skip to Main Content

Short Stories and Political Philosophy: Power, Prose, and Persuasion

Short Stories And Political Philosophy: Power, Prose, And Persuasion

This edited volume explores the relationship between short stories and political philosophy, broadly understood. More specifically, each chapter analyzes a single, brief fictional narrative to address the innovative ways that short stories grapple with the same complex political and moral questions studied in political theory and ethics. We have selected short stories as our medium because they offer specific pedagogical advantages to teachers and students of political philosophy. Our baseline assumption is that we can learn new lessons about even the most widely-read works and ongoing debates in political philosophy by turning to the short story. While not our focus, we are also confident about the inverse proposition: that the political theorists examined in this volume can offer fresh interpretations of and insights into select works of fiction.

We have designed this book to model various ways in which the short story may be used as an access point for the challenging works of political philosophy encountered in a wide range of higher education courses. In this way, we present this project as a resource to both recent students of politics as well as established scholars. We intend this book to stimulate classroom conversations, and to encourage instructors to reexamine how they teach the great thinkers and debates of political theory, especially by incorporating short stories in their own classrooms. In addition to these teaching objectives, we hope that Short Stories and Political Philosophy: Power, Prose, and Persuasion will be of use to future researchers in political theory and the various disciplinary fields that draw on its bountiful tradition of writers and ideas. In particular, we believe that political science subfields such as American political thought, politics, literature, and film, cultural studies, and science, technology, and politics will all benefit from considering the edifying uses of fictional narratives.

The breadth and flexibility of our goals informs this diverse collection. The contributors to this volume do not adhere to a single theme or intellectual tradition. Rather, taken together, their work is a celebration of the intellectual and literary diversity available to students and teachers of political philosophy. With this context in mind, this edited volume strives to illuminate the varied, rich potential of the short story as a medium for political discussion and teaching.[1]

Political Philosophy and Fiction: The Case for Congruity

At this point, a skeptical reader might wonder: what distinctive returns can we hope to get from a volume dedicated to the study of short stories and political philosophy? At first glance, one might discern a sizable gap between the means, and ends, of fiction and political theory, a gap that has been debated at least since Plato’s Republic.[2] After all, these two enterprises have discrete purposes, canons, tools of engagement, and accepted forms. Much of fiction, for example, is designed simply to entertain, not an attribute traditionally associated with the core ambitions of tracts of political philosophy, which seeks to educate and persuade.

Moreover, short fictional stories tend to be rooted in a singular, if not idiosyncratic, tale, “generally fasten[ing on] to a moment or an incident or a few moments and a few incidents.”[3] Through this relatively narrow focus, the short story can achieve what Edgar Allen Poe identified as “a certain unique or single effect,” providing the reader with a powerful sense of purpose and satisfaction.[4] But such emphases seem divergent from political philosophy’s aspiration to provide typologies, to universalize, or at least to offer enduring arguments about the complexities of human existence and the best political order. In other words, if short stories achieve much of their power through individual narratives dense with “authenticating detail,”[5] political philosophy, in contrast, is marked by the “abstractness of its generality.”[6] For these and other reasons, one might well concur with Irving Howe that political fiction “is peculiarly a work of internal tension.”[7] Mitchell Cohen arrives at a similar point in identifying the “political short story” as producing a collision of two “realms,” that come together, at best, in an “uneasy” fashion.[8]

The contributors to this volume have a different perspective. We find a great deal of overlap and affinity between the concerns of fiction and political philosophy. The agendas of poets and philosophers are much more shared than oppositional, and the overall purposes of political theory and short fiction narratives are not only compatible but often interdependent. While drawing on different assumptions about how we express what it means to be human, what serve as our best sources of knowing and meaning, and even the nature of beauty, there are good reasons for reading philosophy and literature as part of a common project. And where the relationship between literature and political thought seems unavoidably “uneasy” or even orthogonal, we think this tension can be productive.

Common Ends, Different Means

While we hope to illustrate the congruity and utility of reading short stories alongside political philosophy over the course of this volume, one may ask: What is the preliminary evidence to support these claims? Consider, first, the contention that the broad concerns of political philosophy and the short story as a literary device are shared and even homologous. Generally speaking, political philosophy is comprised of at least three central, and often intertwined, threads of intellectual thought and related research programs. The first strand draws specifically on the field’s philosophical orientation by engaging in “the search for certainty and truth, not merely by the pursuit of methodological purity or self-critical understanding,” and by attempting to identify reliable if not “unshakeable” knowledge about political phenomena.[9] A second, cognate tradition of political philosophy focuses on specifically normative questions, especially debating and proposing “forms of the good life” (for individuals, communities, and states), identifying “what is morally proper” behavior, and providing “yardsticks for public conduct.”[10] The third strand relates to the history of political thought, especially by placing the different thinkers who have contributed to the first two projects into a “sequenced story” or conversation.[11]

