Dante Project

 I have been continuing my work on moral philosophy and its relationship to literature by writing a book entitled Reforming the Humanities: Literature and Ethics from Dante through Modern Times (Palgrave Macmillan, in press). I have summarized two core arguments from this book as articles:

  • "Keats Against Dante: The Sonnet on Francesca da Rimini," Keats-Shelley Journal, vol. LI (2002), pp. 76-93.
  • "Why Dante Damned Francesca da Rimini," Philosophy & Literature, vol. 23 (October, 1999), pp. 334-350

The introduction of the book follows. You can also read the main text under consideration, Canto V of the Inferno, by clicking here.


This is a book about ethics or morality and fiction. Ethics encompasses what is right or good, what we ought to do and think, and how laws and institutions should be organized. I argue that we should often make ethical judgments and decisions by describing reality in the form of true narratives. Fictional stories provide excellent opportunities to deliberate about situations and issues that also occur in real life, and should be read, in part, as ethical statements. I argue that when the moral judgments supported by a good story conflict with general principles, we ought to follow the story and amend or suspend our principles, rather than the reverse. What makes a story “good” for this purpose is not its conformity to correct moral principles, but its merits as a narrative—for instance, its perceptiveness and coherence and its avoidance of cliché, sentimentality, and euphemism.

The relationship between stories and moral principles is connected to other issues that I also explore: the proper role of emotion and reason in ethics; the scope of ethical judgments (i.e., how widely or in how many different contexts a given judgment ought to apply); cultural diversity and what that means for morality; partiality, or whether it is appropriate to favor people whom one knows; what kinds of context are relevant to the interpretation of literary texts; and the value of fictional versus true narratives.

One can explore these issues in a theoretical way, by advancing general propositions and investigating whether they fit together, what fundamental values or beliefs support them, and whether they are plausible when applied to cases. Moral particularism is an example of such a theory. It has antecedents as old as Aristotle and has recently been developed in a novel way by Jonathan Dancy and others. It asserts that we must make moral judgments about whole situations, but we should not morally evaluate abstract concepts, such as love, justice, courage, or freedom. These concepts are sometimes good and sometimes bad, depending on the context. One can only tell the moral significance of a concept by examining the whole situation in which it figures. Particularism opens the door to an ethics based on narrative, because stories describe whole situations.

Particularism is a philosophical thesis that can be developed in some detail, applied to real or hypothetical examples, and connected to other principles derived from logic, epistemology, and the philosophy of language. Portions of this book involve such theorizing. I argue, for example, for a moderate version of particularism, one that acknowledges the value of some general moral principles.

I do not, however, believe that theoretical arguments can settle the question of how to reason about moral issues, or—more specifically—how much we should trust stories versus moral principles when the two conflict. In theoretical arguments about morality, authors frequently appeal to our intuitions about principles and methods or about hypothetical cases. But our intuitions differ; and even when all modern professional philosophers happen to agree, that does not mean that they are all right. Prevailing intuitions change over time and from community to community. We can be relatively secure when we feel strong intuitions about very simple ideas, such as “murder is wrong.” But this book explores propositions that are not categorical rules; they are generalizations or rules of thumb about complex social phenomena such as literature, modern philosophy, ordinary morality, and love (which is this book’s main example of an ethical issue). I do not maintain, for example, that narrative is inevitably better than moral theory, but that we ought to be persuaded by certain types of story if we read them well. Many readers will begin with different opinions about the value of the actual stories that exist in our culture, or in any other. If all we have are clashing intuitions about fiction, philosophy, and important ethical issues such as love, we can make no progress.

Instead, I propose to investigate what happens when we try to reason about one moral issue in a highly “literary” way—by means of narrative that is subtle and carefully constructed—and also by developing and testing general principles. This book examines the pros and cons of these two ways of thinking and judging. I use as a case-study a particularly excellent story that addresses an important moral issue (adulterous love). It is also a story about the relationship between fiction and morality, the tension between emotion and reason, the place of a story in its context, the proper role of partiality, moral generalization, and history versus fiction—precisely the issues that I mentioned at the outset.

