Literature as Fable, and Fable as Argument
Lester H. Hunt
University of Wisconsin - Madison
1. In an ancient Chinese text we find the following exchange between the Confucian sage Mencius and one of his adversaries:
Kao Tzu said, “Human nature is like whirling water. Give it an outlet in the east and it will flow east; give an outlet in the west and it will flow west. Human nature does not show any preference for either good or bad, just as water does not show any preference for either east or west.”
“It certainly is the case," said Mencius, "that water does not show any preference for either east or west, but does it show the same indifference to high and low? Human nature is good just as water seeks low ground. There is no man who is not good; there is no water that does not flow downwards.”1
The subject of this colloquy is a familiar one in philosophy as we know it in the West. Its form and style are also vaguely familiar: it is a clashing exchange of theories, in which the speakers do not seem to be speaking merely to express themselves, but in order to persuade others that they are right. Yet at the same time it seems quite alien to us. It would be hard to find anything in it that a Western philosopher since the time of Plato would recognize as an argument. The participants seem to be speaking entirely in illustrative analogies and clever aphorisms, not in arguments at all. The style seems to be literary rather than philosophical. Yet what they are doing does look curiously like arguing. There is a rhythm of statement and counter-statement, in which each speaker seems to be answering the claims of the other.
A related, though different, sort of ambiguity, in which the author really does seem to be both arguing and not arguing, can be found in the following text, traditionally attributed to a Westerner of the sixth century B. C.:
Between the North Wind and the Sun, they say, a contest of this sort arose, to wit, which of the two would strip the goatskin from a farmer plodding on his way. The North Wind first began to blow as he does when he blows from Thrace, thinking by sheer force to rob the wearer of his cloak. And yet no more on that account did he, the man, relax his hold; instead he shivered, drew the borders of his garment tight about him every way, and rested with his back against a spur of rock. Then the Sun peeped forth, welcome at first, bringing the man relief from the cold, raw wind. Next, changing, he turned the heat on more, and suddenly the farmer felt too hot and of his own accord threw off the cloak, and so was stripped.
Thus was the North Wind beaten in the contest. And the story means: “Cultivate gentleness, my son; you will get results oftener by persuasion than by the use of force.”2
Here Aesop, to use the traditional name for the author of this ancient fable, is plainly doing something “literary”: he is telling a story. But narration in the Aesopian mode is never simply telling a story, and in this case what is present in addition to the story seems to have something logical about it. Personally, I read this fable with a certain sense, however faint, that I am being enlightened by it. That of course is Aesop's aim. He is not merely expressing his opinion, but in some way showing us the truth of it. This is the sort of thing that, in philosophy, is done through argument. However, as in the text from the Mencius, it seems there may be no argument here.
Clearly, we are dealing with forms of persuasion that are common at certain times in the development of a culture: namely, those periods when the philosophical muse is a mere suckling babe. We are looking, one might think, at a level of development so rudimentary that the distinction between argument as we think of it today and other forms of persuasion has not been made. At this level, the human mind is simply confused. In what follows, I will neither affirm nor deny the truth of this view. It may well be true, for all I shall have to say about it. What I do wish to do is to warn against a more extreme position which is an easy and natural one to slide into if one does accept this view. According to those who take this more extreme position, once the human mind has made the distinction between logical speech and the literary sort of speech we find in early sages like Aesop and Mencius, we should scrupulously avoid allowing the literary mode to do the work that is done by the logical one: we should remember that stories and other affecting descriptions of particulars are not arguments and should not be made to serve as such.
I will argue, on the contrary, that such a sharp division of functions cannot be maintained. More specifically, a certain crucial element in the literary sort of speech we have seen Aesop and Mencius using often does function as genuine argument. This is difficult to see until one understands what particular sort of argument is involved. Once we do, we can see that, though this sort of speech is not characteristic of philosophy as we know it, that may be because it represents a form of argument that does not seem to be well suited to serve certain purposes that philosophers characteristically pursue, and not because it is fails to be an argument. Accordingly, it represents one way in which literature can be a source of enlightenment, even if the sort of enlightenment involved is somewhat different from the sort that philosophy usually seeks.
2. The striking aspect of the speech of these ancient sages is its concreteness and even, in one or two instances, a certain quality one might call sensual. They focus on concrete objects and events. They speak of ideas in terms of examples rather than abstract principles. More specifically, in each case I have quoted, they speak in terms of a specific sort of concrete example: in each one, the speaker is presenting his audience with an analogy, and in each case the analogy functions as an argument. I have already mentioned that Mencius is arguing by analogy. That Aesop is doing so as well may be less obvious. To see that he is, we need to first achieve some insight into what analogies are.
It will perhaps be best to begin with a much more straightforward example of an analogy, and of one that is clearly meant as an argument. Here is a familiar one from Henry David Thoreau's essay, “Civil Disobedience”:
The mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, &c. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones, and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw, or a lump of dirt.3
Thoreau, we might say, is “drawing an analogy” between humanoid machines (today we can say robots) and human beings who serve the state with uncritical obedience. He is saying: just as machines which otherwise resemble human beings would not deserve our respect, so human beings that serve the state with uncritical obedience do not deserve our respect.
