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

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

Short Stories and Political Philosophy: Power, Prose, and Persuasion. Erin A. Dolgoy, Kimberly Hurd Hale, and Bruce Peabody, eds. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019.


I have long believed that one of the many advantages of being a philosopher is that philosophy not only permits but actually requires engagement with other disciplines, particularly theology, science, history, culture, language, and literature. Philosophical studies in the last of these areas are increasingly common, as indicated by the number of books and college courses on such topics as the philosophy of literature or literature and philosophy, as well as the number of books in the Lexington Books Series on Politics, Literature, and Film (edited by Lee Trepanier) that includes at least ten books on literature and political thought. This is, however, the first specifically devoted to short stories.

Let me say at the outset that this is an excellent addition to the Series. The editors intend this to be used “to understand the questions and concerns of political philosophy,” either as a resource for the instructor or as an assigned secondary reading for students. The book consists of an introduction that discusses the relation between fiction and political philosophy and their respective abilities to illuminate and analyze complex social and political phenomena, essays on each of the nine stories by contributors in political philosophy, and a conclusion in which the three editors explain the ways in which they envision the book being used. There is also an index. The stories, listed and discussed below, take up a wide range of philosophical questions that undergraduates will find worthy of serious thought and discussion concerning not only political thought but also human nature, ethics, the order of reality, and the meaning of life, which has the advantage of making the book useful in philosophy courses in areas other than political philosophy. All the essays are scholarly analyses based on a close reading of the stories, well written at a level accessible to undergraduates, thoughtful and imaginative in interpreting the stories and relating the questions they raise to the thinking of classical and contemporary philosophers as well as thinkers in other related fields, and accompanied by several pages of endnotes and comprehensive bibliographies. It is, in short, a very well-conceived and edited volume.

The one significant disadvantage to requiring students to buy it as a secondary source is the price, which Lexington lists as $95 for the hardcover and $90 for the eBook. (Amazon charges about $20 less.) There is as yet neither a paperback edition nor any indication that one is forthcoming. I could not require my students to buy this as a secondary source, particularly if I was using only two or three of the stories, so I would either have to put it on reserve or just use it as my own resource. As for the stories, fortunately seven are available on the internet, so students would have to purchase only the books containing the stories by Bacigalupi and Berry and neither is expensive. One other caveat: In the Faulkner story, set in the post-Civil War South, the racist epithet “n” word is used several times and also appears in Mary Nichols’s essay. The instructor would have to judge the likelihood of this being a problem at his or her institution.

Since readers might be as unfamiliar as I was with most of these stories and might like to know more about them I think it appropriate to provide some idea of what they are about and how the essays deal with them. I also want to bring up some comments, questions, and disagreements of my own.

“The Perfect Match” by Ken Liu

This is the story that contemporary students might most easily identify with because it deals with a society in which ubiquitous digital technology that is supposedly making people’s lives happier and less stressful, actually takes control of their lives on the basis of exhaustive data about their personalities and preferences. The main character, a paralegal named Sai, has become so dependent on his digital female-voiced personal assistant “Tilly” (from the company name Centillion) that without “her” he is unable to “do [his] job . . . remember his life, . . . [or] even call his mother.” In fact, although it sounds benign Tilly has so taken over Sai’s life that “she” tells him whom to date, what to eat and drink, where to go out to dinner, what topics of conversation to bring up, and what music to listen to, and, would, presumably, also tell him whom he wants to marry and when (or if) he wants to have children. In short, Tilly is in charge of informing people of who they are by reducing their identities to what “she” concludes they really want.

Most individuals in this society set in the not very distant future are what the essay author Erin A. Dolgoy calls “digital natives,” borrowing Marc Prensky’s term coined in 2001 to characterize people who “are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task . . .They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to ‘serious’ work.”[1] Since early childhood digital natives have used technology as the means of acquiring information and even conducting personal relationships, if they can still be considered truly personal when everyone obediently follows Tilly’s recommendations.

The theme of the dominance of technology is not, of course, anything new. Science and science fiction have long been dealing with the questions of the extent to which androids and AI can be considered persons and in what ways human beings are superior, or inferior, to computers. The plot involves Sai’s recruitment into a technology-rejecting neighbor’s plot to overthrow the reign of Tilly and the power of Centillion, something he agrees to because he has already begun to suspect that by making his life easier in a hedonistically superficial way Tilly is actually robbing him of the free will, moral responsibility, and self-determination central to his identity as a person.

The philosophical question here is the point at which dependence on AI impoverishes human persons. Dolgoy’s thoughtful analysis, in her essay “Big Data for the Good Life: Ken Liu’s ‘The Perfect Match,’” seamlessly incorporates a number of classical philosophers as well as recent commentators on the pervasiveness of digital technology in order to point out the psychological and philosophical problems presented by Tilly, particularly problems in human relationships that are often reduced to digital and social media interactions, something that is by now a well-known problem. Twenty years ago when I walked into a classroom the students were so engaged in conversation that I almost needed a bullhorn to get their attention but now the room is usually silent because the students are all absorbed in their electronic devices.

