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Philosophy in Literature

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Prospero is the central character of the play The Tempest which is one of the latest and most original works in Shakespeare's literature career. This play is considered to be symbolic. As one of the most sophisticated creations by Shakespeare, the play contains fantastic characters, humans, and magic spirits, which are represented tragically, with grotesque, or from a philosophical perspective.

Prospero is a wise man who used to be a Duke of Milan, but was seriously offended by Sebastian, Antonio, and Alonso. Namely, he was dethroned and sent away on a ship with his daughter. Prospero is fortunate to find support in Gonzalo who is kind enough to provide travelers with food and water supplies. Prospero appears to be a complex personality, but Shakespeare wants the reader to sympathize with this character. So after the vengeance (which is partially unfair to both Prospero’s servants and enemies), the happy ending for everyone comes.

The books of Prospero are the source of his magic, and there is a strong emphasis on their meaning and power. Hence, Caliban, an ugly servant of Prospero, says that Prospero is absolutely vulnerable without them. The treasured library, as Caliban assumes, is the source of endless wisdom, and without it Prospero is just an ordinary man. However, over the course of the story we can see that the library is rather a weapon while Prospero’s wisdom comes out of his soul, moral values, and good intentions.

The moment Prospero vows to drown his book along with all other books of the world (which assumes Shakespeare’s books too), he is done with his vengeance and forgives his ex-enemies. Prospero does not attempt to alter their evil nature though he wishes they would understand the seriousness of the abuse. Prospero is happy to find his daughter in love with Prince Ferdinand, especially by knowing it happened due to his contribution, too.

After his vengeance is over and he gets confident in the fortunate outcome for his daughter, Prospero decides to give up his magic power and destroy the book which embodies it. He does it because he does not want the book to get into bad hands. Prospero perceives life in its complexity, with its positive and negative parts. He is no revolutionary. Neither does he think that he may change the world and life dramatically with the help of magic. Therefore, he only helps out his daughter who actually deserves such help due to her purity, kindness, and beauty (both outer and inner).

The treasured library is the embodiment of the literary art that Shakespeare accepts as a magic weapon. But the message Shakespeare sends about the isolation that the art leads to is quite contradictory. In spite of the power that art can give, it is able to isolate the artist from the rest of the world or lead to destruction and pain just as the tempest near Prospero’s island did. We can note that Prospero created complications in the love of Ferdinand and Miranda, and he almost pushed two brothers – Sebastian and Antonio – to kill the ruling king Alonso. This evidences art can help to reveal positive and negative sides of life or intensify their expression. Yet, art is also explained by Shakespeare as a reflection of life but not a way to alter the natural order.

The wisdom of Prospero is expressed not only in his forgiveness, but in the ways he chose to deal with his friends and enemies along with building his road back to the royal family of Naples. Therefore, the true human power of Prospero is in his ability to forgive and in his love for Miranda. Prospero is tired of power and isolation that have been his burden for too many years, so he decides to destroy the books. Another reason for it is that Prospero is ready to revive his power as a king but if he is too busy studying the secrets of magic his old mistake can take place again.

We can also assume that Prospero would not like anyone else to know about the secret magic of knowledge not to disrupt the natural balance of life. Nevertheless, Prospero is peaceful and thinks about death. Thus, it is not fighting that he is getting prepared for.

Prospero should destroy the magic books because, first, they should not get into the hands of someone with less noble intentions. Second, the knowledge inside the books leads to isolation making one a stranger to the world. Third, it is useless to try to exert influence on the natural order of life because magic (or art) is only a part of it, a mere reflection.

However, Prospero makes a hasty generalization offering to drown not only his own magic books but also all books of the world. The nature of each writing or art that is depicted in each book is very different. If we question the argumentation using standard matters of dispute, we will see that each individual case is too different, and Prospero’s specific case is not representative of all books of the world. Therefore, the first premise – “drown all books, including mine” – is faulty, and the entire rule of Prospero is invalid. The conclusion about drowning books is also irrelevant for Shakespeare’s books but it is not an exception as it is also relevant for many other great books too. The magic books of Prospero contain knowledge which gives him enormous power. But as Prospero’s story is being told during the play, we can see that the library actually became the reason why he was dethroned. In spite of love and sympathy that people felt towards Prospero, he had been too busy studying the secrets of magic (“rapt in secret studies”). He had forgotten about his functions as a ruler. This led him to failure and isolation from the world, first mental and then physical. Prospero feels guilty and responsible for changing his daughter’s life. Therefore, his major task as a magician is to make Miranda happy and loved by Prince Ferdinand (Shakespeare 46-58).

