Fiction asks fascinating philosophical questions, and doesn’t always provide easy answers.
Fiction, no matter the genre, has the ability to tell a good story and to challenge our presumptions and thoughts.
Writers and artists may not consider themselves traditional ‘philosophers’ like Plato or Aquinas, but they are creating a philosophical communication between themselves and their audience. After all, we don’t just study Shakespeare for its language. No, we read Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet to better understand power, love, warfare and history.
In this blog post, we’ll look at various works of fiction- and see how they fit into philosophical frameworks.
In a previous article I wrote about the philosophy of Christopher Nolan, I divided the post up into five sections, each representing the subfields of philosophy. Here, I’ll use more sections, in order to show the depth of philosophy.
- Political Philosophy
- Ethics (or Moral Philosophy)
- Philosophical Theology & Religious Studies
What It Is: Refers to the study of politics, and various intersections such as tyranny, democracy, liberty, law and authority. It is concerned with what makes a government ‘legitimate’ and what rights and freedoms it ought to protect
Key Writers In Political Philosophy: Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Plato, Karl Marx, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau
What You Should Read: Watchmen by Alan Moore (Illustrated by Dave Gibbons).
Yes- it’s well known, yet I can’t find a book that fits as well in terms of political philosophy. Alan Moore is a widely outspoken writer, who does not hold back on his views regarding government, class, and even Hollywood.
Yet Watchmen will appeal to anyone, regardless of their politics. Moore asks harsh questions: The legitimacy of superheroes, whether utilitarianism is justified, how we should distribute justice, and whether countries and individuals have the right to play God.
What Watchmen does well is address these question with both nuance and sadness. He, and Gibbons, uses effective Cold War imagery, complete with a startling Doomsday Clock, to add layers of timely seriousness.
Watchmen is an effective political text for many reasons, yet Moore’s acceptance that political science yields no kind results or happy endings is oddly refreshing.
The ending, which I won’t spoil, is gutsy and thought-provoking. If you haven’t read Watchmen, I highly recommend you pick up a copy today.
What It Is: To sum it up in one word, ethics. Moral philosophy is the serious study of right and wrong, as well as morality. It attempts to answer big questions on how best to live our lives.
Key Writers In Moral Philosophy: Immanuel Kant, John Rawls, David Hume, Jeremy Bentham
What You Should Read: The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell
It’s a hard read. From the long prose (900+ pages) to the subject matter of an SS officer recounting his experiences, The Kindly Ones explores the horror that exists in the pages of history. Yet The Kindly Ones is a positive read, because of its willingness to discuss difficult questions.
If we were the children of Nazi Germany, how would we act? What moral judgements should we make for genocide? Littell compares Greek morality with more modern forms, and challenges our own form of moralism.
The end result is a captivating read, that is set to leave a mark on you. Sure, you’ll be traumatised by what it reveals about yourself.
Yet exploring the dark corners of the human mind is essential to moral psychology and philosophy, and because of that, The Kindly Ones is essential.
What It Is: The theory and study of knowledge.
Key Writers In Epistemology: Francis Bacon, Judith Butler, Aristotle, Jean Piaget, John Searle
What You Should Read: The Unfortunates by B. S Johnson
Epistemology strikes me as highly experimental: after all, knowledge, can be fleeting and ever changing. So it’s fitting that my pick for epistemology would be an experimental book.
The Unfortunates is a lesser-known novel, that plays around with structure and the expectations of readers. With 27 parts (you can read the middle 25 sections in any order), there is something both challenging and simple about Johnson’s structure.
It’s also an apt metaphor for the human mind and how it acquires knowledge. As the book is essentially a meditation on memories, we are free to reconstruct the story however we wish.
By doing that, we see the dangers and delights that behold the study of knowledge. Epistemology could be the most difficult field of philosophy, and with Johnson’s work, it’s easy to see why.
Philosophical Theology & Religious Studies
What It Is: A philosophical interrogation of religion and theology, particularly that of Christianity.
Key Writers In Philosophical Theology: St. Thomas Aquinas, Anslem of Canterbury, William of Ockham, Sadhu Sundar Singh, Albertus Magnus
What You Should Read: The Screwtape Letters by C.S Lewis
You know The Chronicles Of Narnia– but are you familar with The Screwtape Letters? In this satirical novel dedicated to J. R. R Tolkien, C.S Lewis addresses Christian theological issues, such as ethics and resisting evil.
Comprised of fictional letters from Screwtape, a senior demon, C.S Lewis teases multiple viewpoints. That’s what makes The Screwtape Letters so good.
Even if you disagree with C.S Lewis, his cleverness is admirable. I recommend reading Paradise Lost by Milton beforehand- which adds depth to Lewis’ letters. Or you can go further, and add Dante’s Divine Comedy, or re-read the poetry of Robert Frost.
What It Is: The philosophical study of art, and its merits.
Key Writers In Aesthetics: Denis Dutton, Jean-François Lyotard, Guy Sircello, Richard Wollheim
What You Should Read: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Art has the ability to leave a lasting impact on us, and The Goldfinch reflects that. As a boy survives a terrorist attack, and only has a Dutch golden age painting called ‘The Goldfinch’ (painted by Carel Fabritius) to get through the torments of losing a family member, being taunted at school, and finding yourself in a strange environment.
Tartt, a poignant writer, could be interpreted as a philosopher herself. She’s surely interested in what makes art function, and how it shapes our personal histories and futures. Although The Goldfinch has flaws (it’s a bit drawn out) it is a sure testiment to the power of art, and a welcome message to the study of aesthetics.
What makes The Goldfinch even sadder is that Fabritius died after an explosion, which destroyed alot of work. He was a pupil of Rembrant.
What It Is: The attempt to seek validity via reasoning.
Key Writers In Logic: Alciun of York, Rudolph Carnap, Albert of Saxony, Georg Hegel, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alan Turing, Paul of Venice
What You Should Read: The Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov
Is there any other choice? The Foundation Series is a triumph of not just science fiction, but of logic. From the arresting concept of ‘psychohistory’ to ‘mathematical sociology,’ Asimov is a master at interpreting traditionally qualitative fields through the lenses of logic. It works.
Nothing is off-limits for Asimov, as he explores themes about statistics, mathematics, politics, science, space and history. Yet he writes as a scientist collecting data, as opposed to a partisan bystander. That is not a negative- it makes for sharp science fiction, that results in a masterpiece of literature.
If that interests you, than Asimov’s catalogue should also be read, especially I, Robot. The laws of robotics have influenced real-time science and engineering, which is a testament to the power of fiction.
What It Is: Concerning existence and the nature of things that exist
Key Writers In Metaphysics: René Descartes, Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, Isaac Newton, Parmenides
What You Should Read: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel.”
Widely considered to be the first science fiction story, Frankenstein is metaphysical. Not only does it concern with a human, Victor, ‘playing God’ and giving life to a scientific creation, but it also deals with the fall out and horrors of such an action.
However, Frankenstein does not stop there. Shelley asks questions about responsibility, God, nature, consequences, individualism, and most tragically, love.
You could interpret Frankenstein as a horror tale for when metaphysics goes awfully wrong. That makes for an enriching novel, that still has plenty to teach mankind.
What are your favourite philosophical fiction reads? Comment below.