To say that any story is “about” something is a complex and subtle matter. Only the simplest kind of fable announces its theme explicitly. It is especially difficult to say what the narrative I analyze is about, because it deliberately breaks off before it provides essential pieces of information. It is part of the fifth canto of Dante’s Inferno. We call it the story of “Paolo and Francesca,” or the story of “Francesca da Rimini,” but the words “Paolo” and “Rimini” never appear in the text. We think we know that it is the tale of a woman who had an adulterous affair with her brother-in-law and was killed by her husband; but none of these events is even mentioned in Dante’s book. Footnotes tell us that she was a real woman who happened to be the aunt of Dante’s patron; she even quotes her nephew’s poetry when she talks to Dante. But again, we know none of this from the book itself. The main character explains that hers is a story of “love”—but her explanation cannot be complete, for she is in Hell, and one cannot be damned for love alone.

The story is constructed in an extraordinary way so that readers ask: What is this about? In general, how do we know what stories are about? Does it matter what really happened to the historical person who is also a character in the literary text? What are the boundaries of any story, since all narratives are enmeshed with others? And if we decide that this story is really about love, adultery, murder, and/or poetry, what moral judgments should we make about its damned heroine?

I explore these questions in chapter 1, explaining what literally happened in Dante’s story. I then propose a first interpretation. Dante, I argue, holds doctrines that are philosophical in origin and form. In chapter 2, I define “moral philosophy” and analyze Dante’s philosophical reasons for favoring monogamous marriage, retributive punishment, and a particular view of human character. The purpose of this discussion is to give a flavor of philosophical reasoning and to show that Dante is committed to philosophical conclusions that justify Francesca’s damnation. In the text, Francesca presents a rival theory, according to which love is involuntary and beyond reproach. Thus we can interpret the episode as a philosophical debate between Francesca (the character) and Dante (the author). The moral is that Francesca is wrong. She claims that her own story is about love, when it is really about adultery; and she holds incorrect views of love and narrative.

However, as a pilgrim in Hell, Dante does not seem to grasp this moral. He is beguiled by Francesca’s sweet speech, confused by her false moral doctrine, and perhaps influenced by his real personal relationship to her. In chapter 3, I investigate Francesca’s rhetoric. At least since Plato, literature has been accused of misleading its readers by skillfully distorting our emotions. I argue that Dante holds this view of literature, albeit with some important qualifications. Thus, even though he is a narrative poet, he is concerned about the moral dangers of literature and presents Francesca as a warning. She not only tells a misleading story about herself, but she is a devotee of romances who believes that she resembles romantic heroines from literature, such as Yseult. To the extent that she provokes our sympathy, the intended lesson is to distrust stories. Dante trusts moral doctrines when they conflict with literature, no matter how moving or convincing the latter may be.

Part of the reason, I argue, is that Dante holds a very non-particularistic view of moral concepts. He believes that it is possible to define each concept so that it is always right or wrong, or good or bad, regardless of the context. The physical structure of the afterworld, as he imagines it, exemplifies this kind of moral categorization, with its tiers devoted to various sins and virtues. Under the influence of romantic fiction, Francesca mischaracterizes her own case. She says that it is about “love,” which she presumes to be always praiseworthy. But Virgil explains in Purgatory that love is neither good nor bad in general, although it can be very good or very bad in particular contexts (Purg. xviii, 34-9). Dante believes that love comes in several forms. These can be separately defined, and we can use independent criteria (necessary and sufficient conditions) to tell us whether a given love is good or bad. For example, the same love that it is good when it exists between a married couple is bad when the parties are married to other people.