This at once brings out the feature of analogical argument that is most distinctive and at the same time most troublesome. Induction moves from less general statements (call them cases) to more general ones (call them principles), and deduction often goes in the other direction, from principle to case. But analogy seems to reason neither upwards, like induction, nor downwards, like deduction, but sideways. It seems to reason from case to case.
Why this is troublesome can be seen by looking at a typical attempt at understanding analogical arguments by representing their peculiar logical form. Susan Stebbing says that the logical form us such arguments is always expressible by the following schema:4
X has the properties p1, p2, p3, ... and f;
Y has the properties p1, p2, p3, ...
Therefore, Y also has the property f.
I do not wish to deny that this does state the logical form of arguments of this sort: on some definitions of “logical form,” it may very well be the case that it does. I do want to point out, however, that this schema does not indicate why the two premises constitute any reason for believing the conclusion. It gives us no reason to think that it is the logical form of an argument.
In case this is not entirely obvious, consider a simple case of a Stebbing-style analogy. Let X and Y be two human beings, and let p1 be the property “being male,” p2 the property “having a mother named Carmella,” p3 the property “having been born before the election of President Truman,” and f the property “having written a dissertation on moral psychology.” In that case, the two premises are no evidence at all (not even poor evidence) that the conclusion is true. They would all, premises and conclusion, be true of me, but the fact that someone else shares the first three characteristics with me is no reason to think that they too once wrote a dissertation in moral psychology. At this point, the most natural thing to say is “Of course not! It makes all the difference what the properties p1-pn and f are.” That, as a matter of fact, is my point, or very close to it. For it implies that no collection of properties shared by two objects can, simply as such, constitute evidence that some other property of one object, picked out at random, is also shared. Something more must be involved than the two objects and their shared properties.
There would be something more involved if, contrary to what I suggested when I first described analogical arguments, there really is a principle at work somewhere in the argument. A closer look at the argument from Thoreau suggests that such is indeed the case.
Although he does not state it explicitly, Thoreau does take some pains to show us that there is a principle behind the analogy he draws. He comments that in the most common ways of serving the state there is “no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense.” This is given as the reason why such conduct does not deserve our respect. Clearly, there is a principle at work here, which would be something equivalent to: “Human conduct cannot serve as grounds for respect unless it involves in some way or other the free exercise of judgment or of the moral sense.”
Though not stated, this principle does play a role in the argument. The role that it plays, moreover, is not that of unjustified assumption. He describes what he takes to be the extreme opposite of respect-worthy human conduct – “earth,” “stones,” “wooden men” – in order to make this principle vividly plausible. The idea seems to be that, obviously, “men” made of such materials would not deserve our respect. If we search for an explanation for this obvious fact, we will find that all the sensible ones rest at least in part on the free exercise of judgment and moral sense.
What this means is that, while the unstated principle supports what he says in the second case, the principle is supported by what he says in the first. But the sort of support involved in the two instances is quite different. The relation between the principle and the second case is deductive. If the free use of these powers constitutes the only grounds for respect, then it necessarily follows that uncritical obedience – which by definition involves their suspension – provides no grounds for respect. On the other hand, the principle is supported by the first case as the conclusion of what Peirce called a “retroductive” or “abductive” inference. It is supported because and to the extent that it is a good explanation of the truth of the first case.
This, I suggest, is the actual logical structure of analogical arguments. The somewhat baffling appearance they have, of arguing from one description of a more or less concrete collection of putative facts, as a sort of premise, to another such description, as a conclusion, conceals an organization that is a good deal more complex. The first case supports a relatively general putative truth, the principle, by retroduction. The principle in turn supports what is said in second case by deduction. More exactly, the second case is divided into two parts: there is (are) certain claim(s) the author is presently taking for granted (in the present instance, Thoreau’s unstated assumption that people who obey the state’s request to fight in military adventures like the U. S. conquest of Mexico are not exercising judgment or moral sense), and there is also a claim that functions as a conclusion (in this case, that such people are not worthy of respect). The princple entails this conclusion when combined with the claims that are taken for granted, so that they play the role of minor premise.
We can now see why, if an argument by analogy is to have logical force, “it makes all the difference what the properties pn and f are.” The p1-pn in the first case must be such as will support a principle which can in turn support the second case. If the principle does support the second case in the requisite way, then these properties will also appear in the first case, but the brute fact of resemblance between the cases – the mere sharing of properties p1-pn, however many there are – is by itself insignificant.5 It is the principle that gives p1-pn all their evidentiary force.
Once we see the actual logical structure of analogical arguments, we can see that they are indeed respectable arguments. Thoreau's argument seems, in particular, a reasonably good one. Both parts of it seem sufficiently cogent to merit a thoughtful response from the people at whom it is aimed. At the same time, we can also see why analogical arguments impress us generally as logically “soft” ones, as arguments that yield probability and not certainty. While it is true that the second part of the argument, on my account, is deductive, and such arguments are at times paradigms of reasoning that demonstrates its conclusion, the first part is retroductive, and arguments of that sort, even good ones, often yield something that falls short of certainty.
