Moral of the Story

So, this weekend we spent a lot of time lighting fireworks with the neighbors. Among us was an 8th grader who loved reading. As she listed off a litany of her favorite books, I periodically asked "what was the moral of the story?" Being a good teacher who's always semi-on duty, I explained that there's a difference between knowing what happens in a story and what a story tells us, so to speak, about our lives, feelings, relations, etc.

Then today I was photo-copying a bunch of books before I leave for Florida. Came across this section of Aristotle's Metaphysics:

Experience does not seem to differ from art where something is to be done; in fact, we observe that men of experience succeed more than men who have the theory but have no experience. The cause of this is that experience is knowledge of individuals but art is universal knowledge, and all actions and productions deal with individuals. [...] Nevertheless, we regard understanding and comprehension as belonging to art more than to experience, and we believe that artists are wiser than men of experience, inasmuch as men of understanding know the cause but men of experience do not. For men of experience know the fact but not the why of it; but men of art know the why of it or the cause. [...] Thus, master-artists are considered wiser not in virtue of their ability to do something but in virtue of having the theory and knowing the causes. And in general, a sign of a man who understands is the ability to teach, and because of this we regard art more than experience to be science; for those who have the art can teach, but those who do not have it cannot teach.

I'm thinking of my encounter with the 8th grader and the passage above in terms of EnthyAlias's post this morning on education and my comments there. As a rhetorician, I should probably favor an education grounded in experience, and appreciate Aristotle's praise for individuals and action (though one can read A's preference for "art" here as echoing his preference for philosophy over rhetoric-- the appreciation for action becomes a necessity in a less-than-artsy world). But, I am concerned our educational institutions are overly concerned with quantifiable, accountable experience and less concerned with the why-ny art. To make a radical jump: NCLB focuses on the plot, not the moral. Discussion of morality is an interpretive endeavor. From a postmodern perspective, it is also a violent one. It presents us with more difference, and difference is difficult to negotiate. Against Aristotle, I would argue that "art" is rarely universal, and it is its particularity that sways contemporary education toward the simplicity of experience.

And yet, despite my suspicions of Aristotle, I still want to know the (universal) moral of the story. Another indication that we can never entirely escape our roots! But, perhaps, my desire isn't really to know the moral of the story as much as it is to invite another to share her experience in hopes that together, agonistically or perhaps even cooperatively, we can experience a glimpse of the why.


EnthyAlias said...

I would agree that art-as-theory is definitely not universal - even if it's ambition is to achieve the universal. (After all, we can't forget that Aristotle and his descendants were pursuing the big T.) Art-as-theory is very particular - more and more so.

But what of art-as-practice or, more accurately, praxis? Even though praxis may be particular to certain groups and occupations, there seems to be a greater circulation of such knowledge than of art-as-theory. Also, those experiential actors noted by Aristotle operate on praxis; they do not act purely on facts but on facts that form part of an overarching view (or story, if you will) in which their actions make sense - if only to them or others sharing their story.

If set in opposition to action/practice/praxis, art-as-theory risks becoming the violent purveyor of morality by claiming a answer to the "why" from outside of the praxis that made the "what" possible.

Not sure how that ties back to my post on education, other than we're still rooting around among the assumptions that sustain so much of what we do in academia - and how we are (un)related to the rest of society.

Can you feel my angst on the cusp of this career move? Oy!

EnthyAlias said...

P.S. How long before I make it into the Virtual Parlor list, especially now that you've actually cited me? :P

Casey said...

Interesting. I'd argue that reading can be "experiential" IF we do not read with an eye for "the moral of the story." Need we assume that every story has a moral in the way that you suggest?

Part of the problem, I've argued recently, with reading "for the moral" is that we rely on an already-existing catalog of "possible morals" under which we map the story as we interpret it. The violence would occur when we declare a moral from our moral catalog with regard to a story that does not in fact aim at producing such a moral.

So consider (let's say) Abraham almost sacrificing his own child. How do you interpret the moral of that story? Are you sure that you have the experience necessary to intrepret that story? That is -- have you ever received clear and unmistakable instructions from G-d to do something like that?

If not, should you assign a moral to that story? What if you just let the story "be?" -- sort of let it wash over you without categorizing it according to its moral import?

The best examples, I've found, are stories involving a certain degree of mystical psychology... the reason is that they challenge us, especially those of us who've not had mystical experiences, to simply listen. If I do not know from experience what it was like for Joan of Arc or for Teresa of Avila, then I should probably just let their stories be told without actively interpreting them or criticizing them...

Or so I've argued.