The political ramifications of digital indigenousness have to do with the possibilities that “big data” create for totalitarian control of the population. Although Centillion is not a government but merely a huge corporation with the anodyne motto “Make things better!” the technology can easily be taken over by the kind of government that would make everything far worse. Although this is not the most profound of the nine stories it does raise significant questions concerning how human beings can reconcile the advantages of technology with the need to exercise free will and moral responsibility so as to grow and develop as persons. Is democratic self-government possible when everyone exists in a kind of digital cocoon, and how long can human beings tolerate being infantilized by an insidiously bossy computer-generated voice? There is also the problem of the loss of privacy, something the young “digital natives” seem blithely unconcerned about as they happily post their entire lives on the aptly yet, to a mature adult, dismayingly named website “ShareAll.” This is the kind of story that can persuade students to think about the role of technology and social media in their lives and Erin Dolgoy’s essay provides an excellent commentary.

“Pop Squad” by Paolo Bacigalupi

“Pop Squad,” to my mind the bleakest yet one of the most probing of the stories, presents, in Kimberly Hurd Hale’s terse summary, “a harrowing tale of a future world marked by environmental degradation, radical advancements in anti-aging medicine, and an absolute ban on human procreation.” Bacigalupi, a science fiction writer concerned with “social criticism, political parable, and environmental advocacy,”[2] imagines a post-climate-catastrophe future in which New York is submerged and human beings are living above the jungle canopy in Newfoundland. About a century before the time of the story science discovered a substance called “rejoo” that stops aging when taken intravenously every eighteen months and so provides the option of living indefinitely.[3] The price for such immortality is sterility created by a contraceptive additive to rejoo, because a world of limited resources cannot support the population growth that would result if no one died. But that does not mean that death has become obsolete.

The narrator is an unnamed police squad leader who stopped aging about a century ago at forty and whose job it is to arrest criminal women who have been caught raising children, always in squalid conditions at ground level, in the fetid fecundity of the jungle. He sends the women away to a single-sex work camp, and their forbidden children he “pops,” in his euphemism, that is, he shoots them in the head with a large handgun. To conserve valuable resources, their bodies are used for compost. When he is not hunting down criminal mothers the narrator is living with Alice, biologically age nineteen, a violist who has spent fifteen years mastering a concerto by the composer Telogo, a work she originally found so fiendishly difficult that she considered it unplayable. However, she persisted, and after a typical day’s work murdering illegal children the narrator ascends to the concert hall on the one hundred eighty-eighth floor to attend Alice’s first and apparently only performance of Telogo’s complex and “heartstoppingly beautiful” music, a performance that is so successful that the consensus of the immortal glitterati is that Telogo has defeated his rival composer Banini and will be the reigning composer for at least the next eighty years. Indeed, Banini might even succumb to depression and stop taking rejoo because of Telogo’s superior genius. (Telogo and Banini seem to be the only known composers, since the cultural memory apparently goes back only to the point of climate cataclysm.) Alice, herself physically young and beautiful and devoted to her art’s creation of beauty, thinks it is wonderful to be alive and cannot imagine why anyone would be “kid-crazy” enough to give up immortality, nor is she at all perturbed by the fact that her lover slaughters babies and toddlers for a living.

This is a complex story that poses the questions whether an endless life in this world can be truly meaningful and whether it is worth the price that must be paid by those who attempt to make it the locus of all meaning. The darkness in this dystopian society is not from the proliferating jungle but from everyone’s desperate longing for transcendent reality that has been shut out by the decision that all meaning is in this life and life is reserved for those already on rejoo. While many people seem happy to trade sterility for immortality, the “pop squad” is kept busy by the numerous women[4] whose desire for children is so strong that they reject immortality in order to reproduce. The narrator remarks that “Everywhere I go, the baby world is ripping open around me . . . We’re drowning in babies.” Although he adopts a superficial attitude of disgust and cynical contempt for these women to protect himself from the horror of what he does, there are cracks in his defenses.

Kimberly Hurd Hale’s essay, “Paolo Bacigalupi’s ‘Pop Squad’ and the Examined Life Worth Living,” focuses on the innate human striving for immortality, which she highlights by using Plato’s Symposium, a philosophical masterpiece, although I think that her assessment of it as political philosophy’s greatest exploration of “what it means to live a human life, and what it means for a human life to be worth living” would require some explanation for undergraduates to see the political connection. She points out that the two ways of striving for immortality discussed in the dialogue, physical reproduction and the pursuit of Beauty, are found in this story, although in very different people. The lives of those who reproduce are described by the narrator as sordid, disgusting, and devoid of beauty, while Alice is physically beautiful, lives in beautiful surroundings, and single-mindedly pursues the creation of beauty. Perhaps like Socrates in his lifelong quest to ascend to Divine Beauty, composers and musicians are expected to devote decades if not centuries to spurring each other to ever greater artistic heights, although there is, of course, no hurry about achieving anything.[5] The important difference, however, as Hale notes, is that the Symposium is about the soul’s innate longing for union with the transcendent divine reality that ineluctably draws the soul toward it, as Plotinus eloquently describes in his Treatise on Beauty.[6] Transcendence is almost entirely removed from this dark and contracted world of total immanence where the political questions are, I think, overshadowed by the metaphysical. The structure of reality is immutable. The reality of transcendence and the longing for it cannot be eliminated, so the elite seek it in the ephemerality of a beautiful musical performance. They have chosen to remain forever in the immanent world, but the cost of denying both the immortality of the soul through the death of the body and the immortality found in reproduction is the death of their humanity in their self-centered acceptance of infanticide.

In fact, it strikes me that this story is a revealing inversion of abortion. Instead of pregnant women seeking the deaths of unwanted children it is the government (or society) that practices a kind of “after-birth abortion” of children the mothers wanted desperately enough to sacrifice their earthly immortality. Actually, for them it is not even a sacrifice because, as one woman more than a century old puts it, motherhood allows her to see the world as constantly new through the eyes of her child, which is “a thousand times better than living forever” like the immortals who all have “dead eyes.” Endless earthly life is boring, joyless, and spiritually stifling. By the end the narrator has attained an inkling of the truth that it is motherhood that reveals a greater beauty than the sterile Alice can ever comprehend. For that matter, could Telogo’s music really sound as beautiful to us mortals as does the music that flows through souls open to transcendence? Unfortunately, the immortals have lost the truth that “Death is the mother of beauty.”[7]

“Fidelity” by Wendell Berry

This beautifully written story portrays the conflict between the concrete and the abstract in the form of a rural Kentucky family and their local community of Port William, a world in which specific persons are grounded in very real relationships with and obligations to each other, and the impersonal laws and regulations of the state. The plot is simple. The octogenarian Burley Coulter, who with his relatives has lived, farmed, and hunted in the same place in Kentucky for his entire life, and who has never seen a doctor, has fallen ill. The local doctor advises his family to take him to the hospital in Louisville, where, despite the doctors’ efforts to treat him, he sinks into a coma. Because he is alone most of the time in an impersonal hospital room, far away from his kin and the land that is his place in the world, his guilt-stricken relatives finally conclude that their attempt to aid was actually abandonment. To rectify this his son Danny slips into the hospital in the middle of the night and spirits his father back to a place that he loved where he buries him after his peaceful death. But, back in Louisville, once the “kidnapping” is discovered the state swings into action by sending a police detective named Kyle Bode to investigate the crime. The second part of the story is the tale of how the family, their lawyer, and other friends stymie Bode’s efforts to catch the abductor, a task that is not very difficult because Bode has no comprehension of the self-sufficient, land-rooted agrarian way of life, the bonds between those who live it, or their understanding of patriotism, and he finds that his facile assumptions about the motive, such as religious fanaticism or impatient greed for an inheritance, are completely irrelevant.

In his aptly named essay “Kinship, Community, and the Bureaucratic State: A Study of Wendell Berry’s ‘Fidelity,’” Drew Kennedy Thompson provides what is on the whole an insightful interpretation of the story based primarily on Wendell Berry’s agrarian thought in ten of his other works, several commentators on Berry’s work, Jerry Weinberger’s essay “Technology and the Problem of Liberal Democracy,” and, perhaps surprisingly, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. He uses the last to propose a comparison between Eichmann and Bode on the grounds that both are thoroughly mediocre career civil servants who value order and suffer from an inflated sense of self-importance, both have the authoritarian vices of obsequiousness to superiors and arrogance toward those they regard as inferiors, “and, when taken to task for their inhumanity (Eichmann) or lack of scruples (Bode), both hide behind the excuse of merely doing their duty.” Thompson goes on to qualify this comparison: “Of course, Eichmann’s crimes, and alienation from the world, are far, far more severe than those of Bode.” The problem here is that while Bode is certainly alienated from the world of rural Kentucky he has not, apparently, committed any actual crimes (unless one takes the oblique reference to his “dabbling in some of the recreational sidelines of the countercultural revolution” as referring to illegal drugs). Thompson also seems somewhat uncertain of how to understand Bode’s role in the story. On page 174 he says that “the story’s great weakness, one might say, is that Detective Bode is not a more potent villain. The story sets up a false dichotomy in which those who are right are doomed to fail [because Port William is slowly dying] and those who are wrong succeed, though they know not why, to the detriment of everyone involved.” I find this statement a little puzzling. Because the agrarian way of life represented by the Coulter family is disappearing the state will ultimately succeed in imposing its view of life on everyone and the society will be deprived of the agrarian beliefs about and representatives of a simpler way of life. But what is the alternative that would make this a false dichotomy? Coexistence seems impossible because the rural way of life is “doomed.” Also, despite his claim regarding Bode’s weakness as a villain, three pages later Thompson seems to take the opposite position when he says that Bode is “an effective character because he is so remarkably ordinary.” If his ordinariness makes him an effective character how is that a great weakness of the story? Thompson may have valid points here but they need some explanation. I also think that Bode’s ordinariness is a strength, not a weakness, of the story.

Bode is “ordinary” because he is a child of the Sixties in his sexual liberation (at twenty-nine he is already twice divorced, the first one for flagrant infidelity), in his vain cultivation of a faint resemblance to Ringo Starr, and in his decision not to join his father’s farm equipment dealership because rather than working with farmers he wanted to be the kind of man who solved problems and made complex matters simple in order to win the gratitude and admiration of less insightful, alert, and knowing (and presumably urban) people. Unlike Danny, who is not at home in the modern world and is completely satisfied with his life as a farmer, Bode cannot remain very long satisfied with anything. He is, in fact, the kind of deracinated man who finds a home only in the modern world of abstract laws and regulations and the impersonal realm of bureaucracy. He is not a real villain and is not intended to be. In fact, the state is not exactly a villain either. The doctors and the police are earnestly attempting to do their best for Burley Coulter according to their well-established standards for doing good. They are simply unable to comprehend the worldview of people rooted in the soil and they suffer from the delusion that Burley (and everyone else) somehow belongs to the state. The problem with the state, aside from its tendency to overwhelm agrarian life, is not that it is evil but that it is overly abstract and rational and just not quite as good as it thinks it is.

