Literature Is Philosophy for Its Time

German literary scholar, Rudolf Unger, argued that literature does not merely translate philosophical knowledge into imagery and verse. He claimed that literature expresses the general attitude towards life prevalent in a particular period and place. Therefore, poets (and by extension, writers) tackle important questions which are also within the sphere of philosophy. However, where philosophy is organized and structured, the poetic or prosaic approach is unsystematic. Where philosophy is scholarly and academic, literature is vivid and dramatic.

Ophelia by John William Waterhouse

Literature is philosophy in that it expresses the general attitude towards life prevalent in a particular period and place. (Image: public domain)

Literature typically deals with a narrowed set of philosophical problems that engage even the most ordinary person.

The Problem of Fate

The critical issue with fate is the relation between freedom and necessity. The key question is how much control we have over our own lives. Are we completely free to do as we please? Conversely, do the harsh dictates of necessity determine what we can and must do? Is there middle ground? Do we at least have free will with the ability to choose among a limited number of viable alternatives?

A related issue is the question of where causality originates. Does it arise from spirit, the vital principle, or animating force, within living things? If you believe in human freedom or free will, then you are in this camp. If causality originates with nature, then the natural world is the causal agent creating and controlling things in the universe – including you. If you believe that necessity dictates, then this is your camp.

Novels and poems that deal with the impact of luck or fate on peoples lives, or with the struggles of wilful or victimized protagonists explore and illuminate the problem of fate.

The Problem of Nature

The problem of nature concerns our attitude towards the natural world. Humanity’s attitude towards (or feeling for) nature has, in recent decades, become problematic indeed. The longstanding Christian / Western paradigm of successfully exploiting nature as a resource has given way to aresurgence of primitive nature worship (now called environmentalism) where the emphasis is on preserving the natural world. Yet the old issues remain. Romantics idealize nature’s beauties and charms, and long to live in the country while realists see nature as mucky, inconvenient, insect-infested, and dangerous and opt to stay in town!

Novels and poems with the man versus nature theme are always popular and strikingly present the attitudes towards nature prevalent at the time of their writing.

Myth and magic are part of the nature problem because they arise from humanity’s attempts to explain, live with, and control the natural world. Are myths accounts of actual events or just stories made to entertain? Do they have some basis in human psychology? Magic was originally “sympathetic”; that is, some commonality between nature and human beings inspired the spells and potions. Mandrake roots look roughly like a person so they must be medicinal. Is magic real or just an illusion?

Novels and poems based on old myths play an enlightening role here as do those works which leave the reader with the “was it real?” question hanging in the air. Perceptive readers will have noticed that the ambiguity so often found in works from earlier times has vanished and that in recent decades, it is almost always real.

The Problem of Humanity

Because “humanity” is itself a vague term, this whole area can be nebulous. We are dealing with questions pertaining to the fundamental nature of humankind. What does it mean to be human? What is the meaning of life? Does life even have (or need) a meaning? Then there is humanity’s relation to death. Do we take Albert Camus’ position that the reality of individual mortality renders human life absurd? Or do we hold the Darwinian view that the mortality of the individual is essential if evolution is to occur and species advance to higher levels of sophistication?

The number of literary works which purport to explain the fundamental meaning of life, what it means to be human, and how we should deal with the prospect of our own mortality is legion. Over the years, authors have delved into every aspect of how we humans live our lives and meet our inevitable end. As with previous problems the change in attitudes revealed across time by literature is clearly apparent. The switch from religious to secular viewpoints would be a prime example here.

Then there is perhaps humanity’s thorniest issue – the concept of love. Is love just a form of madness as the Chinese have long held? Or, as the romantics and some religious types would have it, is love the be all and end all of human existence?

Precious little needs to be said here; literary works dealing with love in all its aspects are always popular, seldom realistic, and truly ubiquitous. One notable change over the years has been a steep decline in melodramatic sentimentality and a sizzling increase in the emphasis on the sexual aspects of love.

Problems of Family, Society, and State

These problems are the favourites of profound social and political thinkers. How do we think of the family? Is it the bedrock of human society or is it an outmoded institution best replaced by government oversight and relegated to the past? Is society a benign force for shaping good citizens or does it bend people out of shape? Is the state the protector of our rights, freedoms, and security or does it inevitably abuse and oppress the people?

George Orwell anyone? Some of literature’s most memorable and contentious works have dealt with the problem of the how societies should be governed and what happens when self-governance breaks down or is, as in the past, simply not an option. The family saga novel has traditionally dealt with generational relationships, sibling rivalry, and marital issues. These novels especially have undergone a transformation as family size has dwindled and the importance of the family has been seriously eroded by the growing size and dominance of government.


Everyone on the planet wrestles with these profound problems at some level. They are bedrock aspects of life as it is lived on a daily basis. Literature offers insights – and even advice – in a form accessible to all. The classics allow us to understand the past and where we have come from, thereby allowing a better comprehension of why some aspects of modern life have come into being. Contemporary literature illumines where we are now and explores where we might be going. Literature is indeed philosophy for its time.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

6 thoughts on “Literature Is Philosophy for Its Time”

  1. Glad you enjoy my posts, Adam. They are purposeful because they spring from my attempts to answer specific questions by investigating promising people or topics. I am a “rapid-cycling bipolar 1,” and trying to make sense of my chaotic emotional and psychological situation has been a spur to explore literature, philosophy, and psychology. No, I have never been a prof. I lack the requisite wallpaper and as a staunch conservative, would not have prospered in the leftist-dominated college environment in any case. My background is business and computer consulting, supplemented by a sixteen-year stint as a deeply troubled (and determinedly philosophical) hermit in the woods.

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  3. Pingback: Art and Literature

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