The Garden of Moral Delights

The Garden of Moral Delights  /  Jonathan Golding

Golding is the author of Telegonos, a new tragic drama to be published by Darkly Bright Press in 2021.

Literature should present us with moral virtues in a way that gives pleasure, and artists have a moral obligation to produce this type of work for their culture. Such a statement may sound strange to our modern ears. However, this was the common understanding of the role of literary art in the Western tradition for over two thousand years. It viewed the poet, playwright, or storyteller not merely as an individual creator beholden to himself alone. The poet or maker was an integral part of society who could transmit ethical values and thereby help produce virtuous citizens that would act toward the common good.

To happen on such ideas today can only be a startling experience as if we’ve hacked our way through a dense jungle to find the remains of a lost city. We see before us its streets and avenues, but it lies in ruins and it is largely deserted. And we may ask ourselves how we may relate these radically different thoughts about art to our experience of literature today.

Perhaps it will help us answer such a question if we take a moment to glance back at the way literary art was spoken of in the past. Then we may consider whether this perspective still has relevance to us today.

In their own ways, both Plato and Aristotle helped to launch such a vision of the artist’s role in society. Plato famously expelled most poetry from his imaginary republic. He would allow in his ideal city only those poets who produced works of literature which would instill virtue and be a benefit to human life. However, elsewhere he speaks of the power of beauty and poetry to lead us to the good. 1

Aristotle saw the pleasure produced by artistic representation as an adjunct to the happy virtuous life. He believed that such works could purify human emotions by arousing them in a fictional context, and he also seems to see the function of literature as the transmission of moral values through the portrayal of ethical characters and actions. 2

Together these views formed a common cultural understanding of the role of the literary artist as one who could teach virtue in a beautiful way. When Rome arose, its writers adopted this pedagogical tradition. Horace echoes such a conception of the function of the literary artist when he writes, “Poets aim…to combine the giving of pleasure with some useful precepts for life…The man who has managed to blend usefulness with pleasure wins everyone’s approbation, for he delights his reader at the same time he instructs him.” 3

When the Christian faith came into being, the apostles and Church Fathers largely took a very positive view of the arts. St. Paul quotes from the poet Aratus in his address to the Athenians, and the patristic writers sometimes read Christian allegories into the literary myths of their day.4

In the fourth century, Saint Basil summed up the Christian attitude toward literary art when he wrote, “Since we must needs attain to the life to come through virtue, our attention is to be chiefly fastened upon those many passages from the poets…in which virtue itself is praised.” And elsewhere in the same treatise, he says, “Just as bees know how to extract honey from flowers, which to men are agreeable only for their fragrance and color, even so here also, those who look for something more than pleasure and enjoyment in such writers may derive profit for their souls.” 5

This vision of the moral role of literature continued to be dominant into the Renaissance. Sir Philip Sidney writes in his Defence of Poesy, “It is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet, it is that feigning of notable images of virtues [and] vices… with that delightful teaching…for indeed poetry ever sets virtue so out in her best colors…that one must needs be enamored of her.” 6

The role of the artist, then, as viewed in this tradition, was to create works of literature that would help people lead moral lives through the pleasure afforded by representation or imitation. Literary art was seen as a healthy grown-up version of childhood play with a serious and formative purpose. I certainly would not try to claim that all writers during that time followed this model. However, if we look at the works of Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, or Milton, with this in mind, we can see that their intent is not merely to amuse and amaze their audience. They offer models of virtue to follow or exemplars of vice to be shunned. They offer us insights into how we may live, and yet they do it in a way that also gives us a great deal of enjoyment.

What reader of The Aeneid has not been moved by the spectacle of Aeneas carrying his aged father through the wreck of burning Troy? The student of the Commedia is struck with awe at the moment when the haughty Sordello humbly embraces his countryman on the mountain of Purgatory. What theater-goer has not felt a desire to emulate Portia as she delivers her encomium on mercy? And though the facile reader of Paradise Lost may take Satan for the hero of the tale, one more careful will find in it a complex investigation of the nature of evil that appears noble at the outset. 7

These writers do not offer us platitudes or easy answers. Their morality is not silly or trite or banal. Still less is it irrelevant to how we may live our lives today. It is hard to be as loyal as Aeneas or Sordello. When we are enraged, it is not easy to show the kind of mercy to which Portia exhorts us, and it is always good to remind ourselves that evil often appears to in the guise of tragic nobility so that we may be wary.

