Poetry Changed the World: Injury and the Ethics of Reading


Interesting essay “Poetry Changed the World” by Elaine Scarry in Boston Review


What is the ethical power of literature? Can it diminish acts of injuring, and if it can, what aspects of literature deserve the credit?

All these questions, at first, hinge on another: can anything diminish injury? In his recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that, over 50 centuries, many forms of violence have subsided.1 Among the epochs he singles out for special scrutiny is a hundred-year period bridging the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries during which an array of brutal acts—executing accused witches, imprisoning debtors, torturing animals, torturing humans, inflicting the death penalty, enslaving fellow human beings—suddenly abated, even if they did not disappear.

Pinker singles out one particular form of reading and one particular kind of book—the novel—though, as we will see, features of poetry that long predate the novels of this period are essential to literature’s capacity to reduce harm. Drawing elaborately on the work of historian Lynn Hunt, Pinker convincingly describes the effect of men reading best-selling novels such as Richardson’s Pamela and Rousseau’s Julie and thereby entering imaginatively into the lives of other people, including those without social power: women, servants, and children.4 Pinker gives a picture of human mental life before and after the literacy revolution:

The pokey little world of village and clan, accessible through the five senses and informed by a single content provider, the church, gave way to a phantasmagoria of people, places, cultures, and ideas.5

If we assume (on the basis of very incomplete evidence) that literature has in fact helped to diminish acts of injuring—not only during the Humanitarian Revolution, but also in other epochs—what attributes of literature can explain this? Three come immediately to mind: its invitation to empathy, its reliance on deliberative thought, and its beauty.