In chapter 4, I propose an alternative moral theory, my own version of particularism. It is easiest to introduce this theory via an analogy to aesthetics. A large patch of red paint may contribute to the beauty of a painting by de Kooning, but it would utterly ruin a Van Eyck. Patches of red paint are not the right unit of aesthetic judgment; paintings are. [note 1: Simon Blackburn introduces this analogy but rejects it. See Blackburn, “Securing the Nots,” in Walter. Sinnott-Armstrong and Mark Timmons, eds., Moral Knowledge (New York, Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 97.] Likewise, particularists believe that we can make valid moral judgments about overall situations, but not about their qualities or aspects (such as love or adultery) when taken out of context.

Dancy has argued that all moral concepts shift their meaning, and their moral significance is never knowable in advance by applying general criteria or rules. We can only find out whether something like love is good or bad by seeing it in a particular context. [Note 2: Jonathan Dancy, “The Particularist’s Progress,” in Brad Hooker and Margaret Little, eds., Moral Particularism (Oxford, 2000).] I think this claim is too radical. I am a moderate particularist, because I accept that some concepts, when properly defined, have very strong positive or negative moral force in all situations. For example, rape is always wrong. If there is an elaborate hypothetical case in which rape is justified, it should still cause immense regret. However, other ideas, such as love, happiness, marriage, courage, fidelity, and trust, are not like this. They are indispensable for moral thinking, yet their significance depends on the immediate circumstances and cannot be predicted on the basis of a general theory. I argue, specifically, that love cannot be disaggregated into good and bad types that have clear definitions, as Dante tries to do. Love is a complex phenomenon, much colored by past human experience, description, and testimony, that can be either good or bad, or can easily change from good to bad (or vice-versa), or can be good and bad at the same time. All the subcategories of love that are generally bad (e.g., adultery) include praiseworthy cases. Even the good examples carry hints of the bad, and vice-versa. We must make judgments about particular cases of love. These judgments are right or wrong or somewhere in between. Yet the general concept of love is irreducibly ambiguous, because we cannot tell by any rule or independent criterion whether it will make a situation better or worse.

To think about cases of love—and about other concepts that function like love—we need stories. We must assess whole situations, but the limits of any situation may be controversial. Stories persuade us that certain details are relevant to judgment and others are not. They also demonstrate that particular people are morally implicated in situations. In narratives, we find themes; and themes are very useful for moral reasoning. They are unlike moral rules, definitions, principles, or doctrines in that they only literally apply to a particular story in its specific context; they are not even exhaustive interpretations of that story. Many themes can overlap in a single story: Canto V of the Divine Comedy, for instance, introduces interrelated themes of love, adultery, violence, pity, and sinful reading. Recognizing a story’s moral themes prompts us to look for similar themes in other narratives, including those of our own lives. Themes generalize in just the right way and to just the right degree.

Through chapter 4, the argument presumes that Dante damned Francesca because she was moved by fiction to ignore moral principles taught by philosophy and theology. There is support for this interpretation in the text, but Dante must have held a somewhat more complicated view, for he chose to write moving, concrete, and imaginative stories that sometimes challenged his own more abstract beliefs. Many critics have noted tensions in the Divine Comedy that are sources of its power and fascination. Dante’s commitment to austere principles clashes with his evident love of human particularity. His sympathy vies with his stern morality. The pilgrim named “Dante” is often at odds with the author/narrator who bears the same name. These tensions may even be embodied in the overall form of the Comedy. The architecture of its 100 cantos is full of symmetries and regularities, yet it encompasses fantastic diversity of human types. Its terza rima has a metronomically reliable beat that embraces an incredible variety of sound and texture. If Dante is a “philosophical” thinker, driven by clear distinctions and willing to apply abstract rules to various cases, that is only one aspect of his great work. Sometimes his stories subvert his own philosophy.