Reducing the lessons of these works of art to such statements does them a grave injustice, but absorbing these truths from the actual works themselves offers us a vivid and life-affirming process. To read these poets is to step from our mundane and confusing world into bright gardens where virtue is a delight and our delight leads us to virtue.

I think it would be easy to misunderstand this traditional view of the arts in two ways. First, the delight of which I am speaking is not a palliative; it is not the spoonful of sugar that makes the foul tasting medicine of morality go down. Rather I think to those who practiced such art the delight is an inherent part both of the playfulness and the virtues the artist is seeking to transmit. There used to be a common expression that described someone who was sorrowful as being “miserable as sin.” I think this is a survival from an earlier time in our culture when we understood this to be true in quite a literal way. When we act badly we tend to be upset, angry, and defensive. In short, we are miserable. And the reverse is true. When we try to live in an ethical and authentic way, we are happy. And this delight in moral virtue infuses the works of such writers.

Moreover, I think the goal of this approach to the arts was to associate the pleasure produced by the poem or the story with virtue and moral teaching. Human beings naturally try to create representations of their world either in images or in words, and it gives us a great deal of pleasure to do so. The goal of this way of viewing the arts was to harness the power of imaginative pleasure to a moral purpose that would benefit society. It desired us to have pleasure in the right things, that is, to help us bring order to the chaos of our emotions.

Secondly, I think we should take notice of the fact that the literary artist is not seen as the originator of the morality he or she celebrates. Rather the artist transmits what they have received and, we hope, has tried to live by. As Sidney says, “Now doth the peerless poet…whatsoever the philosopher saith should be done, he giveth a perfect picture of it in someone by whom he presupposeth it was done, so as he coupleth the general notion with the particular example.” In other words, the poet takes the moral values of his culture and embodies them. 8

In the last two hundred years, this view of literary art has largely fallen out of fashion. It lies beyond our scope to investigate the causes of that decline. Perhaps such a doctrine carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. When handled by skilled and authentic artists, such a conception of literature has produced some of the greatest works in the Western canon. However, if handled poorly or with hypocrisy such an understanding can produce mere propaganda rather than vigorous, life-affirming moral fictions.

Surely the Romantic Movement, though, played a large role in the downfall of this doctrine. These poets, rather than seeking to rouse emotions in a meaningful way celebrated emotion itself as the source of their poetry. Moreover, rather than transmitting the values of their society, they saw themselves as the creators of those values by virtue of their poetic inspiration.

Percy Shelley ends his screed on poetry with this rather grandiose flourish. “Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present…Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” In other words, the Romantics, like their predecessors, saw literary art as a vehicle for transmitting values, they are “legislators,” but it would be the poets themselves would be the source of these values derived from their own emotions and perceptions. And while there is a great deal to be admired in the works of these writers, I can’t help but feel they did Western literature a grave disservice by espousing this aesthetic. 9

There was some attempt in the nineteenth century, most notably by Tolstoy, to resurrect the traditional role of art. However, in our modern era, the idea of the moral duty of art has largely been replaced with an understanding of art as self-expression or the investigation of social ills and reportage.

Our serious poets, playwrights, and novelists have traded inviting us into what may be, for showing us what is, and how we may live, for how we live now. They often do us a great service in revealing the reality of bigotry or social injustice, but just as often they fail to provide us, models of virtue, to counteract such vices. And while I certainly would not claim that all modern literature is bad, the story of twentieth-century writers to the present is largely one of the triumph of technique over substance, entropy and nihilism over life-affirming fiction, and the anti-hero over the protagonist who ennobles us by his actions. There can be intellectual stimulation in such works, but there is little to give us real human delight.