One other quibble I have with Thompson concerns his comment that Berry is an exponent of “a new conservative ethos that is anathema to conservatism as it is conventionally understood in America. It is a conservatism deeply concerned with preservation of both community and nature, placing it at odds with most factions of modern American conservatives.” I don’t think that conservatives divide into what James Madison meant by “factions” and Berry’s conservative ethos is, in fact, not new but is what Russell Kirk calls “Southern conservatism” that “can be traced all the way from George Mason at the Constitutional Convention to the present generation of Southern congressmen.” He says it is rooted in four impulses: “a half-indolent distaste for alteration; a determination to preserve an agricultural society; a love of local rights; and a sensitivity about the negro question.”[8] The fourth plays no role in this story but the first three are prominent themes. And even though modern American conservatives may disagree on various matters they tend to agree that the individual person is, for the most part, of greater importance than the power of the state.

“Barn Burning” by William Faulkner

“Barn Burning” presents the dilemma of a ten-year-old boy, Colonel Sartoris Snopes (“Sarty”), the namesake of a Confederate officer and the son of a destitute sharecropper in the post-Civil War South. His father, Abner Snopes, an angry man who regards his sharecropping existence as essentially that of white slavery, provokes conflicts with neighbors and landlords and uses arson to get revenge on those he believes are oppressing and cheating him, thereby compelling his son to choose between loyalty and honesty. It also forces a nomadic existence on his whole family, who must all pack up and move whenever Abner burns another barn. Somehow he always manages to avoid legal accountability and always seems to find another place to move to.

Although Sarty has an older brother he does not seem to have much presence, either for good or for bad, so it is Sarty whom Abner hopes to mold in his own image. But while Sarty wants to be loyal to his family, and his father, he also has an innate sense of honesty and justice that forces him in the end to make a drastic decision. Mary P. Nichols’s essay, “Conflicting Moral Goods: William Faulkner’s ‘Barn Burning,’” analyzes the story in terms of Aristotle and Locke, arguing that Faulkner implicitly favors the former over the latter. Near the beginning of her essay, referring to Sarty’s decision at the end of the story, she writes:

“For Faulkner, freedom must be nurtured by the ties of family and community, even the blood ties that are so defining for Snopes, as well as principles of truth and justice that hold a community together. With this lesson, Faulkner cautions proponents of the American liberalism that is derived from Locke, insofar as they neglect the formative role of families and communities in developing the virtues that guide individual choices and thereby contribute to the education of good human beings. Thus, Faulkner’s understanding has more in common with Aristotle than with Locke.”

This certainly does not mean that Aristotle would have approved of Abner Snopes, or of Sarty’s choice, but it does emphasize the importance of Aristotle’s views on the natural grounding of the political community in the family in opposition to Locke’s position that the political order is not natural but is a matter of a utilitarian social contract.

This is a complex story with “conflicting moral goods” at the center. How much loyalty and respect are owed to a father who is clearly a criminal, even if one can sympathize somewhat with his resentment of his social and financial positions? Which benefits the political order more, loyalty to a criminal father or loyalty to justice? Which is the better expression of good character? Should Sarty commit perjury if called to testify in court or should he tell the truth regardless of the consequences for his father and his family? And how did Sarty, a boy of little if any education, develop his sense of honesty and justice that enabled him to see the wrong in his father’s actions? Why did Faulkner make the youngest character in the story the most conflicted rather than Snopes’s older son, who has reached an age at which greater moral maturity could be expected? Is Faulkner suggesting that Sarty is still young enough to have an active conscience but his older brother has made the choice not to have a conscience? Does Sarty make the right decision in the end? There is much to think about and discuss here.

“By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét

Written in 1937, two decades after the disastrous First World War and only two years before the foreseeable and even more disastrous Second World War, this story foreshadows a theme increasingly common in literature and film, that of a post-apocalyptic world in which civilization has been destroyed and almost all of the knowledge on which it was based has been forgotten and even rendered taboo. The protagonist, John, is the son of a priest in a tribal society called “The Hill People” that dwells somewhere in what is now northern New Jersey decades, perhaps centuries, after a cataclysmic war. Despite having a worldview filled with myths, sorcery, demons, and magic the Hill People are literate and far more sophisticated than the Forest People who seem to have only the most primitive sort of hunting and gathering way of life. When John comes of age he journeys to the forbidden ruins of the city of “the gods” (New York) where he discovers that the inhabitants were actually not “gods” as members of his tribe believed, but mere mortals who had in effect destroyed themselves in some catastrophic war. As a future leader of his tribe he plans to lead other members to this place so they can gradually regain the lost knowledge without being destroyed by it.

This is only a brief synopsis of a carefully written and complex story that Bruce Peabody effectively illuminates in his essay “From the Iron Cage to the ‘Waters of Babylon’: Rationalization and Renewal in a Weberian World.” As the subtitle indicates the basis of his analysis is Max Weber’s dissection of the development of the modern rationalized world with its accompanying problems that creates, in Weber’s term, a “stahlhartes Gehäuse,” usually translated as “iron cage” but more accurately as steel-hard casing or housing. It refers, Peabody says, to “our modern reliance on bureaucratic institutions and expert, specialized knowledge” and the rational technology that “at once smooths and limits our experiences” to what Weber called “mechanized petrification.” It is “a rationalized, secular, and routinized world…of modernity,” a world of alienation. Peabody quotes Kenneth Allan and Sarah Daynes’s comment that rationalization “leads inexorably to an empty society. The organizational, intellectual, and cultural movements toward rationality have emptied the world of emotion, mystery, tradition, and affective human ties. We increasingly relate to our world through economic calculation, impersonal relations, and expert knowledge.”[9] The culmination of rationalization is the expert knowledge of modern science that rejects religion and other transcendent sources of meaning and thereby has outstripped “our ethical strictures and self-awareness,” as Peabody notes in his opening sentence. He reads the story as “a dramatic extension of Weber’s ruminations about the consequences of rationalization and its impact on an increasingly technocratic and ‘disenchanted’ world.”