However, we should not drown or bury Shakespeare’s works. Although the art of his word is a great power, his contribution to the world culture and to revelation of the human soul constitutes priceless experience of the entire humanity. By now it has been impossible to underestimate it. So unlike the magic books of Prospero, the literary works of Shakespeare simply cannot get into “bad hands” as they promote beauty, high morality, wisdom, patience and kindness. The nature of Shakespeare’s works is different from what is supposedly hidden in the magic books of Prospero – “Tempest” and other plays contain wisdom which may only be used for the better or neglected at all in the worst case. Meanwhile, as the play says, the magic books are a sufficient danger if they are used improperly. The rule of Prospero is mistaken, and he is to blame for enacting it in case he decides to extend its execution on other books though it may be reasonable to drown the magic books. There is a different rule that can apply in this case – dangerous knowledge should be destroyed but the entire wisdom of the world literature is more useful than harmful. In order to review the difference between Prospero’s books and the plays of Shakespeare, we should weigh all possible advantages and risks that may be the outcomes of the knowledge application. Prospero’s magic books led only to his personal power but not to the liberation of people. The magic touched upon many people but it brought almost nothing positive leading to destruction and negative consequences. The misuse of knowledge is also described by Mary Shelley in her Frankenstein, and it is a bright example of the bad outcome as the craving for invention turned out to be destructive for Dr. Frankenstein who eventually understood his faults and the degradation he was in while working over the monster’s creation. But through the centuries of Shakespeare’s plays existence, we can note that his creative work has been more useful than harmful for the human society. The percentage of readers who can misunderstand the plays (for instance, The Tempest) is much lower than the ones who accept his wisdom as an appropriate way to go on through their own life as well. The importance of Shakespeare is that he illuminates human experience with the talent of storytelling that gave us an insight to the life of dukes, barons, simple people of Renaissance England, he incorporates characters with multifaceted personalities (especially the tragic ones) to give readers a look into the core of human soul, and many of the plays’ quotes are now used as folklore sayings and idioms. Therefore, the importance of Shakespeare goes far beyond the smaller risks of the misunderstanding of his creations. Moreover, the use of knowledge is different in Shakespeare and even his character Prospero – the first one used it to enlighten people and to touch upon their minds while the latter one eventually used it for vengeance and personal use. So, the ways of knowledge application are also very significant.

In Voltaire’s Candide, Voltaire touches many issues of his time. These include religious tensions, the shifts of political balance and power, instability, violence (including sexual abuse and slavery), low morals, and dissipation. Some of them have been relevant until today. The tumultuous nature of life in the eighteenth century drives the reader’s attention to constant wars, corruption, and disease. However, it is also the time when philosophers start to question justice, fairness and the existing social order. Voltaire, specifically, concentrates on the inability of religion, philosophy or political power to resolve the problems of human society in general and lead every person to his individual happiness. By the example of Candide who went through many misfortunes and almost lost his naïve view of life, Voltaire recommends to look for peace and harmony with oneself rather than search for explanations in religion, philosophy or power. Even the attempts of the writers of Enlightenment to explain the way people should live are accepted by Voltaire as faulty. Therefore, Voltaire argues that life has its positive sides, too – the ones that all philosophers and God seekers are missing. It is possible to find peace, harmony and happiness in the simplicity of life, its familiar pleasures such as being industrious and cropping the fruits of one’s labor. Meanwhile, the Church that embodies the human’s search for God is corrupt and full of cruelty in Candide. The philosophical attitude represented by Pangloss is mocked upon throughout the plot, and the issue of trust for the public officials is also raised. When Candide is almost dying in Lisbon, his friend Pangloss cannot help him. In spite of his bright ideas, he is so weak in practice.