Admittedly, this is to some extent a deficiency of analogical arguments, but it is not as serious a shortcoming as one might think. Such arguments can be very strong ones, including the first, softer part. I think it is very unlikely, for instance, that the people at whom Thoreau's argument was aimed would attack it by trying to demolish the first part. That is, they probably would not deny that robot-like mechanisms fail to deserve the respect we give to people who are conducting themselves well, nor would they deny that a good enough explanation for this can be found in the fact that such mechanisms do not use judgment or moral sense. They would be much more likely to attack the deductive part of the argument, by denying the truth of its unstated minor premise. That is, they would most likely deny the unstated assumptions about their own conduct in virtue of which the principle is thought to apply to them. They might claim, for instance, that their obedience and refusal to criticize constitute a moral choice and rest on ideals that are lofty and authentically their own. This is probably their most promising avenue of escape. The retroductive part of it is probably not the part most likely to suffer a breach.
3. By now it is perhaps obvious how, given what I have said so far, a fable can constitute an argument. The fables I have discussed here are incompletely stated analogical arguments. The body of the fable is the first case. The “moral” is often a partial statement, and sometimes a complete one, of the principle.
There is however, one sharp difference between fables and straightforward instances of analogical arguments. It is that, in fables, there seems in general to be only one case given. This, admittedly, constitutes a problem for the claim I am making here, since it makes all fables look quite unlike analogies. Whether they are illustrative or argumentative, analogies always involve a comparison between two different cases.
Actually, it is not true that in fables a second case is never given. Abraham Lincoln was once warned by a political ally of his that his Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, was planning to replace him as the Republican presidential nominee in 1864, with the implication that Lincoln should fire Chase before he became dangerous.
In response, Lincoln asked his political friend, “Do you know what a ‘chinfly’ is?” When his friend shook his head, Lincoln explained that it was a big stinging horsefly.
“A neighbor of mine," related Lincoln, "had this lazy plow horse. One day a visiting farmer saw a chinfly alight on this sleepy horse and shooed it away.
“Why did you do that?” said the farmer, ‘That chinfly is what gets that horse moving.’
“Well,” continued Lincoln, “if Chase has a presidential ‘chinfly” biting him, I'm not going to knock it off. It will only make his department go."6
Here, both cases are stated in a way that makes it clear that this little fable that Lincoln has told is meant as an analogy. Indeed, it is reasonably clear that this is an analogical argument, meant to counter the suggestion made by Lincoln's friend. Once again, the principle is left unstated. It would be a shame to try to state it fully, since the connections we make between the two cases are more subtle than any that could be reduced to the pat form of an Aesopian moral. The principle would seem, however, to be something to the effect that things that would otherwise be evil will be good if their most important effect is to provide a motive for useful action. This notion does seem to get some support from the fable of the lazy horse. It also, at least if we share Lincoln's evident assumption that Chase's secret ambition is far more likely to result in heightened activity than in a presidential nomination, supports his characterization of Chase as fundamentally benign: which, of course, constitutes the conclusion in the second case.
This use of fable, in which the narrative is put forth as an explicit analogical argument, is far from unusual. In the most complete surviving Life of Aesop from the ancient world, most of the fables that are put into Aesop's mouth are of precisely this sort.7 In each of these cases, Aesop is in the midst of some practical situation in which some people disagree about what is to be done. There is an issue at stake, such as whether the Samians should accede to King Croesus' demands for tribute, whether Croesus should execute Aesop, whether the Delians should execute him, and so forth. The conclusion in the second case, explicitly indicated by the speaker, is the position he is taking on the issue at hand.
The same seems to be true of all the fables reportedly used by Lincoln. Lincoln was well known to be a habitual teller of recognizably Aesopian fables, but he apparently never told them simply as entertainment, nor to provide gratuitous edification. He was trying to convince others to accept his solutions to practical issues, including the greatest and gravest issues of the time:
The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep's throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures....8
Despite these oral examples, one might understandably resist drawing any conclusions about the nature of these same fables as literature. One might object that, while it is natural enough that this is how such stories will be used among adults when speaking to one another, it may not indicate their function or meaning when they are written down.
I think it is relevant to note, here, that the first known written collection of Aesopian fables was apparently not intended to be taken as literature, in any familiar sense, at all. It was evidently meant as a reference work (with entries arranged alphabetically by the first word in the story) for writers and public speakers. Its function was similar to that of Roget's Thesaurus or the once-familiar books of “podium humor.”9
It seems likely that the "moral," which seems to us now so definitively Aesopian, was introduced as advice to the writer or speaker as to how the fable might be used.10 The very wording of some of the morals makes this more or less obvious, as, for instance: “One might use this fable of an insignificant man who is of no harm or help whether present or absent.” “This fable would apply to men who fall into greater perils in trying to extricate themselves from minor dangers.” “This fable is appropriate for [meaning, apparently, appropriate for showing the badness of] a greedy man.”11 When authors like Babrius and Phaedrus came along and versified Aesop, they included the morals – the ones that were not obviously mere advice to the user – into their verses, as if they were, not mere apparatus, but actually part of the story. This may have meant that they misunderstood the old fables to some extent, but it was a genuine contribution to literary history. It made the fables superbly suited for a use that was far from the intentions of their original authors: as children's literature.
