.]

    This brings us then to another issue that, I think, stood in the way of the “scholastic novel”: most medieval literature remained fastened into the Augustinian paradigm that set the two cities into conflict and contrast: this world remains that of appearances, of shadows, of only half-realized reality (a “Scheinwelt”), behind and above which is found the more radical reality of the spiritual realm, raging now in the fierce battle between angels and demons, but eternally destined for the heavenly peace. The sheer *drama* of salvation history makes for a great story, but gets drained out a bit by scholastic slicing and dicing.

    Finally, I would point out that your survey seems to have neglected the greatest Stoic literary: Seneca!

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