Although many ideas march in step with what Enlightenment authors have shown, Voltaire demonstrates no preference for their silly optimism and naiveté. Candide has little common sense but by the end of the story he reveals that the only thing he was happy doing is garden cultivation. Candide finally asks: “If this is the best of all possible worlds, then what are the others like?". He asks this when he hears about terrible stories about rape and cruelty (Voltaire ch. 6).

The reader is led to the conclusion that Candide is a proof of divine perfection because it is the story of suffering and studying, which eventually led to finding the real meaning of life. Although this masterpiece was inspired by all possible cruelties of the world, it still comes up with one conclusion – life is a lot simpler than people used to make it in 1700s. Yet,   in practice there are still challenges that anyone may be faced with. Fighting for love and friendship, searching for peace and harmony and, finally, finding it in labor and in calm lifestyle are all related to the pursuit of happiness, which  is less complicated but more practical than the images provided by philosophers, noblemen or religious activists. The existence of bright ideas such as the ones by Voltaire prove that humanity is not completely lost at the end of the day. Therefore, we can come to the conclusion that our world is the best of the worlds because there is still place for critical thinking and development.

However, this conclusion is not valid because though the premises seem quite sound. It is a fallacy of argumentation based on the relationship between quality and judgment. Reviewing the existence of Candide as a positive tendency – the ability to transcend the horrors and the evil – the author of the question is driven at the conclusion that our world is the best of the worlds. But using standard matters of dispute, we can see that this specific quality does not lead to the judgment about the whole world, and there are additional qualities that result in entirely different judgments. Therefore, we cannot take a decision about the quality of the world or life using the arguments offered either by Voltaire or the syllogism that the question offered. The world is too complex to take one quality as dominant.

In order to get out of the challenge of “twisting his own knife”, Voltaire should introduce several ultimate resolutions to the problem of life meaning. Moreover, it would also be useful to leave the categoricalness and reveal both advantages and weaknesses of the existing systems that he initially criticized. Church and philosophy of 1700s were at least influential and most likely they both had their strong sides that are rejected by Voltaire in Candide. Several variants of how to live and act should be introduced along with the depiction of life not only in its dark colors but in its bright colors as well. Therefore, Voltaire should recognize the versatility of life and the importance of this perception.

Art is recognized as a reflection of human imagination and skills, and though it is typically represented in the visual form, it can also be intangible if it comes in the form of poems, music pieces, or literary works. The intangible arts are not less powerful in expressing emotion or representing beauty. A writer, a poet or a composer cannot be called blind because they see through the human soul, the very core of human nature. And as they manage to touch upon it, they learn much more about the essence of life than other people who may look at the world with their eyes wide open.

A poet or a writer has a deeper insight into the essence of things due to his talent, hard work and acquired skills that come out of his natural love for creation. A writer or a poet is capable of revealing the beauty of life phenomena or emphasize the negative sides of them. This insight is guaranteed by the God’s gift which is talent, inspiration that comes out of the artistic nature of a poet or writer, and hard work along with a portion of luck to become well-recognized and authoritative for other people to listen. It is necessary for the creator to see and experience life in order to drive everybody’s attention to it, especially when it is neglected and forgotten by the rest of the people because of their daily routine and inability (or lack of desire) to see or experience life around them in general. It is also important for the readers, listeners or spectators to see, experience and understand whatever the poet tries to tell because art may drive their attention to the issues which were neglected before or give the answers to their life questions. Therefore, it is an important experience and information sharing that is expressed in artistic form, so it is a tale of life that touches upon what people have been questioning themselves about for long centuries.