Of course, these historical speculations do not by themselves show what the present function of the literary fable, the fable as written, ever is. However, they do vividly suggest a clue to the nature of fable which is worth pursuing. Consider again one of the fables with which I began this chapter, “The North Wind and the Sun.” Here the first case, obviously, is the narrative portion of the fable, in which both characters try to get the man's cloak off. It includes the North Wind’s failed attempt to blow the garment off with brute force and the Sun's success, by getting the man to take it off himself. Before saying what the second case might be, I would like to comment briefly on what the intermediary principle is.
Faced with the two very different methods used by the Sun and the North Wind, and our strong impression that the two different results are indeed the sort that these methods would produce, it is very natural to seek an explanation for those results. The explanation would more or less have to be based on the differences between the methods since, except for the results themselves, they are virtually the only information contained in the narrative. Even before the moral rears its patronizing head, the average reader has probably moved in the direction of an explanation: it obviously has something to do with the fact that the North Wind's methods cause the man to cling all the more tightly to the cloak, turning the man's desires and efforts into an increasingly powerful obstacle, while the Sun's methods have the opposite characteristic. Such thoughts would seem to lead us to a principle that in some way or other asserts the general superiority of giving people an incentive to do something themselves over using some sort of physical force to make the action happen.
However, the portion of the stated moral that seems most concerned with explaining the results involved is more narrow than this: “you will get results oftener by persuasion than by the use of force.” The actual principle as I have adumbrated it, vague though it is, is clearly broader than a statement of the efficacy of persuasion. It would seem to apply just as well to trickery. It applies strikingly well to the most famous trick of all, in which, after the Greeks tried for ten years to breach the wall of Troy using the North Wind's methods, Odysseus gets the Trojans to open it themselves. The principle supported by the narrative is considerably more sweeping than what is asserted in the explicit moral.
Nonetheless, it seems inevitable that the moral would lean toward greater particularity in something like this way. The actual principle is considerably too broad to be readily applied in practice by most individuals. As to the scope of the rule, it is after all the individual reader who must apply it. For application in practice is what constitutes the interest and value of this fable. One can imagine an author starting with an incident much like this one and writing a story that has, not merely practical interest, but substantial theoretical interest as well. The author could explore the actual psychological mechanisms by which the principle works as it does and, perhaps by drawing a number of additional characters, show whether there are actually a number of quite different sorts of causes at work here, or whether the mechanism is actually a simple one. This fable, however, does not involve details of this sort; and cannot, without entering into a completely different literary genre.
What I have just said about this particular fable can be applied, with minor changes that do not affect the main point, of the entire genre of Aesopian fables. Because of the limitations of this genre – that is, that it must be a short, simple narrative making a clear and memorable point that can reach a wide audience – its interest tends to be overwhelmingly practical. It is very difficult for such a tale to have a point with much theoretical interest, but it can express rough practical maxims suitable for application to many of the problems of life. Of course, such a tale has not yet achieved its point, its value is merely potential, unless it is actually applied to action. However, the author of a book cannot say to what particular problems the tale will apply as you read it. You, the reader, must find this for myself.
What this means is that the literary fable is in a certain way dependent on the sort of fable employed by the legendary Aesop and the historical Lincoln. In the oral instances of the fable that I have described, the fable is a more or less explicit analogical argument, with both cases explicitly stated. In the literary form, the second case is omitted, but it is nonetheless necessary. If a given literary fable becomes an analogical argument when it is applied in living human thought or speech, then the status it has when written on a page is that of an incomplete analogical argument. It has not done what it can do until it is completed by its readers as they use the fable to guide their own conduct or persuade others.
4. The claim I have made so far about fables amounts to this: fables can function as analogical arguments. Beyond that, the examples I have given also suggest that it is not unusual, indeed it is rather typical, that fables function this way. I am not, however, saying that all fables work this way. What I would like to suggest, though I will not argue for it at length, is that all fables are analogies of some sort or other – with the proviso that not all analogies are arguments. Some analogies are, as I have said, illustrative. When Thoreau says “I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up,” he is drawing an analogy between what he is doing as the author of Walden and what a rooster is doing when it crows at the beginning of a new day. His point is to make an assertion about himself, but he is not trying to provide evidence for this assertion. Similar things can be said about the familiar Aesopian fable “The Fox and the Grapes.” This fable, which ends with the hungry fox muttering “those grapes were sour anyway,” does not provide evidence for anything, but the self-serving irrationality of the fox is part of a non-argumentative analogy which the reader can draw with human responses to frustration.
