Literature, Empathy, and Enlightenment: Reading Our Way To A Better World
By David Metcalfe
May 9, 2018
Good literature is one of the most powerful things in the world. It has enlightened and edified humanity in fantastic ways, both in personal fulfillment and the flourishing of society at large. It is a massive threat to intolerance, selfishness, fanaticism, and authoritarianism. When we are free to read, we are free to think. When we are free to think, we are free to pursue happiness in the way we see fit.
I want to take you through a brief journey of the importance that literature can have. On a basic level, people first need to know how to read in a very literal sense. Beyond that, they need to be able to think about what they read. And finally, they need to experience personal growth and help the world become a better place through what they read. That’s why I’ve divided this into three chapters:
Chapter 1: Reading Words
Chapter 2: Reading Ideas
Chapter 3: Reading For A Better World
The conclusion provides a good summary of the ideas expressed within.
Chapter 1: Reading Words
Yeah, I’m Literate
Last week I got to visit the Mormon temple in Edmonton, and to my surprise, they asked me to perform baptisms. I was a little nervous, because I had no idea what I was doing. I was worried tomorrow’s headline in the Edmonton Journal might read “Local Idiot Accidentally Drowns Person In Baptismal Font”. But it’s really very simple. Some guy explained to me that you just read the words on the screen, dunk the person, and lift them back up.
Before I went in, he asked, “are you literate?”. I just looked at him, puzzled. Like, uhh…buddy…I’m more than literate, I am literature. I read for 6 hours a day. The people at Chapters are starting to catch on to the fact that I hang out there for hours and never buy any books. I’m considering taking up permanent residence in the public library. I use words like “obsequious” and “extemporaneous” in regular conversation. But, of course, I kept that to myself, and just said, “yeah, I’m literate.”
Later that day, I couldn’t help but think back to that peculiar question. I suppose I just never thought of literacy as a contingency. It’s like asking, “do you breathe?” or “does your heart beat?”. Canada boasts literacy rates of 97% (Hammer, 2017). The remaining 3% can largely be attributed to immigrants and people with learning disabilities. The fact is, if you’re a Canadian in 2018, you can read.
But not everyone is a Canadian in 2018.
In fact, that’s only 36 million people out of the total 107 billion that have ever lived on earth (comprising a total 0.03% of people). So, I think it’s necessary to look a little beyond ourselves. The vast majority of mankind was not able to read up until very recently. In 1820, only 12% of people were literate. Amazingly, it’s risen to 83% in 2018 (Roser and Ortiz-Ospina, 2018). But, like most world development issues, there are huge disparities among countries. Here is a world map by literacy rate:
Literacy Is A Human Right
Literacy is one of those variables that corresponds fairly closely with quality of life. Most of the lighter ones seem like great places to live, and as we’re going to discuss, literature plays a big part in that.
Another important consideration is the gender disparity in literacy. In Afghanistan, 52% of males are literate, but only 24% of females are (a 28% disparity). And the gap is not a “Muslim” problem. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other Muslim countries have very balanced male-female literacy rates. Most of the other countries with major gender disparities are less developed African countries, like Angola, Benin, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, and several others. India also has an 18% disparity. These countries have deep misogynistic cultural roots that are easily seen in education, and thus literacy (UNESCO, 2015).
In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26 outlines the rights that each person has in education. It states that,
“Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory.” (UDHR, A26, 1948).
An elementary level education, if completed satisfactorily, should provide people with sufficient literacy for common life. Ideally, of course, countries will allow for people to complete a full education, which goes beyond mere basic literacy and into a greater understanding and appreciation for literature and the knowledge and experiences that can be gained from it. The ability to comprehend written and spoken information is invaluable to being a productive member of society for many types of fields, and is closely associated with economic development and prosperity (Hanemann, 2015).
That is all fairly obvious, but of course, it’s good to know those basic facts so we have something to build from. But now I’d like to move beyond literacy itself i.e. the written words on pages, and into the ideas they inhabit and create, and how those ideas shape individuals and society.
Chapter 2: Reading Ideas
Banning Books and Burning Brains
Ray Bradbury’s classic novel “Fahrenheit 451” tells the chilling story of a dystopian future where books are outlawed. Any book found is burned, often along with the person who was reading it. This results in an uneducated, superficial, and despondent society who display no authentic thought or emotion, and have instead come to prefer mindlessly consuming television and medication. Ultimately, this leads to their physical destruction as well, as their lack of thought or care about the bigger things in the world results in a lack of successful international diplomacy, and they are destroyed by nuclear bombs (Bradbury, 1953).
