Is Fiction Useful? Note on Jefferson’s Letter to Robert Skipwith, Aug. 3rd 1771

Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Robert Skipwith, Aug. 3rd 1771

Jefferson honors a request to create a catalog of books for Skipwith’s library. We find him, strangely enough, defending the value of fiction:

A little attention however to the nature of the human mind evinces that the entertainments of fiction are useful as well as pleasant. That they are pleasant when well written every person feels who reads. But wherein is its utility asks the reverend sage, big with the notion that nothing can be useful but the learned lumber of Greek and Roman reading with which his head is stored?

Fiction is “useful” and “pleasant,” apparently, but why exactly is such a defense necessary? Jefferson imagines a “reverend sage” who has a head full of “Greek and Roman reading” objecting to fiction’s utility.

I can imagine a more scholastic mindset dismissing any need for stories. If there is a natural law, look to nature, not what we make up. That mindset does not conflict with a certain Biblical literalism. The Bible is the truth; who cares if someone wrote something about a princess living in the woods? Still, it is difficult to understand what exactly Jefferson sees as his chief objection from the classics themselves. Perhaps he means the classics as giving us histories and treatises.

If he is talking about tragedies, dialogues, epics, of course, all that stuff is made up. The Republic, which on the surface advances a severe critique of poetry and imitation, is itself a philosophical drama (cf. Book X). For my part, I can imagine Plato and Xenophon saying fiction is useless for the same reasons we would (I am not saying this would be their last word on the subject. Far from it). It isn’t clear what such entertainment produces; the things a body politic needs to survive are material or involve power and order. Jefferson goes on to say fiction aids virtue:

I answer, everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue. When any original act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with it’s deformity, and conceive an abhorence [sic] of vice.

Um, no. We see and read acts of charity and gratitude, and therefore feel moved to do such things? If this was true, no preacher would have a job. Most of the time we feel better simply because we read or saw something that looked good; we get our moral “high” for the least reason. And when people read of atrocious deeds, no matter how much sarcasm, irony and tragedy might be involved, there’s always some idiot who wants to be a copycat.

I don’t think Jefferson’s reasoning is faulty. I think he’s up to something. The argument that virtue seen or imagined yields more virtue fails. This is not necessarily an indictment of fiction. This is an indictment of anyone who thinks leading by example alone will fix everything. Jefferson follows his comment that fiction helps “fix the principles and practices of virtue” with a causal relation between emotion, habit and action:

Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions, and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body acquire strength by exercise. But exercise produces habit, and in the instance of which we speak the exercise being of the moral feelings produces a habit of thinking and acting virtuously.

Jefferson knows Xenophon; he knows better than to argue emotions yield dispositions which yield habits and finally “thinking and acting virtuously.” Xenophon is blunt in the opening of the Memorabilia: one has to actually practice virtue, it’s that simple. One has to remember speeches concerning virtue and act on them and then do this over and over (Memorabilia I.2.23).

Again, though, it isn’t fiction which claims the right emotions create the right mindset which produces right action. That’s actually a claim about culture generally. For example, there are lots of people around me who’ve sworn off cursing and will not hang out with people who curse. One of these days I’ll list all the petty grievances, hatred, and drama these people have fostered. It’s beyond insane how much stupidity and cruelty accompanies illusions of moral purity.

Jefferson does insist on the writer being good at what he does, but I don’t think that’s a key consideration. After all, if he’s defending fiction as useful and pleasant, he has to defend the not-as-useful and not-as-pleasant works. Otherwise, his defense of fiction is only a defense of greatness. He can’t defend greatness, though. The most solid argument in his letter, the one I think he was building up to, is an implicit rejection of greatness:

Considering history as a moral exercise, her lessons would be too infrequent if confined to real life. Of those recorded by historians few incidents have been attended with such circumstances as to excite in any high degree this sympathetic emotion of virtue. [my emphasis]

If we work from history alone, we don’t get much to work with. For a man who would eventually build a republic, examples like Caesar aren’t particularly helpful. But he’s one of the biggest names in history. The issue isn’t so much that fiction is useful: it’s more that the alternatives are inadequate.

Jefferson in his letter shares examples of political and personal drama. What stands out is his mention of King Lear and the filial duty he feels it inspires. To be the person you want to be even in the minutest, most everyday sense, you may need to bear witness to someone like you. I think there’s not just an emphasis on the personal here, but on diversity. Not that fiction would call you to something higher, but that it would simply call to you.

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