Ethics Through Literature
Ascetic and Aesthetic Reading in Western Culture
Author: Brian Stock
Series: Menahem Stern Jerusalem Series
Why do we read? Based on a series of lectures delivered at the Historical Society of Israel in 2005, Brian Stock presents a model for relating ascetic and aesthetic principles in Western reading practices. He begins by establishing the primacy of the ethical objective in the ascetic approach to literature in Western classical thought from Plato to Augustine. This is understood in contrast to the aesthetic appreciation of literature that finds pleasure in the reading of the text in and of itself. Examples of this long-standing tension as displayed in a literary topos, first outlined in these lectures, which describes “scenes of reading,” are found in the works of Peter Abelard, Dante and Virginia Woolf, among others. But, as this original and often surprising work shows, the distinction between the ascetic and aesthetic impulse in reading, while necessary, is often misleading. As he writes, “All Western reading, it would appear, has an ethical component, and the value placed on this component does not change much over time.” Tracing the ascetic component of reading from Late Antiquity through the Renaissance and beyond, to Coleridge and Schopenhauer, Stock reveals the ascetic or ethical as a constant with the aesthetic serving as opposition, parallel force and handmaiden, underscoring the historical consistency of the reading experience through the ages and across various media.