With respect to fiction, the characters, conflicts, societies, and worlds depicted within short stories are microcosms, controlled by authors, but designed to be engaged by readers. This engagement occurs through numerous means, but at least one strategy includes building trust between author and reader through narratives, characters, and settings rooted in “verisimilitude” and authenticity, that is, showing what is true about our shared experience, struggles, and values.[12] As Cohen puts it, political fiction “endeavors through imagination to discern some truth(s) about political reality and the human condition.”[13]

This common interest in elucidating human truth(s) can be found in a variety of forms. Certainly, a mainstay of both political philosophy and literature is revealing the recurring sources and stakes of conflict between individuals, society, and the state. As Mary P. Nichols notes in her contribution to this volume, “Conflicting Moral Goods: William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,”” for the characters in William Faulkner’s corpus, “truth-telling involves telling stories.” Another truth-seeking approach common in both traditions entails examining the multiplicity and paradoxes of human nature and desires. Literary critic and short story writer Lionel Trilling explains that fiction can reveal “to us the complexity, the difficulty, and the interest of life in society, and which best instructs us in our human variety and contradiction.”[14]

Indeed, both political philosophy and fiction explore not just what is true, but what is real, which historian Hayden White distinguishes as an interest not just in “what we can assert to be true about something,” but “everything that can be truthfully said about its actuality plus everything that can be truthfully said about what it could possibly be.”[15] In other words, both political philosophy and fiction are interested in exploring the range of plausible and interesting interpretations of complex social and political phenomena.

Given its specificity of setting and characters, not to mention its status as invented storytelling, it might initially seem odd to think of fiction (especially short stories) as building unshakeable or at least enduring knowledge. But as Irving Howe points out in Politics and the Novel, works of fiction use distinct tools to access reality and human existence, trying “to confront experience in its immediacy and closeness” rather than through generality and abstraction.[16] Vivid description that awakens the five senses “makes the reader a sensory participant” in a story, but is most effective as a technique when it rings true, comporting with readers’ experience with the actual (or an imagined) world.[17]

Moreover, fictional narratives uniquely convey facets of human identity of concern to political philosophy. Thus, as Alasdair MacIntyre has famously argued, “man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth.”[18] In this way, studying fiction is an unavoidable part of wrestling with our self-expression and it can be a necessary basis for understanding distinct concepts of political philosophy, such as MacIntyre’s nested, “narrative” notion of the self, or Anne Norton’s claim that writing serves as a signature activity through which we become confined by modern practices of “our own construction.”[19] According to Robin Bates, the Romantic poet Percy Shelley understood great literature as a way to access our “best selves” and overcome “social institutions [that] impede humans from reaching their greatest potential”—certainly the perennial concerns of political philosophy as well.[20]

One might also note that much of fiction is designed to be popular and widely consumed, and in this way it can help surface and capture aspects of human nature, including the hopes, fears, and limitations of a given people. As Hannah Arendt contends, “the literature of science fiction…[serves] as a vehicle for mass sentiments and mass desires” including the persistent rebellion against human existence as it has been given,” which we wish to exchange for conditions of our own creation.[21] In a similar vein, Kimberly Hurd Hale reminds us that “[u]nlike philosophy . . . literature does not necessarily seek to improve man or the city; it rather serves as a mirror for the audience,” even if it is sometimes a funhouse mirror (that plays with and exaggerates our traits) or a magic mirror (that allows us to transmit features of ourselves to imagined settings).[22]

Both political philosophy and fiction evince recurring interest in specifically normative concerns as well. Numerous novels as well as shorter fictional works provide indispensable, vivid, and contained frameworks within which to consider enduring and emerging questions of justice and political ethics. Indeed, this has arguably always been a core concern of fiction. As Annie Lamott explains, works of fiction “help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”[23] Moreover, Shelley’s famous claim that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” is, in part, a reflection of how fiction authors have long expressed “visions of equality and liberation” in, for example, promoting women’s emancipation and attacking slavery.[24] As we will see in this volume, short stories can communicate a writer’s political and social values, depict (intractable) conflicts between our cherished ideals, criticize existing institutions and conventional norms, and show us the stakes of the status quo or of revolutionary change.

Indeed this last point reveals another way in which the agendas of (political) fiction and philosophy often merge: they both help to isolate and inspect settled epistemological and moral assumptions—and imagine alternatives. As Ann Pellegrini puts it, poetry and literature can be a “resource for imagining and engaging in civic life…[p]art of why poetry and the other arts are so valuable is that they can open spaces of imagination counter to the way things are or must be.”[25] Ever since Plato asked his interlocutors in the Republic to dream up cities in speech, political philosophers have attempted to transcend the here and now in search of a better, if not the best life. Indeed, as Michael Sandel argues, the job of the political theorist is to assume the challenge of “taking what we know from familiar unquestioned settings, and making it strange…Philosophy estranges us from the familiar, not by supplying new information, but by inviting and provoking a new way of seeing.”[26]

Similarly, fiction writers have often found, as Trilling explains, that an invented story can be “an especially useful agent of the moral imagination.”[27] The authors of short stories and novels create characters and conditions that reveal possibilities that are otherwise hidden. These authors use their knowledge of things as they are as springboards of change and choice. Works of fiction, since they are not bound by extant social and political conditions, provide a mirror to draw out our own preconceptions, and a projector through which we imagine things as they can be. Political and ethical philosophy demands self-reflection and self-improvement for individuals and societies, as does the best fiction.

