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Israel, June 2001

Patrick Colm Hogan
Morality, Literary Exempla, and the Arabic Aristotelians:
An Essay on Ethics and Narrative

Due to the severe moral condemnation of poets in the Qur'an, the Arabic Aristotelians faced the problem of ethics and literature in a particularly intensified form. I begin the essay with a discussion of the central principles of these writers, focusing in particular on the "poetic syllogism" and takhyil or representative imagination, but also touching on such topics as their dual genre theory. I believe these ideas have been somewhat misunderstood, in part because interpreters have failed to relate the statements of these theorists to their sources and references in the Qur'an and Hadith.

Having explicated these views, I go on to argue that, when expanded by reference to recent work in cognition, they present a good preliminary account of some ethical consequences of literature. To discuss this, I introduce the cognitive structures of prototype and exemplum. (I do not use the standard term, "exemplar," due to its ambiguity in the literature, an ambiguity relevant to my argument.) My first contention in this section is that we frequently rely on exemplum-based thought in ethical decisions. Indeed, we frequently rely on exemplum-based thought in any actions involving objects that we understand "dispositionally." (The most obvious cases of such dispositional objects are people, but also animals, and sometimes even machines.) This is particularly true for non-prototypical dispositional objects. I conclude that integrating the principles of exemplum-based thought with the ideas of the Arabic theorists yields a plausible, if partial account of the ethical consequences of literature.

However, this leaves aside one large part of the Arabic theory, and one large part of our ethical decisions--feeling. In the third section, I introduce and analyze what the Arabic theorists claim to be the two primary ethical emotions, rahmah or compassion/beneficence and taqwa or piety. Again, by turning to the Qur'an and to the sunnah or "path" of tradition, we are able to get a much better sense of precisely what these theorists had in mind. Once we do this, however, we discover something rather striking. They have in effect embedded their theory in an implicit narrative. Moreover, it is one of the two prototype narratives, heroic tragi-comedy -- part in the main story, part in what I have called the "epilogue of suffering." (I discuss the latter in the forthcoming SubStance issue on art and cognition.)

In a final section, I hypothesize that it is a cross-cultural tendency to integrate our ethical theorization and our concrete ethical decisions implicitly into the two prototype narrative structures (heroic and romantic tragi-comedy). Moreover, various standard ethico-political orientations can be understood as at least partially modeled on and thus partially derived from particular aspects of these structures. I conclude with a brief discussion of the murder of A. Diallo in these terms.

Patrick Colm Hogan
Professor of English and Comparative Literature
University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT 06269







Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles