E. J. Hutchinson

What is literature for? Any number of things, one supposes—pleasure, say, or escape. But does it do anything else? In a frequently used and even more frequently misunderstood phrase, Auden says that “poetry makes nothing happen.”[1] But what if it does? What if it makes people happen—people who are wiser, more seasoned, more judicious than they might have been otherwise?

The Yale Report of 1828 claimed that intellectual culture provided the “furniture of the mind.” That seems true enough, if somewhat static. More dynamically, Kenneth Burke once referred to literature as “equipment for living.”[2] And what kind of “equipment” does one need for living well? One needs qualities such as prudence, discretion, patience, sympathy, humility. How does one acquire them? The chief way is through experience.

But experience has an obvious sine qua non: time. This fact in turn has an obvious drawback: we shall arrive at the good life late, if at all. Here is where literature can come to our assistance. For literature serves as what one might call “surrogate experience,” giving us a sense of places we have not been in, times we have not lived in, situations we have not suffered in; and, in so doing, it humanizes us. If we deliberately misinterpret the famous Hippocratic aphorism ars longa, vita brevis—“life is short, art long”—we can say that profound works of literary art provide us with a “cheat,” as it were, to gain the wisdom of age and of the ages within life’s short compass.

The Wittenberg Reformer and humanist Philip Melanchthon expresses this point with great clarity in his “Preface to Homer.”[3] The “Preface”—written as an oration to be delivered by Veit Winsheim, dean of the arts faculty at the University of Wittenberg[4]—is interesting for a number of reasons. For instance, for its critical judgments (Melanchthon writes that “there has been no better or more outstanding painter of our nobler and more divine part than Homer”);[5] its moral judgments (the Trojan War was waged “in defense of conjugal virtue, in order to avenge adultery”);[6] its hermeneutical judgments (Homer is esoteric: “he concealed serious and ponderous tenets in … poetic images”);[7] and its polemical judgments (Plato was wrong to want Homer “banished from the Platonic fields”).[8]

But none of those is my interest at present. I instead wish to draw attention to his remarks on the educative value of literature precisely in relation to what I termed “surrogate experience” above. That is not to say, however, that Melanchthon’s moral and philosophical judgments are not closely related to my subject—they are. In fact, the latter are related to the former as cause and effect: Homer’s precepts beget experience in the reader.

Melanchthon, following Boethius, believes that all human beings are endowed with some prolēpseis or “common preconceptions,”[9] general “rules for life” imprinted on our minds by virtue of our human nature. But these preconceptions have to be honed and developed by practice and experience, and that is a long and laborious process. Melanchthon quotes Ovid to that effect: “experience comes with advanced years.”[10]

But Homer’s poetry, too, Melanchthon says, “consists of such maxims, that is of common and most useful rules and precepts for morals, life, and civil duties.” He gives his readers “agreeable notions of modesty, respect, and the other virtues.” By showing these good habits in action, Homer helps to habituate the young in the wisdom that would otherwise take them decades to learn; he “demonstrates and accomplishes a certain experience of life in the young, which is otherwise held in highest praise, but is attributed only to old age.” Melanchthon continues:

Indeed, reading Homer performs this divine service, namely to impress the prudence of the old upon the youthful mind, for they can obtain and draw from this poem, by a short-cut, as from a treasure or a spring those things which old people usually learn from long experience, and which numerous years, the variety of things, and the experiences of human life teach them. For the teaching of how to live rightly and happily is not delivered less successfully there than in any writings of the philosophers.…

Melanchthon’s Wittenberg colleague, Martin Luther, had made a similar point about education in general over a decade previously in “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools” (1524). In arguing for the necessity of good schools and good teachers as a supplement to and shortcut for our own extracurricular experience, Luther had said,

The training we undertake at home, apart from such schools, is intended to make us wise through our own experience. Before that can be accomplished we will be dead a hundred times over, and will have acted rashly throughout our mortal life, for it takes a long time to acquire personal experience.[11]

The outlook of Melanchthon is different from some approaches to literary education that currently find favor in the school and the academy. For one thing, whatever one makes of some of his specific claims about Homer, the mode of explicating the text that Melanchthon recommends is naive—in the best sense. No thought could be further from his mind than the feasibility of “unmasking” Homer to discover, for example, hidden narratives of oppression. For another thing—one not unrelated to the first—his literary perspective is utterly contrary to the currently faddish idea of curricular “representation,” that is, that one’s own personal “lived experience” has to be represented in the literature assigned in academic work, which is to say, literature by demographics and tribal identity. Melanchthon would instead have us focus on what is common in our human experience and on how literature can help to shape our minds and habits in accordance with virtuous means and ends in our common life.

More succinctly: instead of finding ourselves in literature, Melanchthon wants us to find literature in ourselves so that we can live better in the world. The “surrogate experience” literature provides is valuable because it takes us outside ourselves into the bigger world in order that we might take the bigger world back into ourselves and live with greater understanding and human sympathy. In sum: through literature, the wisdom of the ages can make us wise for our own age—before age overtakes us.  


Eric Hutchinson is associate professor of classics and chairman of the Collegiate Scholars Program at Hillsdale College.


[1] W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” in Collected Poems (Vintage, 1991), 247.

[2] Kenneth Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living,” in The Philosophy of Literary Form, 3rd ed., rev. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 293–304.

[3] The English translation of Melanchthon’s “Preface to Homer,” trans. Christine F. Salazar, is originally found in Sachiko Kusukawa, ed., Philip Melanchthon: Orations on Philosophy and Education (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 38–53. I quote from the reprint in Richard M. Gamble, ed., The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being (ISI Books, 2007), 420–31.

[4] See Kusukowa 38, n.1. The date of the oration is unclear; it is possibly to be assigned to 1538.

[5] Melanchthon, “Preface,” 428.

[6] Melanchthon, “Preface,” 425.

[7] Melanchthon, “Preface,” 429.

[8] Melanchthon, “Preface,” 429. One of the reasons Plato was wrong to banish Homer, in Melanchthon’s view, is that he seems to have (hypocritically) ignored Homer’s esotericism.

[9] All quotations in this and the following paragraph are from p. 424.

[10] Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.29: seris venit usus ab annis.

[11] The English translation of Luther’s “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany,” trans. Albert T.W. Steinhaeuser, rev. Walther I Brandt, is originally found in Walther I. Brandt, ed., Luther’s Works, vol. 45 (Fortress Press, 1962), 347–78. I quote from the excerpted reprint in Gamble, Great Tradition, 377.


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