The example of Kurt Vonnegut and his novel “Slaughterhouse Five” dwells upon the horrible events of Dresden bombings during World War II. Another example is the novel “Three Comrades” by Erich Maria Remarque and it tells about the challenging conditions of life in Germany between two World Wars. Both of these novels include important non-imaginary historical events and social processes but they both involve creation of fictional characters. But apart from another layer of history, there is much more that the author contributes. First, it is a way to reflect on the human soul, feelings and personal experiences that is not covered by historical records. Carrying through the challenging events with a sympathetic central character, the reader seems to be absorbed in the setting himself. The historical records do not reflect the smallest details of life and do not give the intimate connection between the characters and the reader. Therefore, the immediate participants of these events remain faceless and unknown to the reader. We may know about shorter life episodes of life when it comes to well-known people but we still don’t know everything what they felt and faced. Meanwhile, the author can add artistic value to history and reflect the epoch describing a longer period of life. The central character and any secondary ones are the generalized images of real people that the writers met in person, so the nature of them is both fictional and real. The perception of raw historical events changes if they are delivered in an artistic form because the reader starts to empathize with the central character and gets a personal touch which is essential to get stamped on the reader’s memory.

Both Remarque and Vonnegut were the witnesses of the events they described and represented them in entirely new way. As for the other witnesses, they cannot make stories up while in a fictional novel the writer can include multiple stories and put them into one single picture. That is what makes fiction very valuable for the reader to get familiar with and to understand. For example, in the following lines Remarque demonstrates how important simple and cheap entertainment was in the challenging period when Germany was between Wars putting this idea into the mouth of Robby:

“The music enchanted the air. It was like the south wind, like a warm night, like swelling sails beneath the stars, completely and utterly unreal... It made everything spacious and colourful, the dark stream of life seemed pulsing in it; there were no burdens any more, no limits; there existed only glory and melody and love, so that one simply could not realize that, at the same time as this music was, outside there ruled poverty and torment and despair” (Remarque 187).

One of the ideas in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel is also put into a letter: “The truth is death. I’ve fought nicely against it as long as I could…danced with it, festooned it, waltzed it around…decorated it with streamers, titillated it…” (Vonnegut 21).

Many of the real historical witnesses do not know how to formulate their stories to make them appealing to the wide public. Meanwhile, the writer can use literary devices, symbolism and other instruments along with imagination and language to put the feelings of numerous people into one single piece of literature and make them clear to those who do not have personal experience of the problems raised in the novel. Indeed, the writer’s talent is meant to reveal the multifaceted nature of life, environment, human soul and their interaction (Brecht 1-2). The experience exchange related to art is valuable because it is not merely informative but also has an emotional upload which appeals to ethics and morals of the listeners or readers. For both parties it is a way to experience life and se deep into the core of it, to evaluate somebody else’s thoughts and either to take a different position or to stick with the offered one. Art is about getting rid of indifference and ignorance in all their possible forms.

On the other hand, writers are more effective in altering readers’ beliefs and values when they apply imagination because it is an excellent way to demonstrate the action and its consequence as the argument and evidence. The emotional movement and forgotten skepticism makes the reader get absorbed into the story and change his life views. For example, Harry Potter saga by J.K. Rowling has so many unfamiliar magic elements that the reader seems to get into an entirely new universe but the moral values like equality, justice, friendship, love and kindness are not unshakeable throughout the story because of the human nature of the characters. Reading novels and poems we learn how to understand other people and their differences. Many lovers of Jules Verne have never been to the exotic and breathtaking places that his novels and stories take us too. However, the adventure of the characters is so mind-blowing, that the readers get a feeling that they have been there themselves. The deep morality of world masterpieces goes beyond geographical, political and religious bonds. The majority of literary pieces have happy endings adding to the softening perception of reality and stimulating the reader’s belief in justice (like the novels of Charles Dickens where the character has suffered through a lot of misery but finds peace at the end). Raymond Mar, a famous psychologist, claims that if the reader “watches” the positive characters acting in a peculiar way, this behavior is copied by the reader later in his life, even by an unconscious decision. For instance, the movie of 1915 “Birth of a Nation” led to the resurrection of Ku Klux Klan though the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” raised the public attention to the problem of Black Americans being enslaves and treated horribly which is sinful. The ethic of decency and the fund of empathy accumulated while reading somebody else’s story is much stronger in terms of changing the mindsets of people than political factors. It is also a way to improve the interpersonal understanding. The artificial situations give the reader experience which can be later used in real life, and this experience is retrieved without harm which would be almost impossible in real life.

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