John is the man of “charismatic authority” whose task it is to be “an emissary between two worlds,” the world of “unbridled rationalization” and science and a world of faith that can recognize but still be wary of rationalization’s accomplishments. Charismatic figures “can counterbalance the stultifying institutions and ways of life that characterize (rational) modernity.” While recognizing the technological powers of “the gods” John also realizes that their hubris made them self-destructive. “What is happiness to the gods? They were great, they were mighty, they were wonderful and terrible…but a little more, it seemed to me, and they would pull down the moon from the sky.” Whether or not John will ultimately succeed in enabling his people to rediscover the lost knowledge of “the gods” while avoiding their excessive rationalization is, of course, entirely speculative. What is clearer is the price currently being paid by the modern world for its excessive reliance on technology, science, rationality, and bureaucracy and the abandonment of faith in a transcendent reality that is the source of the meaning and worth of human life.

“Pandora” by Henry James

“Pandora,” written in 1884, stands out in this collection because it deals with the role of women in the nineteenth century American democracy rather than with intense moral conflicts, dystopian futures, or the over-rationalization of modern life. The title character, Pandora (“All Gifts”) Day, is presented as a prime example of the new type of American woman, the “self-made girl,” the young woman who makes her way in the world because she is self-confident and unafraid to freely express her own thoughts, preferences, and personality, but in the end adheres to convention. This is how she is described to Count Otto Vogelstein, a young German aristocrat who first encounters Pandora on the ship that is taking him to his post in the Washington legation of the newly unified Germany and taking her and her middle-class family back to their home in Utica, New York after a couple of years in Europe. Vogelstein is curious about Americans, so different from Germans (and other Europeans), even though there are many Americans who are German immigrants or descended from them. However, in some ways the most important character is the Washington hostess Mrs. Bonnycastle, who is a prominent member of the Washington social world in which Voegelstein moves and who is based on James’s friend Marian (“Clover”) Hooper Adams, wife of Henry Adams, the grandson of John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of John Adams. James referred to Clover, a witty and perspicacious woman, as “a Voltaire in petticoats” and “the incarnation of my native land.” Although Mrs. Bonneycastle is sufficiently intelligent and candid to have much in common with the self-made girl, like Clover she was born to wealth and is really more of an older type of woman, one who is sharp-witted, worldly-wise, entertaining, and a superb hostess and conversationalist. In this case she is also a woman of “active patriotism,” a supporter of American democracy, and as such is emblematic of the not-yet-enfranchised women who played a major role in creating democracy and the American character.

Much of Natalie Fuehrer Taylor’s essay, “’The Incarnation of My Native Land’: Clover Adams in Henry James’ ‘Pandora,’” is devoted to the life and tragic suicide of Clover Adams a year after the story was written, the career of her husband, a discussion of liberalism (in the older sense of the word), and de Tocqueville’s observations regarding American women that Taylor finds particularly relevant to the character of Pandora Day. The major point for discussion is the role of women in maintaining the character and culture of any society, but particularly a democratic society, even when they cannot vote. Patriarchy is clearly not the whole story because self-confident women such as Mrs. Bonnycastle and even the much younger Pandora Day are quite able to exercise considerable influence in society, or at least in one that is free and democratic. This may not be the most profoundly philosophical of the stories but it does provide an interesting portrayal of what intelligent women could do in nineteenth-century America.

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin

This Hugo Award-winning story evokes a town that appears to be an earthly paradise, a human society without problems, disorders, crime, feuds, or anything, including, apparently a government, that would make it less than utopia. It is an ideal society as people might imagine it, a place in which, the narrator says, the people:

“were not naive and happy children – though their children were, in fact, happy. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched. O miracle! but I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you. Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all.”[10]

It would be an earthly paradise except that everyone knows that their happiness depends entirely on the wretchedness of a nameless child imprisoned and half-starved in a miserable dungeon. There is no explanation of why it is this way, it just is. The majority, and probably the vast majority, of the citizens of Omelas acquiesce in this foundation of their happiness, but there are some who neither protest nor condemn nor attempt to liberate the child but simply depart for some unknown destination.

Le Guin gives the principal credit for the inspiration of the story to a statement by William James in his essay “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”:

“Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s Utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?”[11]