This concept of book burning was not something Bradbury made up, but rather a very real and disturbing reality that occurred not long before the writing of his book in 1953. Just 20 years earlier, the Nazi party’s ideals of extreme German nationalism, antisemitism, and anti-democratic authoritarianism had taken over Germany. On May 10, 1933, the Nazi’s organized the largest book burning in history. The main location was in the square of the State Opera, Berlin, where thousands of people gathered together to burn more than 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, said this in his speech to the 40,000 people in attendance:
“The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end. The breakthrough of the German revolution has again cleared the way on the German part… the future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you. As a young person, to already have the courage to face the pitiless glare, to overcome the fear of death, and to regain respect for death – this is the task of this young generation. And thus, you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past. This is a strong, great and symbolic deed – a deed which should document the following for the world to know – Here the intellectual foundation of the November Republic is sinking to the ground, but from this wreckage the phoenix of a new spirit will triumphantly rise.”
Book banning in Nazi Germany included anything written by Jews, and any ideology that supported pacifism, religion, liberalism, socialism, and communism, among others (Bunker, 2002). Of course, my personal favorite authors: the liberal, human rights champion Thomas Paine, the anarchist Henry David Thoreau, and the pacifist Bertrand Russell, would have had all of their works burned.
In response, Helen Keller wrote an Open Letter to German Students, in which she said,
“You may burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas those books contain have passed through millions of channels and will go on.”
Books are far more than the words on a page; they encapsulate an idea, and impress it into the mind of the one who reads it. And the Nazi’s were obviously not burning books due to a shortage of firewood; they burned books because of the ideas kept within them. That’s why Helen Keller is right in saying that the ideas will go on, as everyone who read the books will still have the ideas in their minds. The Nazi’s destroyed books to prevent anyone else from getting those ideas. But people who already read them contained the ideas in their minds.
That is why burning books inevitably leads to burning people. Ideas exist just as well in books as they do in people, and when an evil, totalitarian regime doesn’t like an idea, they go to whatever lengths necessary to destroy it. Anyone in Nazi Germany who dissented against the ideals of the regime was put in prison, exiled or killed, and eventually put in concentration camps. It was the disconcerting fulfillment of the famous line from Heinrich Heine’s 1821 play Almansor, that:
“Where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.”
Seminal Sentimentality In The Contagious Idea
It’s pretty easy to see that when books are banned, it creates some awful things for society. But what happens when new, free thinking books are written into existence and disseminated among the masses?
Reformation of Free Thought in Theology
The Bible is probably the most influential book over the course of humanity. Content from it has, and continues to, define major aspects of life and culture for a significant amount of the world’s population. The ancient Romans made Christianity their state religion in the fourth century, and throughout the middle ages, the Catholic Church had huge power over political and social life. The Bible was only to be read and interpreted by clergymen. The rest of the people had to just trust that their interpretation was correct. But of course, humans are not perfect, and gradually the Church created doctrine to fit their own corrupt political and social desires. One of the major ones was the practice of indulgences, which began simply as a way to avoid temporal punishment through certain religious practices, and then gradually became a way for greedy clergymen to make money. They even went so far as to say that one could achieve salvation for themselves and their family members by giving more money to the Church (kind of like what American televangelists do in modern times) (Kirsch, 1911).
Martin Luther was not all that pleased with Catholic theology…to say the least. He had read the Bible for himself and interpreted it to be salvation by faith alone, and not by works. As a result of his many disagreements, he was excommunicated by the Pope and condemned as an outlaw.
And that’s when Martin Luther started the world’s first ever mass-media-driven revolution.
The timing was perfect. For many centuries, if you wanted to make a copy of a book, you wrote the entire thing out by hand. Throughout the Middle Ages, there were different presses that could transfer ink, but they took forever. Book production was extremely limited. But as literacy of the middle class began to rise, there became an increasing desire for books to be made and purchased. Unfortunately, there was no way to effectively do that until the printing press was developed in 1440.
Think about how amazingly this timing worked out for Luther. He was born in 1483; 43 years after the invention of the printing press. The first many years of the printing press being in use, it was very restricted, awkward, and expensive (kind of like computers in the 1960s), so very few people had access to them. Luther saw this untapped potential, and put it to work. He wrote several pamphlets outlining his arguments, mass printed them, and sent them out to the masses. His ideas were contagious, and the toppling of the dominance of the Catholic Church had begun an irreversible path towards a new era of free thought in scriptural understanding (Woodard, 2015). Over the next couple hundred years, the printing press was used to print the Bible in every language and distribute it to millions of people.
