Faculty Bookshelf: The Inner Vision

by Steve Charles

June 15, 2007

The Inner Vision: Liberty and Literature
edited by Edward McLean

from the introduction

There are good reasons for the silence or unresponsiveness that one meets when studying liberty through the lens of an actual, personal life. A man’s thoughts, emotions, false starts, and brilliant victories should remain largely hidden by a curtain of privacy drawn to protect the myriad traces of his heart from the cold scrutiny of the scholar or the brutal curiosity of the state. The progress of life is not always good and happy. It is often intensely painful, sinful, and embarrassing. Subjecting all of life’s intensity to the public eye would make living unbearable.

Further, a man’s life may not unfold neatly enough to allow a clear glimpse of the ideas which shaped him, gave him a particular savor or style, or betrayed him to utter ruin. But such things speak only about the hiddenness of human life, not its importance to the student of freedom. The philosophy, economics, or politics of freedom mean little unless they produce a life of freedom. We can easily know abstract principles, equations, or institutional structures. But how can we know what a free life is really like?

It seems that a vital link is missing in any study of liberty that has no way to examine both the philosophical absolutes of freedom and their permutations in actual lives.

Students of liberty should heed the ancient wisdom that dramatic literature offers, a way to connect the world of absolutes and particulars. Drama portrays the sublimity of absolutes within the limited horizons of individual lives. Antigone is not just about a woman trying to get her brother buried; it is also about justice and its relationship to law. Henry V is not just about the nature of political sovereignty; it is also about a man overcoming his own immaturity and daunting circumstances to emerge as a victorious servant of the common good. Whether formed on stage or between the covers of a novel, drama gives us entry to a "magic place" where personalities and absolutes can meet and interact without doing violence to one another, allowing us to wonder at ourselves and the world of ideals.

The role literature can play in this study is not a cheap and trendy concession to "relevance," a condescending trick played out of despair of our ability to grasp straight and abstract discourse. Good literature is impossible without a deep and abiding knowledge of the human heart, and classic literature is impossible without that knowledge and an equally profound grasp of abstract truths. Both kinds of knowledge are essential to a serious study of freedom.

Contact Professor McLean at mcleane@wabash.edu


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