Short Stories: Advantages of Form and Function

As we have discussed, one broad reason to examine or study short stories in the context of political philosophy is their many shared goals (such as describing and accounting for the human condition, prescribing ideals and preferred ways of life, and imagining alternatives). Another central rationale focuses, somewhat paradoxically, on what novel things we can learn with renewed (and original) pairings of stories and theory. Moving beyond the overlapping agendas of fiction and political philosophy, we can identify a number of ways in which these works complement, complete, and even challenge one another.

At a minimum, reading fiction can deepen and reinvigorate our interpretation of important political thinkers and enhance and refine our understanding of major contributions to the history of political thought. A story can ground, test, and apply the abstract precepts of a political philosophy, and, perhaps, work out contradictions or competing ideals illustrated by the theorist. In these ways, short stories can help us sympathetically consider different philosophers’ claims and moral systems, and give them the fairest and most serious consideration, if only by temporarily leading us to spend a hypothetical day in the life of these thinkers’ imagined worlds. Thus, as Erin Dolgoy demonstrates in her chapter, “Big Data for the Good Life: Ken Liu’s “The Perfect Match,”” Jeremy Bentham’s recommendations for an architectural panopticon, as a more efficient means of disciplining and surveilling prisoners, is explicitly applied to contemporary technologies in Liu’s story. Similarly, as Kimberly Hurd Hale argues in “Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Pop Squad” and the Examined Life Worth Living,” Bacigalupi’s “Pop Squad” situates Socrates’ discussion of memory and legacy in Plato’s Symposium against the twenty-first century’s possibility of a radically extended human lifespan.

More broadly, the seductive form and compelling craft found in well-executed fiction can subtly induce readers to take seriously ideas they might otherwise reject outright if introduced as ideology or straightforward prescription. Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle and Jean Anouilh’s play Antigone (first performed in France during the Nazi occupation) are two well-known examples of this phenomenon. Edward Alexander makes the case that writers like Irving Howe and Lionel Trilling were able to introduce ideas antagonistic to prevailing “social and political views” (including critiques of liberal democracy) because so many admired their style and ‘literary qualities.’”[28] Cohen makes a similar point in noting that political fiction in its various forms can ask “questions that Power prefers to avoid”—sometimes masking overt critiques or commentary through analogy or symbolism (Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible stand as two such illustrations separated by nearly two millennia).[29]

Of course, as this last point suggests, short stories not only reinforce and develop the lessons and tenets contained in the works of political thought, they also induce us to re-examine, transcend, or overtly criticize these works, perhaps because we recoil at seeing their operation in (imagined) practice. For example, as Christopher Sardo argues in his chapter, “The Terrible Justice of Reality: Suffering, Structural Injustice, and the Dilemma of Political Responsibility in ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,’” students generally accept the principles of utilitarianism (usually eager to embrace any effort to simplify or quantify difficult ethical decision-making), until they are confronted by phenomena like the abused child that makes possible the happy city in Ursula Le Guin’s tale. As Abram Trosky makes clear in “Jumping at our Reflection: Pastoral Dystopia and Reaction in Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery,’” reading a story like “The Lottery” can spur students to question the traditions and customs they unthinkingly accept in their own lives.

Why does fiction, in general, and short stories in particular, leverage these peculiar analytic, epistemological, and critical contributions? To begin with, we note the advantages that accrue from the distinctive form of the short story, especially its brevity. There are practical advantages to this succinct quality (it is easier to assign and teach contained readings), but there are also more far-reaching intellectual returns. Especially in contrast with the sometimes sprawling and dense works of political philosophy (Hobbes’s Leviathan, for example, exceeds 200,000 words), the works of short fiction referenced in this volume are more circumscribed and accessible. While we in no way argue that short stories can take the place of protracted study of the classics of political philosophy, they can serve as a supplement, or enhancement, to students’ engagement with the canon. For readers, undistracted immersion in a short story facilitates an immediacy and thoroughness of comprehension—what Poe called “the immense force derivable from totality.”[30]

To the extent that political philosophy and brief fiction are both interested in world-building, the short story has a clear pedagogical advantage, if only because it is likely to command readers’ attention and communicate the “unity of impression” and “fullness” of the author’s intention. As Poe puts it, “[d]uring the hour of perusal [demanded by a short story,] the soul of the reader is at the writer’s control. There are no external or extrinsic influences—resulting from weariness or interruption.”[31] In contrast, even the most committed scholar will surely need to take at least a short pause between, say, reading Volumes I and II of Das Kapital. But once the fiction reader’s attention has been grabbed by the foray into the world of the short story, he or she will, we hope, be inspired to continue the search for wisdom through increased engagement with the works of political philosophy.