Reading a Revolution
I don’t mean to be too critical of the Catholic Church. It’s just that they happened to be a big deal during a time when people were horribly uneducated and did not understand much about how a society ought to operate. The current Catholic Church is right on par with modern thought, and has no desire to exert political power over people. Saying that the current Catholic Church is terrible because of what happened 500 years ago is like saying the current Prime minister of France is terrible because of Maximillian Robespierre. We need to understand that it is now a very different organization with different values, and judge it based on what it is, not what it was.
But the way we got to a better place in humanity is not because of religious thought. Many religious people will try to hijack art, science, philosophy, human rights, etc., by claiming them to be a result of their religion’s influence at the time. That is bullshit. The way humanity improved was through a shift in thinking that occurred when we stopped holding things in reverence, and began to question things based on objective reason.
Consider it like this: if a math teacher was teaching the students that 2+2=5, how would the students ever come to know it’s wrong? Well, you would have a student who gains an understanding of math, and then uses their own mind to think through it. Through objective rationality, they will come to believe that 2+2=4. But then imagine if every student who figures that out gets burned at the stake. Well, the students are probably going to just act in their own self-interest, and not question things anymore. But if there are a few bold students who are able to convince enough other students that 2+2=4, the teacher can’t kill all of them, and eventually might be forced to consider the merit of their case.
Galileo, Copernicus, and Luther were a few of these early students. By the 18th century, the concepts once assumed to be self-evident, like the divine right of kings, the superiority of white men, the infallibility of the Bible, and a variety of other things, began to be commonly questioned among people all across Western society. People were figuring out that 2+2 does not equal 5, and wanted to figure out the truth.
That’s where the great thinkers of the Enlightenment stepped in. People like Hume, Kant, Rousseau, Smith, Voltaire, etc. would ask big questions, and come up with big answers. And of course, because more people were able to read and access books, their ideas were able to spread. The answers, at least from a political perspective, finally came to fruition with what is possibly the greatest year in American history: 1776.
It was clear that the British monarchy was not a good government for America in the 18th century. They were being taxed unfairly for purposes of which they had no interest. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 resulted in representation in Parliament for British people, but the colonies of America had no such representation. The British government was quite literally just stealing money from the Americans. But the common American person was not willing to form their own country. They felt a loyalty to the King, and more so, how would one even go about forming a new nation if a revolution were to happen?
Well, fortunately, the thinkers of the Enlightenment had been asking, and writing about, that very question for the last 100 years. All they needed was for someone to collect their thoughts, put them together in a way that made sense with the current situation, and communicate that message to the people. That person was Thomas Paine.
His book “Common Sense” (1776) was the most widely distributed book of all time per the population. 125,000 or so copies were made, all filled with his arguments for forming a new nation state based on the principles of equality, freedom, and justice. It caught on like wildfire, and soon “The Declaration of Independence” was written and agreed upon by almost all Americans. After a few years of warfare, America came out victorious, and established a republican, liberal, democratic state; the first of it’s kind. These ideas started to catch on elsewhere.
After America had successfully formed their own country, they set their sights on reforming the Old World. This came, most notably, in the French Revolution in the 1790’s. You know, the one where everyone was eating cake, or something. It was during this time that Thomas Paine travelled to France, and wrote his seminal work, “The Rights of Man” (much of it while in prison, I might add). It was deemed “seditious libel” and a warrant was placed against him. The British monarchy, much like the Nazis and the Catholic Church, were scared of the new ideas being expressed in his writing.
Eventually, revolutions swept across Europe, and we have the liberal, democratic societies we know and love today. And what can we thank more for this advancement of thought than the ideas expressed in the written word? Each step along the way was begun, guided, and achieved through the writings of various thinkers that were able to connect with the hearts and minds of people to inspire them to live for, and think about, something more.
Now, you might be wondering, “But David, what about how the writings of Karl Marx influenced Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot, or how ‘Mein Kampf’ influenced the Nazi’s?”. That is a fair question, and is important to address. I’m not going to go into depth on it in this article, but I will just say that I really believe in free thought. I believe that when all individuals have access to free ideas of all types, the most reasonable, and thus the most favorable to humanity, tend to come out on top. The problem was not that “The Communist Manifesto” existed in Russia and Cambodia. It also existed in America. The problem was that those societies banned all other types of thought, and held Marxism as the absolute above all else, including reason. As long as reason is the greatest authority, free thought will always result in a natural tendency towards human flourishing.