According to Lord Byron, Friedrich Schlegel, Francesco de Sanctis, Erich Auerbach, and other major critics, Dante subscribed to strict, religious-philosophical doctrines that he learned from medieval Catholic thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas. These moral views led him to damn people like Francesca da Rimini. But Dante was also a poet—a close observer and sympathetic describer of human beings—and as a poet, he was inclined to pity and forgive. His stern, religiously-grounded philosophy conflicted with his forgiving poetic sensibility; and Romantic critics preferred the latter. My view, however, is different. I think that Dante chose Francesca as his chief exemplar of lust (instead of any other adulterer whom he could have selected) because she had sinned against poetry as well as against abstract moral principles. Put another way, Dante derived moral ideas from his close observation and description of individuals in their contexts. These moral views were in some tension with the abstract doctrines that he had learned from theologians and philosophers. The former sometimes undermined his moral categories and definitions. But the moral views that he derived from close observation and description were by no means permissive or lenient. On the contrary, he showed that being a good reader—of literature or of human beings—took discipline and care, which Francesca conspicuously lacks.

It turns out that Francesca’s speech is a pastiche of literary quotations. If we examine the books she quotes, we find that some are hackneyed and superficial. Others are idiosyncratic and morally demanding—yet Francesca reads or misreads them all as clichés. She even misremembers the literal plots of several books, changing them from peculiar to banal. Not coincidentally, she neglects to say anything specific about her own lover’s personality. Instead of “reading” Paolo carefully, she treats him as a stock character from hackneyed medieval romance.

Dante uses his depiction of Francesca to show that clichés are morally hazardous. They allow us to avoid noticing what is particular about a person or a situation—so we judge it incorrectly. Identifying clichés in stories (and in the interpretation of stories) is one way to distinguish helpful from misleading narratives. Furthermore, there is an important parallel between clichés in literature and abstractions in moral philosophy. Like a formulaic story, a moral theory may overlook the important details of a situation.

We now are in a position to see a second interpretation of the story, which I present in chapter 5. According to this reading, Francesca is not damned because she holds the wrong moral philosophy—nor because she has been influenced by stories and has ignored the moral principles taught by philosophers—but rather because she is a poor reader of literature. She prefers bad stories to good ones, and she distorts the best ones by misquoting them. Particularism (even in a moderate version) implies that we cannot identify good stories as ones that conform to general, abstract moral principles. We need different criteria—ones more intrinsic to narrative. Dante suggests several such criteria by offering Francesca as a model of bad literary judgment. She is addicted to sentimentality and euphemism as well as cliché. She also has a strong tendency to pick convenient portions of books out of context. The opposite kind of reader would appreciate candor, precision, curiosity, and empathy and would wrestle with challenging moral perspectives instead of distorting them. These emerge as moral as well as literary values, albeit not ones that are always good.

By reading a medieval text closely and critically, I defend a version of particularism, argue for reading stories morally, and develop some ideas about love and reading. But philosophy, love, and literature have changed since Dante’s period. Historicism is the view that values are phenomena of our cultural backgrounds and contexts; and such contexts differ substantially from time to time and place to place. Although even Herodotus recognized some degree of moral diversity, true historicism was a discovery of the late eighteenth century. Confronted with evidence that Homeric Greeks and contemporary Hindus had profoundly different values from those of bourgeois Europeans ca. 1800, some historicists reached radical conclusions about culture itself. They came to believe that we make all of our moral judgments by applying general assumptions. We hold these assumptions because of the cultures in which we live. Cultures vary; hence judgments differ; hence no one can know whether he or she is morally right. Not only does a profound change in values plant doubts about the validity of our moral judgments; it also raises questions about whether anyone can represent concrete situations and episodes realistically—for all representation must reflect the assumptions of a particular cultural context. Thus radical historicism provokes a crisis of representation; sophisticated artists in all media develop doubts about the value or possibility of representing the world. If we cannot represent the world, then we cannot reason morally by examining and discussing concrete cases.