In his essay, “’The Terrible Justice of Reality’: Suffering, Structural Injustice, and the Dilemmas of Political Responsibility in ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,’” Michael Christopher Sardo mentions James’s essay but not Dostoevsky’s earlier posing of the question in The Brothers Karamazov (although it does appear in his bibliography). This question is, of course, the ultimate challenge to Utilitarianism, for which the complete happiness of millions vastly outweighs the suffering of one, but the story is also read as a critique of utopian speculations. Sardo quotes Peter Fitting’s statement that “the utopian ideal is irrevocably flawed, . . . there can never be a utopia without some hidden evil.” However, Sardo says that reading the story as a rejection of utopias is “simplistic” because “it limits its political-theoretical implications to a general skepticism of totalizing or utopian thinking, a well-trod theme in twentieth-century political thought.” Sardo thinks that the story is valuable also “for posing a series of political dilemmas concerning our responsibilities as citizens . . . By implicitly raising the question of who is responsible for the injustice of Omelas, this story forces us to grapple with our own complicity in human suffering and the challenges that political life poses for intuitive conceptions of moral responsibility.” One of the dilemmas concerns the challenge posed by structural injustices and another dilemma (or “trilemma”) is created by the limited options: refusing to participate and walking away, choosing to rescue the child rather than preserve “the unjust splendor of the city,” or, like most citizens, “accept the terms and attempt to justify the child’s suffering.” In the remainder of his essay Sardo interprets the story “as a parable for structural injustices that adhere in every society rather than as a critique of utopianism,” the kind of structural injustices that are produced through individuals’ “ordinary participation in social, economic, and political structures that produce and reproduce systemic inequality in life opportunities, such as the global garment industry, the production and use of fossil fuels, racially discriminatory policing and educational policies, and global financial markets.” I think this interpretation is defensible, although somewhat more politically tendentious than the story, but I would argue that it is not radical enough.

The profound question here is metaphysical: Is reality such that intentional evil or evil deliberately accepted can ever be a morally right or permissible means to bring about genuine good or would good accepted on such terms really be “hideous”? Or is it part of the structure of reality in this world that pure good is impossible so there must be some evil in even the best society and it is better to localize it in one person than to spread it throughout the population? Is the prosperity of one, or even of many, necessarily effected through the misery of someone else? Omelas is not a society divided between the rich and the poor, but a society in which all but one are supposedly as happy as it is possible to be in this world and the one is absolutely miserable. The narrator does not explain why Omelas is structured this way but does say that some citizens of Omelas understand why and some do not, but even the latter know that all of their happiness depends upon the complete immiseration of one innocent child. But this is a false dichotomy. “If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms.” Why would improving the life of the child cause the misery of everyone else?

My own critique of the story is that it is a fairy tale having little to do with reality because it is based on the premise that happiness is bestowed on a society by the creation of some external conditions rather than by the internal order of the souls of the members of the society. The narrator speaks of the Omelians as “mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched,” as though such adults normally have lives that are wretched and the wretchedness or happiness of their lives did not in any way depend upon them. The whole scenario is impossible, of course, because Omelian adults would still be human beings subject to all of the flaws and vices that human nature is prone to. How could inflicting misery on a child eradicate pride? It is as though it is reality that is fallen and corrupted rather than human nature. The story ignores the truth that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn pointed out when he said that the line between good and evil passes through every human heart. Or perhaps Le Guin’s point is that the line divides those who prefer their own happiness to the happiness of the child and those who prefer to be untainted by the child’s continued suffering. Why is it that there does not seem to be anyone who prefers compassion?

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

“The Lottery” is probably the best known (and most shocking) of the nine stories because of its account of seemingly civilized people engaging in an annual ritual of violent murder. There have, of course, been many societies and cultures that practiced human sacrifice in some form or other, generally to placate the gods to ensure the survival of the society, but this takes place in a small town in New England. The annual lottery on June 19, near the time of the summer solstice, has been the custom in this town for so long that no one can remember when or why it started. As a longstanding custom it has attained the status of an absolutely necessary and unquestionable ritual that somehow promotes public welfare, perhaps through a good harvest, as one character suggests. While some other towns have abolished their lotteries, this town has not. Jackson tells the story initially as just a summer social event, somewhat in the New England town meeting tradition, although there are some early hints that this is not Norman Rockwell’s world. What makes it doubly horrifying is that even children can “win” this lottery and children can and do participate in the communal stoning of the “winner,” after which everyone goes home for lunch. I think Jackson chose stoning because it is the one form of execution, or human sacrifice, in which many people, even three hundred, can actively participate rather than merely witnessing.[12] In a town of three hundred people Tessie Hutchinson is apparently stoned by two hundred ninety-nine persons, including children, including probably her own children. She would not last long.

Moral relativists would argue that right and wrong are determined by particular cultures or societies, so no one outside this society can pronounce its lottery immoral. Even though Old Man Warner, who has managed to “lose” every lottery for seventy-seven years, believes that there is some connection between the annual bloodletting and a bountiful harvest, such a belief requires a decision not to think about what they are doing and there is no Socrates to take the risk of urging them to think. Still, this is a primitive worldview that seems entirely incongruous when ascribed to small-town Americans, the kind of people who know everyone else in their community and are generally quite neighborly. On the other hand, one could regard the lottery as a kind of annual safety valve that allows people to vent their frustrations, aggressions, and anger so that until the next summer solstice they can live peaceful and orderly lives. But is that the best way to deal with the darker side of the human psyche? Would much greater violence erupt without the one day when it is not only permitted but even required to commit violent murder? Does making one person a scapegoat somehow pure the town of evil for another year?