As for “Mein Kampf”, that is an explicitly evil and dangerous book that defies basic facts about human rights and rejects all good sense of justice that any reasonable person might have. In America it is allowed to be read, but includes lots of commentary to make sure people understand it. I agree with that approach, as far as I currently understand.
Chapter 3: Reading For A Better World
You Are What You Read
At the Pentecostal church I was obliged to attend as a young child, anyone under the age of eight was apparently deemed too immature to attend the actual service, so we were demoted to the basement of the church, where we would sing songs and watch Veggie Tales. We were also, it would seem, incapable of learning new songs, and one song we would sing every day, which is forever imprinted in my memory, is, “Read Your Bible, Pray Every Day”. The lyrics go like this:
“Read your Bible.
Pray every day (repeat 3 times).
Read your Bible.
Pray every day.
And you’ll grow, grow, grow (repeat 3 times).
Read your Bible.
Pray every day.
And you’ll grow, grow, grow.
Don’t read your Bible.
Forget to pray (repeat 3 times).
Don’t read your Bible.
Forget to pray.
And you’ll shrink, shrink, shrink (repeat 3 times).
Don’t read your Bible.
Forget to pray.
And you’ll shrink, shrink, shrink.”
I’ve heard that discourse repeated throughout a large portion of my life. At churches, it’s “read the Bible”. At school it’s “read these textbooks”. In advertising it’s “read this product information”. My friends recommend books to me on a regular basis, “David, you have to read this book, it will convince you of my specific theology/political view/life philosophy.”
If you want someone to believe a certain thing, get them reading about it. If you tell them to believe a certain thing, they will likely reject it as some external idea that you have, but they don’t share it. Reading, however, becomes internalized upon consumption and reflection. The ideas begin in the pages, but quickly become your own. You put the book down, and yet the book is still with you.
That’s the importance of the “pray every day” part. They want you to internalize and reflect upon the things you read in the Bible. I remember once reading “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis, as a young atheist who didn’t like religion. The book was kind of forced upon me by some religious fanatics, and I had little interest in it. I casually perused the pages and it had little to no effect on me. Skip ahead to two years later, after I had just been a counselor at a Christian camp, and became inspired me to be more spiritual. I read “Mere Christianity” again and loved it. I didn’t just read the book. I didn’t just experience the book. I was the book. For the following year, I was a walking, talking, modern day version of that book. It gained me a lot of popularity among Christians, and I was frequently asked to lead Bible studies and teach classes at the church.
Of course, I would never be content to remain at that level of thought, so I didn’t. As I read more and more, I started to become more and more things. When talking about political theory, I become Thomas Paine. When talking about self-fulfillment and life philosophy, I become Bertrand Russell. When talking about sociology and culture, I become Malcolm Gladwell. The list goes on…
All I want you to consider is: who are you becoming?
Expanding Reader Empathy
Steven Pinker has made his way into celebrity status as a public intellectual through his well-thought out, optimistic, and wonderfully communicated views on the state of humanity. What he’s become especially popular for is his belief that society is getting better, and is actually currently the best it’s ever been. It’s become common for intellectuals to believe that we were better off without technology, and he takes on the arguments and provides the modern man with hope that perhaps the life we live is an achievement rather than a defeat.
His book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” makes a case for why violence has actually substantially decreased over time. Essentially, he believes that we began as barbaric, cruel creatures who murdered without remorse, and have been gradually civilized through the advancement of society (Pinker, 2011). In a TED Talk he gave in 2007, he discussed his case for why he believes humanity is getting better, and then offers four reasons for why he believes it to be the case.
The first is that we have vested power in the authority of the state, and essentially gotten rid of the need for preemptive, vigilante justice. The second is that since life has been made better through technology, we view it as more valuable. The third is that since we have more trade, we have recognized the benefits of co-operation. The fourth concept is the one I want to talk more about: “The Expanding Circle”.
The idea is from Peter Singer’s book, where he describes the various ways that we have empathy from an evolutionary perspective, and how we have since reasoned our way into gaining more empathy over time. Essentially, if we have more empathy for people outside of our immediate social group, we will be more altruistic and peaceful (Singer, 1981). Pinker goes on to give an explanation for how our empathy has been expanding in modern times:
“It may be powered by cosmopolitanism: by histories, journalism, memoirs, realistic fiction, travel, literacy, etc. which allows you to project yourself into the lives of other people that formerly you may have treated as sub-human, and also to realize the accidental contingency of your own station in life, in the sense that ‘there but for fortune go I’.” (Pinker, 2007).