Having said this, I could now restate my reply to the objection I considered in section 3, regarding whether my comments on fable only concern a use, perhaps one among others, to which it is sometimes put today, in the following way. The fable most likely originated in practical discourse and, in that setting, served as a more or less overt analogy that was practical in nature, in the sense that it served mainly to influence human action. The literary fable is inevitably different from oral fable in important ways but, because of the constraints of the genre, it is mainly of practical interest, and has this practical interest as part of an analogical line of reasoning.
Of course, this is simply an observation about one literary genre: the fable. As it is usually understood, this is a rather peculiar genre, seemingly remote from the interests of sophisticated adult readers. Do my comments in the preceding section apply to adult literature?
I will put my answer to this question in terms of a distinction. A fable is any narrative that (and to the extent that it) serves as the first case in an analogy which is such that the reader has only gotten the point of the narrative when they have, in one way or another, completed the analogy. In contrast, an Aesopian fable is a brief, pithy fable which makes a relatively simple, primarily practical point about the conduct of human affairs. With this distinction in hand, we are able to see that fables or, perhaps more accurately, narratives with pronounced fabulist elements, are both widespread and important in the literature that sophisticated adults read. No doubt, skeptical readers will need something in the way of empirical confirmation for this sweeping claim. I hope a brief discussion of a single clear example will help. It will also help us to see some of the interesting differences between fabulist writing for adults and its primitive Aesopian ancestors.
Arthur Miller's play The Crucible is a clear instance of a fable in my sense of the word. It in fact comes perilously close to satisfying the conventional notion of a fable, in that it has a pointed epilogue (titled “Echoes Down the Corridor”)which gives the impression of an explicit moral tacked on at its conclusion, a touch that must remind some readers of reading Aesop as a child. The play has another point of contact with Aesop in its pronounced concern with a practical issue: as is well known, Miller wrote his play about witch-hunting in old Salem because he was concerned about and, indeed, personally affected by, the anti-Communist “witch-hunts” that were current at the time that the play was first produced (1953).
A cursory look at The Crucible shows that, as with the fable of the sun and the north wind, its actual meaning is considerably broader than the overtly stated one. As the play begins, some girls from the village have been seen dancing in the forest by an ultra-orthodox, politically embattled Minister, Reverend Parris. They were not simply dancing, however. With them is the slave girl, Tituba, who is using the voodoo practices she has brought with her from Barbados. We later learn that one of the girls, Abigail Williams, drank frog’s blood in order to magically bring about the death of Elizabeth Proctor, the wife of a former lover, John Proctor, with whom she is erotically obsessed. In terms of our beliefs and values, what most of the girls are doing there is innocent enough. In terms their beliefs, however, such practices constitute witchcraft, a capital offence. After being caught, two of the girls, including Parris’s ten-year-old daughter, fall into a bizarre sort of stupor. Their trances are probably feigned, but it is several days before they seem to wake from them. The Reverend John Hale, a reputed expert on witchcraft brought in for the purpose, interrogates Tituba. She is told that she could be hung for witchcraft, but Hale assures her she will be spared if she confesses. She quickly does so, and upon being asked to name other witches, gives them several names. The girls take advantage of the same course of action, claiming to be the pitiable victims of the schemes of various witches they name, and within hours many women are being rounded up.
A panel of distinguished judges is convened and the trials grind on for days. The Proctors hear that someone, no doubt Abigail, has been accusing Elizabeth Proctor of practicing the arts of Satan. John Proctor knows Abigail's real motive, but also knows that it would be very difficult to expose without revealing his own adulterous affair with her, thus publicly disgracing both himself and the wife he wants to save. Abigail eventually finds an accusation the judges find plausible, and Elizabeth is arrested, as are several other respectable women.
John's efforts to save his wife focus on their servant, Mary Warren, who has joined in the accusations. She admits to him that the accusations, as well as their various symptoms of being under enchantment, are “pretense” aimed to cover up the scene in the forest. In court, though, she begins to falter as it appears the judges do not believe her, and as the girls close ranks and accuse her of witchcraft. Realizing that it is his only recourse left, John reveals his illicit relationship with Abigail. But when Elizabeth is questioned separately, she denies it, thinking that she is protecting her husband. To save herself, Mary Warren turns on John and accuses him of working for the Devil. John is arrested.
Miller skillfully invests this course of events with a sense of near-inevitable calamity. It becomes clear, even before the denouement, that Proctor's position is an all but impossible one. Partly, Miller achieves this impression by indicating, through the motives of his characters, the power and sheer number of reasons one can have for participating in witch-hunting hysteria. As we watch these extraordinary events unfold, the narrative is set up to make several explanations for their general tendency very plausible and gripping. One woman has lost seven of her eight children in early infancy, and will feel better about it if there is someone she can blame. Her husband would be glad to acquire land by taking advantage of the fact that the families of executed witches lose their rights to their convicted relative's property. Most importantly, the girls find that making accusations enables them to deflect onto others whatever guilt might belong to them. It also gives them enormous amounts of something that these girls have never had before: social status and power. Overnight, Abigail's reputation has transmuted from that of a sexually loose girl to something of a saint.