I am a moderate historicist because I accept that there is a great variety in human moral judgments and ways of seeing the world, and we can often understand why people adopt their views by understanding their cultural backgrounds. However, I do not believe that a culture is a set of abstract moral premises that its members apply when they make value-judgments. To have a “culture” is not to make a few basic assumptions from which everything else follows; it is rather to possess a large set of biases, experiences, beliefs, and commitments; a store of examples, archetypes, and role models; a vocabulary and a repertoire of reasoning skills. Everyone has a different set. No one’s set is fully consistent or coherent. Even if there are two people in the world who are so dissimilar that they perceive and judge every situation differently, other people share some views with each. In short, human beings are not divided into a set of distinct “cultures,” each one with its own worldview or foundation (to mention two common but misleading metaphors). Rather, we normally relate to people who are somewhat similar and somewhat different.

In Part Two, I investigate the dilemmas of historicism by interpreting Romantic and post-Romantic versions of the Paolo and Francesca myth, especially those by Leigh Hunt, John Keats, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Steven Phillips, Gabrielle d’Annunzio, and Eugenio Montale. Most of these authors draw opposite moral conclusions from Dante’s because they hold attitudes toward sexuality and art that are typical of their time—but not of his. Thus the history of the Paolo-and-Francesca story provides a helpful illustration of historicism. Historicism is also an explicit theme in some of the retellings. For instance, Montale places himself in a hellish storm, tied to a mysterious woman who resembles Francesca. But he is profoundly skeptical of his ability to understand her or any other person, and he traces that skepticism to a recognition of historical change. Montale’s poetry embodies the crisis in representation: he drops the ambition of telling a story or portraying a character in her context, and instead offers fragmentary thoughts apparently (although perhaps fictionally) drawn from his inner state.

The later versions of Francesca’s story not only illustrate and explore historicism; they also exemplify a specific inversion of values that deserves attention. In typical Romantic versions, Francesca is a heroine, struggling to enjoy love, passion, liberty, and self-expression despite the burdensome bonds of marriage. Many authors of the last 200 years have considered social institutions such as matrimony and monogamy and their underlying values to be conventional, arbitrary, or at best ungrounded in any deeper general truth. By contrast, sexual love is often viewed as natural, involuntary, universal, authentic, and pleasurable. Hence many major characters in Romantic and subsequent fiction are lovers who are oppressed by puritanical conventions. Adulterous passion fits this model perfectly.

Thus, in Romantic versions of the Paolo and Francesca myth, the two doomed lovers are young and beautiful. They are interested in Art (which describes beauty, nature, and passion), whereas their relatives are philistines and puritans. The passion of Art spills over into reality, encouraging them to kiss. They are killed immediately, before differences in desires and values arise to complicate their relationship. The pathos of their death provides readers or viewers with aesthetic pleasure that is closely linked to the emotion of pity. If the lovers end up in Hell, their damnation is treated as a profound injustice that intensifies their tragedy. Readers are expected to assume that young and beautiful lovers rightly belong together; this feels like a moral judgment even though it is not always consistent with morality.

We have moved beyond Romanticism. Today, many people view love with more irony than Leigh Hunt did; and many support marriage and other traditional institutions for ethical reasons. Nevertheless, we remain mired in a set of problems that arose during the Romantic era. Attuned to historical change and diversity, we distrust universal moral principles, especially ones that assume intrinsic ends or purposes in human life. Radical historicism also undermines our confidence in our own concrete judgments about particular situations, for we know that people from foreign places and distant times would both see and judge reality differently. Moral and epistemological skepticism are common in high culture, while popular culture remains fascinated with stories about romantic love (seen as natural, spontaneous, and good) versus moral norms and institutions, which are oppressive and arbitrary.