As this discussion suggests, the dividends of the shorter read are psychological as well as intellectual. The self-contained structure of short stories assists us in overcoming the interpretive challenges posed by textual exegesis, including what Charles Taylor and others have famously labeled as the conundrum of the “hermeneutical circle,” that is, the problem of how to read a text intelligibly as a whole without reference to its constituent parts, components that are themselves imperfectly understood without reference to the whole.[32] Such a puzzle is arguably lessened in succinct works that can be read, and even re-read, in one sitting. The brevity of such works also forces us to become more exacting and careful readers, a skill that improves our ability to understand and analyze complicated philosophical arguments.

Moreover, the distinctive methods embraced by fiction of all kinds furnish it with singular means to awaken the understanding and sympathies of readers—and to spur them to make unexpected connections. As Carol Muske-Dukes puts it, the fictional “imagination is a protean force. It creates metaphors—linking unlike things, spinning analogies, spinning insights—re-making the world.”[33] In addition, as noted earlier, even when it seeks widely shared or comprehensive truths, creative writing typically resorts to particulars as a span to universals: individual narratives, characters, personalities, conflicts, settings, and details that suggest greater depth of meaning and provide an intimate and instant source of connection for readers. In the context of short stories that are either overtly or implicitly political (and, therefore, interested in wider observations about ideology or ideals) this tension between specific form and general content can be provocative and productive. As Howe exclaims, “it is precisely from this conflict [between the immediate and universal] that the political novel gains its interest.”[34]

The broad license of fiction to draw on fantasy, speculation, explorations of conscience and inner life, contradiction, and imagined lives and worlds also gives it a special purchase to awaken our senses and engage our emotions. In traditional political and ethical discussions, interlocutors are held to a certain standard of rationality and logic. Reason is paramount, and emotions are regarded as impediments to be overcome. However, for most individuals, our political and ethical opinions about the world are informed by our (irrational) passions or inherited (and mostly unexamined) predispositions. In this regard, literature allows us catharsis; it presents a framework within which to examine our reason and confront our passions. Moreover, the appeal to emotion through expressive narrative is a way to link artist and reader in a manner that is more approachable and intelligible than the esoteric and sometimes impenetrable language and forms of formal philosophy.[35]

Somewhat related to this argument, fiction writers possess a distinctive capacity to enter the thoughts and evaluate the interests of each character they present—potentially offering both these figures’ own subjective interpretations of their lives (and consciousness) as well as a more overarching authorial narrative, a “god’s eye” view of their thoughts and behaviors. Among other benefits, these competing orientations can provide readers with a kind of Weberian verstehen, a sympathy for and purchase on the motivations of subjects, of which even the authors themselves may not be fully aware.[36] Stated differently, “[b]y enabling us to identify and sympathize with the characters and the situations in which they find themselves, the story invites us to reflect also on ourselves and our own personal and civic experiences.”[37]

Taken together, then, creative and fictional works can uniquely teach us about ourselves. As Hale notes, “[a] marriage of philosophy and poetry is necessary to understand the full depth of human nature.”[38] Through revealing elements hidden, submerged, or elided in traditional political philosophy and other works, fiction can give us a more complete understanding and picture of our essence, experiences, frustrations, and aspirations. In turn, this helps us understand and imagine political life as it might become, for better or worse. As Susan McWilliams summarizes, both creating and consuming fiction engages us because we:

“perceive it as novel and personal, and it offers . . . the opportunity to connect to important (and often abstract) disciplinary conversations in new and immediate ways. It helps [us] . . . wrestle with the complications of political narrative, and makes [us] better readers and critical thinkers . . .[and more] effective citizens.”[39]

The Endemic Tradition of Storytelling

Even if one accepts that short stories have the potential to help us understand, criticize, and even disrupt political philosophy, a dubious observer might still demur that such a task is too demanding, requiring a fusion of incompatible if not outright alien materials and points of view. A wider perspective on this subject suggests, however, that the posited links between shorts stories and political philosophy are unsurprising, longstanding, and somewhat unavoidable.

In this regard, we first note that the use of mythical, historical, and wholly imagined narratives is endemic to political philosophy, serving specific and important functions in this disciplinary approach. Perhaps the most well-known and enthusiastic proponent of this tradition is Plato, whose work is rich with such tales, stretching from the brief allegories of the Ring of Gyges and the Myth of Er in the Republic to the creation of the lost island of Atlantis in the Timaeus and Critias. But this basic turn to invoking illustrative and evocative stories is recurring if not omnipresent in the history of political thought. Augustine’s City of God draws on a tale of the (physical and spiritual) fall of Rome as a prompt for explaining the fate of the wicked. Immanuel Kant and Benjamin Constant famously debated the strict demands of the categorical imperative by teasing out the implications of an imagined, dramatic encounter in which “a murderer [has] asked us whether a friend of ours whom he is pursuing has taken refuge in our house.”[40] Indeed, theorists’ varied invocations of the “state of nature” and other thought experiments amount to descriptions and accounts of mostly imagined settings, as a way to unspool the shortcomings (and capacities) of humanity and the basis of our need for political and social organization. And the modern era is rife with philosophers’ imagined utopias espousing the benefits of science, technology, and progressivism, as well as their corresponding (and perhaps inevitable) warnings about dystopias.

