Literature as Philosophy in Motion

Last year, I came across a browser page on Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Existentialism. It said that “Literature is Philosophy in motion.”

I was helping a student on line today with questions on North Korea and also Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I saved and edited the dialogue because it touches on some interesting ideas.

I made some comments about the novel “Babbitt” by Sinclair Lewis.

Below are a few excerpts. The entire dialogue is at:

The Swing of the Pendulum


In a way, the history of the whole world is about empowerment of the oppressed; slaves being liberated, women getting the vote, free education for all, religious freedom of worship, free speech, everybody having a vote, freedom of press…..

I just now remembered Thoreau’s words, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

I found the sparknotes summary for Babbitt.

Babbitt seeks to expose the hypocrisy and emptiness underlying middle-class life.

Think about this thought I just had, namely, that all of history is like a constantly swinging pendulum, swinging back and forth between various opposites; between wealth and poverty, war and peace, conservative and liberal, debauchery and strict morality, religious fervor and atheism..

The people made strong say by slavery, or poverty, or suffering, or the challenge of pioneering, well, they effect some big change. But then the next generation, which is has it easy, in affluence, or peace and safety, why, they lose that pioneering super-hero spirit. They become flabby.

There is never any end, never any peace, never any balance or equilibrium where the pendulum stops swinging…… We are always struggling and fighting for peace, prosperity, freedom, morality…. but we never achieve peace, we are never free, we never eliminate poverty…. we are never collectively moral.

We are ever driven by a pendulum and illusion.

Babbitt acknowledges and embraces the possibility that future generations might find a way out of the hollow morass middle-class society had become.

If you watch those 1950 programs like Ozzie & Harriet and Leave it to Beaver… it is a false Babbitt-like representation of human life, of happiness and morality…. something which we would have liked to believe, to convince ourselves of… except it was false, phony, a lie,
and not the way things really are in life or families.

In my pendulum example …. it is only under suffering and adversity and a people develop courage and character to seek revolution and reform…. but the peace and prosperity of that reform and freedom leads to a weak character, to decadence, and to decay and corruption…. so the cycle repeats all over again. The extreme reaction of the privileged to hollowness, Babbitt proclaims, is hollowness.

Babbitt is first and foremost a parody of post-World War I middle-class American culture. The name of the town, Zenith, implies that Babbitt’s community views itself as the highest point of American civilization. The Babbitts’ marriage, like their house, is mostly appearance with little substance. Their morning conversation has a feeling of monotony; while there might have been genuine feeling in it at one time, it is now an empty routine carried out for the sake of creating the appearance of married contentment.

Despite all of Babbitt’s failings, it is important to remember that he is the product of a culture that exerts great pressure to conform. He is not evil, nor is he entirely insensitive.

Each of us is a product of our culture and our times.
The Novel, Babbitt, makes the point that middle-class values actually discourage real human relationships. Instead, it encourages people to become carbon copies of one another, much like the industrial economy produces standardized, mass-produced material objects.

Babbitt and his friends live mechanical, dull, conventional lives as if they were robots instead of human beings.

You have heard of the Quakers and the Shakers…. (and the Shakers made great furniture)…. well… the Shakers in this country had COMMUNES , farms where everyone worked in common.

All of Europe was amazed at the economic success of the Shaker communes…. including Marx and Engels who started the communist movement….

You see how strangely things work… the Shakers never thought about the unusual influence they had half way around the world…. and a century later…

Just as an example of how….. what we do… what we say… can have unexpected long range results….

Sometimes good with results… sometimes bad results…..
Lets look at REALLY long range cause and effect….

I mean… Judaism had become corrupt in a way…. and Jesus was like a reformer…

May be Jesus didn’t know what the church would be like… and the middle ages…. and then the Roman Catholic corruption.. and the Protestant reform…

But… long story short… that leads to a little group called Shakers… who inspire Marx and Engels… which leads to communism… and North Korea



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