As I mentioned previously, we become what we read. And that’s exactly what empathy is: mentally “becoming” another person. When we read “The Diary of Anne Frank” we develop a significantly greater empathy towards holocaust victims. When we read a “Sponsor Child” pamphlet that tells the story of an individual child with whom we can relate, it has the potential to pull at our heart strings and even our wallets.
You may ask, “But why do we have to read it? Why can’t we just watch a show or movie about it?”
Certainly, shows and films do have the potential to develop our empathy if the story is told well enough, with sufficient depth, and intentional self-reflection occurs. I never had significant empathy for gay people until I saw “Doing Time on Maple Drive”. I never had significant empathy for victims of war violence in Africa until I saw “Machine Gun Preacher”.
But there is something unique about books in capturing our hearts and minds that goes beyond what a movie can do. I believe it is a result of mental effort. Movies do too much of the work for you. They fulfill all of the sensory components, and keep moving on, whether you are mentally investing or not. If you tune out with a book, you stop reading. If you tune out with a movie, you keep watching and just miss stuff. And when there is something that really gets me thinking, I always put down the book for a minute, but I almost never do that with movies.
When we read good literature, we get a larger sense of ourselves and others, beyond just our small, immediate day to day life. We realize that there are 7 billion other people with thoughts, feelings, desires, and hopes just like ours. We get rid of the “us” and “them” polarization, and in our sense of unity, have no choice but to care about them. Literature that promotes the enlargement of our empathy is critical in creating a better, more peaceful world that truly takes the golden rule to its full extent.
Literacy is not a privilege, but a right. The promotion of literacy in developing countries should be of great importance in global aid efforts. It develops human capital for increased economic production, enables increased communication and thus co-operation, is valuable in self-fulfillment, and the thought contained in literature is one of the greatest gifts of mankind, and ought to be shared with everyone.
Enabling the free, mass production of literature was crucial to the development of society in getting us to where we are today. In every evil society throughout modern history, they share a restrictive, narrow minded, and hateful view towards freedom of the press. In every good society throughout modern history, they share a free, open, and favorable view to freedom of the press. History speaks volumes to the value of the written word to shape, inform, develop, and ultimately enlighten humanity.
In modern, Western society, we have the wonderful opportunity to read and believe as we see fit. But with that also comes a responsibility. We need to encourage people to care about life, and find meaning in good literature that supports the good values that humanity has come to know. In a world where more and more young people would rather take selfies and like pictures of their friend’s vacations than read real books, it is scary to consider that Bradbury’s statement may not be too far away, that,
“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
My hope is that young, intelligent people would fall in love with literature, and develop a lifelong passion that gives them great knowledge, great empathy, great freedom, and most of all, a great life.
Bradbury, R. (1953). Fahrenheit 451. Ballantine Books.
Bunker, L. (2002). List of Banned Books, 1932-1939. Retrieved from http://www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/burnedbooks/documents.htm
Hammer, K. (2017). Global rate of adult literacy. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/global-rate-of-adult-literacy-84-per-cent-but-775-million-people-still-cant-read/article4528932/
Hanemann, U. (2015). Transforming Our World: Literacy for Sustainable Development. UNESCO. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED564012
Kirsch, J.P. (1911). The Reformation. Catholic Encyclopedia, New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved May 8, 2018 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12700b.htm
Paine, T. (1776). Common Sense.
Pinker, S. (2007). The Surprising Decline in Violence. Ted Talk. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence
Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature.
Roser, M., Ortiz-Ospina, E. (2018). Literacy. Our World in Data. Retrieved from https://ourworldindata.org/literacy
Singer, P. (1981). The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology. Oxford University Press.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (1948). Article 26. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/
UNESCO. (2015). Adult literacy rate, population 15+ years (both sexes, female, male). UIS Data Center. Retrieved from http://data.uis.unesco.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=EDULIT_DS&popupcustomise=true&lang=en#
Woodard, C. (2015). The Power of Luther’s Printing Press. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-power-of-luthers-printing-press/2015/12/18/a74da424-743c-11e5-8d93-0af317ed58c9_story.html?utm_term=.be3e1b502fce