What accounts for the persistent allure of deploying self-contained stories in the great works of political philosophy? While we concede the obvious—it is impossible to summarize fairly or accurately millennia of different traditions of thought drawn from across the globe—we point to several factors that explain this gravitational pull. Perhaps most obviously, many works of political philosophy have either an explicit or implied agenda of world, or state, building. The philosophers’ episodes, anecdotes, analogies, and hypotheticals encourage us to consider alternatives to the status quo, and to begin this process of shifting from the world we inherit to a new universe in which our self-awareness and moral lives are more informed, rational, or freely chosen. Stated differently, in the context of political philosophy, short stories help us travel to new places, locales that are morally unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and even outright alien to our current vantage points. As the novelist M.T. Anderson explains, one of the purposes of travel, whether in life or in fiction, is “to remind ourselves of the potentialities of people, how many different ways there are of being.”[41]

We can also understand the stubborn link between political philosophy and short stories through a previously mentioned point: philosophers turn to fictional and imagined narratives to connect with their readers. The very novelty and abstractness of political philosophy requires some grounding or application. Myths or fables (re)introduce or underscore a philosopher’s ideas and ethical beliefs in more familiar, universal, and timeless forms. Through this approach, readers can be coaxed into a shared space in which they can develop comfort and facility with a political thinker’s overall project. Self-contained stories enable political theorists to emphasize points that might otherwise be lost or have their impact diminished. It is one thing for Niccolò Machiavelli to write that wickedness can be an effective, albeit dangerous, tool for acquiring power, and quite another proposition for him to recount the tale of Agathocles the Sicilian, the “[s]on of a potter” who “led a foul life” at every stage of his career. In Machiavelli’s indelible telling, Agathocles rose from “the very dregs of the people, to be King of Syracuse.” He seized power decisively and memorably, at one point assembling “the people and senate of Syracuse as though to consult with them on matters of public moment” but, instead, putting many of them to death.[42]

Beyond this mechanism of intense illustration, a story within a theory can also psychologically and morally orient readers. John Rawls described his process of reflective equilibrium as involving a “back and forth” between our moral instincts, particular cases or dilemmas, and more overarching precepts of justice and morality.[43] In a similar manner, reading a short story in the context of a more encompassing political philosophy or social theory can serve as an instant prompt to test our own views of right and wrong. In other words, the narrative can give us license to depart the familiar world entirely, or to keep one reassuring foot in it while exploring alternatives to the status quo.

Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries

Beyond these diverse benefits for readers, scholars, and teachers, we note a final potential (and potentially rewarding) consequence of reading short stories in conjunction with political philosophy and ethics. Such an approach encourages us to bridge and even disrupt various disciplinary divides, thereby drawing on the insights of research and scholarship from across the academy. Furthermore, we have already seen some of the ways in which the distinct forms and techniques of political science (such as its interest in systematic deductive and inductive analysis, generalization, and abstractions) can come into productive tension with the more sui generis and individual experiences communicated to readers through fiction.[44]

Understood in this way, this volume’s situating of short stories alongside major works of political philosophy can be thought of as its own exercise in cross-disciplinary studies, as well as being part of a more general invitation to trace the far-reaching roots of political philosophy through myriad fields of study and creative enterprises. Indeed, a number of chapters in this volume depict common fictional and philosophical interest in particular puzzles of human existence, organization, and evolving society—such as the ways we reconcile our increasing reliance on technologies that seem to reduce individual agency with our continued desire to preserve limited government and civil rights. To some extent, then, this book can be read as a series of diagnostic reflections on these challenges—an approach that calls for varied perspectives on a single issue, rather than disciplinary adherence to method or ideology. Thus, while our project is primarily focused on political philosophy and short stories, we imagine and hope that some of the chapters and arguments that follow will bring a diverse group of colleagues in such areas as politics, literature, communications, film, popular culture, and science and technology, into collusion, collision, and mutual fructification, especially in the context of wrestling with both longstanding and emergent political problems.[45]

Existing Scholarship and the Contributions of this Volume

Given the commonalities and complementarity of short stories and political theory, there is a surprising gap in scholarship which systematically discusses the political and moral applications of individual short stories. Cohen’s Rebels and Reactionaries, for example, assembles a laudable collection of “political short stories.” But aside from the author’s brief but rewarding introduction, his volume does not offer readers sustained insight into how the assembled stories relate to the texts most often included on political philosophy syllabi.[46] More recently, Amy A. Kass, Leon R. Kass, and Diana Shaub have added their work, What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song, to the list of resources for educators interested in incorporating non-traditional materials into the theory curriculum. What So Proudly We Hail is specifically intended as a reader for a (national) civic education. It is, the authors explain, “a book about America for every American.”[47] And again, the focus of their text is on the primary readings, rather than independent analysis.

