After Stories (and Poems): The Forgotten Aesthetics of Persuasion

In the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Bible if you prefer, there is a story about a king and his excesses and a prophet who, as we would say today, spoke truth to power. The story is found in the book attributed to Samuel and the king was David, the most famous and revered of ancient Israel’s rulers. As is almost to be expected of men in power, David was infected with the notion that he might, with impunity, take all that his eyes desired, including the wife of another man — a good and loyal man who served David honorably. The king sleeps with Bathsheeba, the man’s wife, and she becomes pregnant. Hoping to cover up his rapaciousness, David recalls the husband, Uriah, from the battlefield and allows him the night with his wife expecting that he will do what all soldiers home from war would do given a night with the woman they love. Uriah would suppose the baby his, and all would be hidden from sight. Unfortunately for David, Uriah cannot bear the unfair advantage he has been granted over his comrades at the front and refuses to sleep with his wife. Getting Uriah drunk made little difference; he was a rock. So David had him killed.

Again, following an all too familiar pattern, David refused to acknowledge his guilt and his power shielded him from consequences and shame. That is until he meets with a prophet named Nathan. Nathan claims to bring news of a great injustice that had been perpetrated in the land. He tells David of a poor shepherd whose lone sheep was seized by a wealthy man in order to feed his guests, and this despite owning a great number of his own sheep. David is outraged; he demands to know who this man is that he may be brought to justice. Nathan, having artfully laid the trap, replies, “You are that man.” With that simple story Nathan bypassed David’s arrogant blindness and brought him to a startled recognition of the vileness of his actions.

I recount this well-known story because I have, in recent conversations, found myself expressing the need to gracefully articulate the virtue and necessity of making what would be very hard and unpopular choices for the sake our own personal well-being and the health of our society. Much of what I write, whether on matters relating to technology or in my occasional ramblings on other diverse topics, is premised on the assumption that human flourishing demands the recognition and acceptance of certain limits. I assume that the highest form of freedom is not the ability to pursue whatever whim or fancy may strike us at any given moment, but rather the freedom to make choices which will promote our well being and the well being of our communities. And such choices often involve sacrifice and the curtailment of our own autonomy. To put this another way, happiness, that elusive state which according to Aristotle is the highest good we all pursue, lies not at the end of a journey at which every turn we have chosen for ourselves, but along the path marked by choices for others and in accord with a moral order that may at times require the reordering rather than immediate satisfaction of our desires.

Put more practically, perhaps, the health of our society may now rest on our learning to live within constraints — economic, political, natural — that we have spent the last few decades ignoring or otherwise refusing. But no sooner do those words cross my lips or appear before my eyes as I type them, than I realize that they are likely to be unwelcome and unappealing words. And concurrently I realize that the language of limits may be misconstrued to mean that we must not pursue legitimate forms of material and social progress. On this point I endorse once more the distinction made by Albert Borgmann between troubles (read limits) that we accept in practice but oppose in principle, and those troubles (limits) we accept both in practice and in principle because we are ultimately better for accepting them. But this is all a hard sell.

On more than one occasion I have referred to an essay by Wendell Berry that appeared in Harper’s three years ago. The essay was titled “Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits.” I refer to it often because I believe there are few writers who articulate the case for limits so well as he. Berry succeeds because he is able not only to criticize the ideology of limitlessness and point to its often disastrous consequences, but also to make a positive case for the possibilities of beauty and flourishing that arise from a life that embraces rather than refuses certain kinds of limits. Berry frames our limits as “inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning.” And it is this framing that is essential to the public case for any reorientation of our thinking and living in and with this world.

With her recent essay in The Nation, “Night Thoughts of a Baffled Humanist,” Marilynne Robinson matches Berry’s gift for speaking hard words with a grace that allows them to be heard, even if they are finally rejected. As I read Robinson’s words I marveled at what was unfolding line by line. Here she was dismantling our idols and stripping our altars, speaking to us with a seriousness and gravity that is wholly absent from our political and cultural discourse, and yet it was all done with mesmerizing artfulness. It was pungent medicine going down with sweet delight.

We need more writers, thinkers, and leaders in the mold of Berry and Robinson. It is a testament to their winsomeness and wisdom that both articulated essentially conservative (although not Republican) and religiously intoned visions which were published in decidedly left-of-center publications. It is, of course, also a testimony to the poverty of our categories.

It occurred to me, then, that it was little wonder they were able to make their case so well since both were novelists and one a poet as well. Little wonder because it seems to me that the case for limits is best shown rather than told. In other words, it is best conveyed by a story rather than a lecture. Like David, we need our prophets to weave their critique of our deeply entrenched disorders into a narrative that would bypass our self-righteous defenses. Moreover, these narratives need also to capture, in the manner that only a story can capture, the beauty and love that attend to lives lived by the counterintuitive logic of restraint, moderation, self-sacrifice, and regard for neighbor and place.

That it is the novelist and the poet that is best positioned to make such a case is also not surprising since their work is a constant affirmation of the inexhaustible beauty that arises from the formal elaboration of endless possibilities within a field of real and imposed limitations. Consider language itself as the primordial model of a limited and bounded but inexhaustible resource. The use of language is bounded by the grammar that allows for intelligibility and poets have since times immemorial bound themselves to structures that have called forth rather than foreclosed boundless creativity. Little wonder then that daily finding and making beauty within the limits of language, novelists and poets are best positioned to articulate the fulfillment and joy that may arise from the refusal to prioritize personal autonomy and the unencumbered life. After all, just as the frictionless life is also a life without traction, the life that refuses all burdens and attachments is, to borrow a phrase, unbearably light.

My hope is that we have not altogether lost our taste for stories and poems, that the sun has not yet set on literary sensibility. It would be tragic if for clarity and simplicity’s sake we sought our answers from technocrats with bullet-points and found that we could not hear or be moved to action by what they had to say. Although, perhaps that would be for the better since the technocratic logic that refuses complexity is more a part of the problem than of any credible solution. Worse still would be to find that our habits of attention, as some of our more pessimistic critics have warned, had become so attenuated that we could not follow an artful plot nor give a poem the loving, patient care that it demands before it will yield its wisdom.

Reviewing Robert Bellah’s “Religion in Human Evolution,” sociologist David Martin summarizes the book’s central message as follows: “‘We’ are inveterate story tellers as well as theoreticians … As ever in Bellah, his rigorous commitment to objectivity emits a normative aura: it is not a matter of putting stories behind us as childish but of telling the best stories to frame our collective existence.”

Indeed, and we might even put the matter more urgently. “It is difficult to get the news from poems,” William Carlos Williams admitted in a line from “Asphodel,” “yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

Alasdair MacIntyre famously concluded his ground breaking After Virtue by leaving us waiting “not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.” It would seem, however, that we would do better to wait for another, doubtless very different, Nathan to penetrate through our blindness and awaken us to the possibilities offered by St. Benedict.

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