These powerful sources of motivation on the part Proctor's adversaries, however, are only part of the available explanation for the terrible difficulty of his position. A more important part can be found in certain other obstacles Miller builds in the way of anyone who would try to resist the hysteria, ones which tend to impair the motivation of the resisters themselves. As one of the witch-hunters points out, witchcraft is a particular sort of offense, one that is invisible except to two people: the witch and the victim. This simple fact is a good part of the reason why the usual relation between accuser and accused, in which the accused ordinarily has a strong advantage in the absence of corroborating evidence, is virtually reversed in cases of alleged witchcraft. For here the accuser always enjoys the prestige that attaches to the apparent victim: the appearance of the pitiable, of the worthy-of-protection. In the context of a moral code in which pity is a cardinal virtue (as it is in traditional Christianity or modern egalitarian liberalism), this can be an intimidatingly powerful advantage. The accusation is also convincing evidence that one's own values are the right ones, that one stands against this invisible crime and in favor of that which is good. This is important because a good part of this invisible crime simply is having the wrong values: it consists in accepting a repulsively inverted morality. Indeed, it is partly for this reason that the crime is invisible. It must hide itself.
These are reasons why the position of the accuser is intimidatingly strong. In addition, there are factors that indicate that the position of the accused is worrisomely weak. As Miller points out in a comment interpolated into text, the crime alleged in the accusation is literally one of diabolical evil.12 It is an act that seems to have no sort of positive value at all, and to admit of no possibility of justification or even of excuse. The accusation, in itself, is so horrible that its merely being made seems to soil the accused person. To some extent, the odor of guilt clings to the accused, no matter what they do.
Almost the only strong protection against the accusation is to dodge the position of the accused. One way is to confess and appear to repent. This gives public evidence of the fact that, though one was wrong before, now one is on the side of the right values, the non-inverted ones. But a much more gripping sort of evidence, and just as easy to produce, is to switch to the opposite pole of the relation between accuser and accused. Then all the advantages of the position of accuser accrue to oneself. This explains why the girls first make their accusations, and of course it helps explain why their strategy is so successful.
It also explains why Proctor's position is more or less insupportable. This is brought home to the audience, with terrific emphasis, by the play's final scene. Persuaded by a well-meaning minister, Proctor agrees to save his life by confessing. But the judges insist that he sign a written confession, giving as their reason that his signature “will strike the village” and quiet the growing discontent with the trials.13 He refuses to let them have his signature, no doubt for the same reason that they want it. They also insist that he bear witness against condemned witches who have refused to confess, arguing that they will hang anyway and that doing so will prove his soul's “whiteness.”14 He refuses, giving as his reason that he would be robbing them of what is left of their good names. There is another reason which, in view of the situation in which Proctor is caught, must strike the audience as at least as obvious: that giving spurious evidence against others will have the same effect as a signed confession, the effect of strengthening the trials which have already killed a dozen innocent people, and which he has tried to stop. Realizing that there is no way to save himself without doing something he believes to be wrong, he retracts his confession and is hanged.
Clearly, the temptation to acquiesce in the system that Proctor is resisting, either actively or by doing nothing, is almost overwhelming. Such a system is almost impossible to resist effectively without taking measures that are literally heroic, as he eventually does. What is most interesting for my purposes, however, is the fact that Miller's narrative is a surprisingly persuasive argument to the effect that the same thing will be true of anyone who is in a situation that has certain highly general characteristics: (a) there is some reason to think that people are committing a certain offense, (b) this offense is regarded as so completely evil that people have trouble thinking clearly about it, and (c) the offense is invisible except to the perpetrator and (if anyone else) the victim. Characteristics (a) and (b) will be present in high degree, and consequently the argument will apply more strongly, to situations in which the offense consists largely, or crucially, of thoughts or desires that are regarded as repulsively twisted. Further, the dangerous consequences of characteristic (c) will be greater, and once again the argument will apply more strongly, to situations in which the only evidence, or the closest thing to evidence, is the testimony of people who can present themselves as victims of the offense.
This suggests an answer to the question, which has perplexed some people, whether Miller's play is about the Salem witch-hunts or whether it is really about the “witch-hunts” of the late ‘forties and early ‘fifties. The answer is to be found in the fact that The Crucible is a fable in my sense of the word. The first case, the one that is stated, is about the events at Salem. If it were an oral fable, and it were somehow possible for Arthur Miller to utter his narrative in the manner of Lincoln or Aesop instead of writing it as a play, the case to which he would have applied it would no doubt have been drawn from what he regarded as instances of anti-Communist group hysteria. But of course it is a literary fable and not an oral one. The work does not include a second case. As such, insofar as it is not simply about the events in the case that it stated, its subject-matter is perfectly general. It is no more about the early fifties than it is about the many other concrete cases to which it applies. At various times and places, it can at least as well be applied to hysterical searches for interracial rapists, child abusers, atheists, sexual harassers, heretics, racists, and – the modern equivalent of the witchcraft menace – “satanic cult” practices.