Our project attempts to redress this dearth. Each chapter in this collection considers a single short story, analyzed through the lens of political philosophy. Some chapters investigate the links between an individual political theorist and a specific story, while others apply multiple philosophers, engaging whole categories or traditions of political thought. In general, the contributors do not claim that fiction writers are explicitly or consciously adopting (or rejecting) a specific philosopher’s perspective or credos (unless there is specific evidence to this effect). For example, Bruce Peabody’s chapter, “From the Iron Cage to the “Waters of Babylon:’ Rationalization and Renewal in a Weberian World,” which analyzes Stephen Vincent Benét’s story “By the Waters of Babylon,” does not assert that Benét is an informed adherent of the ideas of Max Weber. Rather each chapter makes the case that we can understand both political philosophy and our aggregated collection of short stories in a deeper and more profound way by reading them together, and, along the way, our different contributors trace some remarkable affinities (and important differences) in the concerns and insights of both fiction and philosophy writers.

The individual contributors to this volume come from diverse scholarly orientations and intellectual traditions within the field of political science, illuminating the capacity and productiveness of the short story as a crucible for testing and applying core ideas from political philosophy. Over the course of the entire collection, therefore, we are able to engage a wide range of political and ethical questions. Our authors have varied styles and emphases, sometimes advancing a single continuous thesis, at other times using their featured stories to engage in a series of mostly separate ruminations or interpretations.

We do not, of course, ask or expect our readers to agree with all of the conclusions or interpretations reached by our volume authors; indeed, the editors of this volume do not share a consensus on all of these points. But we anticipate that the many discrepancies and disagreements between readers and authors fostered by this project will lead to productive discussion, and will mimic some points of contention and debate in the classroom. Stated differently, we hope our readers will critically evaluate this volume and use it as a prompt to re-examine their own approaches to the featured philosophers, and as an opportunity to rethink how they teach these seminal figures.

As noted, while differing in their intellectual priorities and approaches, each of the ensuing chapters is self-contained, tied together through the project of using literature to teach politics. With the exception of this Introduction and the editors’ Conclusion, our contributors begin by outlining their overall argument before moving into a brief summary of the plot, and characters of the short story under consideration. We note in this regard that each chapter’s ensuing analysis and focus centers on the short story under review, rather than the philosopher(s) being invoked. This means that readers less familiar with a particular theorist or theory may wish to do additional reading of the relevant primary texts. Indeed, while our contributors provide sufficient background and context so their arguments can be readily adapted for research or class use, their investigative essays are not intended as replacements for or complete accounts of the original, featured short stories or the associated works of political philosophy.

The settings of our showcased stories range from the wholly familiar, drawing on the assumption that we are more trusting when we “observe similarity between the fictional and the real worlds,” to the unsettling and uncanny, to the wildly fantastic.[48] Through these varied landscapes and dreamscapes our fiction authors use their stories to conserve, warn, cajole, disrupt, and innovate. But each story, contains a core meditation on universal questions asked by each society, and each generation, throughout human history. The chapters in this volume examine stories penned by a wide variety of authors from different eras and cultures, who draw upon diverse intellectual traditions. For simplicity’s sake, we have ordered our chapters alphabetically, by the essay contributor’s last name.

In “Big Data for the Good Life: Ken Liu’s “The Perfect Match,”” Erin Dolgoy considers the social and political implications of ubiquitous technology through the lens of Liu’s 2012 short story, “The Perfect Match.” The chapter draws from contemporary literature on online technologies, as well as theoretical works, including arguments presented by Socrates, Aristophanes, Aristotle, Niccolò Machiavelli, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Immanuel Kant, Max Weber, Martin Heidegger, and Michel Foucault. The chapter begins with a discussion of self-knowledge. The second section turns to the relationship between knowledge, more generally understood, and politics. The third section examines the role of digital technologies in our quest for self-knowledge. And the fourth section considers digital surveillance.

Kimberly Hurd Hale’s “Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Pop Squad” and the Examined Life Worth Living” presents a harrowing tale of a future world marked by environmental degradation, radical advancements in anti-aging medicine, and an absolute ban on human procreation. This chapter places Bacigalupi’s “Pop Squad” (2006), in which the characters’ search for immortality forces the reader to examine what it means to live a human life, and what it means to make human life worth living, in conversation with political philosophy’s greatest exploration of this subject, Plato’s Symposium. If Socrates is correct in his famous assertion that “[t]he unexamined life is not worth living,”[49] then teachers and students of political philosophy ought to make such an examination, and determine what, exactly, makes a life worthwhile.

In “All the World’s a Cage: Franz Kafka, “A Hunger Artist,” Timothy McCranor and Steven Michels explore the nature of art and the artist rejected by the modern world. The unnamed title character in Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” (1922) has the uncommon ability to abstain from food. The first section of this chapter includes the obvious comparison between this Artist and Friedrich Nietzsche’s account of human nature and the manner in which the masses can be resistant to messages that challenge commonly held notions of justice or ethics. The analysis also draws upon Plato and Aristotle and their teachings on virtue as it concerns the body and the soul. Next, the chapter turns to Jean Jacques Rousseau’s teaching on natural man to discern Kafka’s lessons on modernity and the human condition.