I have explored the traditional view of literary art with two purposes in mind. In the first place, I believe it helps us to be more sensitive readers of works of the past. Rather than deconstructing texts and reading our own world view back into them, it seems beneficial to me to consider how the artist and contemporary reader understood what the writer was trying to accomplish. For example, reading Macbeth’s speech on the meaninglessness of life, we might be tempted to consider this perspective to be Shakespeare’s own. However, if we understand that he is showing us the effects the character’s crimes have had upon him, I think we are closer to the truth. 10

Secondly, I have celebrated this perspective on the moral role of literature in society to raise the question as to whether modern fictioneers and poets might return to it one day. It is not a question for which I have a ready answer, but if such a thing were possible, I believe it would greatly benefit our common culture.

When I speak this way, I certainly do not mean that I think today’s writers should craft simple moralistic fables or mouth empty phrases. Real virtue is always hard to achieve and even harder to articulate in a way that is not silly, trite, or self-righteous. Life presents us with complex issues in which there are often no easy answers and it requires courage to try to live ethically and with authenticity. And when we attempt to say what we have learned in that struggle, our own inadequacies daunt us. Yet it is out of such complexity that the great art of the past was born, and I am foolish enough to believe that perhaps it might be so again someday.

It might be objected that our culture has moved on from this moral project for the arts. Such a conception of a goal for literature doesn’t express our modern world, and we can’t turn back the clock.

I think it is inherent in this way of thinking a tacit comparison to science or with some process of natural growth. Scientific knowledge advances in a linear progression. In the same way, a plant or other living being develops from one stage to the next. In both cases, there can be no going back to an earlier state. I believe literary historians and critics often look at this steady progression and wish to make us believe that art too progresses with a kind of inevitability. Romanticism leads to realism and realism leads to modernism and modernism ineluctably leads to post-modernism and so on.

I am a strong advocate for science and believe it is a great tool that we have invented that enriches our lives in many ways. So I would not wish to be heard to be speaking against it. Art, though, is not science. Nor is art a kind natural intellectual flora grown in the hothouse of our culture. Art is the product of individual human minds that are free to create as they will. Poets, playwrights, and novelists respond to the social milieu in which they find themselves. However, writers are also readers, and they often express their praise by imitating those whom they admire. This is how literary movements come about, a few hardy souls striking off in a new direction. If a number of writers, then, were to try to lead us into the garden of moral delight by presenting us with well-crafted works, others would follow.

Another person might ask whether it matters that artists have abandoned this view of their role in society. Were people in the past more moral? Or to put the question another way, how does it harm our current culture?

I certainly would not claim that Western culture in the past was a moral paradise. The treatise from Sir Philip Sidney which I quoted above also contains shocking comments about the “childish savages” in the New World which England was then colonizing. So it is never wise to read works from the past uncritically, and, in this instance, perhaps a modern reader could teach some virtue to a poet of the past.

However, I would make the case that a culture that celebrates virtue through beautiful works of literature is healthier than one which does not. To understand fully what I am saying perhaps we need to return to Plato for a moment.

Plato’s contemporary, Gorgias of Leontini, had written a work called The Encomium to Helen. We may remember that Helen, the wife of Menelaus was seduced by Paris and fled with him to Troy. The conceit of Gorgias’ work is that he is defending Helen from her detractors, saying she should not be blamed since she was persuaded by the beauty of Paris’ language. He uses this backdrop as a pretext for a celebration of the persuasive power of poetry and language in general. He writes, “The effect of speech upon the soul is comparable to the power of drugs over the nature of bodies. For just as [with] different drugs…some bring an end to disease and others to life, so also in the case of speeches, some distress, others delight, some cause fear, others make the hearers bold, and some drug and bewitch the soul with a kind of evil persuasion.”11

In his work the Republic, Plato sets up a fictional city-state to be able to better describe justice. He obviously has Gorgias thoughts on the power of language in mind when he chooses to banish most of the poets from his ideal kingdom. It is not that Plato believes poetry is inherently bad. Rather, he fears its power, the power of persuasive language, the power of unrestrained imagination, the power of “evil persuasion” to lead his citizens away from virtue and toward vice.