It is a mark of the universality of Miller's narrative that it actually applies more closely to some of these other sorts of cases than it does to the ones to which he would have applied it. The case of the Rosenbergs, which he might well have had in mind, resembles the case of the Salem witches in that, like them, they could have avoided execution by confessing, but the offence of Communist espionage does not have individual victims who can step forward and inspire our pity, while most of the other offenses I just listed do. One of the important factors, then, that drives the collective hysteria in his narrative is missing in the anti-Communist cases, but present in many others.15 This could be seen as a fault in The Crucible if we see it as a play about “McCarthyism” while, if we see it as universal, it does not count against it at all. This fact could explain the impression, which at least one observer has had, that The Crucible is actually better today than it was when it was first performed.16
5. I hope that my brief discussion of The Crucible had rendered plausible my claim that literature that has a strong fabulist element can be something that sophisticated adult readers can find worthwhile. Nonetheless, I am sure there will be a very powerful urge in some readers to resist taking this aspect of literature seriously at all. And of course if it doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously, then I haven’t yet said anything very interesting about literature here. Clearly, I need to say more in response to objections to fables that many readers would be eager to press.
First, some people would object that fables involve condescendingly explicit moralizing. This is an objection because, it is supposed, the sort of writing that deserves to be taken seriously communicates ideas indirectly and tends to avoid explicit statement. In effect, I have already replied to this objection: I have argued, both historically and conceptually, that explicitly stating the point of a story is not necessary to a story's being a fable. A temptation to tedious explicitness may be one of the potential pitfalls of this sort of writing, but it is not its essence.
Another objection, related to this one but somewhat more convincing, asserts that fables are not to be taken seriously because they have only a single meaning. Whether the author states the point of the story explicitly or not, the mere fact that there is such a thing as the point is damning in itself. The sort of literature that we should take seriously has more, perhaps far more, than one meaning. It has different meanings for – or, at least, available to the awareness of – different people and different periods of history. Surely the meaning we find in the Quixote in a time of disillusioned idealism and radical questioning is very different from that seen by Cervantes' contemporaries, or indeed by Cervantes himself. And just as surely, any work for which this cannot happen, any work that has only one meaning, is something incomparably inferior.
The idea that lies behind this objection is that complexity of meaning, the sort of meaning that is incompatible with being summarized in a single proposition, is a mark of literary value. So stated, it is certainly a plausible idea. Like the first objection, this one fails, not because the standard of value it employs is implausible, but because it falsely claims that fables (in my sense of the word) necessarily violate it. My definition of fable indicates the way in which it has meaning, that it serves as the first case in an analogy, but does not in any way indicate whether this meaning is simple or complex. It seems obvious enough, given this, that fables that are relatively large and treat of complex subjects will often have meanings that are complex as well. However, I wish to go beyond this and suggest that the same sort of thing is true even of the very simplest sort of fabulist literature, of the Aesopian fable itself: that even these modest little narratives need not, and perhaps never do have single-proposition meaning.
Perhaps the easiest way to make this idea plausible is to begin with an example. Soon after he occupied the Presidency, an advisor told Abraham Lincoln that, in the interests of peace, he would do well to cede to the South Fort Sumter, Fort Pickens, and other federal possessions now within the boundaries of the confederacy. Lincoln replied with an ancient Aesopian fable known as “The Lion in Love”:
“A Lion was very much in love with a woodman's daughter. The fair maid referred him to her father. The lion applied for the girl. The father replied, ‘Your teeth are too long.’ The lion went to a dentist and had them extracted. Returning, he asked for his bride. ‘No,’ said the woodman, ‘your claws are too long.’ Going back to the dentist, he had them drawn. Then he returned to claim his bride, and the woodsman, seeing that he was unarmed, beat out his brains.”
Lincoln concluded, “May it not be so with me, if I give up all that is asked.”17
Lincoln's moral (which, as is his custom, he leaves unstated) seems to be something like “Never make a gift of weapons to your enemy,” or perhaps “Negotiate from strength, not weakness.” He uses the fable to warn against relying entirely on trust in situations in which that course of action can be fatal. The moral stated in an early prose version of the story is quite different: “The fable shows that when men who are overtrustful of their associates surrender their advantages, they are easy victims for those who used to stand in awe of them.”18 Here the counsel of distrust seems almost paranoid in its breadth. One should not trust anyone over whom one has “advantages” which inspire fear in them. The stated moral in Babrius' verse rendering differs even more: “A man injures himself without knowing it, when he strives to partake of something [apparently meaning the woman, who is not of the lion's species] that nature has denied him.”19
The account of fables I have given here is perfectly compatible with such a multiplicity of possible morals. More than that, it readily suggests an explanation for this multiplicity. These three morals correspond to three different explanations of the lion's downfall: he was ruined because he went disarmed in the presence of his traditional enemies, because he trusted people who used to be afraid of him, and because he associated with individuals who were not of his sort. Each moral indicates a different account of what the principle is and how it will apply to cases in which people must decide what to do. Events in human affairs, even very schematically described events, always have more than one possible explanation. Not only will opinions vary, but such events really are overdetermined, so that there will be more than one true explanation. Further, which explanation we pick out as “the” explanation will depend on what our purposes are and what issues we face, so that the actual identity of this privileged explanation will change from person to person and time to time.