It would be dangerous and damaging to live in a time that was deeply skeptical of both general moral rules and concrete moral judgments, and that instinctively turned to romantic passion as a substitute for ethics. But this describes only one aspect of our situation. Despite the challenges that arose in the Romantic era, we continue to produce and consume compelling moral stories. We thus face a version of Kant’s question: Moral reasoning continues to exist, but how is it possible? My answer lies in a combination of moderate historicism and moderate particularism. This combination explains how stories can continue to embody moral truth. It also suggests lessons for philosophers and literary critics, which I explore in Part III.

For philosophers, the lesson is to engage more seriously with narrative. We call mainstream moral philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition “analytical” because they analyze raw materials that come from outside of contemporary academic philosophy. They select popular intuitions and/or historical moral doctrines (especially those of Kant and the British utilitarians) and analyze them to see whether they are internally consistent, harmonious with our other intuitions, and clear. I think this approach has achieved some useful results, and I would call myself an analytical moral philosopher.

The method has three severe limitations, however. First, analytical philosophers try to develop general moral theories by clarifying the intuitions of particular people—most often, people just like them. This is an ahistorical method; it ignores the fact that values differ profoundly, and “our” moral intuitions may be merely local. Second, consistency and clarity can be overrated. If they become our main criteria for selecting moral views, then we may discard insights that are indistinct or that do not fit together neatly, even though these ideas are legitimate and important. Third, it is impossible to settle moral issues merely by analyzing and refining received views. Many opinions about moral issues are sufficiently reasonable that they can be clarified, rendered internally consistent, and harmonized with opinions about other topics. Thus a philosopher who seeks to refine available views will be struck by the intractability of moral disagreements and the incapacity of his or her discipline to provide answers.

In fact, many of today’s leading philosophers are disarmingly modest about what they can achieve. For example, John Rawls states: “There are no experts: a philosopher has no more authority than other citizens.” [Note 3: Rawls, “Reply to Habermas,” The Journal of Philosophy, xcii, no. 3, March 1995, pp. 140-141.] Faced with a diversity of moral views, Rawls makes a procedural turn; he argues that people should be able to choose their own ends in a liberal democracy that makes collective choices deliberatively while safeguarding individual rights. I agree that everyone should be able to choose ends and participate in democratic deliberations. But what are citizens supposed to think and say, unless there are good arguments about moral matters? And if there are good arguments, why can’t philosophers offer them, too?

I believe that philosophers can offer valuable moral ideas—not to dominate or resolve public deliberations, but as useful contributions. Their most compelling ideas often come originally from stories. The best stories contain important moral themes and insights; they give us reasons to adopt moral views. These stories are worthy of careful, professional analysis, such as moral philosophers can provide. However, to capture the power of a story, one cannot resort to a synopsis or a paraphrase. As I hope to demonstrate in this book, a story should be read with attention to specifically “literary” qualities, such as characterization, setting, point-of-view, voice, genre, irony, and style. Equally important for understanding a story is to know its context: the author’s intentions, the other narratives to which the text alludes, and the norms of the community in which it originated.

For the most part, Anglophone moral philosophers use stories, stripped of context, merely as examples. Hypothetical and often implausible scenarios figure much more frequently than interpretations of subtle, carefully constructed stories. Yet some prominent philosophers have interpreted narratives with close attention to their literary qualities. Recent examples include Richard Rorty on Nabokov and Proust, Bernard Williams on the classical tragedies; Colin McGinn on Shakespeare; and Martha Nussbaum on many texts, including the Divine Comedy. [Note 4: Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Colin McGinn, Shakespeare's Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays (HarperCollins, 2006); Martha C. Nussbaum, “Beatrice’s ‘Dante’: Loving the Individual?” Apeiron, vol. xxvi, no 3 and 4 (September/December 1993), pp. 170-171.] These authors have disparate interests and methods and reach various conclusions. I want to make the general point that interpreting stories is a good method for moral reflection, and that it is especially valuable when the form, intention, and context of the text are taken seriously. [Note 5: Martha C. Nussbaum, makes precisely this point. See, e.g., Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 30.] Rorty recommended a “general turn against theory and toward narrative.” [Note 6: Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. xvi.] I endorse this direction but offer quite different reasons from his—ones rooted in the methodology of moral judgment rather than skepticism about moral truth.