But that, I think, is Jackson’s point. According to Jackson’s son she sought the “possibility of evil” in her characters. “The Lottery” was written only a couple of years after World War II, and the Nuremberg Trials had made clear the sort of atrocities of which seemingly civilized and cultured people were capable. In fact, as Plato pointed out a long time ago, the capacity for evil is in everyone, and no doubt increased when people are persuaded that the evil is actually good. Consider the eager participation of the boys who immediately begin to pile up rocks because on this day they are permitted to do something absolutely forbidden every other day of the year.[13]

In his essay “Jumping at Our Reflection: American Dystopia and Reaction in Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery,’” Abram Trosky brings up the execution of Socrates and asks if it and the stoning of Tessie were legitimate, “that is, not just lawful but in some sense fair or just.” After all, they were “democratically decided, arrived at by a group of representative citizens in the agreed-upon matter, and they proceeded, putatively, for the good of the whole.” Trosky suggests that Socrates thought his execution was legitimate because he refused to escape but chose instead to accept death “because he was possessed of an irrevocable filial respect for the city that made him.” However, his respect for Athens does not mean that Socrates thought his death sentence was in any way fair or just. He respected the laws of Athens but not the unjust citizens who used the laws to promote injustice.

Trosky goes on to discuss Plato’s Republic but his brief analysis completely overlooks the central reality of transcendent divine perfection that is the true ordering power in the soul and the polis and somewhat anachronistically observes of the interlocutors in the dialogue that:

“even less diverse than the town in ‘The Lottery,’ [presumably because they are all male] these well-intentioned but privileged young Athenians are inadequately critical of the slaveholding, superstitious, decadent, and misogynistic empire into which they have been born. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their quest to birth a republic of perfect justice produces instead a misshapen caste system of perfect obedience reproduced biologically through strict eugenics and culturally through unimaginative, unidimensional art and storytelling. What began as a healthy debate about political authority nearly ends in bland authoritarianism and the absence of debate.”

To be precise, the debate in The Republic begins with Glaucon and Adeimantus’s question asking Socrates to explain what justice and injustice are in the soul, and the ensuing discussion, for all its trappings of Greek politics, is really about the internal politics of the soul. Politics is simply the soul “written large.” Trosky claims that Socrates eventually diverts from this misguided thought experiment into the Myth of Er, “an incandescently beautiful story of an out-of-body experience.” Although his interpretation of the Myth is not entirely wrong neither does it take into account that the Myth is not a diversion but a culmination and his characterization of it as the sort of “opioid tale” that would induce the many to tolerate “the worst injustices” implies that Plato’s social consciousness was inferior to that of Marx.

There is, of course, more in Trosky’s essay, much of it quite good, but I will mention only the questions that he raises and then discusses in the next three sections. Is Tessie Hutchinson’s selection fair and does fairness make it legal? Does legality make it democratic? “If democratic, is it therefore permissible (that is, moral, just, or right)? Who, if anyone, would be responsible for her death, whether it is permissible or not? And “would witnesses of this situation have a responsibility to intervene to help its victims or an obligation to leave it alone?” His conclusion that even if the practice is unjust intervening to prevent injustice can meet with resistance or otherwise make the situation worse certainly has a point but the questions are in the wrong order. The fundamental question is that of the intentional killing of an innocent person, which, as Aquinas said, is always wrong, even if the choice of the innocent person is according to some criteria fair, legal, and democratic. Plato’s argument is that The Good, mediated through open souls, has to be the foundation of political order. Mere conventional rules about fairness, legality, and democracy are no guarantee of goodness. The residents of the town are enslaved to a ritual that is, as Tessie complains, not fair, not because of who is chosen but because anyone is chosen.

“A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka

This late work by Kafka, first published in 1922, is one that he considered particularly important. There is not much plot, but only the description of the “career” of a nameless man who “earns his living,” so to speak, by superhuman feats of fasting. A cross between the famous ascetics of the Middle Ages and the freakishly abnormal human beings once exhibited in circus and carnival sideshows, the hunger artist has made his predilection, even fanaticism, for fasting into a public spectacle. He wants to be admired for his prodigious endurance in starvation and is somewhat frustrated and disgusted when the public loses interest after a mere forty days, just as he is hitting his ascetic stride, and he only reluctantly begins to eat when his impresario terminates his fast. (He seems unaware of the Biblical significance of the number forty in general and a forty-day fast in particular.) Although there once were many hunger artists, eventually the public lost all interest in voyeuristically watching a man engaged in slow suicide. When his impresario finally abandons him the Artist is reduced to a circus exhibit largely ignored by a public that prefers the fierce vitality of the panther to a barely living man of skin and bones.

The title is, of course, ironic since there is no true artistry in self-starvation. The narrator even says at one point that fasting is actually the easiest thing in the world, presumably because after a few days feelings of hunger disappear, and indeed the Hunger Artist seems to find it much easier, and more satisfying, than eating. Only at the end, when he is near death, does he reveal his secret—he fasts because he could not find the food that he liked. A dislike of everything edible might partly explain his obsession with starvation but there is still the biological imperative that drives people not professionally starving to consume anything of animal or plant origin that is not known to be lethal. How and why does he overcome that? After all, he is not doing it for religious reasons. He craves fame and the crowd’s admiration, even adulation, for his superhuman mastery of his body’s will to live, for “he was fasting as not one of them could fast.” In fact he thought that there were no limits to his ability to fast.