Of course, authors do sometimes explicitly state a moral, and do so in such a way that they thereby narrow down to one thing what they mean by a story they have told. Yet even that is not quite the end of the matter. The story might legitimately have another meaning for others. My definition of fable says that what makes the tale a fable is the fact that it is the first case in an analogy, but it did not say that both cases are in the exclusive control of the author. According to this conception of fable, the fabulous is a certain function that stories fulfill: a story is a fable insofar as it functions as such. Since stories, even the simplest ones, must contain a number of physical details, they are apt by nature to be used to various different ends and to have (at least in succession, over time) a number of different meanings, as we have seen in the case of “The Lion in Love.”
Another objection to fables that will surely alienate some people has to do with the distinct sense they will have that, at least if we assume my analogical account of fable, the fabulist element of literature has something distinctly unliterary about it. Fable is, after all, on this account, a sort of argument and as such is a matter of logic, of soundness and unsoundness, validity and invalidity, of refutations, counterexamples, and everything else that logic brings with it. For reasons that seem too numerous to mention, many people will feel that if we look into this alleged aspect of literature, we will be looking away from what is literary in literature. The fundamental idea here is that, though logic is fine in its place, it is very different from literature: it represents a very different, in some ways opposite, sort of value.
I do not wish to deny that there is at least some truth in this idea. I will merely point out that the account of analogical reasoning I have sketched out here indicates that it is much closer to literary thinking than this idea suggests. On my account, reasoning by analogy does not consist in simply identifying similarities between two cases, and criticizing an analogy does not amount merely to accumulating dissimilarities. Analogical reasoning is not a merely mechanical activity, one that we can easily imagine being done by a machine. Such reasoning, whether we are creating an analogy or criticizing one, involves exploratory sorts of thinking in which new explanations are sought and found. Such thinking rests on a quality that is ordinarily identified with the poet and the author of fiction: namely, creative imagination. In bringing logic and literature closer together, I have made literature look more like logic, and this some people will find horrifying. But I have also, by implication, made logic look more like literature. Perhaps this will mitigate that horror.
1. Mencius, trans. by D. C. Lau (London: Penguin Books, 1970), VI.A.2.
2. Babrius and Phaedrus, ed. and trans. by Ben Edwin Perry (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press (Loeb Library, 1965), p. 29. I have altered the translation somewhat.
3. "Civil Disobedience," in Walden and Civil Disobedience, ed. Owen Thomas (New York: Norton, 1966), p. 226.
4. L. Susan Stebbing, Thinking to Some Purpose (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1939), p. 113.
5. I think I am disagreeing here with the position taken by Stebbing: “The force of the argument depends upon the resemblance between X and Y with regard to the p’s.” Thinking to Some Purpose, p. 113. This seems to be as much as to say that the p’s constitute evidence on their own.
6. James C. Humes, The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 160.
7. The Book of Xanthus the Philosopher and Aesop His Slave or The Career of Aesop in Lloyd W. Daly, Aesop Without Morals (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1961), pp. 29-90.
8. Abraham Lincoln: Wisdom and Wit ed. by Louise Bachelder, (Mount Vernon, New York: The Peter Pauper Press, 1965), p. 32.
9. Babrius and Phaedrus, “Introduction,” p. xiii.
10. Aesop Without Morals, p. 18.
11. These morals are from the appendix to Aesop Without Morals numbers 137, 131, and 133.
12. Arthur Miller, The Crucible (New York: Bantam Books, 1959), pp. 30-33.
13. Ibid., p. 134.
14. Ibid., p. 135.
15. The plot of The Crucible is eerily similar to at least one recent case of a preschool staff convicted, but later cleared, of running their facilities as a child-molestation conspiracy based on satanic cult practices. Like this case, Miller's story involves surprisingly uncritical reliance on the testimony of children in the absence of corroborating evidence as well as reliance on testimony based on "recovered memory." (For Mary Warren's recovered memory, see Act II, p. 55.) For a detailed account by a social psychologist of incidents of satanic cult hysteria, including this particular case, see Jeffrey S. Victor, Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (Chicago: Open Court, 1993), especially Appendix V. My point, of course, is not that Miller has a mystic power of prophecy; it is that he is speaking insightfully of a phenomenon that has certain universal characteristics, including various factors which encourage illogical thinking on the part of accusers and judges.
16. See Richard Watts, Jr., in the Introduction to The Crucible, cited above, p. vii. Howard Warshow attacked the play as, in effect, a fallacious analogical argument in favor of the victims of anti-Communist investigations. See "The Liberal Conscience in The Crucible," reprinted in The Crucible: Text and Criticism, ed. by Gerald Weales (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), pp. 210-26. The points he makes certainly do have merit, but this may only if Miller's fable is applied to the Communist cases.
17. The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 165-66.
18. Aesop Without Morals, p. 283.
19. Babrius and Phaedrus, p. 127.