For their part, literary critics are experts about cultural context and the intrinsically literary aspects of stories. In addition, they often hold views about whether stories are good or bad—not only aesthetically, but also morally and politically. For example, some readings demonstrate that particular books are patriarchal or ethnocentric, and we assume these are unacceptable attitudes. In the recent past, however, explicit moral argument and evaluation became very marginal and uncommon in literary studies. [Note 7 David Parker observes “the virtual absence of explicit ethical interest in contemporary literary discourse” during the 1970s and early 1980s. David Parker, Ethics, Theory and the Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p 3. And Daniel R. Schwartz asks, “Why did ethics virtually disappear from the universe of literary studies in the 1970s and 1980s?” Schwartz, “A Humanistic Ethic in Reading” in Todd F. Davis and Kenneth Womack, Mapping the Ethical Turn: A Reader in Ethics, Culture, and Literary Theory (Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 2001), p. 9. However, Michael Eskin criticizes the rhetoric of a “turn,” mainly because there was always more ethical literary criticism than recent manifestos suggest. Eskin, “Introduction: The Double ‘Turn’ to Ethics and Literature?” Poetics Today, vol. 25, no 4 (2004), pp. 557-572).] Scholars engaged in “critical reading” were not expected to express or defend their own moral views. [Note 8: An influential depiction of critical reading (albeit without a definition) is Michael Warner, “Uncritical Reading,,” in Jane Gallop, ed., Polemic: Critical or Uncritical (New York: Routledge, 2004).] They did not discuss whether the moral themes in a given story were persuasive or what themes they would prefer the text to present. In my view, this diffidence was a mistake. Literature makes moral judgments; taking it seriously means evaluating its claims. It is important to do so explicitly, because the implicit moral positions that motivate critics’ judgments of literary works can seem simplistic or exaggerated—or even downright wrong—once they are set down in words. Discussions of literature benefit from accountability and transparency.

Fortunately, there is now an “ethical turn” in literary studies that seems to mirror the literary turn in philosophy. In her influential 2006 book, The Way We Argue Now, Amanda Anderson announces: “We must keep in mind that the question. How should I live? is the most basic one.” This bold premise associates her, she says, with the “general turn to ethics.” It marks a departure from “theory,” meaning literary or cultural theory as practiced in the humanities from the 1960s into the 1990s, which meant the application of “poststructuralism, postmodernism, deconstruction, psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, postcolonialism, and queer theory” in interpreting texts and discussing methods and goals within the humanities. [Note 9: Amanda Anderson, The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory (Princeton, 2006), pp. 6, 4.] “Theory” had its own moral implications and its own ideas about character, as Anderson notes. At least some of its moral insights were valuable. But “theory” tended to deprecate human agency. Poststructuralism “limit[ed] individual agency” by insisting that we could not overcome (or even understand) various features of our language, psychology, and culture. Multiculturalism added another argument against human agency by insisting “on the primacy of ascribed group identity.” Anderson, in contrast, believes that we can think morally about, and influence, the development of our own characters. We do not “don styles [of thinking and writing], … as evanescent and superficial as fashion.” Instead, we are responsible for how we develop ourselves.

I second these views but reach them from a different starting point. For Anderson, the main issues are the centrality of character and agency and the duty to make moral arguments in public. These are also perennial concerns for Martha Nussbaum, although she has considered a vast range of issues in her career. For me, the starting questions are: What methods should we use for making and defending moral judgments? How should we read stories? And how can we tell good stories from bad ones? To address these questions, I turn to a deeply challenging, seven-hundred-year-old story that still asks how we should live and where we should derive our moral ideas.