In their essay “All the World’s a Cage: Franz Kafka’s ‘A Hunger Artist” Timothy McCranor and Steven Michels use the ideas of Nietzsche and Rousseau, “two great critics of modernity,” to interpret what they say is “perhaps Kafka’s most biting social and political commentary,” a story that “pull[s] at the loose threads of a civilization.” As the authors note the first paragraph of the story sounds a note of despair because of the loss of interest in “professional fasting” (a term that would strike most people as an oxymoron). The world has drastically changed from the time when “the whole town took a lively interest in the hunger artist,” who was then only one of many, and when people went to observe him every day and even bought “season tickets” for the last few days of the fast. The children were especially fascinated and considered the sight of the starving man “a special treat.” On the other hand the narrator does mention that “for their elders he was often just a joke that happened to be in fashion.” But why is a man so wasted by starvation residing in a cage, like a beast? Kafka explicitly contrasts him with the panther, a caged beast of enormous energy and appetite for which the crowds at the circus abandon the almost entirely inert Artist. Is starvation a dangerous power that needs to be caged like the ferocity of wild animals? “When some suggest that his depression might result from fasting, the Hunger Artist ‘responded with an outburst of rage and began to shake the cage like an animal’” because, as the narrator says, “The crowd is taking from him the glory of becoming recognized as the greatest hunger artist of all time, which he probably was already.” What is caged is the ego’s will to power.

Nietzsche’s influence on Kafka has to do with the decadence of Western civilization and the primacy of the body, art, and aesthetics, and the role of asceticism. Regarding the first, McCranor and Michels argue that the story is “an appraisal of democratic society” and its decadence:

“Everyone in the story, from the crowd to the impresario, is simply unable to imagine how the Artist might have different goals or greater talents than they have. Sameness is assumed. They are satisfied with their lives and interpret the Artist’s self-imposed deprivations as curious and abnormal. The masses have normed their passions and expect conformity.”

In short, they are “herd-men” for whom a Hunger Artist existing on a higher plane eventually becomes simply a freak unworthy of serious attention. On the other hand they find the panther more appealing because it overflows with a life force that seems far beyond the dull routines of their bourgeois lives and, the authors say, “it can be observed without guilt.”

In terms of Rousseau, particularly his First Discourse, they argue that Kafka shares his:

“dual concern: with society’s degrading effects on art, and with the role of an impure artist in debasing society. Insofar as he presents the Artist as a hapless, talented victim, Kafka seems concerned with a decayed or decaying world no longer capable of appreciating high art. But to the extent that the Artist appears shallow and narcissistic, Kafka’s focus is on artists who care more about the popularity than the quality of their art.”

The Artist, infected with amour-propre, challenges the comfort of the masses, but not to direct them to some higher purpose in life, for his only purpose seems to be to display his superior mastery of his body.

Perhaps the Hunger Artists is best understood as a critic of cultural decay. It is not, I think, too much of a stretch to think of Socrates as “fasting” from the Athenian mentality, a “fast” that awakened fascination in some but also disbelief or hatred in others, and that eventually brought about his death, as Callicles predicts in The Gorgias. There are, of course, differences. Socrates was not caged and he was not driven by a desire for fame and adulation. He simply could not find in Athenian culture what he intellectually liked to “eat.” McCranor and Michels mention Socrates only once in passing but the parallels and differences are interesting and worth exploring further.

In sum, for anyone with an interest in using literature to investigate philosophical questions this is a book very much worth considering. The attentive reader will have noticed that there are themes that occur in more than one story and that are dealt with in different ways so that, for instance, Le Guin’s and Jackson’s stories can provide different perspectives on the morality of sacrificing one for the benefit of the society. The essays provide enough of food for thought to, ideally, stimulate the interest of undergraduates in both literature and philosophy. My only suggestion is that, considering the prominence of moral as well as political questions, the subtitle might be changed to something like “Morality [or Goodness], Power, and Persuasion.”



[1] Marc Prensky, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1.” On the Horizon 9 (September 2001): 3.

[2] The list of Bacigalupi’s concerns is on the Amazon webpage for Pump Six and Other Stories, the collection that includes “Pop Squad.”

[3] It isn’t exactly rejuvenation because someone who begins taking it at sixty will just remain in the physical condition he or she was in at sixty as long as the rejoo is infused every eighteen months. The story does not indicate whether death from disease has been eradicated.

[4] Obviously there are also men who reproduce but they never seem to live en famille, most being just anonymous sperm donors found on the internet, and they are seldom arrested. There is only one brief reference to a possible boyfriend who comes occasionally with groceries.

[5]For instance, the husband of the post-concert party’s hostess spends all his time studying his bonsai garden but makes changes only every few years.

[6] Ennead I, 6.

[7] This line is in Wallace Stevens’ poem Sunday Morning.

[8] Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (Seventh Revised Edition (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1985), p. 150.

[9] This quotation is from their book Explorations in Classical Sociological Theory: Seeing the Social World (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2012).

[10] Le Guin said that she got the name Omelas from Salem, O[regon] spelled backwards.

[11] This is included with comments by Le Guin at the end of the story on the website She admits that she had encountered this idea in her earlier reading of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov but had forgotten it until she read James’s version. She follows Dostoevsky rather than James in choosing a child as the torture victim.

[12] Although depictions of murder by stoning seem to be rather uncommon the film “The Stoning of Soraya M.” provides such a brutally graphic example that one wonders how supposedly civilized human beings could do this to another human being.

[13] I have heard of a Dutch woman who survived the Nazi concentration camps and when, a few years after the war, she encountered one of her tormentors she shook his hand. Her explanation was that she was aware that had circumstances been different she might have done essentially what he did.


An excerpt of the book is available here.

Michael HenryMichael Henry

Michael Henry

Michael Henry is a Board Member of VoegelinView, Professor of Philosophy at St. John's University in New York, and was editor of The Library of Conservative Thought series at Transaction Publishers (1998-2016). His latest book is The Loss and Recovery of Truth: Selected Writings of Gerhart Niemeyer (St. Augustine's, 2013).

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