And while I would not agree with the kind of censorship that Plato proposed, I feel he was right to express such concerns. Art moves us. It stirs up our emotions. It can influence our decisions. It can persuade us to a viewpoint. It has a kind of power. If the artist is beholden to none, if he has no other moral code to transmit than his own, if he is merely expressing himself or celebrating his own emotions, this power of language can lead us both as individuals and as a culture toward that which harms us rather than toward what is life-affirming.

I think it’s important to remind ourselves that Plato’s Republic is a thought experiment and in its own way a work of literary art. It is a sophisticated game of “let’s pretend” for grown-ups. Plato, through the mouth of his fictionalized mentor, Socrates, is saying, if we could create the ideal polity, what would it look like? Some of the results of this intellectual play offer intriguing possibilities, but many are quite horrifying. It’s important, though, to remind ourselves that through this dialogue, Plato was also communicating his ideas to his contemporaries, ideas about politics, justice, and his understanding of the ultimate nature of reality. His program was not to create the state he envisioned, but rather influence the culture in which he found himself. And as concerns us here, he was saying poetry, rhetoric, and literature, in general, are powerful. Like the rudder of a ship, they can be turned in one direction or another. We need poets and literary artists who will turn this rudder toward what is beneficial rather than what is harmful.

We live in a world in which it is hard to act virtuously. Virtue offers many rewards, but life often offers us difficult choices. Life presents us with a variety of harsh realities, sorrows, and pain. The kind of art I have been describing, the kind of art promoted by Plato and Aristotle and which was practiced for over two millennia offered a refuge to the weary traveler on the moral road. It nourished the souls of those who were on the quest for the right path out of the dark wood of error. And while those books remain with us, our living culture has turned the rudder for a different shore.

Yet by its very nature, this instrument of language can be turned again to virtue. No one has ever been made more moral by reading a story or attending a play, but if in these works celebrate virtue, then we may be more disposed to act virtuously when we close the novel or rise from our seats after the curtain comes down. And I consider that it would be of great benefit if we turned away from self-expression and amoral fictions and enter once again into that bright garden where virtue delights us and our delight leads us to virtue.


1. Plato, Republic, Books 2, 3, and 10, Ion, Symposium, Phaedrus, Plato: The Complete Works, Hackett Publishing Company. Elizabeth Asmis, “Plato on Poetic Creativity”, The Cambridge Companion to Plato, Cambridge University Press

2. Aristotle, Poetics, Oxford University Press Nicomachean Ethics, Public Domain, Paul Woodruff, “Aristotle’s Poetics: The Aim of Tragedy,” The Blackwell Companion to Aristotle, Blackwell Publishing. Aristotle never explicitly states this doctrine as I have related it, but I feel it is strongly implied by reading the Poetics through the lens of his comments on pleasure and happiness in the Ethics.

3. Horace, The Art of Poetry, Classical Literary Criticism, Penguin Books

4. Acts 17:28, Aratus, The Phaenomena, Invocation, Harvard University Press. Lactantius, The Phoenix, Public Domain.

5. St. Basil the Great, Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature, Public Domain

6. Sir Philip Sidney, Defence of Poesy, Sidney’s ‘Defence of Poesy’ and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism, Penguin Books

7. Virgil, The Aeneid, Book II, Vintage Classics. Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, Canto XI, New American Library. William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, The World Publishing Company. John Milton, Paradise Lost, The Riverside Milton, Houghton Mifflin Company. John Carey, “Milton’s Satan,” The Cambridge Companion to Milton, Cambridge University Press

8. Sidney, Defence p. 16

9. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Defense of Poetry, Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Delphi Classics

10. Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5

11. Gorgias, Encomium to Helen, Language is a Mighty Lord: A Gorgias Reader, Riposte Publishing

The Garden of Moral Delights: copyright 2020 by Jonathan Golding. All rights reserved.

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