Mary P. Nichols’ “Conflicting Moral Worlds: William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning”” analyzes the story of a ten-year boy growing up in the post-Civil War South, who is torn between his loyalty to this father and family and his repugnance at what his father does, asks him to do, and tries to teach him. In Faulkner’s 1939 work, Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes is “pulled two ways like between two teams of horses,” yet by the end of the story Sarty betrays his cruel and revengeful father by revealing to his father’s “enemy” that his father is about to burn his barn. Faulkner’s story is more complex, however, than any simple opposition between family ties and individual freedom. Faulkner presents a larger and more intricate moral world than one marked solely by conflict between individual freedom and authority. How do we live in that larger world, his story asks us to consider, while giving its due to both constitutive ties and freedom?

In “ From the Iron Cage to the “Waters of Babylon:” Rationalization and Renewal in a Weberian World,” Bruce Peabody draws on Stephen Vincent Benét’s apocalyptic short story “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937) to illustrate fundamental precepts of Max Weber’s political and social theory. “By the Waters of Babylon” helps readers see and understand the power of Weber’s typology of political authority, and appreciate his account of the relentless, iconoclastic power of rationalization as an organizing force in our modern lives. Ultimately, both Weber and Benét grapple with an especially salient and troubling question in the twenty-first century: how can we balance our endless hunger for technical mastery of the world with our human nature and needs?

Christopher Sardo’s contribution in “The Terrible Justice of Reality: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and the Dilemmas of Political Responsibility” looks at Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973), which describes a utopian city, free from political, economic, or clerical oppression, where citizens live lives of perfect happiness. Their happiness, however, is made possible by the perpetual suffering of an innocent child, every citizen knowing that their lives “depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” Read through the lens of Hannah Arendt’s and Iris Marion Young’s theories of political responsibility, “Omelas” asks: what does it mean to be responsible in an unjust world that has preceded and will outlast one’s life?

In “Kinship, Community, and the Bureaucratic State: A Study of Wendell Berry’s “Fidelity,”” Drew Kennedy Thompson investigates the agrarian essays, poetry, and fiction of contemporary author Wendell Berry, which engage political questions surrounding the legitimate basis for authentic community. His short story “Fidelity” (1992) illustrates the confrontation of authentic community with the divergent values of the rational bureaucratic state. In “Fidelity,” the membership of a small town implicates itself in the “kidnapping” of a dying man from a hospital and returns him home to spend his final hours restored to his place, surrounded by neighbors and relatives. The story illustrates the competing political demands of the family and the modern industrial state, and the uncertain limits of moral and legal obligations owed to each. Negotiations between the public and private aspects of death and dying can call into question the moral legitimacy of any civil code inserting itself where it does not belong. As Thompson argues, the debt of love owed by the living to the deceased answers to a transcendent ethic beyond the scope of rational calculation or political expediency. The obligations of kinship and the necessities of modern civil society, then, inevitably come into conflict.

Natalie Fuehrer Taylor’s ““The Incarnation of My Native Land”: Clover Adams in Henry James’ “Pandora”’ offers an analysis of Marian “Clover” Adams, an often overlooked and unappreciated figure in American political history. Immortalized by Henry James as the inspiration for the character of Mrs. Bonnycastle in his story “Pandora” (1909), Clover Adams exemplified the patriotism, keen wit, and independence of thought unique to American women of the time. Drawing on the Founders’ comments in the Federalist Papers, and Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of American women in Democracy in America, this chapter examines the importance of a female perspective to American political thought, and the relationship between women and democracy in the American republic.

In “Jumping at Our Reflection: American Dystopia and Reaction in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,”” Abram Trosky explores the tensions at the heart of Jackson’s iconic story, and perhaps political philosophy itself: the urban/rural divide; the putative need for myth and sacrifice to effect and maintain social cohesion; and the challenges and temptations that culturally-embedded creatures face in introducing more individualistic or cosmopolitan narratives. “The Lottery” (1948) has shocked generations of readers with its pithy portrayal of the easy coexistence of folksiness and barbarism, and the inertial power of tradition over familial or other moral commitments. This chapter examines the story’s ability to serve as an entryway into discussions of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism and Immanuel Kant’s deontology.

Finally, in the Conclusion the editors of this volume offer a brief discussion of pedagogical strategies for using the individual chapters, theorists, and short stories discussed in this book in the classroom, especially focusing on undergraduate courses in political philosophy and ethics.

It is our sincere hope that the chapters contained in this volume either introduce readers to new stories that help us understand the enduring questions of political life, or illuminate familiar tales in new ways, deepening our appreciation for the role of literature and fiction in the study of political philosophy.



[1] For the purposes of this volume, we understand a short story as a literary narrative of 30,000 words or less. We adopt this (admittedly arbitrary) figure from multiple sources, including the Writer’s Digest. See

[2] Plato, Republic, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 607b.

[3] Mitchell Cohen, Rebels and Reactionaries (New York: Dell, 1992), xiv.

[4] Edgar Allan Poe, Selected Poetry and Tales, ed. James M. Hutchisson (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2012), 526.

[5] John Gardner, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 25.

