Fathom Mag

Loving life, literature, and God

A Q&A with Karen Swallow Prior

Published on:
September 11, 2018
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4 min.
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The subtitle of your book is “Finding the Good Life through Great Books.” What do you mean by “the good life”?

The “good life” is a phrase associated with the ethics of Aristotle. For Aristotle, the “good life” can be determined only within an understanding of what constitutes the meaning or purpose of human life. Aristotle was a natural philosopher and drew his ideas from his observations of the world around him. In observing humankind, he saw the good qualities about us that are uniquely human and set us apart from the rest of the created world as the ones that make for the best life. He called these qualities excellencies or virtues. The virtues Aristotle identified include courage, temperance, honor, friendship, and wit. The early church fathers and philosophers added greatly to the tradition, leaving a rich legacy that is fruitful for our understanding and application today.

The phrase “good life” is sometimes translated from the Greek as “happiness.” This “happiness” is actually what the American founders meant when they referred in the Declaration of Independence to the universal human right to pursue happiness. Following Aristotle, the founders understood that the good life, or happiness, consists of good character—and good character flourishes best in true freedom.

This is how a Christian understanding improves upon the truth at the basis of this ancient Greek ideal. Christians understand that both true freedom and good character are found ultimately in Christ. Even so, common grace makes the pursuit of these virtues possible for all human being who are made in God’s image.

How can reading good literature cultivate virtue?

Reading good literature cultivates virtue in two general ways: through both its content and its form.

Literature that conveys truthful, universal aspects of the human condition, human character, and human conflict allows readers to see and make judgments about the character qualities that contribute to creating or solving problems and achieving growth and maturity. In other words, by reading about characters, we build character.

But even beyond the more surface-level approach that looks to literature for “lessons,” the form of good literature itself shapes the character of the reader. Reading literary works—works that use language artistically to re-create and convey something of human experience—cultivates some of the same virtues that make for a good life. For example, reading a work that is difficult and ambiguous requires a kind of courage that isn’t required in reading something straightforward that promises to deliver more answers than questions. Reading a work by an author of another age and time from one’s own requires humility to step outside the world of the familiar. And reading works that unfold layer upon layer, image upon image, word by word, necessitates and, in turn, produces patience and diligence.

As your subtitle suggests, finding the good life through books requires reading good literature. What would you point to as markers of a “great” book? Why did you choose the specific books you included as examples?

I teach an entire graduate course in which I ask my students to answer this question: What is good literature? It is certainly a difficult one to answer definitively. But I think even just asking the question gets us in the right direction.

We must first remember that literature, as I stated above, is an art form.

We must first remember that literature, as I stated above, is an art form. It uses language artistically. Textbooks and instruction manuals are not meant to be art any more than paint on a wall is not a painting. So we must first consider the form of literature. Does it use language beautifully? Obviously, there are many ways for language to be beautiful: in simplicity, in ornateness; in verse, in prose. Good literature must also express what is true to human experience (broad as that is) and true to the nature of reality—not in any literal sense, necessary, but in a capital “T” true sense. In the best works of literature, form and content are so integrated that the work can hardly be retold in other words with the same effect. T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” is an excellent example of this, as well as John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, and Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence, which I cover in the book.

I chose the books I write about in On Reading Well for two reasons: first, based on my confidence in my knowledge of the works and my ability to discuss them thoroughly. My academic specialty is eighteenth-century British literature and the English novel, so while I stretch myself as much as I can beyond that narrow scope, it is a challenge. Second, within that category, I selected works that illuminated something about the virtues I decided to cover.

Will you give us a quick overview of the classical virtues? What are the cardinal, theological, and heavenly virtues? How did you decide which to include in the book?

One of the first things I learned in my research is that there are many lists of virtues. The only ones that seem universally agreed upon are the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. Within church history, the theological virtues—faith, hope, and love—are drawn directly from scripture. Once I decided on these seven, it was a little more difficult to decide on the rest. Ultimately, I chose the so-called heavenly, or Christian, virtues. There are seven of these, but two are among the cardinal virtues. The remaining five comprise the last section of the book: chastity, diligence, patience, kindness, humility. I liked the three-part structure, and I liked the works I found that had something to show us about these virtues.

And I think literary language offers a key with which we can escape the prison-house of the mind built by the prevailing discourse of today: cliché, sound bites, and political slogans.

Why do we talk so little about virtues today? Has the idea of the virtuous life been lost?

In the book, I cite the important work of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre who in After Virtue, explains that when in the modern age we lost our shared sense of a transcendent purpose or meaning for human life, we also lost the ability to know what qualities of human beings are excellent. Yet, being made in God’s image, we still yearn for meaning and purpose and so we still invoke the language of virtue even though we no longer agree on what it consists of. We are left with the shell of virtue minus the meat inside. We are left with virtue signals but no receiver.  But in these highly polarized times, I think the virtues offer a site where we can find common ground. And I think literary language offers a key with which we can escape the prison-house of the mind built by the prevailing discourse of today: cliché, sound bites, and political slogans.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I wrote this book in such a way that I hope it will draw readers who already love great literature and those who might be more skeptical or lacking in confidence about reading the great books. In teaching literature, what I want for my students when the class ends is for each of them to leave loving life, literature, and God more than they did when they started. That’s my hope readers of On Reading Well, too.

Karen Swallow Prior
Karen Swallow Prior, PhD, is a professor of English for Liberty University. Prior is also a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a Senior Fellow with Liberty University’s Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.

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