[6] Michael Freeden, “Ideology, Political Theory and Political Philosophy,” in Handbook of Political Theory, eds. Gerald F. Gaus and Chandran Kukathas (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2004), 6; Joanne Brown, “Historical Fiction or Fictionalized History? Problems for Writers of Historical Novels for Young Adults,” The ALAN Review 26 (1998),

[7] Irving Howe, Politics and the Novel (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002), 20.

[8] Cohen, Rebels and Reactionaries, xiii.

[9] Freeden, “Ideology, Political Theory and Political Philosophy,” 4-5.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Freeden, “Ideology, Political Theory and Political Philosophy,” 3.

[12] Rick W. Busselle and Helena Bilandzic, “Fictionality and Perceived Realism in Experiencing Stories,” Communication Theory 18 (2008): 268.

[13] Cohen, Rebels and Reactionaries, xv. William Wordsworth arrives at a similar conclusion in his description of poetry as “the most philosophic of all writing…[since] its object is truth, not individual and local, but general, and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alive into the heart by passion.” William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads 1798 and 1802 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 105.

[14] Lionel Trilling, The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent: Selected Essays (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2008), 510.

[15] Hayden White, “Introduction: Historical Fiction, Fictional History, and Historical Reality,” Rethinking History 9 (2005): 147.

[16] Howe, Politics and the Novel, 20.

[17] Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (New York: Scribner, 2000), 173.

[18] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2d ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 216.

[19] Ann Norton, Reflections on Political Identity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), 25.

[20] Robin Bates, “How Poets are the Legislators of the World,” September 3, 2015,

[21] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 2-3.

[22] Kimberly Hurd Hale, The Politics of Perfection: Technology and Creation in Literature and Film (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2016), 6.

[23] Annie Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Pantheon Books, 1995), 15.

[24] Quoted in Bates, “How Poets are the Legislators of the World.”

[25] Carol Muske-Dukes, “Obama + Shelley Get it Right: Poets ARE the Unacknowledged Legislators of the World!,” HuffPost, August 23, 2012,

[26] Michael Sandel, “The Moral Side of Murder,” accessed June 5, 2018,

[27] Trilling, The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent, 510.

[28] Edward Alexander, Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe: And Other Stories of Literary Friendship (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers 2009), 26.

[29] Cohen, Rebels and Reactionaries, xxii.

[30] Poe, Selected Poetry and Tales, 526.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Charles Taylor, “Interpretation and the Sciences of Man,” in Philosophy and the Human Sciences, Philosophical Papers, Volume 2 (Cambridge University Press, 1985), 18.

[33] Muske-Dukes, “Obama + Shelley Get it Right”

[34] Howe, Politics and the Novel, 20.

[35] As Wordsworth explains in the context of discussing the relatability of poetry, if the poet “is chiefly distinguished from other men by a greater promptness to think and feel without immediate external excitement, and a greater power in expressing such thoughts and feelings” this difference is only a matter of degree since each of us shares these same “general passions and thoughts and feelings.” Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, 108.

[36] Basit Bilal Koshul, Max Weber and Charles Peirce: At the Crossroads of Science, Philosophy, and Culture (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014), 21.

[37] Amy A. Kass, Leon R. Kass, and Diana Schaub, eds., What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2011), xix.

[38] Hale, Politics of Perfection, 8.

[39] Susan McWilliams, “Creative Writing and the Study of Politics,” PS: Political Science & Politics, 50(4) (2017): 1097.

[40] Kant, “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Philanthropy,” in Practical Philosophy, ed. Mary J. Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 611.

[41] Sue Corbett, “Children’s Bookshelf Talks With M.T. Anderson,” Publisher’s Weekly, October 4, 2006,

[42] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. N. H. Thompson (New York: Dover Publications, 1992), 21.

[43] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2005), 20.

[44] Cohen, Rebels and Reactionaries, xiv.

[45] The physicist Freeman Dyson has offered a somewhat related argument in encouraging us to return to a Romantic age conflation of science and poetry, when “scientists and the poets belonged to a single [productive] culture.” Freeman Dyson, Dreams of Earth and Sky (New York Review Books, 2015), 128.

[46] Cohen, Rebels and Reactionaries, xiii.

[47] Kass, Kass, and Schaub, What So Proudly We Hail, xi.

[48] Busselle and Bilandzic, “Fictionality and Perceived Realism in Experiencing Stories,” 268.

[49] Plato, Apology of Socrates, in Four Texts on Socrates: Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology of Socrates, Crito and Aristophanes’ Clouds, trans. Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West, 1st edition (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 38a.


This excerpt is from Short Stories and Political Philosophy: Power, Prose, and Persuasion (Lexington Books, 2018). Our review of book is available here.

Bruce Peabody and Kimberly Hurd Hale and Erin D. DolgoyBruce Peabody and Kimberly Hurd Hale and Erin D. Dolgoy

Bruce Peabody and Kimberly Hurd Hale and Erin D. Dolgoy

Bruce Peabody is Professor of Political Science at Fairleigh Dickinson University; Kimberly Hurd Hale is Associate Professor of Politics at Coastal Carolina University; and Erin A. Dolgoy is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rhodes College. They are editors of Short Stories and Political Philosophy: Power, Prose, and Persuasion (Lexington, 2018).

Back To Top